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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