Gaining on the Green Man: A Road Odyssey in Four Acts
In an epic cross-hemisphere trek, writer Ben Oswest treads the long road between Cape Town and Wales to consummate a 13-year, 20,000-mile long-distance love affair with the Silver Jews.
I. Wintering in Wales: A Love Story
The weather followed us into the Northern Hemisphere. As we careened around the back roads of Abergavenny and Merthyr Tydfil, the joy of the previous night still running at high temperatures in our brains and the drossy hills of the Brecon Beacons national park crowding the road, I had to switch our little Ford's wipers from "interval" to "high" and squint to catch the oncoming markers. It was the umpteenth time we’d faced such trouble in our journey to the heart of the British summer.
Granted, these Welsh showers were nothing like the downpours we left behind in Cape Town -- which had brought destructive flooding to the coast and snowdrifts deep enough to shut the mountain passes -- but still, we were wearing scarves, there were two pairs of mud-caked Wellies in the boot, the heat was on, and it was August.
My companion fiddled with the radio before deciding that nothing could compare with the sweet music that had kept us sleepless until the diminutive o'clocks of the previous evening; thus, Radio 1 and BBC Cymru were soon silenced. We rode on through towns with names like "Bwlch." allowing ourselves to feel like conquering heroes.
A great deal of planning had come to fruition. Against what had seemed like dizzyingly mounting odds, we had conquered the danger of missed connections across several flights (none!); the onset of the common cold (toughed out on the streets of London!); potential brushes with the Law (none! -- despite cameras and patrol vehicles everywhere we ventured); and near collisions with other motorists' cars on countless confounded roundabouts (none! -- by mere whiskers).
We made it against the exceptionally unlikely impediment of a foiled terrorist plot, which had gummed up the skies over the Atlantic since our arrival. We had prevailed against a run-in with a seemingly considerate but phantom-like and ultimately perfidious PR gatekeeper. Last, we had made it against the weather, which pissed on us all the way from South Africa to the county of Powys.
We had done it. We had consummated our 13-year, 20,000-mile long-distance love affair with the Silver Jews. We had seen them play live, at the 2006 Green Man Festival in Wales.
Somebody pinch us.
Our little Ford was passing through novel landscapes, but we were firmly rooted in the recent past, and somewhere along the road the mood turned philosophical. It was over -- the Jews were gone. As the fire died to embers, my companion wistfully uttered one of the fundamental truths of indie rock, which she is wont to articulate from time to time. "It sucks," she said, "to share your band with other people."
Indispensable fashion at the Green Man -- Photo by Ben Oswest
II. Green Man, White Music
At the Green Man Festival, you have to share your band with six or seven thousand people. This wasn't always the case: it used to be fewer. When the festival started four years ago, it catered to just 500 or so folk-music die-hards who gathered to bob heads in front of an unquestionably credible lineup. But, the fans multiplied, more than doubling every year. Eventually, the Green Man had to find a new Petri dish. A bigger home meant bigger and more diverse acts. Now the gig flirts with commercial respectability, and its identity is a slightly strained composite -- the salt of the Earth covered with wholesome indie clover.
Identity often has little to do with reputation, however, and the Green Man is still widely regarded as a hippy folk fest. This, mind you, is a blessing. In British English, if the word "festival" hasn't already made the rank of verb, it should be promoted as a matter of priority. Festivals are a way of life on the sodden island. One doesn’t go to a festival; one festivals.
To festival is to voluntarily experience the Social Contract -- that tenuous thing -- under deeply Malthusian conditions. It is to join with a legion of others in the act of tramping a good green field into a gigantic mud wallow; and it is to risk having your face pushed into said wallow by any one of several flavors of drunk, roving, medicated yobs and lads. To festival is to wait -- for music, with achingly long stretches between sets. To festival is to queue -- for food, for water, for beer, for bowel relief. To festival is to find your way to your tent, amidst thousands of wrong ones, in pitch dark, with double vision, burst eardrums and an urge to vomit. Ultimately, to festival is to be reduced -- as you don yet another layer of protective clothing against the elements and mud -- to human sheep. The lower you go, the higher the music can lift you.
So, at the Green Man we festivaled for three full days and nights. But, then, perhaps we didn't truly festival. Because of its New Age-y reputation -- a "green man" is a pagan symbol, a wild, bushy, face-in-the-forest that approximates a Celtic gargoyle -- the barbarians kept away, and the whole affair was actually semi-civilized. Parents let strangers tickle their children. The longest I queued for food was a half hour. The wallow in front of the main stage was hardly big enough for an elephant and a bull rhinoceros to share. In short, decency reigned.
It helped that the barbarians had another outlet for their festivaling in the simultaneously-run V Fest several hundred miles away -- it had bigger acts (Morrissey!), and attracted 60,000. (That's nothing: try Reading at 80,000, or the inconceivable Glastonbury at 150,000.) It also helped that the Green Man's £98 ticket and remote location in the Brecon Beacons national park system -- easy to reach by private car, but a bitch to slog to on the buses -- kept the audience safely bourgeois. What we had here, then, was a boutique festival. I reiterate: a blessing.
The music suited the event to a 'T'. An esteemed South African writer once suggested that, when the conventions of Western fiction are adopted by those who write in non-Western locales, like Africa, then the result can be called "white writing", no matter the color of the author. I hereby extend this theory to music. What the Green Man offered its white audience were white tunes, almost without exception -- despite a few variations in skin tone on stage. This is not to start an argument about the roots of folk (in Wales? try the Silures) or to cast aspersions on the lineage of indie rock (though it's clear that at some stage punk and krautrock overcame their differences). It's merely to record, having lived among whites in South Africa, and been subjected to a teeth-grindingly mediocre cognate of "white writing" in their rock (a few Afrikaners here excepted), how satisfying it was to recognize afresh, and experience live, the real thing at last.
III. The Star of David Berman: Intellectualized
Some people, like me, mark the passage of time not with a calendar, but through Silver Jews albums. There have been six, between 1993 and 2005, with one release approximately every two years. The maestro at the center of this oeuvre is David Berman, a man who also has a book of poetry to his name (Actual Air).
The poetry in Berman's band is evident in its very album titles. Scan: The Arizona Record (1993 -- iambs) pairs off with Tanglewood Numbers (2005 -- trochees) at the outer ends of the discography. Move in a ring, and Starlite Walker (1994 -- trochee) matches up with Bright Flight (2001 -- spondee!). Last, at the core, The Natural Bridge (1996 -- iambs) meets American Water (1998 -- iambs again). Isn't that instructive? And fun.
While the band used to be mistaken for a Pavement derivative because of Berman's friendship with Steve Malkmus (who appears on several Jews albums), their approach to songwriting couldn't be more stark. With the Jews, you find achingly careful craft in the writing -- in contrast to the classic, calculated-but-louche, irresponsible Pavement lyric. And the Jews' music can sound almost watery next to Pavement's sheer, hard razzle-dazzle amperage.
Performance is about confidence, and it's clear from his songs that Berman is loath to release a single chord before he's satisfied that the words are laid down perfectly. The tracks simply come second. Even when he's irresponsible (My mother named me after a king / I'm gonna bury my name in you...) his use of language is too serious to seem pure fun.
The Silver Jews on stage -- Photo by Ben Oswest
IV. The Star of David Berman: Observed
Before their set at Green Man, guitarist William Tylor, who also plays for (rock band? commune?) Lambchop, expressed relief that the Jews weren't the evening's headliner. It was true: a chap called Juan Gonzalez was to close Saturday on the main stage. Tylor's relief derived from concern over the misfortune of the band's regular drummer, who was lying flat on his back, in the Abergavenny hospital, victim of a mysterious stomach ailment. Thus, the Jews' musical cohesiveness was under threat.
Well not really. Their sound man was a certain Steve West, former tickler of skins for Pavement and he had offered to step into the breach. When I moseyed backstage to deliver my transcontinental "hello," he was deep in concentration, listening to a Jews CD and tapping out the beats.
Several months ago, Tylor's anxiety might have been put down to a lack of confidence in his front man's live-gig fitness. Until recently, Berman had almost never played live and was known to suffer paralyzing bouts of stage fright. As I chatted with Tylor and keyboardist Tony Crow, I kept glancing around, expecting a perfunctory puke to splash into the wet grass around the tent.
The festival's PR liaison, in denying me an interview with the band some hours earlier, had fobbed me off with the excuse of Berman's nerves: "He gets into a state before a show, he vomits; it's not pretty; it would be bad for you to be around."
Now, it is a PR liaison's job to be disingenuous -- just as it is a writer's job to step on his head if necessary to clutch the prize -- but this was doing Berman a disservice. After tours in the US, Israel, and now Wales (the Jews played Cardiff the month before), Berman appeared an old hand; he seemed as relaxed backstage as he would be in a bar. If anything, it was back-up guitarist and vocalist Cassie Berman -- part femme fatale, part fussy wife -- who betrayed a bit of stress. Or perhaps she's just a natural-born sheepdog, particularly adept at herding everyone to their instruments.
The biggest disservice done to Berman and Co. at Green Man, though -- as backwardly intimated by Taylor -- was letting another act follow the band. The King of Indie Rock, Stephen Malkmus, is dead, and David Berman is Lord and Protector of our beloved indie sound. His low, coaxing voice, his music's Southern jangle, the humanity of his songs -- it all adds up to a kind of Pax Bermana on the indie scene. Under his reign, irony, if not altogether banished, is certainly out of favor. Genuine feelings may humbly approach and be absolved of self-consciousness. The Jews were the conquering kings of Green Man, and Royalty should come out last, after the plebes have finished making their porridge.
Their set was 45 minutes long -- as were all the sets at the Green Man -- barely enough time to get to know them. They played the first song from each of their albums, a few more from Tanglewood Numbers, and a couple from the back catalogue. Berman's courtliness shone through: he dedicated the haunting, melancholy "Trains Across the Sea" to my companion, who had written to him about it 12 years ago. This is a king who knows how to reward loyalty. Apparently, he has been singling out the faithful at many of his gigs, acknowledging their dedication and long-suffering wait for a live show. It's a good policy, one that affects delirious happiness.
I was standing toward the back of the stage taking snaps and, during "Punks in the Beerlight", crept near the front for a quick peek at the audience. It seemed that thousands of Brits had memorized the Jews' songs, for they were all singing along. (Berman later said that if he's out of practice with a number, and forgets a lyric on stage, all he has to do is lip read.) The band was solid, the music was great -- did it seem as if Cassie was a tad out of sorts? she might have been having an off night -- and all too soon it was time for a victory beer.
After the set, I caught Berman for a moment or two in the tent behind the main stage, where the bottles of Dorothy Goodbody's were kept. (Best bitter I drank in Wales.) The first thing I pointed out was that, with the approach of a two-year gap, it’s almost that time again. Was he on track with album number seven? Happily, he confirmed that we can expect some news next May.
We talked about how tough it is to make one's way as an artist: "Everyone will tell you it's a waste of time” he said. “I was 31 when my father finally got the idea."
Berman's advice to young people who are being guided toward grad school and desk jobs against their will? He spelled it out slowly: "Don't give in to the pressure... because... you'll go crazy." Hear, hear. I pressed him to confirm that he had made up (coined?) the phrase "soi disantra" -- he was urgently seeking a rhyme for "they don't want ta", wasn't he? -- and then released him back to his band.
But the night was not over. I ran through the muck to the stone wall that separated the greater backstage area from the common festivalers, met my companion at a pre-arranged spot, and, in literal Jane-Austen's-Captain-Wentworth fashion, "jumped her down" to my side (without any disastrous consequences).
We rejoined the Jews, took photos all 'round, and eventually fell into conversation with guitarist Peyton Pinkerton (who also has his own band, New Radiant Storm King). The merits of Azita and the Fiery Furnaces were debated (Azita is listed in the credits of Tanglewood Numbers, but apparently there was no room for her contribution in the final cut). Parts of America's socialist history were explored (Pinkerton is a Pinkerton -- that is, he's from the family whose name was notorious among American unionizers in the early 1900s). A few Brythonic pronunciations were attempted (Pinkerton's taking a course in Welsh) and a final Dorothy Goodbody's was downed.
And thus we concluded the somewhat incongruous, one-off gig in fit and proper style: Band and groupies meeting, boozing, and parting at the halfway point between Nashville and Cape Town.
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Ben Oswest is author of The New Suffolk Hymnbook, a novel, and his less-literary ramblings can be found at boswestblog.com.