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At first blush, the Velvets sounded like a three-chord garage band, except for the fact that they used open tunings and drones. They sang about sexual fetishes and drug deals, which was not surprising for a group that was tied closely to Andy Warhol. While other acts were cutting paeans to the joys of acid, the Velvets played their signature tune, “Heroin.” In this, Reed, like other satellites in Warhol’s orbit, looked to be striking studied poses. At the same time he exuded a peculiar vulnerability, and his gift to the generations might well be the high conviction of his inauthenticity. Not for nothing did the young David Bowie dedicate songs to Reed, Warhol and Bob Dylan, three masters of the fractured attitude.
Going over Silver Jews’ catalog after listening to “Early Times,” I am struck by how much Berman owes to Reed. It goes beyond his taste for drones and the timbre of his voice, though he does have the same half-talking, half-singing growl as the master. It also goes beyond the fact that Berman is a bona fide poet with a Master of Fine Arts in writing, respectable publications to his name and a tortured soul. (He was drawn to country music, he said in an interview, because he was good at writing about failure.) It has to do with a specific sensibility, with the way Berman is in his songs but not quite of them, the way that he tempers the pleasures of self-expression with the nerdy intellectual’s twinge of irony and evasion. If the Velvet Underground was in essence a suburban boy’s fantasy of life in the art lane, then Silver Jews was a suburban boy’s fantasy of country music and not quite the thing itself. It sounds from here like a homegrown musical version of “rootless cosmopolitanism,” worn with a kind of passionate indifference as if it were a badge of the singer’s alienated honor.
Much as I like them, I find it hard to feel nostalgic about Silver Jews. I was well beyond the rock-themed dramas of adolescent desire by the time they got to me, so “Early Times” doesn’t quite do for me what it was supposed to do. But it has been successful in a different way: It has sent me back to old YouTube videos of the Velvet Underground to recapture something of the late 1960s vibe that just preceded my own teenage turbulence. It has kindled in me a real nostalgia, a wistfulness for youth. But, as always these days, it’s for another youth, not quite my own.
David Kaufmann teaches English at George Mason University. His most recent book is “Telling Stories: Philip Guston’s Later Works” (University of California Press, 2010).