‘Gonna shine out in the wild kindness’: WTJU remembers poet-musician David Berman
Last November 16, WTJU hosted a gathering to celebrate the life of one of its own. Though it is hard for any single entity to claim David Berman -- a songwriter, poet, performer and UVA alumnus whose suicide last August ended a life of well-documented struggles with depression and substance abuse, filled with dear friends and fans, and characterized by true musical and literary brilliance.
David Berman was an influential WTJU host in the mid 1980’s. His time on Grounds also saw the first flowering of a truly formidable and multi-faceted talent, and a fierce heart to match it. Known by many for his time fronting The Silver Jews, a band that would enjoy a remarkable run of success from the mid 90’s through 2008, Berman wrote his first songs while at UVA, and forged a lasting friendship and collaboration with fellow students Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastonovich, who would go on to form the influential indie rock band Pavement.
If it’s true that every burgeoning band needs a basement to help it grow, Berman and friends found theirs in what was known as the “Red House” on 14 Street in Charlottesville. There was much more to Berman than music, as fans of his sublime lyrics would attest. He was an Echols Scholar, and a gifted poet who later published a celebrated anthology of his work called Actual Air. “He was always more of a poet than a rock star,” wrote Justin Colber-Lake in an August 9 appreciation in the Daily Progress, “and his writing came from intense work.” Colber-Lake wrote, “For decades, Berman worked to ensure that every phrase he put out was just right, a point obscured by the ease of his delivery and his consistent success rate.” Last July, in what would be one of his last interviews, Berman was asked how he knew when the words were right. “When no line is a waste of time for the listener.”
As WTJU’s November afternoon-into-evening went on, those listeners, many his longtime friends from his CVille days, honored the man in full, from a steady stream of live performances of his most acclaimed songs performed by a collection of friends to readings of his poems, as well as of letters he wrote to his Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry professor at UVA, Charles Wright. Those letters, housed in the Special Collections Library, were brought over to WTJU to display earlier that day. That evening, a collection of friends and former bandmates took to The Stage at WTJU for an hourlong live broadcast that featured some of Berman’s finest songs and captured perhaps his ultimate artistic superpower of making brilliance sound easy. Guest artists included Devon Sproule and her husband Paul Curreri, singer-songwriter Diane Cluck, and Krissi Pardue and Kylie Wright, who read from letters Berman had written to them.
“David was before my time here at WTJU,” said the station’s General Manager Nathan Moore, “and while I didn’t get the chance to meet him in person, there was this incredible creative indie movement that was happening and that obviously led to several successful artists. I was in college in West Virginia and I played those bands on my radio station. It felt like we were all a part of a sort of heyday of college radio.” The way this celebration came together, Moore said, was as meaningful as the event itself. “The idea that the alumni all found each other after 30 years and got in this space together…there was something really special and magical in the celebration whether you were close to David or not. It was an intense moment of togetherness. And for me, it fit perfectly with the WTJU mission of bringing people together through shared musical experiences. I sometimes joke that my job is really just building platforms for other people to use and maintaining them. So, if I can find people I care about and do something useful for them, I consider it a job well done.”