What Can The Silver Jews’ “Dallas” Tell Us About The City’s Historical Cattle Trails, Club Drugs and Hypocritical Christians?
Though Silver Jews frontman David Berman left his hometown of Dallas for college in the mid-’80s and subsequently never returned, one song in particular from his band’s 1996 album, The Natural Bridge, wistfully recalls his teen years spent here a decade before.
The melancholy nature of the lyrics on the track “Dallas” are fairly interesting — and they make it somewhat difficult to detect whether Berman was reflecting on his teen years with an amount of tongue-in-cheek longing, giving credit to his drab upbringing positively influencing his art, or if he was generally regretful about where he grew up.
Judging from the lyrics, “and how did you turn a billion steers into buildings made of mirrors, and why am I drawn to you tonight?” it’s not immediately apparent whether Berman himself can fully answer that question either.
But, historically speaking, there is some accuracy to the first half of that lyric.
In the early 1800s, the Shawnee Trail (also known as the Texas Trail) was a major trade route, and the earliest route with which longhorn cattle were taken to the northern railheads. Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri can all trace back their earliest development to the trail.
The trail was especially important in Dallas development as well. It was established in the early 1840s near the Trinity River and trade was a major factor when the city’s earliest colonies first formed. By 1866, somewhere between 200,000 and 260,000 longhorns passed through Dallas on their way north. Today, the 70 longhorn sculptures in Pioneer Plaza help remind us of how important the trail was to our city’s initial growth.
By the 1870s, the railroads finally came to town and, by 1911, Dallas was home to 12 regional Federal Reserve Banks. Then, in the 1930s, businesses began moving to Dallas to take advantage of the city’s newly found oil, which helped Dallas struggle somewhat less than other parts of the country during the Great Depression.
This, in short, may help explain how we turned those steers into “buildings made of mirrors.” But is that enough to explain why Berman, who on the surface seems down on the city of Dallas, feels a bit nostalgic about his time here when penning this song?
Many of the other lyrics in “Dallas” make veiled references to the widespread use of MDMA that was so rampant in Dallas just before the time Berman left.
In 1984, when DJ Kerry Jaggers first helped to popularize the club drug also known as ecstasy here, it wasn’t illegal — and he used to sell the drug within the confines of the Starck Club, where he would often also spin.
Here’s a sign of the times: Back then, clubgoers could simply charge ecstasy purchases to their credit cards. Given the drug’s popularity here at the time (Dallas was one of the first places in the country to latch on to MDMA), the Starck Club eventually became known as the “ground zero” of MDMA. It wasn’t until July 1, 1985, that the drug became officially illegal.
Lines like “poor as a mouse every morning / rich as a cat every night / some kind of strange magic happens / when the city turns on her lights” could easily reference the highs and lows of ingesting club drugs, and the rich nightlife scene that Dallas enjoyed in the 1980s partly in thanks to said drugs.
This much is sure, though: Berman didn’t fit in with the whole “the higher the hair, the closer to God” stereotype that Texans have yet to shake (see: ABC’s Good Christian Bitches). As his song goes, he preferred to “sit with the bad kids in the back” when attending church.
But at least he understood the hypocrisy between the GCB-nature of Dallas by day and the rampant nature of the drug-fueled club scene of Dallas at night, as evidenced by the lines, “O Dallas, you shine with an evil light / don’t you know that God stays up all night?”
So maybe upon further examination it wasn’t Dallas itself that Berman was so despondent about, but rather the insincere nature of its inhabitants.