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.
"In L.A., you can't completely ignore the business aspect of things, because that's basically what the town is about. But I tried to make sure that it was never my prime focus. Because it's a catch-22. If your main focus is to get signed, then your focus isn't on music."
So Bern did his best to put the music industry out of his mind and his songs into it. He penned new ditties at a killing pace and toured the country playing them. No joint was too far off the beaten path. "The places I've most enjoyed going are the out-of-the-way places, like way down south in Texas, south Florida, Alaska, northern Montana, West Virginia--towns that you can't get to by staying on the interstates. That's where you get the local takes, and you realize that the country really is very different from what you read in the papers."
The audiences Bern faced during these jaunts generally were unfamiliar with his work--and many of them expected a quieter, more sensitive, more David Wilcox brand of folk than he delivers. "That happens quite a lot, actually," he says. "The people that I sort of would camp myself with are people like Ani DeFranco--people who come at you more with a machine gun than with a feather. And so when I'm on a bill with people who are different than that, the reactions I get can run the gamut from pleasant surprise to shock. But even if things don't go all that well, it doesn't bother me that much. I tend to think that if I offend people, I'm offending someone who needs to learn to laugh again."
By the same token, only a few of Bern's numbers are purely comedic; the rest are a knotty blend of elements that range from absurdity to tragedy and back again. And as Bern knows all too well, the problem with being multi-layered is that a lot of folks stop at the surface. That's certainly been the case with "Hannibal," from Boy Dog Van. Its first image--"Let the niggers burn down nigger town"--is enough to stop many listeners in their tracks. "There have been a lot of people who've taken that the wrong way," Bern admits.
How should it be taken? As a satire on willful ignorance, not a celebration of it. In one "Hannibal" verse, Bern sings, "Hitler never hurt a soul/I read it in a book that I finished up just this morning/I was happy and I couldn't wait to tell the good news/To all of my dead uncles." Later, he barks, "When they tore down the Berlin wall/Everybody danced/But between what I feel and what I say/There's a thirty-foot barbed-wire fence."
Obvious clues, you might say--but not obvious enough for some people. Still, Bern chooses not to dumb down his art in order to reach the lowest common denominator. "I've got some new songs that go a step beyond what I've recorded so far," he allows. "I feel like I'm breaking new ground. And if it has any value at all, it's because I don't censor myself."
"Words can get in the way as much as they can clarify," he elaborates. "And if words that we use are three or four steps removed from the actual reality of things, then they're going to start to seem less useful than no words at all. So I guess I feel like if you're going to use words, you should make them mean something close to what's actually going on. That's what I strive for, anyway."
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Plenty of critics believe that Bern hits the mark more often than he misses it. Their acclaim, coupled with Plotkin's muscle, finally convinced the movers and shakers at Work to offer him a contract, and the rapturous notices that greeted Boy Dog Van seemed to validate their decision. Dan Bern is receiving the same treatment: Although it's been in stores for only a few weeks, the reviews so far have been gushier than Old Faithful. In addition to the strong word of mouth, the platter's also received a modicum of airplay on commercial stations--a rarity for a folk-based offering. Bern is pleased with the response, but he knows better than to go overboard.
"People say they like it, so I guess that's good," he says. "But I don't have any idea what's going to happen with it. And even if it does well, it's not going to change what I'm doing. It's not like once the album came out I had to say, 'Well, maybe I'll go out and do three months.' I would have done three months anyway. It's my method of living--to drive from town to town singing songs that, hopefully, people will like. And if they don't, I'll drive to the next one."
Dan Bern. 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 23, Acoustic Coffee & News, 95 East First Street, Nederland, $8, 1-303-258-3209; 8 p.m. Thursday, April 24, Wildflower Theatre, 500 West Main Street, Lyons, $8-$10, 449-6007; 8 p.m. Saturday, May 3, Swallow Hill Music Hall, 1905 South Pearl Street, $8-$10, 777-1003.