The International Writers Magazine: New York Stories
Two Months, Two Novels, A Dozen Songs, and One Serious Bonfire
mayhem, Ani DeFranco and the wild Mr Bernstein
week of March Bernstein calls me from the road. "Im in Oklahoma,"
he says. "Buying porn and The Anarchist Weekly". I was excited,
but reticent. He called again, and again. Reports from the road: Hes
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
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. Im
She backed away, but I could tell Id convinced her. Brandon Kessler
from Messenger Records was there. He did not appear nervous. "Im
in the damn thing," he said.
"Were 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. Im going to burn my manuscript
and send the charred remains to my agent." He wrote back on mine.
"Its good. Its bizarre. I need more reality."
I wrote back, "Less dialogue!" He wrote back, "I dont
know what Im 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 childs 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
"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 wasnt stable.
I hadnt 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. "Im here
to write songs. Im here to make noise. Im here to put things
He wrote a song about it. "The Presidents 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 wasnt ready. I didnt 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. "Lets paint like we dont 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 cant submit this,"
she said. I told her about Kerouacs toilet paper roll and "On
The Road" and the puke stains on Bukowskis best work. She
didnt understand. I told her my novel was recently optioned for
a Hollywood film. "Its bizarre, needs more reality,"
Bernstein said, continuing to pull dog-eared, stained pages from his
"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. "Im 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 Presidents 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. "Hell 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 Bernsteins novel. "Jesus, man, these
are serious charges," I told him. "Bernsteins not even
here to defend himself. Hes 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 Bernsteins 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 dont
work for Ms. Magazine," she said. Yet she believed my story. She
told me shed 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 womens
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, its Bernstein!" his message began days later.
"The publisher rejected my manuscript! Fuck it! Ive been
rejected by better than them. Were gonna beat this thing. Were
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
isnt one. Bernstein rewrote the novel C. M. accused him of stealing.
"I know all about C.M.," he said. "Hes mad. I stole
nothing. He wrote a childrens book about science. I wrote about
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 dont
know if Ive seen a better bonfire than the one that burned on
lower Broadway that night. Goddamn, if Bernstein didnt come through.
"More reality!" he shouted from the hotel window. I hate his
guts. I will miss him.
© James Campion May 1st 2004
High Stakes in the White House
DiFranco Interview 04
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