Dan Bern on Smashed Guitars and His Move to Santa Cruz
Singer-songwriter plays Moe’s Alley on the heels of new album
By STEVE PALOPOLI
November 5, 2019
“Now we’ve reached the part of our show where we invite notable people on to ask them questions about things they know nothing about. Speaking of ignorance, a couple of weeks ago we featured a story about singer-songwriter Dan Bern. We reported that during a concert in Santa Cruz, California, he got a bit carried away and smashed a guitar in the great Pete Townsend tradition—and in response, the socially aware crowd shouted insults and booed him off the stage. Well, Mr. Bern has a lot of fans out there, and some of them wrote in to say that it never happened, or that it did happen, but not quite that way. In order to set the record straight once and for all, we have invited Mr. Dan Bern himself onto our show.”
That was host Peter Sagal on the Jan. 6, 2001, edition of NPR’s current-events quiz show Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me, in the wake of one of the unlikeliest national news items to ever come out of Santa Cruz.
As he related after being introduced on the show, Bern had indeed smashed a guitar onstage a couple of weeks earlier at the legendary downtown club Palookaville.
“It’s not one of my prouder memories,” he tells me now, as we sit at a table in 11th Hour Coffee, just a few blocks from where this all went down two decades ago. Bern explains that someone had given him a beautiful Martin guitar once owned by Dan Fogelberg. At some point, it had been dropped, and had a scar where it had been repaired.
“So I’m playing the guitar,” he says, recalling that night at Palookaville. “I had this song called ‘Jack Kramer Wood Racquet,’ and I was trying to get everybody to sing along, because there was this part for that. I don’t know, I’m guessing that maybe they weren’t as immediately responsive as I wanted them to be. So I sorta started channeling McEnroe. I had this guitar, and I was swinging it around like it was a racquet. I dropped it, and when I picked it up, I saw that it had re-broke, and it was unusable in its current state. In that state that I was in of this wild-man tennis player, without a second thought, I just took the ‘racquet’ and started smashing it. And I smashed the shit out of it.”
Which, with all apologies to John Hiatt, sounds pretty rock ‘n’ roll. So why does he regret it?
“Well, it doesn’t keep me up a lot of nights,” he says with trademark dry humor. “But it had these weird repercussions. The story even got picked up by wire services that this had happened. I went on ‘Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me’ in the wake of it—because this had been a news item, so they had me on—and I proceeded to miss all the questions.”
What isn’t true about the way it was explained on the NPR show is that Bern was booed off stage, although he has an idea of how that part got added as the story started to snowball.
“The opener that night was a great songwriter I have a lot of respect for named Jim Page, a Seattle guy. He didn’t know that backstory, he just saw me smashing this nice Martin onstage, and he was rather incensed, and sort of loudly walked out,” says Bern.
In the years since, that night has become part of local music-scene lore, and it was the first big cultural moment to link Bern to Santa Cruz—despite the fact that he lived in L.A. at the time. Now, after years of playing here regularly, he’s actually moved to the Santa Cruz area. Though he’s been here for several months now, his show at Moe’s on Thursday, Nov. 14, will be a bit of a coming-out party for his new native status.
“I definitely felt a connection,” he says of his local link. “Coming here and playing a lot, playing at KPIG. Over the years, sometimes it was Kuumbwa, sometimes it was Moe’s, sometimes it was Palookaville. Adam Bergeron, when he had the Crepe Place, I started playing there, and that was a big connection, too.”
There is one connection he could probably do without, though. “Looking back now,” he says of the infamous guitar smashing, “it’s like, ‘Yeah, that was probably a pretty dumb thing to do.’”
If Bern was a little on edge back then, it’s understandable. After getting scouted by major labels in the early ’90s, the Iowa-born musician broke out of the SoCal folk circles with his 1996 EP Dog Boy Van and 1997 self-titled debut album on the Sony subsidiary Work. His next album, 1998’s Fifty Eggs, which was produced by Ani DiFranco, got a lot of attention for the very funny “Tiger Woods,” with its running theme about the size of his balls (variously compared to pumpkins, plants and the swing of the eponymous golfer) and its hook “Sometimes I wish I was Tiger Woods, Tiger Woods, Tiger Woods.” His career was heating up fast, and the songs were pouring out of him at an unbelievable pace, but if you saw him perform in late ‘90s and early 2000s, he didn’t always seem particularly happy.
“Really?” he says, when I mention it. He pauses for a moment to think about it. “Maybe. It’s so long ago, and it’s kind of a blur. I remember feeling very defiant, and maybe that’s part of that. Defiant in terms of ‘These are my songs, this is what’s going on, this is how I’m feeling, this is what I’m going to play, this is what I’m going to record, this is what I’m going to put out.’ And there was just a ton of backlash. I don’t know, maybe 10 years later, same set of circumstances, maybe there wouldn’t have been. But at that time, in the circles I was playing—especially the American folk festivals—there was a lot of backlash. If I’d been a little smarter, I could probably have done myself a lot of good, in terms of a young career that was getting going.”
Bern did get the cursed “next Bob Dylan” tag for a couple of years, but the off-kilter quality of his musical style—misfit folk-rock that often careened from verse to chorus to points uncharted—and a unique lyrical vision that was equal parts wit and emotion, with a touch of surrealism, established his identity. Still, he was uncomfortable being boxed in to any preconceived notions. In 1999, he put out the double-album Smartie Mine on an indie label, which revisited some of his already released material (including “Tiger Woods”) and was as raw and sprawling as Fifty Eggs had been polished and contained.
“I think at that time, everything I did was in sharp reaction to what I had done before,” he admits.
Never was that more true than his next album, 2001’s New American Language, which was a bit of a shock at the time, but is now considered by many fans to be his finest album to date. With its remarkably layered, gorgeous sonic landscape and songs that varied in style from the Elvis Costello-like opener “Sweetness” to the glittering title track to the closing “Thanksgiving Day Parade”—his moving take on Dylan’s “Desolation Row”—New American Language is filled with more shoulda-been radio hits than arguably any turn-of-the-century rock album.
“If I had done that one while I was still with Sony, it would probably have been big,” he concurs, with a remarkable matter-of-factness. “New American Language probably took well over a year. Will, the guy who produced it, told me that for ‘God Said No,’ he cobbled together 60-some vocal takes. Which was a surprise to me, but I tend to do these things and kind of forget ’em.”
LETTING GO, HOLDING ON
However tightly wound he may have been in the tumultuous early years of his career, he now exudes a warm, friendly calm. He’s clearly in a different place not just geographically, but emotionally. Over the last decade, each Dan Bern release has not seemed like a radical response to the last. Instead, they seem to build on each other, sometimes calling back to past themes. Sometimes he doesn’t even realize when they do. At one point in our conversation, I mention that the fantastic title track of his 2015 album “Hoody” falls into a recurring theme in his work that I think of as the “escape song”—from burying his clothes out in some field in West Des Moines in “Black Tornado” to simply “speaking later and later in the day” or “sitting on the roof today, all by myself, not saying nothing to no one” (in “Go to Sleep”), a lot of his songs feature memorable expressions of the desire we all sometimes have to resist or even abandon completely society’s expectations.
“Wow, I haven’t even thought of that as a theme,” he says, pausing to think about it for a moment. “It’s pretty illuminating, I gotta say.”
Then again, Bern would need some kind of NSA-level big-data sifter to be able to hold onto all the details of what at this point is a massive body of work—only a fraction of which has actually ended up on record. Locals will remember Bern coming on KPIG’s live-music show “Please Stand By” and playing songs like “Opposable Thumb” and “The Fascist in Me,” and perhaps anticipating them turning up on his next record—but instead, they vanished into the ether, along with hundreds of other songs he’s written and even performed live, but never found room for on a proper album.
“Well, what do you do?” he asks sincerely about his flood of songs. “I mean, I worked on this Walk Hard movie. Marshall Crenshaw wrote one song, ‘Walk Hard.’ I wrote 200. Nine got in the movie, 15 were on the soundtrack, but I wrote 200. That’s just the way I do it all the time, but I don’t know what you do with all those. If instead of songs, these were all chairs, I would have to live in a 50-acre ranch. But I keep this 50-acre ranch of songs floating around in my head.”
HELLO AGAIN, TIGER
How comfortable Bern is now in his role as the caretaker of that ranch is evident from the inclusion of the song “Dear Tiger Woods” on his new album, Regent Street. It’s not the first time he’s revisited a song—10 years after he released “Jerusalem” on his first EP, he continued the story on “Breathe,” and he sees both of them as part of a loose trilogy with “God Said No”—but this one is kind of a special case. In the late ’90s, his song “Tiger Woods” got him a lot of attention, but it became a little irritating after a while, and it certainly didn’t help when Woods’ lurid personal life hit the news and derailed his career.
“For a couple years, probably daily people would come up and say something like, ‘Bet you don’t wish you were Tiger Woods now!’” says Bern.
Ironically, though, that shift seems to have given him a renewed appreciation for the song, as he enjoyed tweaking the audience’s assumptions when he played it live. “You want to take those comments and twist them around, so I would relate that and then I would say, ‘But looking at his life … more than ever!’ So just flip the expected script. In the end, it was nice to have some new breath in that particular icon identification.”
Maybe that made him a little more open to the call of the new song, a letter to the golf icon in which he explains to Woods that a lot of people have won back the love of the masses after doing much worse, and that maybe now Woods can find his true purpose in life as a Gandhi-like global guru bringing about a better world, and that he’ll need to assemble a team, and it’s going to have to include songwriters. It also includes a pretty sick Kobe burn, which you gotta love. (Ever the sports fanatic’s songwriter, Bern released an EP of tennis songs in 2004, an album of 18 baseball songs in 2012, and says he still really wants to write a musical about Shaq and Kobe.)
Sometimes when a song hits him, it hits him hard, and that was the case with “Dear Tiger Woods.”
“I do all of these paintings, and I was a doing a big Tiger Woods portrait,” he says. “It was late at night, and I was quite content doing this. And then this song starts—it’s almost like being attacked, I don’t know how to put it any other way. It’s almost like being assaulted. And usually I’m the willing slave of that, you know? I’ll drop everything. In the old days, before we had iPhones, and before I was smart enough to always carry a cassette recorder or something, I’d have to find a pay phone and pull over and call my answering machine. Because if it was just written word, you could just write it down. But if it’s melody, too, or rhythm, then you absolutely have to get it down, and quickly—because as quick as they come in, they’ll leave. But this time, I was like ‘No, just leave it go. I’ve covered this. I’m painting, actually.’ And I went back to painting. Then it just kept barreling through, so I finally put it down and let it have its roll.”
And he was glad he did. “It was exciting that it was a re-visitation,” he says. “It was like reconnecting with a muse, you know?”
Another song on the new album that he loves to play is the title track. As the album’s opener, “Regent Street” shows how Bern can still surprise three decades into his career. The sound is big and bright, underscoring the fact that the band on the album is perhaps the best he’s ever worked with, and contrasting sharply with the increasingly sinister lyrics, which have a Leonard Cohen-esque feel of tiny conspiracies piling up.
“My original way to do it was a lot darker,” he says of the song. “About three years ago, Roger Daltrey got this award in England. I forget what it’s called, but it’s a big deal, and each year the recipient puts together a disc of their favorite songs. And he used a couple of mine [‘Marilyn’ and ‘God Said No’]. That was really nice, so we were in touch a little bit. And he said, ‘If you’ve ever got a song, send it to me, I’ve got a solo project.’ So I sent him that one. And forgot about it, then about three months later he sent me an mp3 of him doing it with a band. And it was basically this version. I loved it. So when I was going to record it, I asked him, ‘Is this okay? I’m basically covering you covering me.’ He said, ‘Yeah, great.’ That’s why it sounds like that. That’s why it has the darkness and the brightness, because I copped his arrangement.”
On his crowded ranch of songs, now transplanted to Santa Cruz, “Regent Street” already has a special place; in fact, he’s played it at every show he’s done since he wrote it two years ago.
“Sometimes you’ll write a song and feel like, ‘Well, this is kind of a big one,’” says Bern. “When I wrote ‘Regent Street,’ I was in London, and I played it for my cousin, and it was almost like she could sense that this was going to be a bigger one for me.”
He pauses again.
“But sometimes you don’t know,” he says. “Sometimes, it’s just another one.”
Dan Bern performs at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 14, at Moe’s Alley, 1535 Commercial Way, Santa Cruz. Bob Hillman opens. $12/$15. moesalley.com.