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‘I Tend To Be Louder’: Dan Bern, Performance & Anxiety

I first saw Dan Bern as he strode imperiously from the altar and through the aisles of a church moonlighting as a concert hall. He was singing, "I am the Messiah," from the song "Jerusalem," on his first 1997 CD. And I’ve had a mad crush on him ever since that’s lasted through another six CDs and a perpetual orbit of touring. I’ve seen him in tiny bars with only a dozen people present (and half of them in stupor) and I’ve seen him command the stage at Irving Plaza before a writhing mass of halter-topped teenage girls all of whom seemed ready to storm the stage at the first bursts of his more anthemic pieces such as "Chelsea Hotel" and "Thanksgiving Day Parade." Bern (aka Bernstein) attracts the kind of people who know the words better than he does and who laugh at all of his jokes. I talked to him on tour with his latest CD, Fleeting Days.

Bern on stage has a presence that is both arrogant and self-deprecating, the wit and charm of his lyrics allowing even someone completely unfamiliar with his ever more prodigious oeuvre to feel appreciative. Plus you n ever know what he’s going to do, or how long he’ll stay up there; and with a repertoire of roughly 300 songs, he could be up there quite a while before repeating himself. On this night, he played over two hours and was drenched with sweat by show’s end. A woman who had down-loaded one of his songs (probably from one of the 90 plus websites devoted to Bernabilia) brought it to him, and asked him to play it, and ever-game, Bern attempted it even though he said he’d not played it in years and never in public.

DDM: You play live just about every night it seems. You did two shows that night I saw you, and looking at your website I can see that you are playing nearly every night for the months. That must be a pretty grueling routine.

DB: I haven’t counted how many shows we have. I’ve been playing almost without a break for the last 15-16 months; it’s been a heavy stretch. Starting this summer, I’m going to back off a bit. I’m going to do a little touring this fall, probably by myself, without the band, but not like what I’ve been doing. A few years ago, I took almost 8 months off and just painted. I think about spending a little time in New York and playing the same place once a week for four or five weeksbe a little more human about it than like traveling eights hours, set up, play, break down, leave.

DDM: How long have you been touring at such a pace?

DB: Well, like this? Since about 95, when I completely abandoned the notion of living in one city. At that point I was living in LA. I was pretty sick of that particular way of trying to go about what I was doing. I had got my first taste of this road life. I had met up with a couple of people who were just out touring. One was a poet, really, rather than a musician. I went out with them for a month, and that was my proverbial, "no going back" moment. As soon as I returned to LA, within four days, I sold my car, got a van, gave up my apartment, and I’ve pretty much been on the road ever since.

DDM: In "One Thing Real"(from Smartie Mine) you talk about the problem of repeating yourself and singing the same song every night. That must be what it feels like a lot…

DB: Absolutely. I gotta say on this tour it’s not been a problem at all because we have enough material and a lot of it’s alive and close to me right now…But, you know, there are times definitely, and not just musically—I think it’s true in life for everybody, no matter what you do—when you have to make an effort every day to make things new and vibrant and alive.

DDM: Is it difficult to write when you are on the move?

DB: I can write longer things on the road, that I sort of chip away at in the mornings. In a book called Quitting Science, which I wrote when I was in Europe in the fall, I’m debating that very thing except in it I’m a scientist. Half the time, I’m hanging it up and the other half I’m going, "You can’t hang it up. You are scientist, even if you sit down." I’ve been quitting for the last twenty years, though I’m looking for balance. If I can play tennis and ride my bike and fuck, and do traveling that isn’t always connected to having to go someplace.

DDM: Tell me a bit about the book…

DB: It’s mostly blowing things up. All the experiments are heavy scientific physical things— boiling rats in like, you know ,acids or lard or taking three thousand degrees and then this and then that. It’s pretty much there. And then I’m working on something I started a couple years ago; it’s the bible basically….

DDM: The Bible? I think someone did that.

DB: Yeah, it needed some updating. There’s all these characters Ezekiel and whatnot, and they do all sorts of things, that I’m working with.

DDM: But back to writing on the road

DB: To write a song you have to be completely undistracted forwhatever— an hour or it can be all day; you really can’t be in between other things. It’s hard to set it down and pick back up. A short story or poem is probably like that, but even more so with a song, I think. There’s the whole melody and rhythm. Most people can’t just write down a melody, it’s like catching a fish. You can’t put your pole down come back and hour later. Once in a millennium something might come in a whole piece, like in the shower or something.

DDM: How is the you on stage different from the you I’m talking to now?

DB: I tend to be louder.

DDM: Maybe the amps have something to do with that?

DB: I breathe better. You know when you’re on tour day after day after day, you tend to have a very flat day and keep everything kind of slow and then it all comes out in that time that you are on the stage. And then when it’s over there, might be a little carryover high from that, and then you return to stasis.

DDM: You put lots of women’s names in your songs

DB: Well, I like women’s names.

DDM: But it makes it very specific, doesn’t it?

DB: That’s the whole thing. My whole thing is about being specific. You think, like that song that you mentioned "One Thing Real," you could take twenty minutes and talk about Christianity or you could keep rocking and say, "Jesus, he comes down to me, Jesus he sits down, he says, "Take this fucking cross off my back… Two thousand years is long enough for this particular joke.’"

DDM: Most of your songs have characters; the voices are not Dan Bern

DB: Well, I’m speaking through them. We’re having a dialogue. If you’re picking up a book of short stories and trying to decide whether to read it or not and you look straight down the page and all the margin is left flush and the other one has people talking, which one do you want. The one with people talking, that’s the one.

DDM: What is inspiring you right now?

DB: I am reading some short shorts by Richard Yates and am rereading, "My Name is Asher Lev," and listening to the White Stripes. Nothing is more inspiring to me than nature really. A mountain, air, time. I live in a little town but it’s 70 miles from any real town. I am thinking of moving into the serious country.

DDM: Every other time I’ve seen you play you’ve talked about the world…the other night you didn’t. Was that conscious?

DB: When there is something to say, I wanna make sure I’m generating a dialogue, not just reacting to what’s already out there. For example, I realized the other night that the whole administration is composed of cockroaches. I think maybe their anthrax vaccinations have actually turned them all into roaches. We thought that the war in Iraq was about so-called Weapons of Mass Destruction, but it’s really about those barrels of insecticide. If you look really close look at a picture you can see it in their dead fish, dead cockroach eyes.

DDM: I heard that SARS is caused by cockroaches

DB: That’s what I want to be saying. It’s bigger than thatbigger than I could deal with the other night.

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