JANUARY 11, 2015
IT WAS IN the early days of 2009, two days, to be exact, after Barack Obama was sworn into his first of two presidential terms, that David Berman, frontman and founder of the Silver Jews, swore off his own music forever. In a characteristically sly posting on his record label’s website, Berman announced that the Silver Jews’ upcoming Tennessee show, down in the Cumberland Caverns, would be their last. Located 330 feet below the middle of Tennessee, the Caverns were a fitting venue for the public farewell of a band that, for most of its history, had remained largely underground. There, Berman would play 15 of his favorite Silver Jews songs — songs he had written and recorded over the previous two decades — for the last time.
Berman started the Silver Jews with University of Virginia classmates in 1989. Back then, they played in basements for friends and recorded songs on Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore’s answering machine. These early tracks were lower than lo-fi, leading them to gain considerable cult-critical acclaim throughout the 1990s. But it wasn’t until 2006 that Berman, famously shy and thus less famous than he might have been, agreed to take the Jews out on tour. When shortly thereafter, Berman posted his abrupt farewell — (“I’ve got to move on. Can’t be like all the careerists doncha know”) — it was much to the dismay and surprise of the band’s growing, flanneled fan base.
Eight days later, 300 of these Jews disciples descended down into a giant but functional cave known as “The Volcano Room.” In what would otherwise be a blank and empty hiccup in space, the Tennessee park authority hauled in lights, amps, a stage, and a metallic organ, and put up a pretty little chandelier. Berman observed that the venue’s grit-and-baroque surroundings were “58 degrees but the humidity makes it feel like 72.”
The philosophical resonances of this damp and shadow-filled cave were not lost on Berman’s poetic sensitivity either. The cave had literal and symbolic meaning for a man who, later that same January day, would reveal he had spent his life trying to “find and build a refuge away” from the world through “songs and poems and drawings.” Where the first post that day on his record label’s blog, “Silver Jews End-Lead Singer Bids His Well-Wishers Adieu,” sought to lessen the blow of his resignation for his loyal fans, his second post on the same blog, “My Father, My Attack Dog,” was out to draw blood closer to home. From his cauldron of “terrible shame,” Berman penned his true confession.
“Now that the Joos are over,” he wrote, “I can tell you my gravest secret. Worse than suicide, worse than crack addiction: My father.”
And so begins his telling of an Oedipal saga not unlike a Dr. Phil episode starring Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader.
“You might be surprised to know he is famous, for terrible reasons.”
When David was growing up in Virginia, his father worked as an attorney for the steel industry, in government relations, and as a restaurant industry executive. David writes in the same confessional post that he “disliked” his dad “even as a child,” though it wasn’t until he started college that his dad started “a very very bad company called Berman and Company,” a pro-business, anti-union, anti-environmental public relations firm.
“Berman and Company isn’t your average PR firm,” its mission statement explains. “Through our fact-based, hard-hitting approach to public relations and issue advocacy, Berman and Company makes the public think twice about commonly held assumptions.”
This “fact-based” and “hard-hitting” approach involves out-for-blood attacks on science, organized labor, welfare, vegans, teachers, and public health. Berman and his firm have made the public “think twice” about whether obesity, oil spills, smoking, drunk driving, and deadly chemicals are as lethal as they are made out to be. If you’ve seen the aggressive campaign launched against New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s ban on soft drinks, then you’ve seen some of Rick’s most popular work. (In posters and ads in bus stops and subways across New York City, Bloomberg, enlarged to the size of Godzilla and dressed as an old woman, stands under the slogan: “New Yorkers Need A Mayor, Not A Nanny.”)
This past October, The New York Times obtained a secretly taped speech of Berman advising oil industry insiders to wage an “endless war” against environmental lobbyists and labor unions through “exploiting emotions like fear.”
But what makes Berman and Company beyond “average” is an organizational structure that allows the father to hide in the shadows, not unlike his son. Berman’s company stage-manages a series of nonprofit “front” organizations that advocate for the interests of big businesses without needing to disclose the identities of those paying for their services. Upon first glance, these “front” organizations seem to have no affiliation with Berman, appearing in the guise of independent research institutes with nonpartisan, even friendly, sounding names: The Center for Consumer Freedom (which advocates for your freedom to smoke in restaurants), The Employment Policies Institute (which has kept the minimum wage at a minimum), and, perhaps most disturbing, The American Beverage Institute (which has attacked Mothers Against Drunk Driving in a dozen ruthless ways).
The often covert relationship between his PR firm and its many affiliate “charities” has made Berman the target of investigations by the IRS, CNN, and Washington Post. A website exclusively dedicated to exposing his malfeasance, bermanexposed.org, reports that Berman holds 24 senior “positions” in his company’s 23 “industry-funded projects.” The PR Watch from the actual nonprofit Center for Media and Democracy has explained that the nonprofit status of these front “charities” makes “their funding hard to trace, which has permitted Berman to operate in the shadows for decades while pocketing millions […] for his work thwarting public interest legislation.”
As befits the heir of a mudslinging wordsmith, David calls Rick a “despicable man,” “human molestor [sic],” “An exploiter. A scoundrel. A world historical motherfucking son of a bitch. (sorry grandma),” and “evil Herr Attackdog.” He’s not the only one to call his father pet names. The mainstream media has crowned Rick Berman with various epithets of their own, among them the “Conservatives’ Weapon of Mass Destruction” and the “Astroturf Kingpin.” Only a true “Dr. Evil” would take pleasure in public, as Rick has, in being called, by CNN, “Dr. Evil.”
If David licks his wounds, one could imagine Rick pouring salt into his. Where his father is aggressive, David is an aggressively shy ironist. The differences between father and son are bridged, if only superficially, by outward resemblances: smart narrowed eyes, square lower jaws, hairlines in irreversible recession. “We were opposites,” David writes, “I wanted to read. He wanted to play games.”
David’s description of their antagonistic relationship calls to mind familiar oppositional figures of speech: the poet and the rhetorician; the hungry artist and the scheming con man; the medic of the soul and the spin doctor; the sacrificial lamb and the sheep in wolves’ clothing; the citizen poet and the political actor; he who tells truths as fictions and he who spins fictions as truth. Their relationship, in other words, suggests the classical contrast between the philosopher and the sophist that has animated the contours of Western philosophy since Plato.
But in the age of Citizens United, where corporate spending is given the rights of personhood, do these antagonistic caricatures cleave to the elder and younger Berman so neatly? Or is it less dialectical, more complicated?
Following the end of World War II, companies stopped using salesmen in favor of sales narratives. These early commercials — stories with arcs, messages with testimonials — transformed not only the way American consumers understood their connection to buying, but also the way admen conceived of the creative dimension of their job to sell. The adman stopped seeing himself as selling a pitch and started to see himself as “the philosopher-king of commercial culture,” in the words of ad critic Randall Rothberg.
Fast forward to Late Capitalism: Rick Berman is the philosopher-king of corporate consciousness and his son its disaffected poet. Rick himself has recognized that his powers to shape language overlap with his son’s. The stated aim of Rick’s ad copy even reads as a sort of ars poetica. “My goal is to make people say, ‘I’ve never thought of it that way before.’” And in that secretly taped speech to oil executives in Colorado, Rick acknowledged, “Semantics are very important in these debates. We have in some campaigns actually changed the terms of the debate because just changing the term changes people’s reaction to it.”
Shelley, poetry’s greatest defense attorney, described poets as “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” The Objectivist poet George Oppen, turning Shelley on his head, wrote that poets were the “legislators of the unacknowledged world.” David, god of all strange things, is Oppen’s poet; Rick, Washington’s most powerful spin doctor, more like Shelley’s. Both father and son have mastered the unit of thinking known as the line, but to different effects. Rick knocks down public interest legislation, while David ruminates on death and its merchants.
“The worst part for me as a writer is what he does with the english language,” David writes. “Though vicious he is a doltish thinker / and his spurious editorials rely on doublethink and always with the Lashon Hara.” (Lashon Hara, the Hebrew word for defamation, literally translates as “evil tongue.”)
Issuing and crafting corporate speech from behind the veil of his various front “charities,” Rick Berman’s ventriloquism approaches that of the 19th-century novelist’s. His editorials always launch ad hominem attacks against opponents. He’s reframed public opinion of the Humane Society of America by attempting to convince people that “they are not who they say they are.” The Humane Society is run by vegans who want to attack farmers, Rick asserts, so one would be better served giving to one’s local shelter instead. When 60 Minutes asked him about his bitter takedown of Wayne Pacelle, the Humane Society’s president, he responded, “Shooting the messenger means getting people to understand this messenger is not as credible as their name would suggest.”
It’s a clever move. Instead of framing the issue as a debate with two sides, Berman twists it into a problem with the speaker. What was once a matter of evidentiary presentation becomes a question of morality; a spokesperson’s so-called hypocrisy deserves to be attacked.
By tying his own morality to his profitable work, he circumvents charges of being a sophist, a mercenary. “I do it because I believe in it,” he’s told interviewers, “I don’t say things I don’t believe in.” He presents himself as a crusader for personal freedom and truth, willing to sacrifice his own reputation to shoot messengers — messengers who just happen to be anyone who might hurt the profits of large corporations for the sake of consumer health and safety. His advantage? By never disclosing his donors, he can shoot the character of messengers without being shot back at. Berman calls this his “hypocrisy angle.”
In the leaked recording of the event in Colorado Springs, sponsored by the Western Energy Alliance (its members include Halliburton, Devon Energy, and other fracking corporations), Rick explains his strategy explicitly: “Repositioning the opposition suggests telling people ‘Oh, you think that this group is a group that does X, well, let me tell you, what they are really doing is Y. I don’t care what they tell you that they are doing, they are doing something else.’” His group Big Green Radicals has diminished the “moral authority” and “credibility” of the fracking opposition in Colorado by exposing the non-environmentally friendly cars they drive. “We’re really making this personal. We’re trying to make it so they don’t have any credibility with the public, with the media, or with the legislators.”
The endgame of this “endless war” leaves voters and consumers undecided and regulatory legislation in gridlock. “You get in people’s mind a tie,” Rick told the execs. “I’ll take a tie any day if I’m trying to preserve the status quo.” To this end, he introduces uncertainty into a potential political issue long before election season, so that when the time to vote rolls around, paralysis and fear replace concrete action.
He plays with the viewer’s emotional state, using kids, animals, and humor “in a metaphorical way” to make contentious issues immediately legible. In one commercial, a classroom full of elementary school children run a union election, with young boys in black suits and sunglasses playing “labor bosses” that behave like mobsters. The simplicity of Rick’s vision of the corruption of labor unions, as enacted by cute kids, makes his message easy to follow.
Perhaps the greatest proof of Rick’s efficacy is that even David, his foresworn and self-aware adversary, can’t escape from the effects of his constant stream of multimedia, seemingly objective messaging. David often writes of the creeping influence of corporate speak on his subconscious.
Freud said that the three greatest works of literature — Oedipus Rex, Hamlet, and The Brothers Karamazov — are marked by patricide. A character’s greatness, it would seem, depends on the killing of the father. David Berman explicitly understands himself as a latter day revivalist of this Oedipal revenge canon. “In a way,” he writes, “I am the son of a demon come to make good the damage.”
His lyrics trade in the weary authority of a man who knows the dangers of overblown rhetoric well. Unlike his father’s tense and direct semantics, Berman’s fanaticism is achieved through understatement. As befits a reluctant oracle, his delivery is flat, sometimes spoken. Here he is lyricizing at his most tender, describing bashful elephants with a sense of absurdity straight out of Elizabeth Bishop: “The elephants are so ashamed of their size, hosing down I tell them ‘you got pretty eyes.’”
A concern with the shifting coordinates of truth recurs in his lyrics and poems. He often narrates morality tales in miniature, shrinking the genre’s epic biblical proportions into witty one-liners. Like his father’s ads, he uses humor, but his is often a dark gallows humor where sadness meets laughter. In “People,” an exemplary Silver Jews song, he dryly warns of the perils of ambition: “People ask people to watch their scotch. / People send people up to the moon. / When they return, well there isn’t much. / People be careful not to crest too soon.” Like a product’s ad tagline, Berman’s series of aphorisms glide with elegant simplicity. But as a legislator of the unacknowledged world, an acute observational irony always undercuts this moralizing. “If Christ had died in a hallway,” the speaker of one of his poems notes, “we might pray in hallways / or wear little golden hallways around our necks.”
The Jews’ last album, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, opens with Berman’s sly sermonizing, each line delivered after an elongated, authoritative pause:
One has lived life carelessly
if he or she has failed to see
that the truth is not alive or dead
the truth is struggling to be said
so how do we get out of this?
family shadows all of this
through what is not but could be if
with all associated risk.
Family shadows all of this: when David writes explicitly about the pervasive influence of corporate logic on the imagination he is also writing, implicitly, of his anxiety about his father’s influence. Many of his tales lament the erosion of public welfare, as when in “San Francisco B.C.” and “Suffering Jukebox,” he satirizes, respectively, the drive for upward mobility and the race of urban development.
In “Candy Jail,” where “the warden keeps the data on your favorite brands,” the world is rendered as a Technicolor prison, a corporate pleasure-giving-and-taking economy. In this song, Berman’s anti-corporate, death-afraid, and parable-like lyrics blend together into catchy confessional pop:
I’m a branded man made in the mold
These terms engulf the waking mind.
Like cherry, grape and lemon-lime
Like candy corn and licorice
Like bubble gum and Swedish fish
It happens to me all the time.
In his seminal confessional poem “Self-Portrait at 28,” he writes of the corporate world continually muddying the waters of his poetic imagination. He describes Virginia by way of its “brochured” ideal; his image of the bedroom appears as an amalgamation of bedroom sets from cold medicine commercials “(there is always a box of tissue on the nightstand)”; toward the poem’s end, he states his predicament outright:
I can’t trust the accuracy of my own memories,
many of them having blended with sentimental
telephone and margarine commercials
plainly ruined by Madison Avenue.
For David, the pollution of the poet’s fountain of inspiration destroys his mechanism for sensing inner, intuitive truths.
The preceding stanza can be read as Berman’s aesthetic statement — one that runs in direct contradiction to his father’s.
I am trying to get at something so simple
that I have to talk plainly
so the words don’t disfigure it
and if it turns out that what I say is untrue
then at least let it be harmless
like a leaky boat in the reeds
that is bothering no one.
Contrary to his usual sermonic discourse, his tone here is humble, drawing on the Lord’s Prayer. This supplication — if the truth can’t be approached, through aphorisms and approximations, let’s hope that my labors lie somewhere benign and unseen — haunts his work and self-presentation.
Berman himself has talked about how he’s made it difficult for his music to reach people by “never touring, never collaborating, never being on compilations, never having ads, and having a name that scares people.” Between their start in the early 1990s in Virginia and Hoboken and their final dissolution two decades later, the Jews only toured twice.
The influence of the Jews, at their height, might be best described by a joke, often attributed to Brian Eno, made early on about the Velvet Underground: the “first album only sold a few thousand copies, but everyone who bought one formed a band.” Since starting out, the Jews released seven albums, three EPs, and one collection of old songs from the basement days.
In Silver Jew, a documentary about David touring with the band, David says his songs reach a bigger crowd than his poetry. He never has to wonder, though, whether the light his father casts makes a bigger shadow on the wall behind him: “Literally, if you eat food or have a job, he is reaching you.” Born in the shadows of an absolutely evil empire, David remains paralyzed by the knowledge that his actions are no better than a leaky boat, “harmless […] bothering no one.”
That last night, the one in the caves, David wore a trim, blue suit over a red-checkered shirt and oversized, rose-colored glasses. He looked then, as he often does now, like a wayward ascetic. Crouching and crooning toward distant, stricken insights, his words were prophetic without preaching. His charisma radiated not from his brooding stature or melancholic voice — his pinched and raw-bone frame often erases his body from where he stands — but in spite of it.
The short remarks he made between songs, delivered like feed to birds, carried with them the weight of arcane auguries. His is a blind seer’s wisdom born of tragic irony: that analgesic drug that relieves everyone but the administering pharmacist. Where Rick is guided by moralistic conviction — “I’m not afraid to say that the emperor has no clothes” — for David, there were never any clothes, and there was never any emperor.
Previously I thought, through songs and poems and drawings I could find and build a refuge away from his world.
But there is the matter of Justice.
And I’ll tell you it’s not just a metaphor. The desire for it actually burns.
There needs to be something more. I’ll see what that might be.
Since 2009, David has started a blog, abandoned a memoir, and canceled a TV show based on his life. Meanwhile, Rick has continued to legislate our free associations, emerging from his latest round of IRS audits unscathed.
Last week, nearly six years since Berman’s fatalistic farewell, his beleaguered empire struck back — not with a bang but a whimper. On January 7, 2015, the Jews’ drummer posted a photo on Facebook of the band drinking beer together. It’s just like old times, maybe. The caption reads: “After Jews practice tonight!!!! ’tis cold in Nashville.” The drummer, Bob Nastanovich, confirmed with a music blog that the band had been working on two new songs — “The Veranda over the Toy Shoppe,” which is about “the women of Bucharest,” and “Wacky Package Eyes.” It remains to be seen whether these songs will be heard by anybody outside of the rehearsal room, whether the band will reunite past the winter, whether there will be further songs, even an album, after all those years of white noise and proud silence.
So far, justice, like truth, continues to elude the Bermans.