Let It Bern

Dan Bern makes folk music. But you might like it anyway.

Singer-songwriter Dan Bern is of the rather old-fashioned belief that words--as in lyrics--actually matter. Too bad most of the ones that show up in popular music are so banal.

"We live in a very polite time in some ways," he says in a halting yet intense voice that only occasionally rises above a stage whisper. "I don't think we live in a polite time given the ways that people treat each other or think about each other. But I think we live in a polite time in the ways that people are publicly allowed to speak.

"We're exposed to all kinds of thoughts, ideas, language and actions every day, but the ways too many people communicate about them seems very disconnected to me. Ninety-five percent of the time, songs that are supposedly dealing with this stuff are just so much soft soap. And I never believed that those are the only things people would be able to stomach--or what they actually need to hear."

Put another way, Bern is a composer who wants his songs to have an impact. But that doesn't mean his work is dogmatic or inaccessible. On the contrary, his well-circulated 1996 CD demo, Boy Dog Van, and a self-titled full-length just released by Work, a spinoff of the Sony music empire, grab your ears instantly and refuse to let go, in part because they're so immediate, unvarnished and straightforward. Sometimes Bern's funny, sometimes he's not. But he's always undeniably real--a well-rounded person with a point of view he's going to verbalize whether you like it or not.

Sometimes Bern's opinions are decidedly off-center. For example, "Marilyn," the first single on Dan Bern, allows him to point out that Marilyn Monroe didn't marry Henry Miller--but he thinks that if she had, she might still be alive, in part because she would have "smoked a lot of opium" and "dyed her hair blue." Even when Bern is being less surreal, though, his perspective is invigoratingly brash. Take "It's Too Late to Die Young," in which he warbles, "When Elvis died, it was like a mercy killing/America breathed a sigh of relief," or "Jerusalem," a track that kicks off both the demo and the long-player. The latter tune begins with a romantic couplet--"When I tell you that I love you, don't test my love/Accept my love"--that seems positively prosaic until Bern gives it a jolt with his very next line: "'Cause maybe I don't love you all that much." A few strums later, Bern declares himself to be the acoustic messiah--the one for which Jewish, Christian and Moslem music lovers have been waiting.

Musically, these cuts are very much a part of the folk-music tradition, and when Bern delivers the rhymes that accompany them in his braying, proudly nasal voice, the result will either remind the average observer of Bob Dylan or of the innumerable new Dylans (like John Prine, T-Bone Burnett or Elvis Costello) who rose in his wake. Bern has heard these comparisons often enough to be ready with jokes intended to divert them: When asked about the Dylan references that appear in virtually every review he's received, he asks, "You're talking about Marshal Dillon?" Moreover, he's delighted by the suggestion that members of the younger generation think of the former Robert Zimmerman, if they think of him at all, as little more than a crotchety old loon who mumbles through incoherent versions of old songs on award shows. "Hey," he says, as if suddenly discovering a new career opportunity, "I can do that."

Beneath this bravado, however, Bern is clearly annoyed by the Dylan allusions. "People are going to hear what they're going to hear," he notes, "but I don't hear it, and the people who really know my music don't hear it. I want people to understand that I'm not doing anybody else's thing. I'm doing the Dan thing."

The Dan thing is rooted in Mount Vernon, Iowa, the farm community where Bern grew up. His father was a music professor who viewed classical music as the be-all and end-all, but Bern had other ideas. He took up the guitar, and by the mid-Eighties, he was in Los Angeles, playing original songs for spare change at open-mike nights. It was in such a setting that Chuck Plotkin, a producer and engineer whose credits include discs by Bruce Springsteen and (yes, you guessed it) Dylan, first heard his material and decided to take him on as his personal cause. But in spite of Plotkin's connections, music-industry types didn't knock themselves out trying to boost Bern's career. "Sometimes A&R people sniffed around for a while," he recalls, "but usually they went away."

For the most part, Bern kept these disappointments in perspective and refused to alter his music to fit the marketplace. But there was an exception. "I had a really stupid band for a few months back in the early Nineties," he concedes. "It was mainly a laboratory thing; basically, it was somebody else's idea that if my music was presented in such and such a way, people who didn't understand it would. The problem was, I didn't understand it, and I couldn't understand how anybody else would. That led to personality disputes, which I think mainly happen when something isn't working. And so we mercifully disbanded--and I learned a pretty good lesson.

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