Hangin’ With Dan Bern

Aquarian Weekly 5/5/04 REALITY CHECK

SPRINGTIME FOR BERNSTEINTwo Months, Two Novels, A Dozen Songs, and One Serious Bonfire

Moore and Bernstein First week of March Bernstein calls me from the road. “I’m in Oklahoma,” he says. “Buying porn and The Anarchist Weekly”. I was excited, but reticent. He called again, and again. Reports from the road: He’s writing a song, listening to talk radio, reading a story about work farms, eating a tuna fish sandwich and talking to me all at the same time. The phone died. He survived. I braced. It would not be sufficient enough time to prepare. Two months with Bernstein in NYC, both of us carrying our novels and healthy doses of grudge against the greater good.

He arrived in town a few days later. My friend Buzz and I saw him at a wine and soda joint down on Astor Place on a snowy Sunday night. He was dusty from the road. He pulled out his beat up old guitar and played some songs, real good songs; hearty, angry, funny songs. Then he broke a string, said goodnight, and walked off. I told Rita Houston from WFUV that Bernstein wrote a book. “Bernstein writes songs,” she said. I told her again. She shook her head and smiled. “Damn it!” I screamed at her. “Bernstein is a novelist! His songs are great, but this fucking thing was better. I hate his guts. I’m the writer!” She backed away, but I could tell I’d convinced her. Brandon Kessler from Messenger Records was there. He did not appear nervous. “I’m in the damn thing,” he said. “We’re all in the damn thing.”

It had been four long months of back and forth with Bernstein on his book, excerpts, rewrites, long nights of dialogue. I sent back notes. “This puppy moves. It has legs. I’m going to burn my manuscript and send the charred remains to my agent.” He wrote back on mine. “It’s good. It’s bizarre. I need more reality.” I wrote back, “Less dialogue!” He wrote back, “I don’t know what I’m doing!”

When I next visited Bernstein, he was whitewashing a room in an artsy hotel suite downtown. Throwing paint around the room while he repeated over and over, “I hate George Bush.” After awhile it began to sound like a child’s limerick. I asked him, “You hate the man or the method?” He said he feared the whole thing. Made him pick up his guitar and write about it. Made him come to New York to stay awhile and then off to San Francisco to see Barry Bonds shoot up and bang homers. He was going to sing about Jesus being a Jew and about how going to Mars beats living alone and how being president might be a kick.

“If you could pick anyone, whom would you want to be president?” Bernstein asked me at a coffee shop on Third Avenue.

“You run for president!” I shouted. The place froze with terror. They knew who he was. And they were pretty sure I wasn’t stable. I hadn’t tasted real coffee in awhile and I was sufficiently jacked on the caffeine.

Bernstein seemed pensive. He rolled a cigarette. I stared him down until he answered. Bernstein thought about my proposal and shook his head violently. “Not me,” he said. There was a collective sigh. “I’m here to write songs. I’m here to make noise. I’m here to put things right.”

He played me songs. Good songs, funny songs, serious fucking songs. He and my wife splattered paint all over the ceiling of the Saint Holy Armistice Suites in midtown Manhattan. I paced and talked about the new bohemian revolution, about how there isn’t one.

He wrote a song about it. “The President’s Song.” He penned a manifesto of change and common sense and humanist theories. I left him alone. He looked happy. I was worried about him, though. We needed to make a bonfire. Bernstein agreed, but kept on writing. He wasn’t ready. I didn’t think we would ever spark that bonfire.

My wife showed up the following week. I think it was late March, maybe early April. She brought Bernstein her portfolio of disturbing images. He loved it. “Let’s paint like we don’t care anymore,” he said to her at dinner. She smiled. My wife loves to create with no purpose. This is why I married her.

A woman from a publishing company came down to see Bernstein. He brought his drawings. I made copies of them. Many copies. We distributed them in Bryant Park. The woman wanted to see the text. He handed her handwritten pages stained with coffee and soy sauce. “I can’t submit this,” she said. I told her about Kerouac’s toilet paper roll and “On The Road” and the puke stains on Bukowski’s best work. She didn’t understand. I told her my novel was recently optioned for a Hollywood film. “It’s bizarre, needs more reality,” Bernstein said, continuing to pull dog-eared, stained pages from his duffel bag.

“Type this!” the woman yelled at us. So Bernstein bought an old Brother electric typewriter. “Why do you need a typewriter?” the kid behind the counter of the hockshop asked him. Bernstein grinned like the Cheshire cat and rolled another cigarette. “I’m gonna type,” he said.

He played the next night at the Housing Works Used Book Café in the East Village. It was one of those Indian summer nights. We had Indian food. He was fantastic. Right in the mood. Played the old songs, played the new ones, played “The President’s Song.” The crowd cheered. “This pissant little writer I call jc wants me to run for commander and chief,” he told them. I knew what he was doing. He was calling me out. He was putting this charade on me. “This man is a charlatan!” I cried. “He’ll kill us all!” Bernstein just smiled and played “Jerusalem” and everyone calmed down, even me.

I received a call about mid-April when Bernstein was in Canada complaining about the food. It was from a man going by the initials, C.M., claiming to have actually written Bernstein’s novel. “Jesus, man, these are serious charges,” I told him. “Bernstein’s not even here to defend himself. He’s busy riling up the Canucks with songs about revolution and baseball and porn.” It did not matter, C.M. told me. He wrote that book and he could prove it.

I had a planned interview with Ani Difranco the following night and told her about Bernstein’s dilemma. She was worried. She knew him. She worked with him. She had her doubts about the veracity of my reporting skills, despite refusing to talk to anyone but me. “You don’t work for Ms. Magazine,” she said. Yet she believed my story. She told me she’d recently run into Bernstein at an airport hub in British Columbia and they spoke as if nothing had happened, but she sensed something odd. I concurred. We agreed not to alarm him. Ani felt it could lead to more peculiar behavior with drawings and paint.

Bernstein returned unaffected by Canadian food or the DiFranco détente, but was resolute. Ani met with him again down in D.C. at a women’s rights rally. She played songs. Bernstein played songs. He said, “This is why I picked up a guitar in the first place.” She agreed. He told her she was in his book. She asked if her character died in a fiery explosion. He did not answer. Maybe she did.

“Hey jc, it’s Bernstein!” his message began days later. “The publisher rejected my manuscript! Fuck it! I’ve been rejected by better than them. We’re gonna beat this thing. We’re gonna put this sucker out and let the world decide who wrote this book!”

Only one week before his van pulled west, we scrambled around. There was the Parker Posey motorcycle incident. There was the NY Circus mishap. There was some unforeseen trouble on the FDR and missing designer soaps at the Trump Plaza. I read Bernstein my published nonsense. “Wow,” he said. “Where do you stand politically?” I told him, “On the fence.” He said, “There is nothing so courageous as conquering fear.” He played me songs. Good songs, funny songs, serious fucking songs. He and my wife splattered paint all over the ceiling of the Saint Holy Armistice Suites in midtown Manhattan. I paced and talked about the new bohemian revolution, about how there isn’t one. Bernstein rewrote the novel C. M. accused him of stealing. “I know all about C.M.,” he said. “He’s mad. I stole nothing. He wrote a children’s book about science. I wrote about me.”

He had one more gig. We were done. The wife and I gave him a hug. “We never did start that bonfire,” I told him. “Bullshit,” he said, rolling one more cigarette. “Go downstairs.”

I don’t know if I’ve seen a better bonfire than the one that burned on lower Broadway that night. Goddamn, if Bernstein didn’t come through. “More reality!” he shouted from the hotel window.

I hate his guts. I will miss him.

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