Dean Farwood: Remembering David Berger

Posted on 15. Jun, 1999 by in Featured, Remembering Friends

The Bay Street entrance to the University of California at Santa Cruz ascended past preserved rock ruins of buildings which I didn’t have time to investigate. I was on my way to David’s father’s home for David’s memorial. Things didn’t seem right, it didn’t look like a university. Warehouse-sized barns with corrugated roofs stood off the road. Empty bus stop huts had no posters or flyers tacked to their walls. The road itself was too wide as it imposed itself upon the open, grassy slopes. I did not turn off at the street that led to the cluster of faculty condos where Harry Berger lived. I felt a bit out of place myself. I had driven down the coast highway from Marin intending that the winding drive through the cliffs and past the beaches of my Pacific days would set the mood for David’s memorial but at Half Moon Bay I found myself part of a troop of hundreds of cyclists raising money for AIDS. The attention required to avoid hitting one prevented my mind from wandering. I needed a little time to myself.

Not far past my turn was a large but impromptu and rutted turnout at the crest of a ridge overlooking dozens of miles of valley, coast and ocean. I pulled off here to collect my thoughts. A barbed wire fence ran between the edge of the turnout and the grassy down slope beyond. In keeping with the disjointed arrangement of this part of the campus, there were two inviting, solidly built wooden benches facing the vista which were beyond the fence and without any obvious means of approach. I would have liked to sit and the fence was not any real challenge but it felt like the type of day when a cyclist could be struck or a shirt could be ripped on barbed wire so I paced alongside the fence instead. I meant to attend to the view but I found myself looking mostly at my shoes. I wondered if David had ever come here to play his harmonica.

***

It had been thirty-three years since I first met David. I was fourteen and he seventeen as we both started our first year at Pacific. We met at the boarding house on Bear Creek Road in a hilly wooded area near Los Gatos. The school rented a large house which had been used as some kind of spa/retreat. It had a pool and sauna which were off limits to us, a large, open beamed meeting room which would become the site of momentous all school meetings and marathon psychodramas, a kitchen and various bedrooms and smaller living rooms. I shared a room with another freshman and David roomed with two of the older boys.

The house was supervised by a new member of the staff, Prem Sing, and his wife. Prem was a hip, soft-spoken Indian from Los Angeles. He frequently dropped the names of his L.A. contacts in radio and film. Equally impressive to us younger students was the eccentric music teacher, John Dufford, a timpanist with the San Jose Symphony who lived in the caretaker’s cottage several hundred feet from the main house.

As school began most of us fell into natural groupings. The younger, the older and those who were paired off. David did not fall into any group. He was not aloof but he seemed to have some inner business which occupied him. He was obsessive about playing The Harp – blues harmonica. He also read, something few of us did. Keroac and Brautigan were his style although he did not seem to have any store of beatnik tradition that many of us were heir to.

David was a crusader against pretense. He tolerated no hypocrisy, no airs and very little of the basic social posturing most of us practice. His active debunking of artifice could be painful but he never did so with a superior air. He often included himself as a target. Not cynical but clearly critical he would speak up in defiance and accusation of anyone including Prem, whom he openly detested for his Heapian obsequiousness, carefully acquired hipness and con-man’s cultivation of the good opinion of us who were gullible. More than once David told Prem to fuck off and, with the insight of a practiced fraud, Prem knew real danger when he saw it. He avoided David the way a city boy avoids murky ponds. Prem left some months later under a cloud of financial mismanagement. Although David was living a musical life he avoided contact with Dufford, the music teacher who favored the abstractions of Cage’s silence.

I don’t remember David ever going to a class of any kind although my memory may be skewed by the fact that I, myself, was rarely in a class to have seen him were he there. More often I saw him walking down one of the shaded, dirt roads around the school smoking a joint or playing his harmonica. David was a favorite of a number of girls who treated him in a protective, motherly way but I don’t remember him having a girlfriend. There was no reason to be secretive about relationships or, for that matter, sex itself at Pacific yet I don’t recall him having any open relationships. His inner business was his priority.

David almost always treated me well which, given my terribly self-centered immaturity, must have taken some effort. Although too young to be a pal, we shared what grass we had and David never turned his critical comments to the things that really mattered to me. He did take me to task, though, when I took Pacific’s soul-searching, psychodramatic self-expressive shit too seriously. David was one of the first people I knew who actually lived, rather than talked about, an artistic life.

Although I never shared his devotion to the blues, living with him developed my taste for it. I became very fond of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band whom I often saw at the Fillmore. Butterfield, a white blues harp player (died circa 1985 of drug related illness), was very popular among the Jefferson Airplane—Grateful Dead set. His band was out of Chicago—the real thing we thought. They were electrified, not the genuine, acoustic blues. David hated Butterfield’s harp playing. I always took this as sour grapes but, as I think back, I suspect it was more complicated than that. Butterfield claimed to represent Chicago blues yet he, his guitarists Elvin Bishop and Mike Bloomfield (also now dead of an overdose) and keyboard player, Mark Naftlin, were all white. Only the drummer and bass player were black. It may have been that David saw himself more black than white, more acoustic than electric and was embarrassed by rather than jealous of Paul Butterfield.

Some of us played music; informal and, less often, organized jam sessions took place at Pacific or the boarding house. David rarely took part. I remember one day when we had a drum set, electric piano, bass and guitar set up and David joined in with his harp cupped at the end of a microphone. We played standard blues progressions with a certain studiousness and I remember David looking up from his slumped shouldered playing position imploring us with his bobbing head to put some life into our accompaniment. We tried but it was like asking a third grader to read aloud a love sonnet. David never played with us again.

I never saw David do anything but smoke grass and I would say his use was moderate compared to many. He was usually energetic and had an air of a guy who wanted to accomplish things. Near the end of that first year a rumor went around the school indicating that the Santa Clara Sheriff was planning to bust the school for permitting drug use. There had been some local drug busts but those generally involved sales and, at Pacific, we were, for the most part, small-time users. At a weekly all-school meeting one self-righteous student announced that, because she loved Pacific so much and was so worried about its future, she would personally turn in to director Stan Bean the names of any student who used drugs on school property after that day.

I don’t think too many of us took her threat seriously and I’m sure that David would never have let someone else’s pious professions alter his activities. In the end several students were turned in and three us of us, David, Nick Lehr (at 17, the school’s best blues keyboardist—now a screenwriter and actor) and I were turned in. We had individual meetings with Stan in which he asked us if we had used drugs. Our honest answers got us expelled from Pacific. Nick and David seemed to take their punishment without much reaction; I was devastated. Fortunately for me, it was Stan’s last year and during the summer the new director, Peter Marin, decreed that there should be no rules at the school including those prohibiting drug use and I was invited back. I returned to Pacific but Nick and David went their way in the world.

I remember visiting David once later when he lived in a converted basement in Menlo Park but, although he was not rude, it was clear that he had not much interest in a boy from the protected Pacific hills; he was making his way, working at some common job by day and trying to become a professional musician in every other waking hour.

I spent 1969 in Europe with Warren Howe and several other students. While we were there the students back at Pacific dissolved the board of directors and fired all the staff. I had no interest in the chaos I found when I returned and graduated myself in true Pacific style. I went to the office and, with the help of the secretary, found what were the required classes for graduation from one of the real high schools in the area. I typed up my transcript and, after three years of little more than experiments in music, writing, and the procreative arts, became a high school graduate. For the next several years I studied classical music with the self-delusion typical of those of us who were treated as adults too early. I took private piano, guitar, composition and theory lessons and even passed an audition at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music becoming a composition major/piano minor. After a couple of years there it was clear that I had neither the talent nor the discipline to succeed even marginally in music and, in a wrenching move I quit music school and found consolation in an equally compulsive study of chess. I joined the Mechanics’ Chess Club in downtown San Francisco, read stacks of chess books and ultimately developed sufficient skill to be considered a beginner.

One day at the chess club in 1973, I ran into David who had also taken up the game. I had noticed the name Berger on the ratings board but had not made the connection. When we met again after those three or four years we had both changed and the dynamic between us was somewhat more equal. David, although still prone to artless honesty, had developed at least the appearance of a sensitivity to someone else’s feelings and seemed covertly impressed that I could read music. I, bruised by my musical failures, but buoyed by the knowledge that my travels through music theory, literature and Europe had given me a mature insight, was more assertive. We immediately played a rated game—one in which the result would be submitted for the club’s ratings calculation. We sat at a solid, inlaid chess table and played with the heavy wooden Staunton pieces provided by the venerable, old-city chess club. He kicked my butt.

We played often both at the chess club and at David’s apartments. He lived for a while in a Victorian flat (now a parking lot) at California Street near Fillmore where his room’s walls were covered in sound insulating egg cartons and later, in a more luster-lost apartment in the Western Addition on Pine near Masonic. David’s girlfriend, Patty, was a solemn, slightly fragile, blonde woman with an elongated face whom David treated somewhat dismissively but whom one suspected had her way when company left. David was usually friendly and enthusiastic about some activity when we met. He was anxious to play his prized, scratchy old blues records for me and he was very proud of his participation on John Lee Hooker’s album. He talked about this several times—the kind of boasting he would never have allowed himself back in his Pacific days. He often talked about his upcoming musical possibilities but there was something about the dingy, ghetto apartment, the weight of Patty’s presence and, indeed, about his enthusiasm in seeing me, that made me suspect that David was encountering more walls than open doors.

David’s chess was clearly self-taught. He had little knowledge of the openings and I, who had spent a year studying the games of grandmasters, would often get to a position of slight advantage early in the game. But David was intense in his search for tricks and traps and his home brewed attacks were generally overpowering. Where I played for positional advantages based on opening theory and general principals David saw each new position as a starting place for an attack. In our earlier games he would pause along the way to shore up weakness in his position which his experience told him could cause trouble but, when I didn’t show the skill to exploit such small advantages he stopped taking the time to play soundly and his attacks became quicker. I lost many points on the rating board to him and when I did win it was never the result of a startling stroke; my wins were games in which I won a pawn and then held on through long, arduous endgames in which David posed traps and counterattacks while hunched over the board, one thigh, propelled by the ball of his foot, constantly bouncing. David would be eager for revenge immediately after any loss; I was never allowed to leave a winner.

The last time I saw David was in that Pine St. apartment. I don’t remember the game itself after all these years but we only played one that day. It was for the board so the usual “touch-move” rule was in effect. If you touched a piece you must move it and when you released a piece, it must stay where placed. As usual I achieved a slightly advantageous position in the opening and was fighting not to fall for one of his sneak attacks. When the attack came it seemed to contain more possibilities for failure than usual. Perhaps he noticed this and was anxious to move quickly past the point where I could counterattack. In any case he made a losing move. It was clear to both of us within seconds of his releasing the piece although I hesitated, trying to be sure that this was not another trick.

David tried to take back his move. “Come on, David, touch-move; it’s for the board,” I said. I assumed he was kidding about retracting his move but he wasn’t. He gave some lame explanation for why he should be able to take back the move—something about keeping the game interesting—but I had lost too many points in rated games to him to give up this apparent victory. All our previous games had been played by the rules and I insisted that he stand by his initial move. He wouldn’t. He wouldn’t resign and he wouldn’t sign the game result slip, which was to be placed in the box at the club. There was no yelling or name calling. I got up and left. Chess, which can easily bring out the worst in people, had brought out the worst in us.

***

The faculty condos with their ordered roofs, carefully curved roadways and proud traffic signs, had seemed philistine from the main road but revealed more character up close. Particularly noticeable was the lack of architectural or decorative attention given to front doors. The soft spoken elevations were calming and, after the open oddities of the campus, I finally began to feel in proportion to my surroundings.

Through the screen door I could see several people sitting on the living room couch one of whom waved me in. I was pleased that, although I knew no one there, I was spared any undue attention. David’s sister Caroline, who’s eyes came forward to you as David’s did, introduced me to several family friends, to David’s young nephew Ezra, his other sister Cynthia and to David’s father. Harry Berger, professor emeritus of English literature and art history, was not tall but was casually erect and seemed at ease. His white hair was closely cropped and he was the only one of us who looked as if he were wearing what he usually wore on a Sunday afternoon. It is possible that I had met him thirty years earlier but, if so, neither of us could remember it. Still, he seemed glad to see me; we had in common the memory of his son at seventeen although we didn’t talk about him. Cynthia and Caroline were six and nine years David’s junior and their interest in my presence was more one of research than of resonance.

Harry’s condo was filled with books about books and books about ideas. Even the small downstairs bathroom had one wall devoted to bookshelves (where, I was pleased to note, several 1950s editions of Hemingway had been exiled). Also in this room were two brown-tinged photographs apparently from Harry’s college days. One was a group of 15 or 20 serious young men in uncomfortable looking shoes and suits which may have dated from the early ’40s. They appeared to be ambitious, optimistic, ivy league intellectuals. The other was a portrait of Harry from the same era. He had a expectant, angular face which was clearly at odds with his hair which was brushed up in a rounded “V” shape, possibly inspired by Harold Ross. In the living room the stereo was playing tapes of David’s music. His harmonica playing was much more precise than it had been in the Pacific days. I would have liked to have heard his voice.

Quiet conversations about David shared a recurring subtext: despite his demons, he was a valued person. Apparently, over the last 6 years, after the death of his mother in an auto accident, and as a result of a delusional mental illness, David had refused to see his family and had become a difficult person with whom to maintain a friendship. Outside, in the small patio, the smokers collected. Some were hardened survivors of David’s circle. One was the manager of a rooming house in which David had lived. Harry, who earlier had moved easily among his own friends and family, was, as David’s friends gathered, content to sit with them. The memorial was becoming a mutual debriefing as those who had been with David more recently and those whom he had jettisoned in his madness shared their overlapping memories.

The focal point of the living room was a table on which which was placed a three-part folded board on which were mounted photographs of David—a triptych of his life: black and white 4X4s of his infancy—the 1950s, a round-faced, smiling boy with his older brother (now dead), his mother (now dead), the 1960s transition from black and white to color, self-conscious teen poses, his wispy mustache of the 1970s, handsome in the 1980s with his hair and beard trimmed, wearing glasses in a characteristic pose at a dining table leaning on an elbow and not removing his chin from his cupped palm as he turns back towards the lens, playing with his infant nephew on the floor in that very familiar crossleged, rounded shoulders, energetic position which he used to comfort and restrain himself, the early 1990s when his smile is artificial.

One of David’s friends brought his two young daughters dressed in their best velvet party dresses. I was glad they were there and as I talked with them about their summer plans of dance lessons and swimming I though of my own ten-year-old daughter. And I thought about the fifty-year-old photograph of Harry in college. There could be no clue in that preserved moment of expectation that that young man would be required to outlive his wife and two of his children, that he would be forced to find relief in a tormented son’s early release.

As I prepared to leave and thanked my hosts I was aware that they had made this visit easy for me, that they had set the right tone for a gathering which could induce simultaneously an inclination towards interaction and introspection. They had had practice. Harry, to whom I had not spoken much but who had read a remembrance of David I had written, walked me outside and thanked me for writing. He spoke to me about how it had triggered his memory but we talked of writing, not of David. As we stood near my car we adjusted our positions so that neither looked into the sun directly and we talked about the social mood of the 60s. As I looked at his appreciative, inquisitive, weathered face I noticed that I no longer wanted to know how David had died. I felt like Harry’s son or a representative of his son’s era, a specter of Harry’s unmet expectations. Although he remained well remembered, David himself had long since left both our lives; that his death had come was meaningful but not its presentation. And I felt like a father as I remembered Harry’s innocent college portrait and my daughter’s smiling class portraits. I considered how, at my age now, the David I first met could be my son. Harry had shown me how vulnerable we fathers are and I suspected that he could teach me how to weather the storm.

I did not feel out of place as I drove back down towards the highway; the barns and bus huts were inconsequential. As I turned up Highway 1 the slower cyclists were still making their way towards Santa Cruz but my drive home was more relaxed; they were on the other side of the road. I remembered David. He was bright, intense and intolerant of posing and self-deception. I remembered his most genuine smile in which his lips did not part. I remember seeing him in a brown sheepskin jacket walking down a country road playing his harp. His hair is jutting out, his shoulders are rounded, his heels are kick-skidding forward in the dust keeping time.

Dean Farwood
June, 1999

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3 Responses to “Dean Farwood: Remembering David Berger”

  1. Jutka Fischer

    05. Sep, 2010

    Hi Dean,

    I loved reading your obituary about David Berger. Thank you for such a sensitive, honest and non-sentimental article.

    I have fleeting memories of David, at one of the visits we non-residentail Pacific students made to the boarding house – sauna followed by swimming in the forbidden pool in the middle of the night.

    David was a private person, as you say, with a deep innner preoccupation and was respected for that by all, I think.

    I wonder if you remember me – I was called Judy – and my then boyfriend wasTony Douglas. I remember your fabulous honky-tonk piano playing, and also staying at your place in San Francisco on our epic journey hitch-hiking south to Los Angeles.

    I wish I could have been at the Pacific reunion, but I am living in Budapest so travelling long distances takes some
    organizing, but maybe the next one I can attend, with my son who is at university on Scotland.

    If you get this email, please do contact me on
    jutka.fischer@gmail.com
    I would love to catch up!
    Gregg Troll and Marianne, now Iris, came to visit Budapest last summer and it was wonderful to see them.

    Best,
    Jutka (Judy) Fischer

  2. Dan Sparkman

    20. Nov, 2010

    I’d like to know if this is the Dave Berger who played harmonica on John Lee Hooker’s “Endless Boogie” album. I have been searching for that Dave Berger because he played an OUTSTANDING harp on that record, one of my favorite hamonica records ever. As a player, I was immediately impressed by his playing, and many many times wondered why he never was featured on anyone else’s record, or never got more famous.
    If anyone can answer this, please e-mail me and let me know. It sounds very much like the same person, and it is a sad story, no matter who it was. I enjoyed reading it. Thanks for posting. –DAN

  3. Addison Pace

    17. Jul, 2011

    Howdy first class short post i have really appreciate ur blog post #:-) no-charge cycling for the 12dietboost users @ Rochester?

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