Under the Radar: Dan Bern
By Jordan Becker
Dan Bern should not be under anyone’s radar. Not only is he an incredibly prolific songwriter — only a small fraction of the thousand or so that he has acknowledged writing have been officially released — he is also an artist, a poet, a novelist, a children’s book author, and a filmmaker. His stage banter and lyrics are funny enough that he could definitely do standup. He has written songs for movies and television, and is a pioneer in online performing. He tours constantly, and what with all of those songs, he probably never plays the same set twice.
Bern’s parents were refugees from the Nazis. His father, a concert pianist, fled to Palestine in 1939 and later met and married his mother, a singer and poet. In the 1950s they moved to Iowa where Bern, the rare Jew in his small town, focused his attention on music and baseball. Apparently recognizing that success for people of his faith is more likely in music than sports, Bern moved to Los Angeles, where he became a fixture on the folk scene in the 1990s.
Bern has the ability to be profoundly silly and seriously profound, sometimes in the same song. While he writes about a wide variety of topics, a significant number of his songs are about love and sex, celebrity, religion, art, politics, and sports (mostly baseball and tennis, but not exclusively). So his music hits a number of cultural hot buttons and never stops making you think, even if its message is sometimes camouflaged by humor.
And now, the elephant in the room. Dan Bern sounds like Bob Dylan, his fellow Great Plains-born Jewish singer-songwriter. Bern can’t avoid the obvious comparison, and he has embraced it, once wisecracking, “I guess Bob Dylan was sort of the Dan Bern of the ’60s.” Even more, he released a song “Talkin’ Woody, Bob, Bruce, and Dan Blues,” a hysterical homage to Dylan’s “Song to Woody,” in which Bern allegedly tries to recreate Dylan’s visit to Woody Guthrie by breaking into Bruce Springsteen’s house and confusing the Boss by insisting that he is on his deathbed, thus inserting himself as the direct heir to Guthrie, Dylan, and Springsteen. Not that there is anything wrong with that; as we will see below, Bern honors these and other influences through the covers that he has played live and occasionally recorded.
MP3: Dan Bern – I Ain’t Got No Home (Woody Guthrie cover)
Dylan’s “Song to Woody” was apparently one of the first songs he ever wrote, and he played it for Guthrie when he visited him in the hospital. Dylan’s visit to the dying Guthrie has attained the mythical status of the torch being passed to the voice of a new generation. When Dylan first emerged, he was often compared to his idol, having adopted many of Guthrie’s mannerisms, much as Bern is often compared to Dylan. But Bern is certainly aware of his direct debt to Guthrie, and has performed a number of times at the Guthrie Center in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, located in the former Trinity Church, once the home of Alice Brock, who, as you might be aware, owned a certain restaurant and hosted a Thanksgiving dinner that couldn’t be beat. Not surprisingly, these gigs often included Woody Guthrie songs, including this classic lament. And, as is so often true in folk music, Guthrie based his song on older material – in this case, a gospel tune. This version, by the Carter Family, has all of the sadness of the Guthrie version, but none of the politics.
MP3: Dan Bern – Visions of Johanna (Bob Dylan cover)
Of course, Bern does a mean Dylan cover. In this live performance, also from Great Barrington at the defunct Club Helsinki, Bern performs a powerful, faithful version of “Visions of Johanna.” Considered by critics to be one of Dylan’s greatest songs, this enigmatic classic was reportedly written at the legendary Chelsea Hotel, itself the subject of what seems to be hundreds of songs, including one by Bern.
MP3: Dan Bern – Thunder Road (Bruce Springsteen cover)
Coincidentally, it would appear, the original working title of “Visions of Johanna” was “Freeze Out,” and Bruce Springsteen has always maintained that he has no idea what the title of his song about the creation of the E Street Band, “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out,” means. Unfortunately, I can’t find a version of Bern covering that song; instead, here’s a cover of its fellow Born to Run track, “Thunder Road.” Bern performs this in a solo acoustic style, and the audience joins in at the end, adding some of the instrumental flourishes that can’t be created by a single guitar.
MP3: Dan Bern – Sylvia’s Mother (Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show/Shel Silverstein cover)
Like Bern, Shel Silverstein was a man of many talents — in addition to writing songs, he was an artist, cartoonist, poet, and playwright, and like Bern, he could be both poignant and funny. “Sylvia’s Mother,” which was a hit for both Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show (on the singles charts) and for Bobby Bare (on the country charts), tends toward the sad side of Silverstein’s work. Bern performs the song with backup from his occasional collaborators Common Rotation, with guest violin from multi-instrumentalist Jason Crosby, probably best known as a non-blood relative member of Robert Randolph’s Family Band. The violin adds a degree of mournfulness to the song’s already-sad lyrics, and is a fitting nod to another of Bern’s influences.
MP3: Dan Bern – Mind Games (John Lennon cover)
When asked “How did John influence you as a songwriter?” Bern responded, “The bravery, the openness, the melody. I was a Beatles fan before anything else and I always liked John the most.” That’s not surprising, when you consider John Lennon’s wit, concern for the downtrodden, obvious songwriting talent, and multiple artistic endeavors. Again, when playing tribute to his influences in song, Bern plays it pretty straightforward. When it comes to the Beatles, though, he is sometimes willing to have some fun, as you can see in this medley of a few of their songs, or hysterically, in this non-cover, “The Fifth Beatle,” in which he tells about his dream of the Beatles not breaking up. Instead, Yoko becomes the Fifth Beatle, and as time goes on, other rock luminaries join and leave the band. Bern hilariously sings some of the imaginary co-written songs (like a great Cobain/McCartney collaboration), which the audience at the annual John Lennon Tribute seems to appreciate.
Bonus MP3: Phil Moreau – Le messie (Dan Bern cover)
If you had to pick a signature song for Bern, the one that his fans expect to hear when he performs, it probably is “Jerusalem,” a song that hits a number of his standard themes, and is both touching and funny. You can read more about it here. This cover, by the Quebecois musician Phil Moreau, is in French, a language that I don’t speak, so you have to take his word for the fact that it actually is a translation of the original. Bern liked it enough that he linked to it from his own website. To me, this cover raises the question: is Quebec French so different from France French that it makes what is usually a beautiful language sound unpleasant, or is it just Moreau’s delivery?