Dan Bern's cosmic lens
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., March 25, 2004) – After he disposes with the joke answers to the question of what he might have been had he not become a singer-songwriter – “shortstop for the New York Yankees” or “a bullfighter” – Dan Bern confesses that he probably would have been some kind of writer.
That doesn’t come as any surprise to fans who know Bern as the most literary of songwriters. Bern’s songs jump out at a listener as neatly-drawn essays disguised as pop-rock songs, or three-minute short stories disguised as folk ballads. He is an innovative wordsmith with a hyperactive imagination – in “Superman” the caped crusader quits to live out a normal life with Lois Lane, and in “God Said No,” the singer argues with the deity about letting him go back in time to kill Adolf Hitler – and an uncanny ear for a catchy hook.
Speaking by cellphone recently from somewhere in Manhattan, Bern -- who performs at Club Helsinki on Tuesday, March 30, at 8 (Luthea Salom warms up the crowd) -- talked about his songwriting process and how he decides whether and when to tackle the big questions of life versus more ordinary concerns.
“The lens just shifts,” said Bern. “It either gets bigger or wider and goes out into space and that realm, or time and that realm, or it might go inward.
“I don’t always know when it’s going to hit. When it hits, it just hits. A lot of time when it hits it keeps going for a while. Those are often fairly intense, manic times, song after song after song. You just ride them while they’re there. They kind of come and go of their own accord, but you have to be ready for them.”
Bern’s songs mix incisive cultural criticism with devastatingly frank autobiographical confession. One minute he’s singing about Kurt Cobain and the next he’s referring to his father, a Holocaust survivor. The secret to why the combination of the two works so well in his hands is that he sees no difference between them.
“I don’t separate the strictly personal and what we call the culture out there,” said Bern. “They all sort of feel like the same thing. I take what we call cultural stuff very personally.”
With over a half-dozen albums to his credit, including last year’s memorable “Fleeting Days” (Messenger), Bern has already built up a memorable catalog of songs, including “Tiger Woods,” a hilarious deconstruction of celebrity and sexual obsession, and “Different Worlds,” an equally incisive critique of race relations in America.
“Toledo,” inspired by a visit to the ancient Spanish city, is a dreamlike reverie that invokes Christopher Columbus and the Spanish Inquisition. “New American Language” is about cultural conformity. And “Thanksgiving Day Parade” is an updated version of Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row.”
Born and raised in Iowa, Bern recently left Los Angeles, where he lived for much of the last decades, and moved to Truth or Consequences, N.M. He grew up obsessed by baseball, and was raised to be a cellist by his artistic, immigrant parents.
“When I was twenty years old I thought I was washed up, and I continue to go through periods of that every season,” said Bern. “There’s always this process of feeling that everything is completely horrible, and then out of that songs start to come.
“I don’t even know what I’m doing -- I’m just writing something -- and then I have no idea what I’ve even written, and then I look at it a couple of days later and it’s like, wow, that’s what’s going on.
“There are other times when everything seems to be so completely crappy that songs don’t even matter anymore, and the notion of trying to write anything is so completely past it and you’re writing so that you’re not taking a jump somewhere.”
Bern shakes himself out of those periods by writing acute, trenchant folk-rock songs in the tradition of Woody Guthrie, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello and Bob Dylan. But he compares his efforts to those of a craftsman constructing a simple, wooden box with “a nice hinge.”
“As a record maker, I want it to be like a box,” he said. “I want to build a good, solid box that stands alone by itself as a box and doesn’t need me to come along and explain it. Or doesn’t need me to come along and build you another box right in front of you.”
[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on March 26, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]
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