The Portable February

January 01, 1970





For six albums, David Berman crafted surreally literate
lyrics for his band, Silver Jews, spinning sidewinding narratives and sly epiphanies.
Many of his best songs had single-panel cartoon moments, where the sheer
fish-out-of-water absurdity of his lyrical twists seemed to stop time for a
second, and allowed for a brief snort or giggle.  At its best, The Portable February is like that — with short, out-of-left-field
observations and snippets of overheard conversation, backed up by hasty,
stick-figure drawings.  Early on in the
book, a young sheep confronts an older film mogul sheep in sunglasses, saying
(bleating?), “Premise? I got premise.”  Later, a baseball player, arms stretched for a
catch, is superimposed on a crucifix. A Frankenstein figure carries a placard
reading, “U.S. out of Transylvania.” The tone is smart, cool and not
particularly concerned about whether you get it.  


But if the humor is subtle and adult, it is expressed in
self-consciously primitive drawing. Bodies are constructed out of one vertical
stick with a blob on top, a perpendicular slash for arms. Suns hang in the sky
as in kindergarten crayon drawings. Houses look like shoe-boxes, with
four-squared windows etched on the sides. Yet even the art, simple as it is,
gets bent into smirky puns and jokes. One series, called “Italys and Floridas” makes the point that the two
shapes are upside down versions of each other. “Oklahoma
+ Sky Over Oklahoma” places a line drawing of Oklahoma under a similarly shaped bit of sky.
You get the impression of a very sharp intellect at play, doodling on loose
sheets of paper, writing and drawing the bizarre things that people say. (One
mustachio’d cartoon head asserts, “If you were New Wave in Cincinnati in 1983,
I probably haunted your spare time occasionally.”) 


Yet while the book has an appealing looseness and immediacy,
it does not seem like something Berman worked very hard at. You can find
funnier cartoons – not to mention better drawing – in nearly any issue of the New Yorker. More to the point, there are
better stories, characters and language in every Silver Jews album. If this is
what Berman intends to do now that his band is no more, he ought to try a
little harder.


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