Taking apart rock journalism and loving country with David Berman of Silver jews
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SONIC REDUCER Music journalism pet peeve no. 538: e-mail interviews that allow mealymouths and word mincers to dodge and defer from behind an iron wall of monosyllables. Additionally, the somewhat-paranoid fear is that some random, low-level publicist-intern is actually answering your painfully researched, earnest questions instead of the artist and laughingly forwarding your e-mail to Facebook buds.
Yet I can see why Silver Jews leader David Berman tries to limit his interviews to online missives. One, judging from our recent talk over the phone while Berman paused by the side of the road midtour, he's a really fun gabby, even intelligent, well-read, and eminently likable dude, willing to break it down with sincere, self-effacing erudition and venture off on thoughtful tangents on intelligent design, the ways in which the 1840 "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too" presidential ticket manifests itself in his group's lineup, the use of rhythm guitar as a crutch, and rockist country music standbys. The man gives. I seriously would pass out, noggin weary, after such an exchange.
Two, once on a roll, Berman obviously has a tough time stopping. Exhibit one: the moment when he pulled out the SF Weekly's review of his latest album, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea (Drag City), and proceeded to deconstruct, word by word, the Andy Beta piece, which he described as "the review that really angered me the most."
"I can say that almost every single sentence has a mistake or displayed ignorance about country music," said Berman as he read the entire piece. "There's so many different wrong things in there. The Statler Brothers are the exact opposite of places where beer is drunk and Stetsons get hung they were squares. And 'A Boy Named Sue' is literal it's not a turn of phrase. He could have picked something like 'How Can I Love You If You Won't Lie Down.'<0x2009>" The problem, the Nashville vocalist explained, is that "rock criticism speaks through the writing voice of a knowingness. If the reader is unfamiliar with the subject, he or she needs each step along the way to follow the argument, and if each step is wrong, that just makes it worse."
All fear the anger of the writer scorned by other writers. That's a twist the songwriter, who published his poetry to much praise in 1999's Actual Air (Open City), freely acknowledged. Of course, before he started touring two years ago, Berman had only one barometer with which to gauge his artistic success: the praise and pokes of sundry music writers.
"It's the same feeling I had back in the early 2000s of 'What's the point?'<0x2009>" Berman said, pausing in dismay. "Now I'm strong. But just by reading press, which was the only thing I had for a long time, [the message] was, 'Go away. This band isn't going to be in the Spin Guide to the '90s.'<0x2009>
"For a month after a record came out, I read the reviews, and certain names of critics will never, never leave my brain," he continued. "If I'm ever on a committee, if these people want to write books, I'll do everything to destroy their chances. No one wants to critique critics, because you don't want to piss them off, and there are a handful of nice guys, guys who have supported the band. But I'm keeping the vindictiveness. I'm writing an article for the Believer on this very issue. I haven't decided what angle I'll take, but it'll be designed for maximum revenge."
Yipes. I admit to a kind of rubbernecking fascination with Berman's extremely directed wrath, though also a wee bit of trepidation: if I'm not tippy-toe careful, will I too incite the singer-songwriter's furor? Still, just because Berman saves a special bucket of bile for Beta, one shouldn't assume the loathing extends to all of San Francisco. The man even wrote a song for us city sickos, "San Francisco B.C.," on the new album, and no, it's not about a caveman retaking of the city. "It's supposed to be about parallel San Franciscos existing at once," said Berman. "I had the title, and I wanted to evoke different eras of San Francisco and American history and think about the Barbary Coast and the earthquake and the SDS and San Francisco State University, politics, new wave, punk rock, Huey Lewis and the News, and all the way to the present."
The songwriter evidently delights in SF as much as so many here dig him. Apparently he sells more recordings in the Bay Area than anywhere else outside of New York City. And I second that emotion and welcome an earful of Berman and his brilliant songs any time be it in SF or Big Sur, locales that nonetheless might not measure up to Israel, which Silver Jews toured in '06 (Silver Jew, the 2007 documentary of the journey, is now out on DVD). "People were waiting and thanking me for calling the band Silver Jews," he recounted happily, since the name "was a millstone around my neck for a long time. People react strangely because the word Jew is used as a pejorative historically, but also generically, and said with a 'pig' at the end of it and 'greedy' before it. So just like I would like to take the elephant back from the Republicans, I want to take the word 'Jew' back from anti-Semites."
Thurs/25, 8 p.m., $22.50
1805 Geary, SF
Also Festival in the Forest
Sun/27, 9:40 p.m., check Web site for price
Hwy. 1, Big Sur