One-of-a-kind, adjective-defying, hyphen-provoking American folk musician born in Iowa to Lithuanian Jewish immigrant parents; influences include another, better-known Jewish boy from the Midwest, Woody Guthrie, Bruce Springsteen, Michaelangelo, Van Gogh, and many more; also the title of said artist's first full-length album. See below for further details.
So. Way back in the day when I was a young noder and dinosaurs roamed E2, my writeup on singer-songwriter Dan Bern was my first to ever earn a C!, thanks to Metacognizant. The most important part of what I wrote then went as follows:
After having spent several concerts within feet of Dan Bern live, I'm starting to feel like I know the guy. He's funny, talented, spontaneous, prolific, creative, and gives every indication of sincerely giving a damn about the world he tours and writes about, no matter how irreverently. Plus he talks the blues.
Since that time, I've noded reviews of several Dan Bern songs and albums, but this writeup has gone relatively unchanged. Until now.
For one thing, panamaus suggested that there was more to be said about the artist sometmes known as Bernstein, and I can only ignore a hint like that for a few months. For another, I finally got to see Dan perform with a band (the International Jewish Banking Conspiracy) in June 2003, and it was a revelation, especially when I got to see him as I thought I knew him best, solo, in November of that same year. The contrast between those two performances and the early, lonelier, solo Dan was striking, and much of this writeup update is inspired by the artist's transformation.
"...if I were really cool," I wrote in my journal on the Greyhound bus ride home from Portland, Oregon, where I saw Bern in November, "I could write a review of this concert that was a also review of Dan Bern himself. Since I'm stuck on a bus for the next two hours and the gal next to me is talking to the dude in the seat behind but won't switch seats to get next to him (the code switching is fascinating but distracting) I might as well try to write and be cool. Right? I dunno. Something about traveling makes it appropriate to write about Bernstein... and I guess I'm hearing his New American Language right next to me, one with a little bit more Spanish and everything... yep. I better be cool."
Let me pause briefly to reassure my readers that I'm not very cool. Bern/stein fans in particular will be particularly reassured, I'm sure, to hear that I am nowhere near as cool as the guy I'm trying to write about. When I saw him in November 2003, it was Dan Bern all by himself, one guy and one guitar but, as Hamell on Trial might say, not just folk. Sure, the phrase singer-songwriter kinda leaps to mind first thing, but that suggests a certain image and style, and Dan Bern does nothing if not defy expectations. This is, after all, the guy who opened for Ani DiFranco back in 1997 when it was still mostly hardcore radical feminist queer chicks at her shows, and Bern(stein)'s act led off with the words "I've got big balls." (The obvious joke is that he proved the truth of that statement simply by uttering it in front of that particular audience, but I digress.) An even better first impression might be the opening track of Dan Bern's eponymous debut full-length CD and the 6-track EP that preceded it, dog boy van. I'm referring, of course, to the song "Jerusalem", and in particular the lines
Don't ask what kinda music
I'm gonna play tonight
Just stay awhile
Hear for yourself awhile
And if you must put me in a box
Make sure it's a big box
With lots of windows
And a door to walk through
And a nice high chimney
So we can burn, burn, burn
Everything that we don't like
And watch the ashes
Fly up to Heaven
Or maybe all the way to India
I'd like that
There's not much biographical information available about Dan Bern --- he chooses mostly to let his music speak for him, although it's often hard to tell where the fantastical imaginations begin and the autobiography ends. Bern's lyrics are liberally spiced with references to famous figures, mostly from American history and pop culture --- Elvis, the Beatles, Kurt Cobain, John F. Kennedy, Adolf Hitler, Henry Miller, Marilyn Monroe, Pete Rose, Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson, Charles Manson, Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Vincent Van Gogh, Monica Seles, Martin Luther King, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and ever so many others. Looking back on that list, I should mention that other favorite Bern/stein topics include art, literature, and of course sports, especially baseball. (A popular rumor about the singer is that he used to play in the minor leagues, although I have not been able to confirm or deny this claim --- which, I feel obliged to mention, at one time appeared in his "official" biography, but has since been replaced by somewhat less surreal copy). Another recurring character is God, although Jesus and other Biblical types are featured from time to time as well. Bern often appears alongside these characters, as in songs like "One Thing Real" and "Talking Woody Bob Bruce Dan Blues", which features such notables as Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen, all of whom are in some ways Bern's musical ancestors, and he knows it. He also doesn't hesitate to make fun of these great old ones as readily as he mocks himself --- he does a piercing Dylan imitation and a scathing Springsteen, as he did at the November 2003 concert I'm ostensibly writing about here. Nothing is sacred to Bern/stein, or perhaps everything is --- it's hard to tell the difference.
I said, "Maybe I love everyone."
She said, "That's the same as loving no one."
I said, "Okay, I guess, whatever."
--- "New American Language", New American Language
It's just a question I ain't necessarily leaning either way...
Are you gonna follow your soul or just the style of the day?
--- "Soul", Fleeting Days
Alternately happy and sad, slow and up-tempo, comical and serious, reverent and sacreligious, most of Bern/stein's work, especially the full-length albums, makes my list of music I wouldn't mind being stranded on a desert island with. In particular, I very rarely tire of either New American Language or Fleeting Days. The full list of Dan's albums to date is as follows:
- dog boy van (1996, ep, Sony/Work Records)
- dan bern (1997, Sony/Work Records)
- fifty eggs (1998, Sony/Work Records)
- smartie mine (1998 double album, Chartmaker Records)
- New American Language (2001, Messenger Records)
- world cup (2002, ep, Messenger Records)
- the swastika (2002, ep, Messenger Records)
- Fleeting Days (2003, Messenger Records)
- my country II (2004, ep, Messenger Records)
- breathe (2006, Messenger Records)
- Divine and Conquer (2007, download only)
- The Burbank Tapes (2007, download only)
- Macaroni Cola (2007, download only)
- Two Feet Tall (children's album, 2009)
- Live in Los Angeles (2010)
- Live in New York (2011)
Dan is also the author of Ted the Cow, which you must read to believe. I have an autographed copy from the first time I saw him live, at Exile Books and Music, where I was too shy to be a groupie but the bookstore staff physically dragged me after him to have my purchase signed. (That was also when I first met Miki, aka Random Girl, aka Dan's webmistress and my random internet friend. I think she was even more freaked out than I was. But I digress.) Other writings by Bern include Merton the Hawk and Other Stories, released at the same time as New American Language, a travel diary that accompanies World Cup, and the preface to Quitting Science by Cunliffe Meriwether.
Here is the track list for the CD dan bern:
- Go To Sleep
- King of the World
- Too Late to Die Young
- I'm Not the Guy
- Never Fall In Love
Many thanks to everybody who noded lyrics.
Updated 4 April 2012 just to bring the past 5 years' worth of discography onto the list.... uh, I've got some serious catching up to do, not just on those albums but also on Dan's various movie soundtrack contributions.