David Berman, singer/songwriter/leader of a band called the Silver Jews, died this week at 52; no cause mentioned, probably suicide, he’d had depression and substance abuse issues. I’d heard the band name but couldn’t tell you a song of theirs. On hearing the news I took a listen to his newest album, which just came out a few weeks ago and which he was just about to tour behind. It’s recorded under the name Purple Mountains and the song that struck me is called “Snow Is Falling In Manhattan.”
It’s a simple song. A snowstorm is coming. The singer walks outside to take a look and notices the apartment building caretaker salting the stoop. The singer imagines the caretaker after his work is finished, settling into a cozy domestic scene: putting up a fire, sitting on the couch under a warm afghan and for company a stray cat he’s provided shelter from the storm. “So much joy in merely looking,” the singer says, as though such a scene, such peace, is beyond him. But he’s glad someone is capable of it.
What does singer have instead? Art. Songs. Which he says can “build little rooms in time” just like the caretaker’s cozy, unattainable apartment, and like a fire-warmed apartment provide a refuge against the snow outside now “coming down in smithereens.” Way more temporary, though, and where in an apartment you’re real and physical in a song you’re just a ghost, not there at all.
When someone dies every memory you have left is more vivid, every random phrase takes on meaning. For example, “You’re the old friend I just took in” in the last verse, after the songs as room metaphor has been established. Meaning us, of course, we anonymous listeners who are the closest things to friends the singer has. If I knew David Berman or his work better I’d probably be holding fast to that thought, and finding some solace that he’d recognized me, a listener, as a friend.