“Nights That Won’t Happen” by David Bermen

Estimated read time (minus contemplative pauses): 9 min.

David Bermen: “humbled by the void

Before reading of his suicide in a recent New Yorker blurb by Jay Ruttenberg, I hadn’t heard of David Bermen (not that I can recall, though the phrase “Silver Jews” rings a small bell). “Where was this man’s MacArthur grant?,” asks Ruttenberg.1

So I googled Bermen. The first song that came up is “Nights That Won’t Happen,” from the album Purple Mountains, named after his newly formed band, released in August 2019 (about a month before his passing). What a great song.

I haven’t looked into Bermen’s biography, but did notice a catching phrase repeated in the obituaries that came up in my Google search. The source is a 10/19/2005 New York Times article by Wyatt Mason called “So You Want to Be a Poet, I Mean Rock Star, I Mean Poet“:

I couldn’t rock out harder than everybody, or overpower people with mastery like Jack White of the White Stripes, so why try? That’s why I’ve always worked harder on words.

The brilliant and poignant lyrics of “Nights That Won’t Happen,” more about which in a moment, make his point in practice, and are made all the more achingly poignant by their alignment with Bermen’s life’s events.

An Aside: Elliott Smith; Art + Life × Stories

I feel somehow compelled to mention that this alignment induces an experience of a different sort than the one I felt in my many repeated listens of Elliott Smith’s From A Basement on the Hill (2004), released unfinished following what at the time was generally assumed a suicide (that’s what I then believed it to be, though now understand things to be uncertain).

Smith’s album has a restless intensity that accumulates into a moribund sadness, while the more poignant moments of Purple Mountains are carried atop a resigned calm that accumulates (in me) into something like: a thought-provoking, strangely life-affirming slow hum of euphoria; this is especially true of those moments’ most essential—or most surface—expression: the lyrics of “Nights That Won’t Happen.”

Of course, this is my experience. I’d been listening to Smith’s intimate and painfully beautiful songs for years by Basement‘s release. Bermen is new to me. Whatever the differences between how these artists transposed their inner selves into aesthetic objects for others’ consumption—which seems to lie somewhere between Bermen’s deep, dragging-voiced “darkness and cold” and “all my happiness is gone” and Smith’s (often loudly) whispered “strung out again” and “[I] lie in bed all day absolutely horrified”—I hate to make too much of it, and am especially resistant to enlisting myself into the insensitive, exploitative enterprise of making the listening, much less public discussion, of these two albums into a speculative comparison of extended suicide notes.

And yet I find myself typing, re-typing, deleting, re-deleting what strike me as these albums’ telling differences and, especially, similarities. Don’t do it! Turn off the analytic pattern-confabulator! While that intricately honed machinery forces close listening, it would no doubt transform my listener’s enjoyment into an obsessive chase and hours of anxiously wondering whether I’m capturing a similarity or inventing one.

I’m also operating here, I hope, with all respect owed to those who personally loved and were harmed by the loss of these men, and with a bit of shame for allowing their real lives, not to mention deaths, to ornament my aesthetic experience of their work. Though it’s unavoidable. The stories surrounding an artwork’s creation and ongoing existence are part of that artwork. Every artist knows this, maybe even counts on it (even if only defensively: one point of PR is that, if you’re lucky, critics and the public construct a two-dimensional version of you; like it or not, this will influence how your work is experienced; better to be the one guiding that construction project, if remotely possible; it’s especially difficult to do from the grave).

While we can’t ignore stories (nor should we always; examples are easy to produce), should they be indulged? I began reading Amazon reviews of Purple Mountain, but stopped because I was getting more information than I wanted, began to worry about my experience of “Nights That Won’t Happen” being either corrupted or overly (artificially?) enhanced by gushes of what may or may not be sincere emotions, negatively and positively charged.

I’ll avoid indulging, for now. Besides, these men’s life events are not what make their work great.

Given this desire to focus on the art and not the personal, I struggled with my originally intended header title for the opening section. I believe I would have used that title anyway (a Bermen lyric that really grabbed me). I compromised.

Ok. Enough about that for today!

[I’ll approach the theme another day with what strikes me as a starker—in some ways harder, some ways easier— example. I’ll link it here once I’ve posted it.]

Transcribing Bermen’s Lyrics (and Some Pens)

“Nights That Won’t Happen” is my reason for being here today, specifically its lyrics. I’m currently writing lyrics for three songs and can use the inspiration. To get the most of Bermen’s words, I’ll write them into my lyrics journal, which is coded with four colors. Each song gets its own color. The fourth color is for general notes and, this night, “Nights That Won’t Happen.”

fountain pens, inks, journal, song lyrics
L⇒R: Copper Karas Kustoms Fountain K (a precursor to this pen; was a gift; also gifted to me was the almost-as-heavy brass version) w/Noodler’s Walnut; || Lamy 2000 (splurged on this beauty after reading Neil Gaiman’s praises) w/Noodler’s Blue-Black (currently my favorite writer/ink combo) || Pilot Metropolitan Houndstooth (my gateway brand) w/Diamine Majestic Blue || Ebony Conklin Endura (w/a singing Goulet 6; pen seems to be discontinued) w/Monteverde Yosemite Green (a gift) || pen case is a Levenger Bomber wrap much like this one (another gift; those close to me know what excites me) || journal is MUJI‘s larger recycled-paper pocket notebook, around $3.50 in-store and works best with a fine nib and dry ink, of which Majestic Blue is not one, I’m defiantly aware. (There’s a tendency for fountain pen users, even those on best-sellers lists, to indicate when an instrument was a gift, likely due to an assumed association with luxury, even though, given how much many such folks [myself included] write, each pen represents at least hundreds of durable plastic cylinders that needn’t have been manufactured and won’t end up in the trash. A fountain pen can last decades. This isn’t my principal, nor principle, reason for using them [and I also use felt-tipped disposables, but also now a lovely, non-disposable Yookers that takes fountain pen ink, also a gift], but it’s the reason I’ll mention here.)
I’ll transcribe the lyrics by ear rather than by Google. The better to get inside them. (I feel the same way about music, particularly complicated music, particularly if you don’t slow down the tape and don’t have a spectacular ear; in contrast to learning from sheet music, the effect strikes me as something like a religious experience of the ascetic’s kind.)

I’ll first transcribe by hand (whose fingers are already Majestic Blue, thanks to a loose nib), then I’ll type them here.

Here I go… . . . …and I’m back.

In a documentary I saw 20+ years ago about Jacques Brel, he said that most lyrics of a song are in black and white, with an occasional line bursting out in color. It’s a great observation. I’ll add that I think an in-color lyric, while it may be worth repeating, is at its most vivid in its first utterance, and the more you repeat it, the more its color fades. Here’s an exception: it can’t be the song’s opening line. (I don’t think it can be the title, either.) Finally, you can’t force it: a line’s color isn’t up to you (lyricist or listener).

In “Nights That Won’t Happen,” there are three lines that show up to me in this way. I’ll represent them typographically. These lines floor me.

(By the way, I don’t mean any of this literally. I’m not a synesthete. I don’t know how the color metaphor will track with synesthetes who have the relevant color-word or color-pitch, etcetera, experiences. If that’s you, let us know!)

From a more technical standpoint, I’m taken with: the variations running through these lyrics, or imperfect repetitions, which is something I often do myself (e.g., with choruses that transform in each instance, towards some destination, or over a changing point of view, etc.); consistent rhyming that somehow sounds as natural as talking; the economy of syllables; and, especially, the perfect polyamory of those syllables with melody and mood.

Another reason for this post is simply to show my admiration for, and bring attention to, the work of someone who took lyrics seriously. I hope we songwriters all can take the same care Bermen did with his words-and-music élevage2. (Another brilliant example, I’m finding, is “Margaritas at the Mall,” perhaps next in line to give me the inky fingers.)

Buy Purple Mountains digitally (or on cassette) at Amazon, or in those and other formats (including LP) at the Drag City website. And look here at Bermen’s lauded 1999 poetry collection that I’ve been enjoying: Actual Air.

Now the lyrics. See footnotes for a few comments, including my explanation for what may seem an omission. If you haven’t heard the song, it could be interesting to read first, then listen (I’ll embed a video at the end).

Nights That Won’t Happen

The dead know what they’re doing when they leave this world behind
When the here and the hereafter momentarily align
See the need to speed into the lead suddenly decline3
Dead know what they’re doing when they leave this world behind

And as much as we might like to seize the reel and hit rewind
Or quicken our pursuit of what we’re guaranteed to find
And the dying’s finally done and the suffering subsides
All the suffering gets done by the ones we leave behind
All the suffering gets done by the ones we leave behind

NIGHTS that won’t happen
Time we won’t spend
TIME we won’t spend
With each other again
With each other again

Ghosts are just old houses dreaming people in the night4
Have no doubt about it hon the dead will do alright
Go contemplate the evidence I guarantee you’ll find5
The dead know what they’re doing when they leave this world behind

NIGHTS that won’t happen
Time we won’t spend
Nights that won’t happen
Never ever again
NIGHTS that won’t happen
Never reaching the end
Nights that won’t happen
Never even begin
Never even begin

This world is like a roadside inn and we’re the guests inside
And death is a black camel that kneels down so we can ride
The dying’s finally done, the suffering subsides
All the suffering gets done by the ones we leave behind
All the suffering gets done by the ones we leave behind

on

NIGHTS that won’t happen
TIME we won’t spend
TIME we won’t spend
With each other again
NIGHTS that won’t happen
Never reaching the end6
Nights that won’t happen
We can’t even begin
We can’t even begin


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Further Reading

Footnotes:

  1. “A David Bermen Tribute Show,” The New Yorker (1/6/2020), Night Life section.
  2. I first wrote husbandry, but replaced it with the pretty French word élevage. For why, see this post: Replace ‘Husbandry’ with ‘Élevage’.
  3. Sounds like “feel the need… thuddenly…” due to aggressive de-essing applied, apparently, to only this line. The effect is poetic.
  4. Asked to limit myself to one in-color line, it’d be this one. The earlier lines in amber are strong and crucial to the song’s central theme, but this one is crucial principally to itself, is its own substance, and so serves to fill in the spaces song’s structure, or lattices, with a kind of emotional resin. In other words, its indirect way of supporting the song’s theme (which many of the other lyrics state directly), lends to the song’s emotional resonance. It’s also just a very cool line.
  5. After transcribing, I saw that this is usually transcribed as “… evidence and I guarantee…” I leave out the word “and.” Not only does he not sing that word in the recording (it would be rhythmically forced if he did), it is a much better lyric without it. Without the “and,” the lyric allows for a second meaning to the obvious one: that the evidence is guaranteed to be found, the evidence being the contemplator’s own death, a guarantee that is also alluded to in the second verse.
  6. “End” sounds like “inn,” which would be an interesting callback to “roadside inn.”

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