Music News

Let It Bern

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"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."

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.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts

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