The Second Dan Bern Interview


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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