DAN BERN MUSE - Parts 1&2
An Interview with Singer/Songwriter, Dan Bern
conducted over the phonelines on the road from Pittsburgh to Philly
from The Desk at Fort Vernon.
able to write songs in the face of everything else, theres
a hope, a belief in something'.
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 - Messenger Records chairman, Brandon Kessler told me he could release
an album a week - 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 the old-time songster who
would use the medium to cajole and soothe the listener right along with
its author, as if sharing an experience. And the range of his emotions
He should have a wider audience, and hes 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 allow his audience 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, Berns 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 hand him a copy
after his Bowery Ballroom show mere days after conducting this interview.
It was more of a discussion than an interview really, 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 jibe on his
playfully rambling song, "Jerusalem", which happens to be
the first one on his first, self-titled 1997 recording, a song in which
Bern announces 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 hasnt changed? Or no, youre not the Messiah?
jc: (laughs) The only reason Im asking is Im Beelzebub.
So I guess you and I have a meeting in the desert sometime soon.
DB: Im looking forward to it. Anytime, bring it on.
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. This way I can take it from song to song.
jc: Would you say that your songs are more observations rather than
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 into 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 optimists standpoint or a pessimists?
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, theres a hope, a belief in something.
jc: So youd say writing the songs, even from the pessimists
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 youre just looking to depress people, whats
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 Im going to a show Im expecting
to be uplifted somehow, gain a kind of inspiration from it. Id
hope thats 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
DB: Well that shifts too. Theres some reflection of me. Its
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. Theres
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 universal personality,
even if the listener didnt 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 weve never met, the experiences
of escaping our legacy.
DB: Yes, a song like that crosses over. That song is very much, if not
jc: As opposed to something 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, its like a big mural on the wall. You throw
it up there.
jc: Would you consider yourself a realist? Or do you try and create
a world that is best suited for your art?
DB: Hopefully Im 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 dont think Id be comfortable
sitting 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 cant
be through one lone voice that never changes and shifts. It wouldnt
jc:. Id like to talk about musical style for a moment. Since Im
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, the 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, its probably there. Those
are songwriters Ive 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 its 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, its more difficult to write about it.
DB: Maybe I would feel that way if I were more famous. Ive never
been on Conan. Ive never been on the cover of any major magazine.
I still feel like Im the guy outside looking in. I suppose Ill
always feel that way, you know, the outsider.
jc: You reference icons of culture more than anyone Ive heard,
from Jesus to Henry Miller to Monica Seles to Leonardo DeCaprio to Hitler.
You can tell from listening to your songs youre aware of so much
of your surroundings from a cultural sense.
DB: I dont know. I think Im able to separate it. Its
not like the people Im writing about know me or hear the songs.
Maybe they do, but Im 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 dont have much to do with that. From my standpoint its
a lot of hard work and I dont get a lot of that magical thing,
throwing around a lot of money or having my picture up on a billboard.
Usually Im pissed off because I get to a gig and nobody put our
posters up. Thats kind of the world Im dealing with.
jc: Its still grass for you.
DB: Its more grass roots now than when I first started making
records. I was with Sony for a couple of records. They didnt spend
money wisely. I dont think they quite knew what to do with me.
Every once in awhile theyd throw a bunch of money at something
and youd get the feeling that something might happen, but for
the last several years its 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
Im 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 Im by myself
on the road, and the pallet, the song bag is bigger when Im by
myself. I can play anything I can remember. Even though this band has
a pretty wide array of songs from my bag, and its widening, theres
a lot of places we can go in terms of material. But even with that,
there are limits. And with playing by myself theres just this
connection between you and audience thats 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 thats "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 its limitations to live "in the now"?
DB:Its a personal struggle that I have, really. Ive had
it my whole life; this wish and desire to right wrongs of the past.
So when Im talking, when the narrator is talking, Im expressing
that wish. Im confronting that desire. And I think when God is
talking; Im sort of getting the answer.
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. Thats what I look to. Thats
where I get answers of substance. I think its 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?
jc: (laughs) Good, its the subject my new book. "Trailing
Jesus". Ill get you a copy.
DB: (laughs) Yeah, Id love to read that.
jc: This discussion was actually quite inspirational for me, since Im
going on a promotional tour for the book and Ill be on the other
end of the phone trying to avoid direct answers of theorem in the work,
and still give acceptable answers. Youre pretty good at that.
DB: Well, thanks. (chuckles) Im sure youre up to the task
yourself. You know Ive 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 cant go too
© James Campion April 2003
Jame's Book Trailing Jesus on-line
Campion On 'The War in Truth'
is no way the radical Muslim hatred of the US will be any worse or lessened
in the wake of this invasion. We are dealing with thousands of years
of religion fanaticism..'
REASON AT THE FORT
CHECK with James Campion
are real now. Not even Georgetown is answering my calls'.
know what the Axis of Evil is? Money. Money. Money.'
on Hackwriters by James Campion
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