The Silver Jews were born at the mouth of the Hudson in 1990 when David Berman and Bob Nastanovich joined Stephen Malkmus as the lessees of a cellar apartment perched on a Jersey City hill beside a wounded spice factory. The three actually met four years earlier in 1986. Bob and David had met in a university of Virginia dormitory hallway. Shortly thereafter, Berman caught a ride to a Cure concert with a malnourished chestnut environmentalist whose co-pilot happened to be upperclassman Stephen Malkmus.
Transplanted to New Jersey after graduation, (these boys didn’t feel they could afford to live any closer to New York), Nastanovich went local as a maze-minded NYC shuttle bus driver while Berman and Malkmus took security guard posts at the Whitney Museum of American Art, where the guards were, somewhat comically, represented by the Teamsters Union. When not prattling on about 20th century American art with the lovely daughters of Europe or rescuing Malkmus from some new bubblegum installation, Berman stood at his post and penned odes to unwitting au pairs and daydreamed lines from an Agnes Martin poking out the museum’s front door.
New York City days chasing a dime, Jersey City nights chasing the bargain vodka with bargain beer…and as much to impress the impenetrable clerks at Pier Platters as to amuse themselves, the new men accidentally became the Silver Jews. Silver Jews: lopsided jams, moments of brilliance capsizing beneath shout-outs, chop suey beats, slaphappy solos, duct taped keyboard melodies and purloined progressions from B-level SST bands, their songs written on the spot and taped onto a candle wax-encased boom box with one spot carved out for the built-in mic. This was the sound of Dime Map of the Reef and The Arizona Record — the sound that took the sock drawers of underground America by storm in 1992 and 1993.
On the sunny side of the tape hiss was what raised the band above their tuneful cacophony — namely, a bibliophile’s bent for an exacting turn of phrase. As executed by the alchemic combination of Berman’s rich poetic haw and Malkmus’ pin-up harmonies, well-fixed lyrics became the Jews calling card and imbued their early work with a classic feel beyond their years.
Yet, true callings called, and in 1994, David Berman left New York for western Massachusetts to immerse himself in the reading and writing of verse while Malkmus and Nastanovich were living the golden years of their Pavement star-turn. Then we he least expected it, having given himself over to life in a Yankee garret, Berman started writing good songs — perhaps to keep one foot out of the high ambition/low stakes world of poetry that so frightened him. David invited Bob and Steve, now adding fellow museum guard John St. West to the band, to an old military canine laboratory in the woods of north Mississippi that he had rented for the summer. What followed, Starlite Walker (1994) was the first studio-rendered Jews recording. Recorded at Easley Studios in Memphis after a few days of practice, the album featured the Jews with extra players on pedal steel and piano adding to the organic swoon. Though all the tracks but one list Berman as composer, the feel is that of a band — intuitive and dynamic, alive — with rare courtesy and manners displayed from track one on.
Their musical heritage was The Band and X — if only what lay ahead were as simple and plain as those hallowed band names ... After the after-party, a question remained — when did the tour start? It was a big question that would be left unanswered for a decade or more. Berman reviled the impermanence of performance as an artistic act. He had stage fright. He couldn’t leave his dealer behind. He didn’t have arms. Rival explanations seemed to elucidate nothing but there would be no tour. There would be no in-stores. There would be no ads (a disclosure: in the back pages of a 1994 issue of Alternative Press there was an ad for a tour, placed in error, by a Drag City scrivener — who, ironically, now runs the whole show! and even with such evidence to the contrary, there would be no tour forthcoming). No tour…but many departures.
After two false starts, an album with the working title, The Late, Great Silver Jews, was laid down in a rehabbed Colt gun factory in Hartford, CT.The Natural Bridge(1996) was another chapter in the Jews saga. This time out Berman, perhaps bitterly, turned his back from his original Jews brethren and recruited for his band an arrangin’ and producin’ type drummer in the person of Chestnut Station’s Rian Murphy, along with New Radiant Storm Kings Peyton Pinkerton and Matt Hunter, on guitar and bass. A more deliberate production sound focused attention on Berman’s songs, which reversed the previously established Jews equation of 60% whimsy and 30% heartbreak (plus 10% ?!?) into a darker split — 80/20, heartbreak rules. Jews fans were invited to laugh to keep from crying — and they did, time and again over the silence of the next couple of years.
In 1998, the blessed decadence of the Clinton years had a binding energy on Silver Jews. Berman reunited with Malkmus at New York’s The Rare Book Room, backed with a band including Tim Barnes on drums, Michael Fellows on bass and Chris Stroffolino on keys. Quality was at a premium — American Water sparkled with hook-laden singles, hot, hilarious lyrics, golden instrumentation and rich production. Silver Jews took the darkness that was out there and partied inside of it, making it fun again. High times for Silver Jews meant high life for the record, as well. American Water was the biggest, best Silver Jews record anybody had ever heard.
And that was enough to keep them in honey for the next few years. David took the opportunity to drop his first volume of poetry, Actual Air, to much acclaim from within and without the poetry establishment. During that time, Silver Jews’ American dream was enhanced as well by his move to Nashville — a music town famous for its session players. Excepting the sitting rhythm section of Fellows and Barnes, 2001’s Bright Flight made ample use of the town’s pickers. New additions this time out included pedal steel virtuoso Paul Niehaus, guitar whiz kid William Tyler, lady-love Cassie Berman on harmonies and the Nicky Hopkins of Nashville, Tony Crow, on piano. Mark Nevers, an engineer possessing a hat-country-studded resume, was adept at transcribing the Ashville Sound into Silver Jews slang. These talents, along with Berman’s heartrending songs, produced the deepest Silver Jews album to date.
Thanks to God in Williamson County and a small congregation of honorary Jews (Mike Fellows, Stephen Malkmus, Brian Kotzur, Bob Nastanovich, Bobby Bare Jr., Cassie Berman, Steve West, Duane Denison, Azita Youseffi, Will Oldham, Pete Cummings, William Tyler, Tony Crow and Paz Lenchantin), there’s a new Silver Jews album at the end of the rainbow. Out in October 2005, Tanglewood Numbers is not just an awesome new Jews collection; it’s also a fitting tribute to 15 years of Silver Jews’ music, coming full-circle with some of the most rocking sounds since those Jersey days, while continuing to refine and redirect Berman’s songwriting vision. There’s even word this time that the longawaited Silver Jews tour might actually happen. And if in the end it only turns out to be two shows — it’s still a tour. This is the Silver Jews we’re talking about!