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Published: 2001/11/19
by Dean Budnick

Dan Bern’s New American Language

Dan Bern has a dream. Well okay, he has several. Review his deep catalog of music, a portion of which appears on his five releases, hundreds more which he dips into in the live setting and you’ll see that these topics include both the profound and profane (the Oklahoma City bombing, Marilyn Monroe’s hypothetical marriage to Henry and not Arthur Miller, the Jonesboro, Arkansas school shootings, Chares Manson’s last name and his own testicles to name but five). But on the title track of his new album New American Language, Bern intones:

“And I have a dream of a New American Language
One with a little bit more Spanish
I have a dream of a new pop music
That tells the truth, with a good beat and some nice harmonies
I have a dream”

These lyrics inform much of the interview that follows. It is well-worth noting, though, that New American Language is Bern’s most robust disc to date, containing a number of wry pop-culture-inflected musings but also touching on broader topics as well with Bern’s signature wit and vigor. In addition, he is backed by a full band {the International Jewish Banking Conspiracy] not only on the disc, but also on his current tour, which concludes in Anchorage, AK on December 15. An evening with Bern offers discursive monologues by turns trenchant and surreal (sometimes simultaneously so), oft-twisted audience participation and above all else, plenty of engrossing, ruminant music. Stop by for more details.

Budnick- I’d like to start out and talk about the role of tradition in American music and how significant it is to your own efforts.

Bern- On the one hand there’ so much to draw from but it’s kind of like being the ninth brother in the family of eleven and you have to struggle sometimes to establish your own identity.

Budnick- You have that song Taking Woody, Bob, Bruce, Dan Blues” [on Bern’s last release Smartie Mine] which touches on the issue. In writing and performing, to what extent do you think a musician should be mindful of heroes and influences?

Bern- I think that comes out in the music itself, in the style and obvious inescapable sounds, cadences, rhythms and rhymes. Like in that song, I feel that those guys are older brothers and they all were four-sports stars in high school and everybody loved them and they’ve got a million trophies on the shelf. Then its like you feel like you wanna do those sports too and you have the right and the ability too and all the teachers will say “Ahh I had Bruce in my class. He was really good. I loved him, he was a great kid.” [Laughs] Then you can quit or take a complete departure that might not be you or you can just keep going and find your own voice.

Budnick- You had your own struggle along these lines?

Bern- For a long time when I was singing I would actually hear somebody else's voice because I was so familiar with those voices and they were such a part of how I came to be doing what I was doing. These reference points can provide support as well as be crutches. But in my case it was gradual and a process because I started to shed those things. Sometimes they outlive their usefulness in a certain way, not that you can’t go back to them and revisit and get the same thrill that you got before but you stop relying on them for your own expression.

Budnick- Well to return to your sports metaphor, one difference is that they were playing on a more level playing field, in that radio in particular tended to embrace a wider span of sounds. Nowadays things have become more atomized, with rather tight niches.

Bern- I don’t know to what extent those guys paid a whole lot of attention to radio, Maybe Bruce and Bob at some point. And although they weren’t Elvis in terms of a million number one singles, they did have access to that. I have operated under the assumption that I have no access to any of that but maybe there’s a freedom there too. I can do anything I want and there’s no thought of any restriction, there’s nobody telling me, “Well if you just cut nine of these verses,” (laughs) or “This is not a suitable subject matter,” or whatever. Again, it’s a double-edged sword. People who are writing for radio have a certain discipline but there are restrictions.

Budnick- Have you ever given serious consideration about doing what needs to be done to become a pop radio hero? You reference a re-imagined pop music in the title track of New American Language

Bern- In times gone by I may have said, “God, if I could just get a song on the radio” But people have said that the worst thing that could happen is to get just one song and that’s the only song people know you by. They suggest that it would not be a satisfying thing. It’s weird because people will ask for songs and I’ll have no idea how they would have heard them and oftentimes I didn’t even know them anymore.

Budnick- Let’s talk about your live shows. At times you can be a forceful presence on the stage. In your mind what responsibility does a performer have to an audience?

Bern- I think some musicians feel a huge responsibility to their audience. I talked to Janis Ian once and she’s been playing “At Seventeen” for a while now. I said, “Do you ever get tired of singing that song?” She said, “No I sing that song at every show because that’s what people come to hear and I’m responsible to them in that way.” Some musicians feel a very spiritual connection to their audience, some feel that this might be the only time in the month that people come to sing, dance and let go and they feel almost a religious responsibility to provide that.

Budnick- How do you feel?

Bern- I do feel a lot of that. I feel incomplete unless someone comes away from one of my shows and they’ve laughed, cried, sung and maybe danced depending on the situation. Interaction is really important, connection is really important. Although you can’t run out there and have their experience for them. I think it changes from show to show and tour to tour. Right now in these timesRight after September 11 I thought, “How can I go tour now?” which in a few days morphed into “Well I have to go tour now, it’s the only thing to do.” I’m not a fireman or a demolitions expert. So right now I’m not feeling as demanding of the audience as I sometimes have. There have been times when I’ve been confrontational, when I insisted that they participate in certain things and pushed and cried until that happened. I guess I’m feeling a little bit gentler right now and I think that people are coming together and I feel like my job right now is to provide fun and music and a place to feel something real and connected.

Budnick- I can remember at one of your Berkfest sets you were up there by yourself and everyone was sitting down listening, except for one woman who was twirling near the front of the stage, really slowly. I would imagine that is something you didn’t see, at least not in the early days of your career.

Bern- As I’ve grown up and loosed up I’ve come to welcome an ever-widening spectrum of people who are listening and do whatever. Maybe ten years ago it was important to me to feel like everyone was hearing every word, digesting every word I’m saying. But now I feel that if someone wants to express themselves while I’m playing that there’s infinite room for that. If I see someone painting or dancing or stripping off their clothes, whatever, that’s alright. I’d rather have them doing that than feeling like they have to be stiff like they’re at a lecture. It makes me freer.

Budnick- Now you’re out with a band. Was the decision to tour with a group a reflection of that attitude?

Bern- Well I think we pick up more rhythm and more melody and it’s just more musical. There are some restrictions, though, I guess you could say. I’m less likely to totally go off on tangents but I think we pick up a lot. It’s much more likely that people will dance, and I think its a richer musical thing, a bigger experience- a bigger experience for me and a bigger experience for somebody who’s there watching. It’s a less literary experience. It’s less like a book reading.

Budnick- Since you brought that up what do you think is the relationship literature and music?

Bern- I think a song is lyrics, melody and rhythm all worked together. Or let’s say words and music, words and melody, because I think rhythm is in both, the lyric and the melody, so it’s half of the equation. To me if there’s a twenty minute musical jam that’s great but that’s not a song. If a poem is read, it's obviously a hugely rich thing but it’s not a song. A song is the words wrapped together with the music, so the literary aspect is part and parcel of it, it’s just not the only thing. People come up to me and say, "You're a poet,” and I say, “Thank you” but in my mind poetry is without the music. I understand the poetic strains of it, how it resembles poetry but we say “His swing was poetic” so we use that term loosely. To me a poem is strictly just the naked words on the page.

Budnick- Moving back to the band, I know that when you perform by yourself you do so without a setlist, just allowing the show to flow as you see fit. To what extent have you modified this approach with the group?

Bern- When I started out by myself and I became more comfortable that allowed me the freedom to depart and not feel like I was lost or that it’s okay to be lost because I knew how to bring it back. I think it’s also a function of the audience. Certain audiences will allow for more of that than others. With the band, we just played a show in Dallas and the guitar player said, “Man you’re becoming like Zappa as a band leader.” It was a crazy, crazy show. It was like I was conducting an orchestra at times and in two a half hours we played seven actual songs and the rest was just other stuff. It was very improvisational. Right now we’re at the beginning of a tour but once we have everything really nailed down then that allows for freedom and improvisation.

Budnick- Are you able to draw on your full catalog of music with the band?

Bern- They’re all very aware and encouraging of that. A couple of them probably know three or four hundred of my songs and the other two probably know a couple hundred, and I always have the freedom to just play something by myself or play a section by myself. I think that all of the shows we’ve done so far have been pretty different and we’ve covered a fairly big swath of the kind of things I’m likely to do. It seems like every show we do we covers new ground.

Budnick- How would you place your latest release, New American Language within the context of your work?

Bern- I think as a record it’s the best one. I spent a lot more time with it than any of the others. I think there’s a lot of songs on the other records that I still do and always will be important and relevant and special for me but with those I felt like I had moved on before they were even out. It was hard sometimes to go off on a tour with those records and play more than a couple of songs. This one feels different. At this point I feel more connected to this one than I did with the other records at a similar point. After September 11 I was really glad that we made the record that we did. For instance if we had made Fifty Eggs and then this happened I think it could have felt obsolete and not the right tone. This one grew out of a lot of changes, the millennial changes and some personal stuff that almost mirrored that, so it was very personal and much less pop culture-driven, so it feels maybe a little more timeless than the others.

Budnick- Was it difficult winnowing down songs from among the hundreds you have?

Bern- It always is and the funny thing is while you’re trying to narrow songs down you’re also continuing to live and reacting to the process so new songs get written. Like “Estelle” [From Dan Bern] got written while we in the studio doing that one, and “God Said No” got written while we were in the studio doing this one. I find that lot of songs emerge while we’re in the process.

Budnick- I can imagine certain people taking issue with “God Said No,” particularly if they’re not listening that closely. How do you react to that sort of feedback?

Bern- I try to remain neutral in that I sort of throw out the highs and the lows. Somebody can come and tell me that listening to a song got them through a suicidal moment and saved their life and at that point I’m glad. “Thank you for telling meand where did I put my coffee cup?” And somebody can tell me, You’re the antichrist,” or “Why did you do that, it was too painful I couldn’t hear that?” I have this song “New York City 911,” a lot of it is almost reporter-like, sort of like “Oklahoma” or “Kid’s Prayer” along those lines but about September 11. Of all the songs I play people react particularly to that one and mostly positively but sometimes someone will say, “That song was too harsh, too painful, I couldn’t hear it.” That’s one side of the coin and I say, “Thank you for telling me that but it’s important for me to write it. It’s important for me to play it. That’s what I do and not everything is for everybody.”

Budnick- I’d like to move back to the new release. You sing “I have a dream of a new pop music That tells the truth, with a good beat and some nice harmonies.” Do you think that possible?

Bern- I think it’s always possible. That’s a dream that you almost have to have, a meaningful yet widely heard and accepted music is what every musician and generation looks for I think. Phil Ochs wanted to do that. That’s why he got into that Elvis gold lame suit. He wanted to combine Dylan and Elvis, I think he wanted to find that new music that told the truth and sounded good.

Budnick- Do you think we’re any further down the path than he was [Editor’s note: Ochs took his own life on April 7, 1976]? And if you do, what makes you think so?

Bern- Speaking personally, I never thought I’d get to the point where I can go from coast to coast Alaska to Florida to the Northeast and across the Midwest. When I do, there are people I have no idea how they got there and no idea how they know the songs. When you’re seventeen you dream that by the time you’re eighteen you’ll be playing for millions but you work through that and now I feel like I’m ahead of the game. So faith, man, I keep a lot of faith. Faith in everything right now. It would be easy to say. “What’s the point, if I open an envelope I might die. If I get in a plane to see my honey I might die,” and it’s easy to say “Forget everything.” But then you realize that’s always been true, it’s just more apparent and obvious right now. But I approach everything with faith. For instance I’d much rather be hanging home with my honey right now than running around the country with a bunch of guys in an RV but with all of us, we don’t put it in so many words but there’s some belief that it’s important.

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