Ani DiFranco at Beacon Theater 11/22/03

 

Aquarian Weekly 12/10/03

CHANGLING IN REPOSE
Ani DiFranco / Beacon Theater 11/22/03

New York, New York

Ani in ReposeInconspicuously decked out in soothing earth tones, sans overt stage make-up or multi-colored locks, and eschewing her trademark platform shoes for modest flats, the 33-year-old, Ani Difranco cut a mature and mellowed figure as she deftly patrolled the vast stage of the Beacon Theater in a stirring solo performance. But that kind of labeling is too obvious, and wholly capricious in the wake of DiFranco’s ever-present apoplectic gyrations and inspired vocal dynamics that have made her one of modern folk music’s most passionate creatures for over a decade.

However, there was definitely something different on this night. Missing were the chuckling anecdotes from the road or the obligatory brash political statements that have peppered her most memorable performances these past years. In its stead was a performer of impeccable, almost arresting control, polished and musically demure, reflecting the path of her recent musical forays into jazz voicing and extended poetic musings.

Included was a new poem DiFranco pulled from her pants pocket and read with a humble throat-clearing smirk. Each ensuing line revealed a tortured, haunting manifestation of a woman coming to age in a furious world of rampant hypocrisy.

DiFranco’s voice, a symphony of range and emotion, was as finely tuned as I have ever heard it (over a dozen performances with and without a band) including the historic Carnegie Hall solo shows of 2001 and 2002. This led to mesmerizing versions of her most compelling songs, “Swan Dive”, “Your Next Bold Move”, “Reckoning”, “Little Plastic Castles”, the infectious, “Evolve”, and the probingly reflective, “Serpentine”. All were unfurled before the wildly receptive audience as a confession, a revelation or sorts; serious, humorous, dangerous and silly, and not one with a shred of fanfare.

The more recent numbers were interspersed with the occasional fan-favorite like the rhythmically playful, “Shameless”, which came with a humble preamble from DiFranco, as if apologizing for it having been written by an echo of the woman presently dipping into her grab bag of memories. But the evening’s treat was the premier of newer material that better observed the finer points of the artist’s demeanor; introspective and plaintive, yet unerringly defiant.

Receiving an advanced copy of Educated Guess, DiFranco’s latest completely solo effort, (due out this January) brought into focus the show’s more darkened portals. Fueled by siren odes such as “Origami” and “Bubble” packed with gripping melancholia like “I know men are delicate origami creatures, who need women to unfold them when they cry / But I’m tired of being your savior, and I’m tired of telling you why” and “I hated to pop the bubble of me and you / But it only held enough oxygen for a trip or two” further illustrates DiFranco’s in-your-face ethos.

Juxtaposed with the opening line from the wincing, “Rain Check”, “As dolls go I am broken” or a stanza from the charmingly dissonant, “Swim”, “I let you surround me, I let you drown me out with your din /And then I learned how to swim” is the fiery hope of DiFranco’s most personally and politically challenging poems, “The True Story of What Was” and “Grand Canyon”. In the former she whispers, “Oh to dream just for a moment of the picture outside the frame” and in the latter she swells, “I love my country, by which I mean I am indebted joyfully to all the people throughout its history who have fought the government to make right.”

The meditative evening concluded with the rarity of hearing the mature folk gal’s distinctive rendition of “Both Hands”, ironically the first song on her first record. Pulled out for the final encore, it served as the perfect epilogue to an enviable baring of her most delicate intimacies.

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Dan Bern at Bottom Line

 

East Coast Rocker 10/29/03

AN EVENING WITH DAN BERN THE BOTTOM LINE 10/18/03

New York City

Dan BernIn the late night hours on an empty stage on the campus of William Paterson College where he had just finished a haphazardly grueling but unerringly honest performance, Dan Bern described his current one month, twenty-two city solo tour in baseball terms. The admitted frenzied fan of the game likened the uneven gig to that of a pitcher with a formidable arsenal of pitches, but no real consistent snap on the curve or zip on the fastball. “There were nights when I used to feel like Sandy Koufax,” Bern said, slumped on his amp about to load out and head for NYC with the waning confidence of a man at the crossroads of a burgeoning career. “And some nights I feel like Pedro just trying to get out of the 8th.”

After his searing, balls-to-the-wall performance on the legendary stage at the Bottom Line on West 4th street the following night, his odd journey from the embattled Red Sox hurler to the best lefty the game has ever seen had come full circle.

Bern serenaded and spat, chugged and crooned, sliced and diced his way through a nearly two hour set of his best material, charming and probing, questioning and joking with the sold out crowd like a man on the hill with a nasty slider and a wicked splitter.

“On a solo tour there is nothing to lean on, no band to meld into when things are not going your way,” Bern noted, describing his constant fight to “stay in the song” as the key to the honesty of any worthwhile performance.

Dressed in baggy shorts and a ragged sweat shirt, hair cropped close to his scalp, Bern buried himself deep inside such sterling numbers as the haunting, “I Need You” and the rousing, “Alaska Highway”, seducing the crowd with his fan-favorite “Estelle” and culling huge laughs with his ode to paradoxical romance, “Johnny Cash and Anais Nin”.

But the highlights of the evening came when the prolific song-smith unveiled two new satirical numbers, “The President’s Song”, a winding lyrical masterpiece worthy of H.L Mencken on blotter acid and the infectious, “Bush Must Be Defeated”, both of which were blatant jabs at the current administration with political solutions both varied and bizarre, if not wildly entertaining.

Standing in the naked spotlight with guitar slung over his shoulder in defiance of age or apathy or even bad pitches is where Dan Bern was meant to roam. His songs, like his performances, and his late night rants about songs and performances are what make music and art worth fighting for in the first place.

And for a couple of hours in the most famous theater for rock music in Greenwich Village, Dan Bern pitched himself a perfect game.

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The Second Dan Bern Interview

10/17/03

Dan Bern InterviewUnedited Transcript Conducted on stage after the show at the Shea Auditorium For The Arts on the William Paterson College Campus – 10/17/03

Dan Bernjames campion: You mentioned to me yesterday that you were going through some doubts about your career and your feelings about continuing to tour and your songwriting. Do you want to start with that?

dan bern: Yeah, well you saw me out there tonight, I don’t know. I mean, on some nights I can come out and play “Hannibal” or “Black Tornado” and just storm…storm the stage, and I can still do it. Then, like tonight there is this pause, and all of a sudden it becomes “here we are” and it’s real and suddenly I’m not storming anymore and it gets scary. A lot of times its just really great and spontaneous, but right now on this solo thing it’s just plain scary. More than any time in a long time. And maybe I’ve felt that way for awhile, but on the last tour, when you and I spoke, I was with the band and I could lean on…

jc: …and now there’s no net.

db: Yeah, but I don’t need a net. I don’t want a net.

jc: I don’t know, tonight’s performance felt exciting to me. Watching you up there tonight felt like Russian roulette.

db: That’s a good analogy right there.

jc: Sitting in the audience, I felt as though anything could go tonight. You were totally in the moment. There didn’t seem to be any pretensions or fabrication to your performance. It was sloppy and introspective and more real than anything I’ve seen in some time.

db: I don’t know why I’m fighting it so much. In the past, if anyone would say to me it’s too loose, it’s disjointed, I’d tell them it’s real, it’s what it is, it’s where I’m at. But I’m not as confident now.

jc: Really? It would seem a show wherein you take the time to talk to the audience and joke about your guitar being out of tune and talk baseball and chat about songs would be scarier than just going up there and banging out the tunes, bowing, and heading home. I think tonight you broke the fourth wall. You didn’t appear to need to put on the airs of the performer. It didn’t look at all like a guy grabbing for straws. You seemed very comfortable to me.

db: I don’t know, man. I don’t know.

jc: You reminded me tonight of something that might have gone down in the Village before the whole glossy folk movement took place in the mid-to-late 60s, like that Christopher Guest movie.

db: (laughs) “A Mighty Wind”.

“I want to talk about how to begin again. And I know a song like that, something meaningful to me outside all of this, is why I do this, why I’m out on the road doing this solo thing in the first place.”

jc: (laughs) That was so hilarious; the utter pretension of the Baby Boomer pop culture manipulation exposed.

db: The Eugene Levy character in that, tell me that’s not Joseph Lieberman. (does Levy impression of monotone mumbling) Is that not Lieberman?

jc: (laughs) I thought the movie perfectly took on the self-absorbed nature of that phony Madison Avenue sheen of folk music in the late 60s. I’m currently reading a book about the American Bohemian movement of New York in the teens, and these people were the real deal, man. The Beats and Dylan and that whole movement that seemed so real to me, when I was learning about it, was simply an offshoot of that. You might say they were even a ripping off the realism of pure radicals like Max Eastman and Emma Goldman. I thought you brought some of that realism back to the performance tonight. So if it was born of insecurity, fine. But you must feel a responsibility to bring your work back to that sense of realism, of something less fashionable, to have something to say with your songs.

db: But I feel like I’m running into walls. I feel like I’ve reached a plateau and I don’t know how to push it further. And I think I’m feeling really discouraged. Kind of like, “What’s the point?” I mean as much as I’m using this tour to sing “The President’s Song” and present my vision for all that, I want to talk about how to begin again. And I know a song like that, something meaningful to me, outside all of this, is why I do this, why I’m out on the road doing this solo thing in the first place. I’m inspired by the sensibilities of expressing, and that always seemed connected to going out and playing the guitar and singing the songs. But…(sighs)

jc: I’m reminded of one of your songs that speaks to that, your first impressions of playing the guitar, performing alone with just you and the instrument, something about you once feeling like a Mexican gunslinger and now it’s all homogenized?

db: (recites) “I used to feel like a Mexican Bandit when I picked up my guitar, and now it’s nuclear winter and I gotta pay for a new car.” That’s “Fly Away”. Yeah, when it feels like down and dirty, dangerous and useful and, you know, subversive in the best way, spreading ideas in the best way. (Man interrupts and hands Dan a cup of beer.) Is this tea?

jc: My God, you’re drinking beer on a dry campus. You’re a rebel. That’s what I’m talking about, damn it. Real subversion, true revolutionary shit. Hey, you should do that damn song again, “True Revolutionaries”. That is a great fucking folk song. Rip that one out and play it with new lyrics.

Dan Berndb: I did want to rewrite it. I knew I had to, but I never got around to it. That’s why I’m not playing it, because it’s got the old lyrics, it’s useless.

jc: I don’t know, I think Timothy McVeigh and Pee Wee Herman are still relevant.

db: (smiles) Right.

jc: I know we’ve talked about your brief stint at the L.A. Times before, but did that give you the bug to write in another medium, as opposed to verse?

db: Well, I’ve always had the bug. Really, in the last year I’ve been working on this novel more than any songs. And when this tour came up I realized, shit I don’t have anything new to go on tour with!

jc: We’ve also broached the novel before. Do you want to talk about it now?

db: Sure, yeah.

jc: So what is the theme?

db: Well, I’m a scientist in the book. I go out on the road and I do lectures with illustrations and I have this scientific team that travels together; one guy’s an atom smasher, another is a chemical washer and one guy makes noxious smells. It’s much like my life on the road, but with complete carte blanche, no necessity to it, a complete freedom. I think it’s kept me alive.

jc: The book?

db: Yeah.

jc: So it’s like your Holy Grail?

db: Yes, I would say so.

jc: So, as the narrator, and I assume it’s in the first person, as the science lecturer, are you independently wealthy?

“Of course, I’m as big a believer in song as anyone. I’ve gone to great lengths to live my life by it. I believe in song in its primal shape. It’s as primal and as necessary to human beings as dancing, almost as breathing.”

db: That’s how I make my money. It’s just like this touring, but its science. It’s done within the scientific community.

jc: Is that a metaphor for something?

db: It’s not really a metaphor; it’s in place of the music, really. Instead of a concert, I’m out giving lectures.

jc: So, let me be psychoanalytical. Are you saying, in essence, going out and playing music is a science?

db: I’m not saying that. (laughs) It’s just a story.

jc: (laughs) I’m trying to get in deeper. There’s always something behind the story, the subtext, symbolism. Why do you feel the need to write about science? Are you fascinated by science? Do you feel people are easily duped by science? That it’s sort of a show? Do you have a respect for the subject?

db: Yeah.

jc: Do you see yourself in another life being a scientist, so you are using the prose to playact, to unfurl a part of you that lies dormant, what?

db: Maybe. (smiles)

jc: (laughs) Well, how deep have you delved into this book? Does it have plot, arcs, or characters that come in and out? Does it have intrigue?

db: Yeah, it has characters that come in and out and has characters that stay around, but beyond that…

jc: You don’t want to tell me.

db: (smiles) You’ll read it. You read it and tell me.

jc: I thought you were going to bring me some stuff tonight.

db: I can’t. I can’t. Not yet. If there is one thing I’ve learned from various projects, it is you cannot rush these things, as much as you want to. Let it breathe. It will give you the timetable. I’ve made records that I’ve done that with and I’ve made records hurried, and I always feel better about the former.

jc: You know the old stories about Dylan just running into the studio with no charts or rehearsals for the musicians and plugging in and shouting “One, two, three..” and crashing into recordings. Critics argue that had he rehearsed the damn things, all those albums, especially the early ones, could have been even greater. But that’s the way he did it, so how can you argue with the results there?

Dan Berndb: True.

jc: “New American Language” is my favorite record of yours. How long did that take to make?

db: It took the longest time. Over a year.

jc: Why?

db: It needed it; because I started with not knowing what to do with it and worked my way through it. Wrote songs as I went, redid things, left it, came back, left it, came back. It’s my favorite too, because of that. I was in control of the process enough to make the process be the thinker, let it tell me when it was finished.

jc: When you get through this novel of yours, when you finally get on top of it, do you think this will infuse more into your writing music? I mean, don’t you feel that you’ve somehow cheated your muse by chasing after the prose at the expense of the songwriting, because I always think that there is only so much time you can be inspired to write in a certain genre, that the window of opportunity closes eventually on your chosen artistic endeavors.

db: Well, if anything it’s the other way around. Sometimes when I’m on tour I get new ideas for the book. You know, lately on tour the last year and a half, that’s what the muse has been for. I mean, when I need to write a song, I write it. Like ‘The President’s Song.” I must write this song. I know what the song is and it must come out. And I can do it. It was the same thing for the other ones. If I’m not writing a song a day, I’m okay with it.

jc: How many songs have you written? Ballpark.

db: Fifteen Hundred.

jc: What’s your favorite song?

db: That I’ve written?

jc: Yeah, it’s like me and the wife have the “Favorite Movie of All-Time Question”. You can’t think about it. I know all songwriters refer to their songs as children and you can’t have a favorite. But if I asked you what your favorite movie of all time was right now, you can’t think about it, just answer.

db: “Strangers In Paradise”.

jc: There you go.

“I believe in what I’m saying and doing in the “President’s Song.” It’s a real expression of emotions, and I’m not going through the paces with that. And if nothing ever changes in this world, I know I did my little part. I tried. So, in the end, if I’m going to write songs or write whatever, then that becomes the central focus, and all the love songs can go hang.”

db: My favorite song? I’m always going to weigh toward the most recent. My favorite song is “The President’s Song”. Whatever I’m doing, and whenever I’m playing and riffing, that’s my favorite.

jc: So, when you performed that song tonight, you’re still formulating it with each show?

db: No, it’s written, but there’s a lot of finding…there’s leeway in it. There’s no one-way of doing it yet. It hasn’t locked in. I haven’t even done it twenty times yet. That’s why I like it. It’s not locked in yet.

jc: You really nailed a song tonight called “Drifting Along”. Is that one new?

db: Yeah.

jc: It’s a gorgeous song, really. And it reminded me of your mood yesterday on the phone with you saying that you weren’t sure where you were at, what it’s all for. And that’s a very unique talent to be able to put those emotions that took a longer conversation yesterday to impart into a three-minute song with a nice melody and express it on stage to hundreds of people. It’s unique to all songwriters, but in your style of writing, it speaks to me. I’ll play your stuff to many different people and get all kinds of reactions, but for me, you’re still getting through your emotions in a song like that.

db: Thanks, man, but it’s that intangible thing about music. There’s so much about the “style” people like. (groans) I mean, you’ve already lost ’em with style. Then you get into the whole dated thing with pop music or folk music; like Mozart is forever, but anything related to pop music is like looking at a yearbook picture and you’ve got flairs on and a pookah-shell necklace.

jc: Is that why when you tried to play “Estelle” from your first record tonight, you stopped at the beginning?

db: Nah, I just forgot it. (laughs) If I don’t keep it up, I lose it. I’ll get it back, but it wasn’t happening tonight.

jc: But don’t you think there is some validity to the point that a good song is a good song, the melody, the lyric is timeless, and that’s it. It doesn’t matter what style or genre. A good song is a good song. I can’t get that damn song of yours from the “World Cup” record, “Alright Kind of A Girl” out of my head. I sing it everyday when my mind wanders. I find myself singing it, but not like a cola jingle, the melody makes me feel great, brightens my mood. It’s a simple song, but it’s a beautiful melody. Don’t you think there’s some lasting point to that?

db: Of course, I’m as big a believer in song as anyone. I’ve gone to great lengths to live my life by it. I believe in song in its primal shape. It’s as primal and as necessary to human beings as dancing, almost as breathing. It is breathing, and it’s in and of itself almost devoid of what the song is about. Song is based on necessity; but I don’t know, I almost feel as if it’s a crutch for me now. I’ve been leaning on song for so long now, putting every emotion, every writing thing into song, I wonder, can I…can I…can I do it without song? Can I get the benefit of expressing emotions without immediately losing it in the style of the music?

jc: So you take the song out of the equation…

db: …and remove the challenge of not having chords, a refrain or a chorus.

jc: But that’s what great about the folk style, so to speak. You don’t have a rigid pop music structure there. You can have a talking blues, of which you have many, and get your point across without having to have much else. So I guess you have to look at What is next? What am I going to do as the artist here, as the writer here; Am I going to go balls-to-the-wall and express all emotions with any genre because it’s now or never and what the hell am I saving it for?

db: You know I had all of six weeks off to sit around and think about things, deliver a batch of new songs, so I can barely comment about what I want to do. I fucking wish I knew. I wish I had that strong sense of purpose. And I think its not so much necessary, but downright dangerous touring without that. I just feel like I’m stumbling around. And that’s not the case with the new songs. They’re easy to do, because, in there, I know what I’m doing with them. I believe in what I’m saying and doing in the “President’s Song.” It’s a real expression of emotions, and I’m not going through the paces with that. And if nothing ever changes in this world, I know I did my little part. I tried. So, in the end, if I’m going to write songs or write whatever, then that becomes the central focus, and all the love songs can go hang. But those seem important too. I don’t know. It all seemed to get old so fast, and it always seemed for me to be important to connect somehow and not go through the motions.

jc: So what you’re saying is that you can branch out to many emotional outlets, but in the end, you are a songwriter. That is what they’ll put on your gravestone, in your obituary, right? So do you want to be known primarily for that, because you paint, you draw, you have cartoons on your web site, you’re working on this book, but we’re talking right now, people might be reading this right now, because you’re a songwriter.

db: I don’t know if that’s necessarily true. I think we could be talking because we’re writers. I mean, right now I feel I’ll ultimately be more known for the books. Think about it. Even your favorite record – your favorite record – six months later you’re not listening to it anymore. Ten years later you don’t even have it. Fifteen years later you can’t even find the damn thing anywhere. But a book like Catcher in the Rye is fucking timeless. Of course there’s books that don’t last, but if you want to do something and really want it to last, write a fucking book. I guess that’s my hope to write something lasting. Sure my ego needs to write a great song and be part of that folk chain and pass it down to the next generation, but it’s getting harder and harder to envision that. But maybe it’s a phase. Even if it’s a phase, it may be a three-year phase, but I’m at this crossroads right now and I’m thinking about how best to express myself not only for myself, because it might mean something to those people who spend the time and the money and come out to see me play and listen to the songs. For them, I have to stay in the song. I have to be in the song. I have to be somewhere that matters to me, otherwise I’ll cheat the whole system, the audience and myself, and no one is the wiser.

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Ani DiFranco In Bloom

Aquarian Weekly 5/12/03 REALITY CHECK

ANI DIFRANCO IN BLOOM
A Candid Discussion on Political Change, Gay Marriage, Jesus, and Personal Exorcism With Buffalo’s Finest

Ani DiFrancohow can one talk on the role of politics in art when art is activism and anyway both are just a lifelong light shining through a swinging prism

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Since our last published discussion two springs ago, my favorite folk gal has been through some dark times and personal reflection, while also managing to shoulder more social causes than any normal musical performer. Ani Difranco puts her passion where her music and soul reside, and does so under the microscope of the liberated and angry (she hates that) young woman artist thing. Her projects and efforts to restore and preserve her hometown in Buffalo, her overt national political endeavors and women’s rights engagements are inexhaustible, and to this grouchy cynic, enviable. Somehow she always finds her way into a studio and onto stages to perform her ass off.

On the heels of her latest record, the probingly intense, “Educated Guess” and a new one-woman tour hitting Carnegie Hall on 5/15, Ms. Difranco decided to open up in her only east coast interview this spring.

This is what transpires when two diminutive, big-mouthed Virgo troublemakers get together.

james campion: The last time we did this you had a very positive view of grass roots politics and how it can still engender change. So, after two more years of the present administration, another war in Iraq, the Patriot Act, and everything else that’s happened since the spring of 2002, I wonder what your mood is today toward the American political scene.

Ani DiFranco: I’m still very optimistic for the potential of grass roots change. I still see and feel it out there. It’s what allows me to get up in the morning, the immense possibility that exists all around us right now. I was hanging out with my friend Dennis Kucinich the other night, and he’s so energetic and so brilliant and so positive. At one point he runs across the room and slams his hands against the wall and says, “Some people see a wall here, but in between each one of these molecules there’s a whole other reality! It’s something we can’t see or what we can see if we collectively envision it. If we draw it out. There’s another reality existing around us right now.” So we admitted that we don’t need to change the world. The world is changing around us. We just need to direct that change. And our power to direct it is immense once we use it.

jc: I was going to ask you about Kucinich and exactly how he represents the political side of your worldview. You backed his run during the democratic primary. Of course, Kerry is going to represent the party now, but certainly others like Kucinich and Howard Dean have given voice to the anti-war movement and other liberal agendas. Having said that I know you supported the last Ralph Nader campaign in 2000. I gave up on Ralph in ’96, myself. So I must ask where you stand on Kerry, and will you throw your considerable influence to Nader in the upcoming election?

“We don’t need to change the world. The world is changing around us. We just need to direct that change. And our power to direct it is immense once we use it.”

AD: (chuckling sarcastically) Ahhhh, no. My support four years ago for Nader was very qualified. I showed up for one of his rallies in New York with a press release in my little paw that said I support voting for him in the done-deal states, but in the swing states I felt very strongly about the priority being voting against Bush.

jc: No kidding.

AD: Yeah, that was my scene at the time. Somewhere along the way during those primaries somebody asked me, “Who do you think is the best candidate?” And I said, “Well…Nader. He’s got his head screwed tightest onto his shoulders. He has the best ideas.” So he sort of used that as an endorsement.

jc: So he never officially solicited your endorsement.

AD: Ralph called me up, personally, and said, “You know every time I say your name up on stage at a rally I get the biggest response.” He said, ” You gotta come out, Ani! You gotta come out!” And I told him, “Ralph, this is a very complicated situation.” But I was very impressed with the fact that he still wanted me to participate in the rally in New York with my qualified support. I even stood there at the press conference and said that I believe voting with my conscience means the lesser of two evils, because my conscience includes people less fortunate and more affected by these minute distinctions of corporate whores like Gore or Bush. Then, of course, along with a number of other people I was disappointed at the way Nader played that out, and the way he seems to be repeating that scenario now. Meanwhile, Dennis is still in the race.

jc: I’m glad you mentioned it, otherwise…

AD: Yeah, you’d never know. Of course, mums the word in the media. But he’s still in the race. And Dennis is doing exactly what I would hope Nader would eventually do, which is to stay in there through the primaries to push the debate as long as he can. The point being to show that the progressive population of America is here, that we count, that we matter. That we’re powerful, and that the Democratic Party must distinguish itself once again, if they want to survive, not to mention other more meaningful reasons. So Dennis plans to stay in the primaries, and then he’ll lend his support to Kerry in the general election.

My plan, personally, is to continue working with my friend, Dennis in whatever capacity we can invent, because he is a comrade, because he is a like-minded, wonderful, inspiring person to me. We’re bouncing around a few ideas that in the fall we’d do a swing-state tour. Doing voter registration. Creating shows that are part political rally, part musical party with a real eye toward the upcoming election, trying to get young people motivated and involved. Although it does seem that America is pretty darned inspired to get involved at this point, I would say, which is a relief.

Ani DiFrancojc: As you play across the country, what kind of passion do young people have for voting? That’s always been the concern since ’72; 18, 19, 20 year-old kids get motivated to go to rallies and contribute over the Internet, but as we witnessed with the doomed Dean campaign, will they actually come out and cast a vote?

AD: I really wouldn’t know. I stand on stage and I play guitar and I sing and talk to people, but I don’t know if they go out and vote. From what I hear, from the statistics that seem to be thrown about in this country people are not voting, especially young people, and it’s very understandable, the mass disillusionment with what is obviously a farce.

jc: The “fixed game” thing again.

AD: Yes, but ironically, it is the reinvestment in the belief in government that is going to get us out of this mess. It’s funny, even my friend Utah Phillips, who’s a card carrying anarchist – how’s that for an oxymoron – says he’s fixin’ to go register and vote this time. His philosophy is his body is his ballot and he votes with it every day, and I have a lot of respect for the way he approaches it. But for the rest of us, voting is a very important contribution and the first step to involvement and participation. While Utah talks about voting as assigning responsibility for governance to others, I think of it as securing institutional support for the good work of people, for the work that we are doing, that we continue to do, that we must do. Without people on the inside, without support of these institutions that exist whether or not we participate in staffing them or not, we can’t do the work. Our hands are tied. If we’re shipped off to a desert to die, or if we’re locked up for cannabis possession for untold amount of years, or etc, etc., we cannot live and grow as a people. So, it was heartening to hear Utah say he may step out of his anarchist shoes for a second and go and pull a level because it’s that fucking desperate.

I can only hope that young people can rise above the mind control of the media, which says consume, consume, consume and deny and forget your power as a citizen, and that we will rediscover it on our own through the encouragement and inspiration of each other.

jc: Speaking of the system, and the absurdities within, the last time we spoke we talked about what you called the “defacto economic segregation” which exists in this country, and of which you touch upon in your song, “Subdivision”. I equate that to the “cultural segregation” in this gay marriage issue. I wrote in a recent column that if you take out the frightened-by-the-unknown aspect of it, if you remove the vague moralities of it, and if you expunge God from it, the argument makes about as much legal sense as forcing citizens to sit in the back of the bus or women being denied the right to vote.

“I can only hope that young people can rise above the mind control of the media, which says consume, consume, consume and deny and forget your power as a citizen, and that we will rediscover it on our own through the encouragement and inspiration of each other.”

AD: I think you’ve got your finger right on the epicenter of the problem when you said take the moral part out of it. That’s the huge part of this debate. People are confusing God and religious customs and sanctions with laws. We are completely muddling this issue. I think that the word marriage should be dropped from that quest altogether, and we should all have civil unions in terms of the state involvement, because that’s what it is, legal benefits for partners. Gay or straight, you should have hospital rights or will rights. That’s all about civil union. We should make that across the board for all couples, and that’s as far as the law should go, providing legal rights for couples.

Now in terms of marriages and whether its Adam and Eve or Adam and Steve, or whether this is going to be culturally acceptable, that is fought out in the churches, in the communities, but it has nothing to do with the government’s role. Whether we want to accept it as a society it should be left out of the government’s responsibility to provide equal rights for people.

Actually my friend, Dennis helped my thoughts grow a bit on women’s right to choose for instance. Dennis is a Catholic boy from Ohio, grew up pro life and thinking abortion is wrong, and then he switched his position as a politician because he began talking to women, and listening to women, and realizing that unless an individual woman can control her own body she is not free. To not own your own body means you are a slave. He began to see it as a civil right that applies only to women, and conceive of it that way, and the government’s involvement in that matter should only be on that level in terms of preserving women’s freedom through guaranteeing this civil right. Whether or not it’s morally acceptable or reprehensible, that’s for the churches, for the people, for individuals to work out for themselves. It’s not for the government. The government should not legislate morality on that level.

jc: Of course this has always been my beef with the FCC.

AD: Yeah, and it’s just about clarifying government’s role in providing these civil rights. We have freedom of speech. The government’s job is to preserve that. What we say, whether its right or wrong, or good or bad, that’s for people to work out amongst themselves, and for society to put pressure on people that say bad things, but their right to say it must be guaranteed by the government, and the government’s job ends there.

jc: Did you have a chance to see “The Passion Of The Christ”?

AD: No. Not interested in the least.

jc: The reason I bring it up is I was quite hard on it because I spent some 12 years researching and writing a book on the search for the historical Jesus, and we’ve discussed the separation of the revolutionary historical figure versus the Christ figure before…

AD: Right.

jc: Now, using your analogy of Kucinich’s journey in reassessing the Pro-Choice issue, mine was the opposite. I’m always going on and on about defending the artists’ right to free expression, but yet I not only took offense to Gibson’s view of Jesus of Nazareth as a sacrificial vessel of a patriarchal God, but the method with which he magnified the same old Catholic dogma. I called Gibson a propagandist, yet I have always known intellectually that all art in one way or the other is the expression of a viewpoint in propagandist terms. Your songs. My writing. But my emotions seemed to swing me into a personal attack on the artist.

AD: Sure, but I can understand that. I didn’t see the film, but from what I understand of the Bible and the story of Jesus and what we have carried down culturally through the ages, it’s a multifaceted and life-affirming story, and there’s a little moment in there when he gets taken down. He’s taken down by the power structure. It’s a warning to those of us who want to make change. It’s a lesson there too. But to make a whole film on that moment…

jc: …or a 2,000 year-old religion for that matter.

Ani DiFrancoAD: Fuckin’ yeah! To boil it down to the moment of defeat and gory violence, I mean, even the crucifix as a symbol for him is just fundamentally morbid, bizarre, and wrong-headed. To show the man in his moment of defeat, when he was so full of life, when he gave people life, when he inspired people to freedom. To use that to represent his meaning I think is bizarre, and to construct a movie all around this sort of violent, unfortunate death? I would think that anyone with a real passion for that man and his teachings would make a movie about his life, not his death. I have no interest in gratuitous violence in movies to begin with, let alone of a religious nature. (laughs)

jc: This is why you’re one of my favorite people.

AD: (laughs)

jc: No, really, because I’ve spent all of my adult life trying to defuse this harmful myth, which to me shows a complete lack of respect regarding the assassination of someone who endeavored to demonstrate the divine spark of humanity, and then to prop it up as some sort of victory? I can’t accept it, and never could, even as a ten year-old Catholic-schooled boy.

AD: If we keep staring at that cross, at that moment of defeat, what are we supposed to feel? We’re supposed to feel hopeless, we’re supposed to feel powerless, we’re supposed to feel pity or remorse? What is that to keep carrying through the ages?

jc: Well, the most important thing you’re supposed to feel is guilt.

AD: Guilt! Oh, God! I forgot the guilt! (laughs)

jc: (laughs) That’s the key.

AD: I should have mentioned that one first.

jc: I’d like to talk about the new record, so this is the butt kissing part of the interview.

AD: Ah! (laughs) Woo! Hoo!

jc: I view “Educated Guess” as your “Blood On The Tracks”. I don’t know how much you respect that record, but I’m of the opinion that Dylan’s best work was, and still is the ultimate musical statement on the despair of loneliness and the loss of love. Coming from a writer’s perspective, the lyrics on “Educated Guess” achieves that level. That record, for me, could not have come any closer to the bone. So I’m wondering where you have to go, what you have to endure to achieve it?

I’ve not been alone for many years and I was emotionally unhealthy with a lack of solitude and time for reflection, so this record represents a journey back to myself, the self that began writing songs and playing them solo and making little records on her own.”

AD: Well, you know, I have not said this yet while talking about the record, but I’ll say it to you. It was an absolute exorcism for me. And because of that it’s my favorite record that I’ve made. I guess me being more of a Springsteen fan than a Dylan fan, I think of it as my “Nebraska”. You know, the record I made in my bedroom, cause I had to…alone. And the aloneness of it was like medicine for me. I’ve not been alone for many years and I was emotionally unhealthy with a lack of solitude and time for reflection, so this record represents a journey back to myself, the self that began writing songs and playing them solo and making little records on her own. Except, hence the title, I am slightly older, and hopefully, slightly wiser now.

jc: Well, if there’s better line than, “As dolls go, I am broken” I don’t know if I’ve seen it.

AD: (laughs)

jc: You read a particularly striking poem when you played at the Beacon here in New York back in November. You pulled it from your pants pocket. I haven’t heard it anywhere since. Is it going to end up on a record?

AD: Yeah, yeah. Next record.

jc: Oh, great.

AD: (recites) “33 years-old and not once do you come home to find a man in your bedroom that is a man you don’t know.” That one?

jc: Yes.

AD: I actually have a plan for my next record. I’m going in the opposite direction of “Educated Guess”, now that I’ve found myself again in this pile of my life. I called up my friend Joe Henry, a beautiful songwriter, and a snappy dresser and a creative, energetic man. I invited him to share the stage with me month’s back, and we really resonated. Every night we’d sit around after the shows and talk, and we discovered we have a lot of the same sensibilities and energy when it comes to making records. So I began to envision my next record. I called him up with two songs! I had two songs and I called him up and asked, “You wanna co-produce my next record?” and he said yes. Then I just began furiously writing. I wrote like eight songs in just a few weeks. So not only is it going to be a completely new environment for me to have a co-producer, to be working with new musicians, it’s also new for me to approach a record with my eye on the prize from the beginning. I’m writing for the project, with the idea of the destination in mind, as opposed to just writing songs and sort of looking at the collection later in the game and beginning to conceive of what the record is. I’m actually conceiving of it from the onset, which is a new process for me. It’s been really fascinating for me.

jc: Sounds like it. Can we expect to hear those songs at the upcoming Carnegie Hall show?

AD: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah, I’m playing mostly those songs now.

jc: How’s Buffalo?

AD: Well, I hear…well, I don’t know. I ain’t been there in awhile. I’ve been on the lovely west coast. I imagine my garden will be awake when I get home. Can’t wait.

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A Discussion with Dan Bern – Part II

Aquarian Weekly 4/30/03 REALITY CHECK

TALKIN’ DAN BERN MUSE – Part II An Interview with Singer/Songwriter, Dan Bern conducted over the phone lines on the road from Pittsburgh to Philly from The Desk at Fort Vernon. 3/26/03

jc:. I’d like to talk about musical style for a moment. Since I’m a fan of Dylan and Woody Guthrie, I noticed Guthrie in your song “Jail” and an obvious homage to Dylan in “Talkin’ Al Kida Blues”. Also, Dan Bernthe first song on the new “Fleeting Days” record called “Baby Bye Bye” is a great stab at Springsteen. As all artists, do you use other voices to create your own sound?

DB: I suppose. Some things are probably closer in style to those tunes than other stuff. If people hear it, it’s probably there. Those are songwriters I’ve definitely listened to and absorbed and so it probably comes out that way.

jc: As you become more and more ingratiated into the culture of celebrity, less than some certainly, but still, do you feel it’s harder to write songs as an observer? Ken Kesey once said that fame for a writer is the death of observation, because the more you become part of the landscape, it’s more difficult to write about it.

DB: Maybe I would feel that way if I were more famous. I’ve never been on Conan. I’ve never been on the cover of any major magazine. I still feel like I’m the guy outside looking in. I suppose I’ll always feel that way, you know, the outsider.

jc: You reference icons of culture more than anyone I’ve heard, from Jesus to Henry Miller to Monica Seles to Leonardo DeCaprio to Hitler. You can tell from listening to your songs you’re aware of so much of your surroundings from a cultural sense.

DB: I don’t know. I think I’m able to separate it. It’s not like the people I’m writing about know me or hear the songs. Maybe they do, but I’m not aware of it. So, it keeps a distance.

jc: How do you see the music business from your end as the outsider? Do you experience the conglomerate, corporate side of the business or do you avoid that as well?

DB: I don’t have much to do with that. From my standpoint it’s a lot of hard work and I don’t get a lot of that magical thing, throwing around a lot of money or having my picture up on a billboard. Usually I’m pissed off because I get to a gig and nobody put our posters up. That’s kind of the world I’m dealing with.

jc: It’s still grass for you.

“It’s a personal struggle that I have, really. I’ve had it my whole life; this wish and desire to right wrongs of the past. So when I’m talking, when the narrator is talking, I’m expressing that wish. I’m confronting that desire. And I think when God is talking; I’m sort of getting the answer.”

DB: It’s more grass roots now than when I first started making records. I was with Sony for a couple of records. They didn’t spend money wisely. I don’t think they quite knew what to do with me. Every once in awhile they’d throw a bunch of money at something and you’d get the feeling that something might happen, but for the last several years it’s really been about making good records and to keep writing the songs and keep being relevant to myself and the audience and not go completely broke doing it.

jc: Amen to that. Do you prefer playing with a band, or is there a place for you to perform your songs by yourself.

DB: Oh yeah, I think that is something I will always use. This fall I’m going to go out for a couple of months by myself. I have more time when I do that. I have space. I write more when I’m by myself on the road, and the pallet, the song bag is bigger when I’m by myself. I can play anything I can remember. Even though this band has a pretty wide array of songs from my bag, and it’s widening, there’s a lot of places we can go in terms of material. But even with that, there are limits. And with playing by myself there’s just this connection between you and audience that’s a pretty cool thing.

jc: Let me ask you about one specific song that I saw you perform by yourself that I know is a favorite of your fans. When my wife and I saw you do it we looked at each other and knew this guy has something special, and that’s “God Said No”. Is that song Nietzschian? Is it from a theological standpoint? Does the narrator who asks God to send him back and keep Kurt Cobain from suicide or assassinate Hitler or save Jesus from the cross, does he believe he is actually speaking to God, or is it merely a commentary about the linear aspect of life and it’s limitations to live “in the now”?

DB: It’s a personal struggle that I have, really. I’ve had it my whole life; this wish and desire to right wrongs of the past. So when I’m talking, when the narrator is talking, I’m expressing that wish. I’m confronting that desire. And I think when God is talking; I’m sort of getting the answer.

jc: No.

DB: Yeah.

jc: Would you consider yourself a spiritual person?

DB: I think what I consider God is something that other people might consider as nature or existence. That’s what I look to. That’s where I get answers of substance. I think it’s there. Without sounding to hippyish, I think the trees breathe and they give us answers.

jc: Having said that, would you purchase or read a book that paints Jesus of Nazareth as a social revolutionary who was miserably misunderstood and whose teachings and personal sacrifice has been criminally annexed for two thousand years?

DB: Sure.

jc: (laughs) Good, it’s the subject my new book. “Trailing Jesus”. I’ll get you a copy.

DB: (laughs) Yeah, I’d love to read that.

jc: This discussion was actually quite inspirational for me, since I’m going on a promotional tour for the book and I’ll be on the other end of the phone trying to avoid direct answers of theorem in the work, and still give acceptable answers. You’re pretty good at that.

DB: Well, thanks. (chuckles) I’m sure you’re up to the task yourself. You know I’ve always felt willing and able to add my two cents to any like-minded movement that needs a singer, but at the same time I feel like if I speak for myself then I can’t go too wrong.

Read Part I

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Dan Bern at the Bowery Ballroom

 

Aquarian Weekly 4/1/03

DAN BERN AND THE IJBC AT THE BOWERY BALLROOM 3/30/03

New York City

Dan BernDan Bern is one of this generation’s finest song-smiths, mixing a sardonic wit with emotional strains of whimsy, a folksy charm with a pop sensibility mixed liberally with the obligatory dab of fierce rock and roll grit channeled through a balladeer’s touch. His performance is not overstated, choosing to let the tunes tumble out of his five-piece ensemble and achieving the right mixture of acoustic warmth and electric snarl. Bern’s voice, a razor sharp twinge of Dylan meets Costello meets Guthrie meets Richards, chants and cries and croons while he stalks the stage in a manner befitting the piped piper when he knows the check is due.

On this snowy Sunday evening at the historic Bowery Ballroom, his second show in as many nights, Bern is in rare form, chatting with the packed house about such diverse subjects as tennis, war, and doomed love while bobbing and weaving his way through his considerable repertoire, which encompasses a seven-year span of eight records. Fan favorites like the haunting, “God Said No”, the hilariously grinding “Tiger Woods” and the bouncy “Chelsea Hotel” are fused with powerful new material from his latest collection, Fleeting Days, to which he humbly thanks the crowd for listening.

The band, satirically nicknamed the International Jewish Banking Conspiracy, is raw and passionate, not unlike an early snapshot of the Attractions, providing the perfect undercurrent to the immediacy of Bern’s biting lyrics. The highlight of its powers comes with a spirited rendition of the new classic, “Graceland”, wherein the troupe plows through (the other) Elvis’s songbook with precision and humor.

Best known for his moving acoustic shows, some of which will pop up on this lengthy tour of the U.S. and Europe, Bern feeds off the band and allows for an energy that carries the night, a bold and furious romp which tempts the audience to chant and bark and join the composer in his bizarre slants on life and limb.

Bern’s work, both live and recorded, along with his prose, encapsulated in his 2002 effort, World Cup Diary, reminiscent of Charles Bukowski meets a young Henry Miller, is a rising force in the alternative scene that is sadly muted in the usual flash-in-the-pan fit-the-mold music biz. His like and creative voice is one that is refreshingly rare and should be cherished by connoisseurs of true expression.

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Dan Bern Interview

Aquarian Weekly 1/22/03 REALITY CHECK

Dan Bern InterviewUnedited Transcript Conducted over the phone on the road from Pittsburgh to Philly to The Desk at Fort Vernon – 3/26/03

Dan BernDan Bern songs speak to me. That is the power of song, and it is not lost on him. And although he is one of the most prolific composers of this era, his record company chairman Brandon Kessler told me he could release an album a week with all of it, there is an obvious care given to each lyric, each characterization, each wonderfully crafted chord progression. This is because Bern is cut in the mold of old-time songsters, who used the medium to cajole and soothe the listener along with its author. It is as if sharing an experience, and the range of his emotions are wide.

He should have a wider audience, and he’s working on it, touring like a madman – he even recently played his baseball songs at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown – but mainly because Dan Bern is everything right about the craft of songwriting and performing, a troubadour, a poet, a painter and a writer. He shies away from nothing, opening dangerous channels to peer down with him.

The first time I saw him; he blew me away, the honesty and humor right there for everyone to see. No pretensions, no illusions, pure ugliness and beauty set to music. Soon after, his recordings played in the background for the final excruciating days of finishing my last book; no small task since completing a book is like being in some kind of labor/limbo for months. And it was a pleasure to give him a copy after his Bowery Ballroom show mere days after conducting this interview from the road.

It was more of a discussion than interview, as Bern let his slow, infectious drawl pour over the answers with an old country wisdom belying his mid-thirties experience. We started out with a play on his playfully winding song, “Jerusalem”, which happens to be the first one on his first self-titled 1996 record, a song where he pauses to tell the listener that they heard right, he’s announcing that he is the Messiah; a nugget too good to ignore for a wise-ass like me.

jc: Let me start off by asking, are you still the Messiah, or has that changed for you the last couple of years?

Dan Bern: No. (chuckles)

jc: No, it hasn’t changed, or no you’re not the Messiah?

DB: No.

jc: (laughs) The only reason I’m asking is I’m Beelzebub. So I guess you and I have a meeting in the desert sometime soon.

DB: I’m looking forward to it.

jc: All right, good.

DB: Anytime, bring it on.

“I think you have to make the observations, but then, what do you do with them? What are they for? How do they fit in some larger picture?

jc: Do you see yourself less as a folksinger and more as a satirist? Most of your work, specifically “Cure For AIDS” and the “Swastika Song” are in that vein, less serious commentary than satire.

DB: Well, it shifts around. I think it really depends on the song. Actually, those labels – folksinger or satirist – I tend to shy away from them myself, or anything that can put you in a box. Other people do it, but I never found it necessary to do it to myself. This way I can take it from song to song.

jc: Your answer on labels for your voice reminds me of a quote from HL Mencken I used for my first book, “Any man who inflicts the human race with ideas must be prepared to see them misunderstood.” Would you say that your songs are more ideas or observations rather than commentary?

DB: I think you have to make the observations, but then, what do you do with them? What are they for? How do they fit in some larger picture? So I think the observation is part of the work, but then what does it mean? What did you make the observation for?

jc: So would you consider the meaning behind these observations in your songs more from an optimist’s standpoint or pessimist’s? Because now I’m reminded of Lenny Bruce’s comment about waking up in the morning and everything being perfect, and how if that happened, he’d be out of a job.

DB: I certainly have my moments of pessimism, but I think overall just to be out here doing this, being able to write songs in the face of everything else, there’s a hope, a belief in something.

jc: So you’d say writing the songs, even from the pessimist’s side, is something of a catharsis for you and the hope comes from the listener going through the same thing?

DB: I think so. If you’re just looking to depress people, what’s the point? If someone is out there going through terrible times, from losing their house to just fighting traffic, and they spend their hard earned money to go out and hear me play my songs, there has to be something positive there. I know if I’m going to go to a show I’m expecting to be uplifted somehow, gain a kind of inspiration from it. I’d hope that is happening with my performances.

jc: How much of your own personal experience do you put in the songs? In other words, you write predominantly in the first person, so when you use “I” in a song, are you talking directly from your own experience?

DB: Well that shifts too. There’s some reflection of me. It’s the narrator, really. If you look at it like a short story, the “I” is coming from the narrator, not the guy who wrote it. There’s an assumption that within the theme there will be a good deal of a similarity with the author. It works like some kind of a mirror, but you have to give yourself the complete freedom to take the truth as you see it and stretch the hell out of it. (chuckles)

jc: (laughs) All right, but for instance, the touching aspects of a song like “Lithuania” seems extremely biographical, while also speaking to various different avenues of the listener’s personality, even if you didn’t happen to have grandparents who were murdered by Nazis. There is something personal, yet eminently relatable to ghosts of our past that shape us; the relatives we’ve never met, the experiences of escaping our legacy.

DB: Yes, a song like that crosses over. That song is very much, if not completely, autobiographical.

jc: As opposed to something, I like to say satirical, like “The Swastika Song”, which comments on the same issues as “Lithuania”, but in a completely different voice. You are coming to grips with the issues of the past in “Lithuania” and grabbing back a part of history that has been annexed by hate to return it to a positive art form in “The Swastika Song”.

DB: (chuckles) Yeah, it’s like a big mural on the wall. You throw it up there.

jc: Let me ask you, have you heard the phrase “weapons of mass destruction” enough?

DB: I think so.

jc: How about “shock and awe”?

DB: These are great phrases, aren’t they? They’re just demanding to be used for our purposes.

jc: Would you back a military campaign to liberate Baltimore?

DB: Well, I’m really behind the notion of a regime change for Washington. I think Baltimore would be a good staging area.

jc: (laughs) So, start there, move up over the Potomac, being followed by CNN or some other trusted media outlet.

DB: Just find the right people who are willing to rise up against the regime and start moving north.

jc: Would you consider yourself a realist? Or do you try and create a world that is best suited for your art?

“Yeah, the whole idea of writing or painting is some kind of multiple perspective and somewhere in there may be some world view, but it can’t be through one lone voice that never changed and shifts. It wouldn’t be honest. .

DB: Hopefully I’m covering the whole ball of wax song by song. Again, in the course of a two or three hour show, I feel the need for the songs to speak clearly and linearly at some point and distort and stretch at other points. I don’t think I’d be comfortable or be able to sit with only one way of speaking of things.

jc: Or one viewpoint.

DB: Yeah, the whole idea of writing or painting is some kind of multiple perspective and somewhere in there may be some world view, but it can’t be through one lone voice that never changed and shifts. It wouldn’t be honest.

jc: As a writer, I found that your “World Cup” book, especially the diary style, showed some promise for prose. That’s’ a difficult shift for a lyricist or a poet. Is that a voice you’d like to exercise more?

DB: Definitely. I find myself working more in that vein. I’m almost done with something that’s a singular, longer work that I’m pretty excited about.

jc: Will it also include music, like the five-song CD in the “World Cup” book?

DB: This one, no. This one’s…

jc: Literary.

DB: Yeah. The narrator is a scientist who is very much like me and is one tour all the time, (chuckles) but instead of performing songs, gives lectures on his theories, blows things up. So, there are no songs in this one.

jc: (chuckles) Sound very Vonnegut.

DB: You’ll have to read it. Then you can tell me.

jc: I’m looking forward to it. I’d like to talk about musical style for a moment. Since I’m a fan of Dylan and Woody Guthrie, and this is why I took to your work immediately, I noticed Guthrie in your song “Jail”. The “Talkin” Blues” is an obvious homage, and I hate to use the word homage, but what the hell, it’s a tribute to Dylan’s first penned song. Also the first song on the new record, “Fleeting Days” called “Baby Bye Bye” is a great stab, with your own signature, on Springsteen. As all artists, do you use those voices to create your own sound?

DB: I suppose. Some things are probably closer in style to those tunes than other stuff. If people hear it, it’s probably there. Those are songwriters I’ve definitely listened to and absorbed and so it probably comes out that way.

jc: As you become more and more ingratiated into the pop culture, or the culture of celebrity, less than some certainly, but still, slowly you are getting recognized, do you feel it’s harder to write songs as an observer? Ken Kesey once said that fame for a writer is the death of observation, because once you become part of the landscape, it’s more difficult to write about it.

DB: Maybe I would feel that way if I were more famous. I’ve never been on Conan. I’ve never been on the cover of any major magazine. I still feel like I’m the guy outside looking in. I suppose I’ll always feel that way, you know, the outsider.

jc: You reference icons of culture more than anyone I’ve heard, from Jesus to Henry Miller to Monica Seles to Leonardo Decaprio to Hitler. You can tell from listening to your songs you’re aware of so much of your surroundings from a cultural sense.

DB: I don’t know. I think I’m able to separate it. It’s not like the people I’m writing about know me or hear the songs. Maybe they do, but I’m not aware of it. So, it keeps a distance.

jc: How do you see the music business from your end as the outsider? Do you experience the conglomerate, corporate, evil side of the business or do you avoid that as well?

DB: I don’t have much to do with that. From my standpoint it’s a lot of hard work and I don’t get a lot of that magical thing, throwing around a lot of money or having my picture up on a billboard. Usually I’m pissed off because I get to a gig and nobody put our posters up. That’s kind of the world I’m dealing with.

jc: It’s still grass for you.

DB: It’s more grass roots now than when I first started making records. I was with Sony for a couple of records. They didn’t spend money wisely. I don’t think they quite knew what to do with me. Every once in awhile they’d throw a bunch of money at something and you’d get the feeling that something might happen, but for the last several years it’s really been about making good records and to keep writing the songs and keep being relevant to myself and the audience and not go completely broke doing it.

jc: Amen to that. Are you touring with the band that’s on the new record?

DB: Yeah, for about four months now.

jc: Do you prefer playing with a band, or is there a place for you to still get up there like you did at Carnegie Hall and perform your songs by yourself?

DB: Oh yeah, I think that is something I will always use. This fall I’m going to go out for a couple of months by myself. I have more time when I do that. I have space. I write more when I’m by myself on the road, and the pallet, the song bag is bigger when I’m by myself. I can play anything I can remember. Even though this band has a pretty wide array of songs from my bag, and it’s widening, there’s a lot of places we can go in terms of material. But even with that, there are limits. And with playing by myself there’s just this connection between you and audience that’s a pretty cool thing.

jc: Let me ask you about one specific song that I saw you perform by yourself that I know is a favorite of your fans. When my wife and I saw you do it we looked at each other and knew this guy has something special, and that’s “God Said No”. Is that song Nietzian? Is it from a theological standpoint? Does the narrator who is asking God to send him back and keep Kurt Cobain from suicide or assassinate Hitler or save Jesus from the cross, does he believe he is actually speaking to God, or actually talking to God, or is it merely a commentary about the linear aspect of life and it’s limitations to live in the now?

DB: It’s a personal struggle that I have, really. I’ve had it my whole life; this wish and desire to right wrongs of the past. So when I’m talking, when the narrator is talking, I’m expressing that wish. I’m confronting that desire. And I think when God is talking; I’m sort of getting the answer.

jc: No.

DB: Yeah.

jc: Would you consider yourself a spiritual person?

DB: I think what I consider God is something that other people might consider as nature or existence. That’s what I look to. That’s where I get answers of substance. I think it’s there. Without sounding to hippyish, I think the trees breathe and they give us answers.

jc: Having said that, would you purchase or read a book that paints Jesus of Nazareth as a social revolutionary who was miserably misunderstood and whose teachings and personal sacrifice has been criminally annexed for two thousand years?

DB: Sure.

jc: (laughs) Good, it’s the subject my new book. “Trailing Jesus”. I’ll get you a copy.

DB: (laughs) Yeah, I’d love to read that.

jc: This was actually quite inspirational for me, since I’m going on a promotional tour for the book and I’ll be on the other end of the phone trying to avoid direct answers of theorem in the work, and still give acceptable answers. You’re pretty good at that.

DB: Well, thanks. (chuckles) I’m sure you’re up to the task yourself. You know I’ve always felt willing and able to add my two cents to any like-minded movement that needs a singer, but at the same time I feel like if I speak for myself then I can’t go too wrong.

jc: Thanks for the time. Anything I can do for the cause. Your stuff is extremely inspirational for a writer.

DB: I couldn’t appreciate that more, thanks.

jc: Well, keep writing those beautifully moving, hilariously funny and insightful songs and be careful on the road, okay?

DB: Thanks man, I’ll see you Sunday.

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Erica Zwickel, Our Friend

Aquarian Weekly 12/19/02 REALITY CHECK

ODE TO THE UNDYING SPIRIT

all nearness pauses, while a star can grow– e.e. cummings

Erica Zwickel was my friend. She acted like it all the time. Whenever I called her. Whenever I needed her. For anything. Not some times, all times. She was honestly one of the finest people I have ever had the pleasure to meet in my experience as a professional writer, and I’ve met plenty.

Erica died last week.

She was 30 years old.

I met her in 1995 while researching the first few weeks of what would become my first published book, “Deep Tank Jersey’. It is a book read by many of the people reading this paper, working for this paper, in bands plugged in this paper. It is a book that could not have been imagined without her. Many of the people in it, an astounding amount, joined me in saying good-bye to her this past Sunday.

But Sunday was less a funeral than a celebration of her considerable spirit, because if there was one thing Erica embodied it was the spirit of anything she set her mind to.

What she set her mind to for over a decade was the New Jersey rock and roll scene, its bands, its venues, and its ups and downs. Mostly, Erica kept a band called DogVoices running. Literally.

She was the engine, the siren, the dyed in the wool, cruising, bruising, straight-to-the-heart and beyond-the-call backbone of DogVoices, a band that following that crazed summer and the book’s release became something of a NJ icon and more or less a traveling halleluiah whiz-bang of a circus.

And Erica was never its ringmaster or carnival barker. She never took a bow or begged for an encore, but there was no circus, there was no DogVoices without Erica.

“It’s my natural high!” she told me on several counts over the years.

This is where Erica was at during her twenty-third year on the planet when I waltzed into the wild fray to pen my book about a band on the road trying to survive. She was a baby-faced kid going on 40, chuckling beneath dimples and shiny bright eyes, but tough as nails. I called her Finley because despite being a nice Jewish girl she looked like a jolly Irish lass. Before I knew what the hell I was doing, before I had stories and anecdotes and relationships forged to unfurl my view of what I would eventually dub, Clubland, Erica welcomed me in with the smile of an angel and the grip of a den mother.

No one who was there, or spent five minutes around the band needs to hear anymore, but this is what I eventually summed up on page 345:

“I hate this place,” I told Erica as we stood in our cramped corner of Nardi’s Tavern for what seemed like the hundredth time. The charm and humor at watching the most insane party on earth had been worn out on me. The long summer was coming to a close, but with Labor Day looming in the foreground the race was far from over. The madness was taking its toll. Everyone seemed on edge during the evening, including the band. “I love the people here,” Erica enthused, shocked by my vitriolic comment. “There are better rooms to see these guys, but people here are so grateful for a good band.”

Watching her gather the mound of tee shirts from the back of Richie’s jeep, sliding them through her right arm and diligently counting each one in a quick inventory check, I smiled. Erica was one of those reliable constants in a quick cutthroat, backstabbing, change-a-minute business of slugs and leeches clinging to one fad after another. Erica truly loved this work, the people she met, and the guys in the band. They could count on her for anything and everything, and often did. She had embraced me like no one else right from the start; handing me earplugs, deflecting annoying drunks and groping women, and laughing at my warped aphorisms and jokes like an old friend who understood loneliness during my slow acclimation. She was a real person growing in a plastic world, but I didn’t worry that she’d come out all right. Her dedication to perfection and hard-working ethic would make her a success in anything she wanted to do. She did not need Clubland as much as she claimed, but loved it just the same. Nothing derailed sweet Erica, or brought her down the entire time I’d known her. “Why don’t you get out of here before you crack up,” she suggested, wisely. “I’m going to miss you,” I told her. She curled her bottom lip in a mock pout, then flashed me her innocent smile. “I’m gonna miss you more,” she said.

Erica was wrong about that. I miss her more.

We all do.

If you just knew what she was about, what she meant to a whole bunch of tired and confused people precariously balanced on the high wire then you’d know she lied about who would miss who more.

There should be more people around like Erica Zwickel. There’s one less.

And we are all poorer for it.

Good-bye Finley.

We miss you more.

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Ode To Warren Zevon

 

Aquarian Weekly 11/6/02
REALITY CHECK

ANGRY ODE TO THE CAPTAIN

Warren Zevon is dying and I’m pissed.

I had to get that out. It’s been festering in me since late August when I heard through someone at his record company that he would not be making our interview date. I’d been looking forward to it since receiving promo material in the mail for his latest album, ironically entitled, My Ride’s Here. But there would be no interview, nor the appearances he was due to make in NYC in late September.

Warren ZevonIt was early September when rumblings at Zevon’s publicist offices warned that he might pull out of scheduled concerts due to personal reasons. This became official with the posted announcement on his web site that “Mr. Zevon has inoperable lung cancer” followed closely by an article in the L.A. Times describing his prognosis as months to perhaps weeks to live.

Although having never met, Zevon and I have had many parallels, and not just in satirical literary styles or the penchant for making the “one quick drink with a pal” scenario last for three days. I have seen him perform some fifteen times over the past twenty-five years and oddly had numerous meetings and interactions with people who had either played with him, toured with him, worked his lights, tuned his piano, grabbed a cup of java with him, drove with him to a party, etc.

Seemed there would be plenty of time to meet up with one of my favorite songwriters, and a man for whom I have liberally quoted in this space and in my second book, including the now infamous “More people should listen to Warren Zevon” line in my very first “Chaos in Motion” pieces from the early 90s’. I ‘d even foolishly eschewed a chat with him when he was standing a few feet from me at a bar in Rochester, NY two winters ago, so as to not bug him.

Sure, if there was someone I didn’t need to chase down, when our paths had nearly crossed dozens of times throughout my brief – and his longer and more established – career, it would be Warren Zevon.

Cleaned up, dry as a bone and down to only a few packs a day, Zevon’s work over the past few years had never sounded better. Christ, the man was exercising. This is usually the tolling bell for most, but for Zevon, a man for whom blatantly sadistic metaphor was not lost, it seemed ludicrous.

When these kinds of things mattered, like before I was married and tried to bring some semblance of normality and balance to my life, Warren Zevon’s indestructibility was more than an inspiration. Like Keith Richards or Hunter S. Thompson, there were no mammals on earth that could withstand the force of mortality like the man I had enjoyed calling The Captain.

For The Captain survival was good enough to write about in song and story, black visions of carnivorous women and vicious men feeding on the soulless creation propped up at the piano like a pickled wax figure. Good enough to recall; back from oblivion and leaning into the bar with a shot of rye and a Charles Bukowski Reader by the ashtray looking for something to spark the ol’ muse; something fresh, sinister, dangerous or fucking insane.

“I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”

You betcha.

Zevon dying?

Cancer?

Right, and if I drive along the Jersey Turnpike I might not see the Twin Towers? Sure, like I just turned 40 and I have a mortgage and a Godchild and I’m sitting at the midway truck stop off thirty years of bad road.

Fuck that.

I’m not accepting Zevon’s resignation off this mortal coil. He’s not allowed to go quietly into the good night and all that Dylan Thomas bullshit. This is a colder, blander, less fiery world without demented souls like Zevon. Last year it was Kesey, and now this crap?

Zevon is a true genius in the very definition. There is but one of him and his style, whatever the hell that is, and there will never be another like him.

Quite simply, Warren Zevon is one of only a fistful, and its a small fist at that, of songwriters within the rock and roll era who has even come close to entertaining me on every level – musical, lyrical, humorous, emotional and spiritual. He’s a fucking genius in a world where that term is thrown around much too loosely. Zevon is a true genius in the very definition. There is but one of him and his style, whatever the hell that is, and there will never be another like him.

I understand there are deeper, more human concerns here then how this affects me, but if I can’t think of myself in these dire situations, whom will of think of?

Zevon? That bastard has some nerve leaving the artist coalition like this. There are so few of his wondrous ilk left. Certainly, there are hardly any that I care a lick about or have grown up with or still listen to with any meaning today.

And I know we’re all getting older, and some of our mentors and inspirations and even contemporaries go, but I’m only 40 and Zevon is only 55, and it ain’t fair. Not now. Not ever.

And so here I sit on All Hollow’s Eve writing this maudlin crap and periodically distribute candies to the local kids and I feel like crying. Yeah, I’m a big baby, and boy if this is all that I have to cry about with all the pain and ugliness and suffering going on all over the place, then maybe I should be one super-charged happy camper. But I’m not.

I’m pissed.

For weeks I’ve ignored these feelings of anger, loss, mortality and this sense that even though I’m rip roaring prolific when it comes to whipping up the odd sentence on esoteric things like living in the moment, enjoying every second of life and realizing that you really only pass through this time once, regardless of belief, I cannot truly feel anything. But I do feel a large part of the reason I pound on this infernal keyboard in front me night after night is because of crazed beauties like Warren Zevon.

I love him as much as a man can love another man he’s almost never met.

He’s a kindred spirit and a goddamn poet noir and it is to him I dedicate my ever- prevalent slogan: NEVER SURRENDER.

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Ani DiFranco Interview

Aquarian Weekly 5/3/02

Ani Difranco Interview
Unedited Transcript Back Stage At Mid-Hudson Civic Center, Poughkeepsie, NY – 4/21/02

Photo by Albert Sanchez

I consider Ani Difranco a fellow soldier in these ridiculous, sometimes humored, but always-rewarding sieges on the elusively hidden truths of our silly human collective. Since the night this magazine sent me to an old theater in Portchester, NY to watch her perform nearly seven years ago, I’ve been a fan. That night she spoke to me like few other artists have. I’ve seen her play a half-dozen times since, and each one brings a new experience, always effusive and brutally honest.

Over 12 years and 15 records, her biting lyrics usually reflected my own well-crafted cynicism of a politically ambiguous world bloated with lethal doses of sweet propaganda primed to reduce us to merrily marching mindless hordes. But along with being a kindred spirit, DiFranco’s independence in the manipulative landscape of creative distribution has been a great inspiration for a young author butting heads with publishing icons. More than once I’d used her name as less noun than verb, as in: “These fuckers keep this shit up and I’m going to Ani this book”; to which I did, happily.

So when we met on a chilly, overcast spring day in the industrial pall of Poughkeepsie, NY, in the bowels of the Mid-Hudson Civic Center, set on the shores of New York’s famous river of simpler times when the folk singer might earn a cup of java from a passing stranger for spinning yarns of heartbreak, Ms. DiFranco and myself had ourselves a chat. Two admitted lunatics dissecting the greater good.

on a morning beatific in its indian summer breeze on the day that america fell to its knees after strutting around for a century without saying thank you or please

– ani difranco

james campion: This stanza of the poem you are working on presently, and performed so movingly at Carnegie Hall a few weeks ago, hits home for me, because it succinctly projects what I’ve been writing about for years concerning the U.S. presence in the Middle East and our inability to fully understand the race issues and religious issues that are prevalent in India, Pakistan or what is currently transpiring in Israel.

ani difranco: Except to exacerbate them. (laughs)

jc: Correct. So, I guess my first question would be; is this something you normally attempt to touch upon in songs, instead of blatantly, as in this particularly striking line in the poem?

ad: Well…yeah. You know I really don’t have a mind for the hyper details of foreign policy, or of what the stupid white men are doing, but I do have some basic ideas and feelings and impressions. I would make a very bad columnist like yourself. I write in metaphor and feel compelled to express things like the United States exploitation of not just the Middle East, but also the “Third World”. You know, our capitalist selfishness in terms of using the world’s resources and labor and just manipulating weaker countries for strategic and economic reasons.

Whatever, I mean, that’s a very, sort of, obvious and basic thing to say, but somehow I feel the need to keep saying it.

jc: As a folksinger, and you always refer to yourself as a folksinger, which I find enlightening, because throughout the centuries folksingers or minstrels used music and used dance to comment on social mores or the social wrongs of the time. So, do you feel as a folksinger you can tap into those same things and not be sitting on CNN with your suit and tie and pointing the literal finger?

“We’ve had our citizenship stolen from us and had consumerism foisted upon us, and at this point, ironically enough, there is a reinvestment in the belief in government, a reinvestment of energy and involvement that is the only thing that can recreate or salvage our ‘democracy’.

ad: (chuckles) Well, CNN would probably be an impossible place to tap into anything real since all of the information is completely co-opted and controlled by corporate forces. So, yeah, it is a much better venue to pick up a guitar and walk into a bar and talk to people one on one.

I love my job; touring and traveling and making art in very common, open spaces and feeling a totally free to talk about political or social issues. Music is a very effective way to communicate and inspire.

jc: Yes, but do you believe there is still a chance for grass roots movements?

ad: Ah! It’s happening as we speak. You know it. It’s all around us. I feel a new sense of optimism out there. We may even be surfacing from the 80s’, (chuckles) culturally speaking, a youth culture. Of course I have a bit of a slanted perspective from standing at my microphone, in terms of what cross section of young folks I encounter, but I am impressed and hopeful with the kind of political will of the young people now. They recognize that they were born into…

jc: A fixed game.

ad: Yeah, a homogenized culture, and wanting to dissect that. We were probably born just early enough to know a time before…

jc: I’m 39.

ad: (pointing to herself) 31. But, you know what I mean? There was a time when you could actually buy a record at the local record store.

jc: Wow, records.

ad: Yeah, records!

jc: (laughs) Vinyl? No way.

ad: (bold voice) You remember when there used to be records?!

jc: You’re taking me back.

ad: Yeah, (laughing) I think that young people are beginning to question that sort of corporate super structure. You know, all of the protests in New York and Seattle and Prague. I find those all very inspiring.

jc: So, you’re optimistic.

ad: I am…optimistic.

jc: You’ve mentioned Ralph Nader at several of your shows these past couple of years. I voted for Ralph the first time around. My mother was a huge Nader fan back in his wars against the BIG corporate lie, automobile manufactures and all. I never forgot that.

ad: That’s interesting.

jc: Sure…I vote for people with no chance. I voted for John Anderson in 1980. I had high hopes for a third party candidate to arise for a long time, but I have my doubts now. Do you have any confidence that politics is really any way to get to the crux of any issue?

ad: Absolutely, now more than ever. I think that is of primary importance. I mean, I was ten years old in 1980, so by the time I was coming to any kind of adult consciousness the political system was a corrupt, capitalist club of elite corporate CEO’s. The whole Reaganomics, and the whole Reagan/Bush regime, we are still living under, and I think young people completely divested themselves from their government. There was such a disconnection.

“I’m not really interested in Jesus as a “walking on water” kind of guy, but as a revolutionary, as a guy who was trying to free the slaves, fuckin’ A.”

jc: There’s a deep seated cynicism. I know. I’m there. My work reflects everything is more or less fucked in some irreversible way.

ad. Right on.

jc: But it’s actually refreshing to hear you be so positive.

ad: Well, the cynicism is well founded. We’ve had our citizenship stolen from us and had consumerism foisted upon us, and at this point, ironically enough, there is a reinvestment in the belief in government, a reinvestment of energy and involvement that is the only thing that can recreate or salvage our “democracy”. You know, I just don’t see a lot of young people getting involved in party politics, trying to infuse themselves into the system without…

jc: Like in the 60s’.

ad: Yeah. I mean, why would we begin voting again, first of all, if there is nobody to vote for? So, not only do we have to get out and vote; we have to get out and run. I have a friend I was just talking to last night who spent the last week in D.C. meeting with all these representatives and senators about this Yukka Mountain in Nevada. They’ve already spent four billion dollars on the nuclear waste all over the country, and they have this plan where they want to ship it all to Nevada and dump it in an Indian Reservation.

jc: That’ll work.

ad: (sarcastically) Yeah, and it’ll never leak and it’ll be fine. No problems. So, here is my friend Susan attending meeting after meeting after meeting with all these senators, because the Bush administration passed it and its going to go to vote, and she’s trying so hard to get these people to vote “no”. And when I spoke to her last week she was saying, (dreary tone) “Okay, I’m going to D.C. and I’m fixin’ to get really disillusioned and I’ll probably come back as a car bomber…”

jc: (laughs) Into the mouth of the beast.

ad: (excited) But after days and days of meetings, she called last night and it was so great to talk to her because she was re-inspired at the possibility of one person to make a difference. You know, these senators just vote on what their aids say they should vote on, and they’ve only been meeting with the Energy Commission, Officially Sanctioned Report. You know how it is. But she felt that her presence really had effectiveness that week.

Photo by Albert Sanchez

If people had any idea how much power they have, shit could really change. If we just started exercising it. So, yeah, I am longing for an inspiration of progressive young people to change the system, and really get inside the system, and not just working from without.

jc: That’s a huge leap from disillusionment to optimism; because I can tell you when I was younger I had this rabid anti-authority thing that was less anger than fear. And I think it was born from this fear of blind patriotism, because when I was a kid my mother was on the “If there’s a draft we’re moving to Canada” thing.

ad: (laughing) Yeah, right!

jc: My mother is a devout Catholic, and I went to Catholic school, but I never considered going into a room with any priest by myself. Anyway, what I’m getting at is when you write in your songs and speak at some of your shows; it is from a humanist standpoint, politically. You have this artistic individualism about you. So how did you react to the whole flag waving, “God Bless America” fervency that we just passed through? Not to demean why people lean on the group dynamic, but sometimes individual thought can be sucked out by this conglomerate – “Unless your with us you’re against us” mentality that happens when a nation is wounded like our nation was wounded on 9/11. Did you feel at all ostracized from the vox populi?

ad: Well, that’s nothing new. The day that I stop feeling that way I’ll have to start questioning myself. (laughs) But yeah, it’s just so sickeningly sad the way calculated propaganda and these huge media outlets could twist the idea of patriotism. They’ve done it forever. Completely inverting it. Go back to McCarthyism and the House Committee on Un-American Activities? When it is the most American activity of all to express yourself, to fight the government when it’s wrong. Democracy is about, “If you don’t like your government, change it. If you can’t change it have a fucking revolution. They wrote it right in the constitution.

jc: Ready your muskets I always say.

ad: (laughs) Yeah! There’s some quote, I wish I could remember which Founding Father said it.

jc: Jefferson’s “Let’s have a revolution every ten years.”

ad: Oh, I don’t know, that’s a good one.

jc: I’m paraphrasing, but he did say it.

ad: You see? There is always this, “hear what you want to hear – see what you want to see”. They can twist things like the constitution or the Bible into any kind of oppressive tool.

jc: But isn’t the Bible an oppressive tool?

ad: It depends on how you read it; same as any document. They are just tools to be used, they can be used against us as well as for us, but there are certainly many positive messages in the Bible. I think Jesus…

jc: Ah, love and forgiveness.

ad: Sure, I think reading any document literally, especially something like the Bible, which is all metaphor, is so misguided. You know, I’m not really interested in Jesus as a “walking on water” kind of guy, but as a revolutionary, as a guy who was trying to free the slaves, fuckin’ A. There it is right in the Bible: “Slaves bad.” (laughs) “Love your brother!”

“We’re still living in a segregated society. It’s not on the books, but defacto economic segregation is as affective, or more so, than any signs that you could put up over a restroom.”

jc: They took care of that guy.

ad: But there was some quote I read somewhere recently, it might have been from Jefferson, that “to not criticize your government, especially in times of war, when your government is perpetrating violence on another people, to not be critical is an act of treason.

jc: I think it might have been John Adams.

ad: Yeah, maybe I should shut-up.

jc: No, those guys were all maniacs. I love those guys. If you read about the Founding Fathers, and get out of all the textbook stuff we were taught as kids, they were downright radical, quite diverse. This country didn’t get to a point where you could speak freely for…I mean when you discuss McCarthyism it was in the 1950’s, not the 1850’s. And that gets back to the original question about your art, because I believe the only true voice left is through free expression. Art may be the only thing not co-opted or annexed in a fluent dialogue between people and ideas, but every once and awhile when someone gets close to the bone, so to speak, they try to manipulate their words or tear pieces of them away like a Jesus or a Gandhi.

ad: I think that every room is a perfect venue for political change, whether it’s a theater with a stage in it or a whether it’s a classroom or whether its the halls of justice. I’ve been engaged in conversations recently where people ask me, “What do you think is more important? What’s more effective? What’s more legitimate statement: To make radical art or to try and get in the system?” And for me it’s Yes! Yes! All of it. Whatever you’re fucking good at. I used to dance; I went to art school for years. I love to paint. But there was something about music and the inclusion of words, the literal communication through words that I really felt was my most effective way to make change, to inspire people, to become myself. But for somebody else it might be raising their kid and teaching him or her to be a respectful, loving, thoughtful questioning person. There’s infinite numbers of ways we can change the world.

There’s some kind of African proverb that says; “If you don’t think one person can make a difference, spend a night in a room with a mosquito.” So I think art and music are effective, but you know sometimes rock stardom has a lot of glory attached to it, you get this applause at the end of your working day.

jc: The immediate feedback, which you never get as a writer. (laughs) I’m envious of that.

ad: Yeah, I feel…I got a good job. But there are an infinite number of ways that are as important and effective and possible.

jc: Let me touch on the literal for a minute. I just read a piece, and I want to get to the thing you wrote in The Nation, but I know you had a problem with the David Letterman Show regarding your choice of song, “Subdivision”.

ad: (derisive chuckle) Mmmm.

Photo by Scot Fisher

jc: The song begins with the line: “White people are so scared of black people.” That speaks to me as a writer, because I feel the act of philosophy is to hit them with something strong in the lead, and once you get their attention, only then can you start spinning your philosophy. Is that where you were going there, or are you saying it literally?

ad: Well, yeah, that was it, but that’s not usually my thing. I don’t usually lead that way. That was different for me as a writer, but I wanted to get people’s attention because I just feel as though the great liberation from segregation is a lie. We’re still living in a segregated society. It’s not on the books, but defacto economic segregation is as affective, or more so, than any signs that you could put up over a restroom.

And therein lies the very complex, radical systematic criticism. To look at a lie like “separate but equal” and say, well, okay, we attacked the separate part, but that wasn’t the problem. I’ve read a little bit about the ending of segregation and how Thurgood Marshall and the Civil Rights leaders were unable to really approach the “equal” thing. There’s no fucking way with the amount of power involved.

jc: Just let us have the legal thing.

ad: Yeah, so attacking it on the separate side was about all they could swing at the time, and bless their hearts for giving us that much, but now we need to keep the pressure on, and keep looking at things like our evacuated cities, and applying words like racism to it. You know, “Where did all the white people go?” In Detroit and Buffalo, my hometown. And how can you, in good conscience, set up a tax structure where the suburban tax bases are not one with the city. So the suburban schools are rich and full of computers and the city schools don’t have pencils. Economic segregation is…

jc: It’s a class system, but you rarely hear it spoken directly that way. Again, I refer to centuries ago, how human beings sectionalize themselves economically. Well, human beings? I’ve written it time and again; women are not really responsible for these atrocities, these are men holding the oars on this boat ride. I call it the Big Dick God Theory.

ad: (laughs) Yes.

jc: Men perpetuate all these hatreds against each other and women have never really had a voice, which comes back to you. As an artist you’re empowered not in the sense of “Take a look at me I’m a woman”, but “Take a look at me I’m a human.”

ad: It’s interesting, because since the beginning, since I started writing little poems, of course my identity as a woman has informed my writing. Everything from how I perceive the world to the experiences I have, to, I think the way I play the guitar; somewhat less linear. I don’t think I’ve ever soloed in my life. I hear music in circles and I feel power dynamics amongst people only as a woman can, and yet, like you say, I am writing about being a human and trying to connect, trying to re-connect us across gender lines, as we have been socialized to not do. But speaking to those gender dynamics has brought me so much defensive reaction over the years, so many of the “She’s an angry, militant, man-hater”.

jc: Well, of course. That’s’ how you deal with the suppressed, by defining those who speak their mind as pissed and subversive.

ad: Yeah, it’s interesting to me, that sort of knee-jerk reaction to having something pointed at is uncomfortable for some people…Wait, where were we…? (laughs)

“I am writing about being a human and trying to connect, trying to re-connect us across gender lines, as we have been socialized to not do. But speaking to those gender dynamics has brought me so much defensive reaction over the years, so many of the ‘She’s an angry, militant, man-hater’.”

jc: (laughs) I’m reminded of your line “When I move it’s a women’s movement” or, and I’m paraphrasing, “What’s my hair color today? It’s my statement. What kind of shoes I’m wearing. That’s my new statement.” And of course it’s going to happen when you reach a certain level of pop stardom, or pop notoriety, not that you’re a pop star, but if you’re going to be on the cover of a magazine, there’s going to be this scrutiny about fashion for some kind of statement.

ad: Sure.

jc: Wow, you say that with such derision.

ad: Well, that’s a little sorry by-product of my job, to be turned from a three dimensional creature to a two-dimensional creature for the purposes of a magazine. Ugh! And expending a little too much energy along the way trying to counter-act that, trying to insist on being yourself against this sort of energy of oversimplification and projection, but I find if you just stick to it, after about ten years the stereotype doesn’t hold up next to the reality…eventually.

jc: You outlast it.

ad: Yeah.

jc: Which you’re doing now, I think.

ad: Yeah, I’m feeling as though I’m rising above it. I have seen over the years the media dictate to my audience, not just me, but also my audience: “This is chick music for Grrrls.”

jc: (laughs) Yeah.

ad: “There’s the sea of screaming Grrrls.” And then I get up on stage and say; “No. They were wrong about us.” First of all, please stop screaming, because it will be much better for our conversation, for our dialogue. Second of all, just because I’m a girl doesn’t mean I’m not a human and this is not about us and them. This is not a special interest group that I am speaking to or from. (laughs)

jc: You’re not preaching to the choir, per se.

ad: It’s the idea of women as being some kind of special interest group, that kind of pre-supposition that writers write from that they don’t even recognize, where men’s experience is universal and women’s experience is…threatening. (laughs)

jc: (laughs) But you’re still speaking as a women though. You can’t separate it completely.

ad: Absolutely.

jc: For instance, your comments in The Nation about the media was quite biting, because of how you’re perceived. I always find myself defending the media, because it’s the first instinct to blame the messenger. I agree in part to CNN being a corporate run medium, like the New York Times etc. This is why I write for publications like the Aquarian Weekly, where they allow me to write what I want, and most of it is syndicated anyway, so I can get through the muck somehow and cheat my way into the mainstream.

However, you cannot be completely objective in any way. People are always crying for the media to be objective, taking the human side out of it. I spent time in the Middle East, so its difficult not to defend Israel’s right to defend itself. How George Bush can come out and decry Israel’s rights to defend itself in measured ways, when this country has gone halfway across the globe to char children is beyond me. So, if you cannot separate yourself from your outward experience, you certainly cannot alter the inward. You can’t separate your vision as a woman, if you’re looking at things through a woman’s eyes.

ad: And consciously doing so. Admittedly doing so. I’m not going to pretend for you that my life is like that of a man’s, not even for the purposes of making nice-nice music. And to speak on the fallacy of objectivity, if you believe in objectivity, then your reading of any kind of media is going to be misguided.

jc: Of course, you only see it from your own standpoint. (laughs)

Photo by Scot Fisher

ad: And if you don’t realize you’re listening to one person talking about themselves…(laughs)…as much as the world around them, you’re going to be mislead.

jc: Where do you get your news from?

ad: The Nation. I’ve got a subscription to the Nation. Ms. Magazine. You know, the progressive publications.

jc: Public radio?

ad: I don’t get it with radio so much. I live on a bus most of the time, and I steer pretty clear of the TV. I can’t watch TV. It depresses me or enrages me.

jc: (laughs) Thank God it does that for me.

ad: (laughs) Yeah, yeah, right.

jc: It has nothing positive, and for that I am grateful.

ad: No attraction there, whatsoever.

jc: The stress box.

ad: (laughs)

jc: Do you feel isolated “on the bus”? You mentioned it, so I was just thinking that…I mean, do you feel that you get to see America while you’re touring, or do you just see bus stops and hotels rooms and train stations and airports.

ad: Yes. I am very isolated in a way. Not only do I live on a bus, but I get off the bus and come into rooms like this and I spend the day here until I get on stage and then I come back here, and then I’m back on the bus. So touring was not like it was ten years ago when I was driving myself, sleeping on people’s couches and in people’s dorm rooms, you know that kind of scratch and sniff your way around the country.

The whole nature of touring has changed very much, but I travel further than I’ve ever traveled and even from standing on stages all over the country and all over the world I’m grateful for being acquainted with the people and the energy and the reactions of audiences, and I can feel the political climate and the cultural landscapes change beneath my feet.

I was on tour in late September last year when everyone else was canceling tours and locking their doors and it was fascinating to be standing onstage in a room full of unified thought, not literally unified, but where we’re all thinking about something, to feel the pressure every night to speak to it, to feel the hunger, to feel the fear, to feel the incredible catharsis of the audience to want to hear something other than the CNN-speak. So I do feel like I have a unique opportunity to have a finger on the pulse through traveling a lot, but through tiny vignettes. I see a lot of friends, but for very short periods of time.

jc: And of course that effects how you view the greater picture.

ad: Sure, sure.

jc: What are your overall thoughts about what happened on 9/11?

ad: I was here that day, well not here, but in New York that day.

jc: You were.

ad: Well, I was mid-town. So I was out of the line of fire, but for me it was all the smoke at the end of the avenues and the exodus uptown and the ash-covered people, and a few days later when the wind shifted, the acidic, choking smoke that engulfed all of the city, and the months and months of respitory problems; both the beauty and the tragedy of it.

One of the exquisite effects of that day to me seems to be the immediate recognition of people; first in the city and then in the whole country, of us as one people. When that first building fell there was a color blindness in that blinding flash of light that I found so beautiful. There were beautiful things that came of the ugliness, and that I think can still come; the more that we keep the pressure on, and keep talking about it and keep counter-acting the propaganda, the fear. The…the…the..I’m sorry.

jc: No, that’s okay. It’s tough to talk about it in terms of the city itself, for me. I know you lived downtown for a time, and write extensively about New York, especially in your earlier work in a glowing and critical way, but it’s the greatest city in the world and I couldn’t imagine being there when it was being wounded. I still call it the “Gaping Wound on Wall Street”, because there’s a reason why those buildings were hit.

“When that first building fell there was a color blindness in that blinding flash of light that I found so beautiful. There were beautiful things that came of the ugliness, and that I think can still come; the more that we keep the pressure on, and keep talking about it and keep counter-acting the propaganda, the fear.”

ad: It’s poetry in motion. And the genius to make that happen and the incredible arrogance and incompetence it reveals. It was obvious what the plot was a few years earlier. In that sense it should have been no surprise to any of us that they finally pulled it off. And now its time to turn our eyes towards our own government and not outward, because it’s the only way we can save ourselves. It was obvious from that example that there is no amount “human intelligence” (nervous laugh) that could save us from such acts. It’s only true justice and global justice that are going to prevent that kind of rage and violence from appealing to, and taking hold of, or activating populations of people. Of course, we’re talking about some crazy guys, some crazy violent motherfuckers.

jc: But they don’t just become crazy out of nowhere.

ad: Yeah, and it takes a lot of people who are very pissed off and very poor and have been living among violence and oppression at the hands of this country for way to long to back those guys up. But I think I said a whole lot in that poem about my immediate reactions to being there that day and that week. I was supposed to be flying in that morning actually, but I drove in the night before for whatever reason.

jc: Karmic.

ad: Maybe.

jc: Who knows why any of these things happen?

ad: You know, there’s incredible possibility in those events that make us look at the brevity of our lives, at the mortality of ourselves, of the consecutiveness between us. And if we can take the energy that exploded in the city that day of oneness, and we apply it globally, the realization of it… So, that’s what I’ve been trying to do; to let the smoke of that awareness billow forth, not the fear, not the us and them that George W. is trying promote.

jc: Or any president in his situation would probably have to promote, because he’s representing this huge conglomerate of countless years of failed expectations abroad to try, to hang onto something, to try and seem like he is defending a country that should have been defended properly in the first place.

ad: Well, I guess, I don’t know if Gore was sitting in the office he was voted into I don’t know how different it would be.

jc: Well, the cynic in me tells me, no different. Which is why any accolades or derision this guy gets as a result of this mess is unfounded in reality. I’m an anti-Gore guy myself, not that I am a pro-Bush guy, but I never got over the PMRC thing. It’s a personal thing between myself and those cheap whores who belittled Bill Bradley and…I should stop now.

ad: (laughs) Again, without systematic change we have no third party, without a third party we have one party.

jc: (clapping) Bravo.

ad: (Laughs) Not two, but one, somehow. But…(long pause) But nothing, I have no idea.

jc: (laughs) No ideas. That’s everything I came for and more.

ad: Oh, good.

jc: It was important to me to hear your personal, outside the songs, thoughts on some issues.

ad: I was ramblin’.

jc: Ramblin’s good.

*******************

jc’s Ani Reviews

Ani DiFranco/Capitol Theater 3/21/97

Ani DiFranco/Carnegie Hall 4/6/01

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