Dan Bern Sings Across America
By MORDECAI SPECKTOR
I met God on the edge of town / Where the wind meets the stillness
Where the darkness meets the light / Where the ocean meets the sky
Where the desert meets the rain / Where the earth meets the heavens
On the edge of town I met God
— From “God Said No,” by Dan Bern
Dan Bern is a troubadour of the road warrior variety. He comes through the Twin Cities on a regular basis, playing at the 400 Club and the Cedar Cultural Center.
During a conversation with the Jewish World from his home in Los Angeles last week, Bern talked about songwriting for movies and TV, a possible collaboration with St. Louis Park native Peter Himmelman, and an upcoming gig at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
The Jewish native of Mount Vernon, Iowa (his late father taught piano at Cornell College), will bring his guitar and harmonica to the Dakota Jazz Club on May 10. This will be his first date at the renowned Minneapolis jazz joint.
Asked about his repertoire for the Dakota show, Bern replies, “I don’t know, man, I’ve got so many songs. I just don’t know what it’s going be from night to night. I’ve been delving into a lot of old country songs lately, just for myself — and some of those come out when I play.”
Perhaps he will perform one of the songs he wrote for the movie Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.
The faux biopic from 2007, written by Judd Apatow and Jake Kasdan, and directed by Kasdan, spins the tale of a troubled singer, Cox (played by John C. Reilly), whose personal life and musical career get slightly jostled on a roller coaster ride of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. Cox is haunted by memories of an untoward childhood incident: he accidentally chopped his beloved older brother, Nate, in half with a machete.
Anyway, Bern, who previously wrote a song for Kasdan’s first film, Zero Effect, wrote or co-wrote (with Mike Viola) 16 songs for Walk Hard. Kasdan also tapped Bern to write tunes for the zany comedy Get Him to the Greek, which also concerns a mercurial, drug-addled pop musician.
“I don’t know what it was… I kind of dropped everything for a couple of years and just wrote Dewey Cox songs,” Bern says, regarding his channeling the fictive musical legend for Walk Hard. “And then Greek came on the heels of that one.”
Walk Hard follows Dewey Cox through varied musical incarnations — Buddy Holly-like rock ’n’ roll, Roy Orbison-type ballads, psychedelic sounds, and surrealistic mid-1960s Dylan. In this latter genre, Bern contributed “Royal Jelly” and “Farmer Glickstein,” brilliantly twisted parodies of tunes by the famous Bard of Hibbing.
A scene from Walk Hard plays on the protagonist’s chameleon-like musical identity, as a reporter at a press conference challenges Dewey Cox: “People are saying that your new music sounds a lot like Bob Dylan.” Dewey Cox, his hair in a teased-out mid-Dylan hairdo, shoots back: “Well, maybe Bob Dylan sounds a lot like me. You know, how come nobody ever asks Bob Dylan, ‘Why do you sound so much like Dewey Cox?’”
Actually, Cox, at times, sounds exactly like Dan Bern’s renditions of Dylan’s music and lyrics in a sort of musical funhouse mirror. And adding a further layer of puzzlement, music writers frequently note that Bern himself sounds a lot like Dylan.
Last year, Bern got to write some songs for a TV series called Hellcats. (I missed that one, too.) The tunesmith explains that Hellcats “is a cheerleading show, but one of the characters’ dad is a songwriter.”
Thinking about Jewish songwriters in Los Angeles, I ask Bern if he knows Peter Himmelman, and he says, “Yeah, sure.” It turns out that Bern has appeared on Himmelman’s Furious World webcast.
“I’m going to get together with [Himmelman] next week,” remarks Bern. “He writes kids albums and we talked about writing one together.” (Himmelman will play the Dakota Jazz Club on May 24.)
Bern came out with an album of children’s songs, Two Feet Tall, in 2009.
In addition to his 18 albums, Bern, who is 46 years old, has published several books of short stories and a novel, Quitting Science. And he paints.
Despite all of these accomplishments, Bern is somewhat reticent and self-deprecating during the interview with the AJW. In the background of our conversation, the Los Angeles birds chirp, and Bern’s young daughter continually beseeches him in her darling voice. She has some questions about the new grass that has been seeded, he explains.
The singer does become more animated when I ask if he likes baseball, which is a theme running through his songs and stories.
It turns out that Bern just completed recording an album comprised of 18 baseball songs, which, he says, “go deep into the lore of the game.” He will perform some of the songs “at Cooperstown [New York] this July 4, I’m playing at the Hall of Fame there.”
By the way, Bern was a Giants fan from his youth, although he lived for a few years near Wrigley Field in Chicago — “I could hear [Cubs announcer] Harry [Caray] doing the seventh inning stretch out my window.”
“I kind of went with the Cubs for a while,” Bern explains. “Now I live about three minutes from Dodger Stadium. So when I go to the game, it’s to see the Dodgers. At this point, I’m mostly a fan of the game.”
Another recent Bern project seeing the light of day, or the darkness of movie theaters, is his soundtrack for a documentary about Everett Ruess, who Bern says was “a kid who wandered through the rough lands of Utah and Arizona and New Mexico by himself, with a burro,” in the 1930s. “He wrote amazing letters and essays, and occasionally poems, about the land and his relationship to it.”
Ruess mysteriously disappeared in 1934, at the age of 20. Filmmaker Lindsay Jaeger’s documentary is titled Everett Ruess Wilderness Song.
Although he is not a household name in the Twin Cities, Bern is a distinctive voice in the crowded singer-songwriter field. His Jewishness comes to the fore on songs like “God Said No,” a story about his plea that God send him back in time: to Seattle, where he could save rock icon Kurt Cobain, who killed himself in 1994; to Berlin, so he could kill Hitler; and to Jerusalem, to pry Jesus off the cross. As the song title indicates, “God said no.”
And Bern’s song “Breathe,” refers back to an earlier song he wrote, “Jerusalem,” in which the singer proclaimed that he was the messiah. “Breathe,” from the 2007 album of the same name, catalogues many of our so-called civilization’s discontents and advises, “Stop what you’re doing and breathe.”
As in his songs for Walk Hard, Bern mixes in a large spoonful of humor, so his upcoming show at the Dakota should veer sharply from the staid and predictable. After all, this is the guy who recorded under the name of Dan Bern and the International Jewish Banking Conspiracy.