Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Let me explain the Silver Jews.

Let me first begin by explaining why I feel the need to explain the Silver Jews. It's because of people like Matthew Perpetua, he of the Fluxblog mp3 blog, getting all bent out of shape when David Berman makes fun of Radiohead.

I'm not going to attack Matthew's taste: There are at least three things we are both into way too much (Pavement, The Wu-Tang Clan, Grant Morrison comics) that probably have kind of defined us. If you go much beyond those things, you'll find completely different ideas of what's valuable and what's mediocre, though. Still, I don't think I can make fun of him without making fun of those things I really like, so I'll refrain from doing that, and just explain the Silver Jews.

The section of the interview where David Berman dismisses Radiohead talks about the idea of music, songs, as a thing you can put in your pocket, and carry around with you, rather than this notion of music as this soundtrack to your life, in the background, that frames it in epic terms. These are two different mindsets. The three things I mentioned in that parentheses a paragraph ago kind of all work towards the latter effect. A lot of the music I like that Matthew doesn't- from Animal Collective, to Neutral Milk Hotel, to noise music, to The Shaggs- works to reframe the world in a way that makes the individual smaller in awe of the beauty of the world. A lot of the music Matthew likes that I can't stand is dance music that exists for a context to cast the listener as this superstar at the center of the world/dancefloor. He'd argue that the former, with its obscurity, pursues mediocrity. I would say that what the latter embraces and encourages is at best narcissistic and at worst sociopathic. It's worth noting that Stephen Malkmus and David Berman are close friends, and they probably share some personality traits. I kind of think that without the Berman elements of his personality, Malkmus would probably just be insufferably smug, forever the guy kind of half-ass improvising lyrics; never the Slanted And Enchanted version of "Here," just the Peel Session "I was dressed for Suck!" version.

I think of most of the Silver Jews fans I know as sort of carrying these songs around them, as well as David Berman's book of poetry. You kind of keep a quiet dignity about you, and don't project your voice in public like someone's shooting an indie movie of your life. There are so many similar traits to the people I know who like the Silver Jews that I have actually started to assume that people who I later learn have never actually even listened to them are fans: There's just a set of common traits.

It's almost kin to another type of fan of music/literature, would be someone who's really into Tom Waits and Charles Bukowski. That kind of person would probably be an upper-middle-class person who is kind of into slumming it, especially as it regards to drinking to excess. I like some of those people, too, but I also think it's funny when they're mocked.

But I don't think that Silver Jews people are like that. I think they value idiosyncracy too much to pursue such a narrow set of cliches. David Berman said, in another interview, that a fan told him he was disappointed to learn of his drug abuse because of how much of a cliche it was. But: I think the thing in common is a sort of suspicion of the upper class. Granted, this is absurdly common amongst a wide strata of bohemia. But here in this specific subset, even large cities are avoided. Being put in a position to struggle to survive is kind of an albatross. The Silver Jews didn't tour for upwards of a decade, and Berman just sort of shrugged off the idea of live performance by saying he's not the sort of person to be the center of attention in a large room. (A manifesto of sorts, stated by one who's lived it towards those uninterested, can be found in the song "How To Rent A Room.")

It's the sort of thing that might look like mediocrity but probably stems more from having made a list of simple pleasures and then deciding that those were more interesting than any other kind. (In the interview linked to, Berman talks about talking about records all the time.) And then, alternately, making a long list of things that were distasteful and then trying to avoid them completely. (He then talks about not wanting to write top ten lists fbecause of how easy and unsubstantial they are.)

This isn't to say that all Silver Jews songs are awesome- Actually, Mark Richardson's review of Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea sort of explains how the whole point of the Silver Jews is one that allows for there not to be wall-to-wall peaks; quiet dignity, remember? But even in the sort of dull moments there's a spirit that's there: "I'm going to shine out in the wild kindness and hold the world to its word."

(Tomorrow I am going to write a post about Flannery O'Connor and Nicholson Baker that will maybe serve to better elaborate these ideas I find useful and interesting in a way that's not about the Silver Jews.)

No comments: