Today’s Feature – January 12-13: Dan Bern

January 12, 2008 at 11:21 pm (Today's Feature)

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Recently, I was flipping through the channels and happen to stop on this video. Not MTV or VH1 but ironically, on “Good Morning America”. The video (which aired on Saturday, December 29) featured viewers who sent in clips with 3-word messages; written down, each in its own unique way. Some spoke of overcoming struggle; ‘I’m Still Here’, ‘I Miss You’ wrote another. The video was a message of hope and optimism for the upcoming year and the soundtrack to this message was Dan Bern’s hit song “Baby Bye Bye”. Referring to the song’s use, Bern says, ‘I think of songs as, you know, like chairs that you make. And you want to see ’em used. It’s not like the song’s being used to sell trucks.’

It is that philosophy that Bern takes into every aspect of this work. He’s an artist in every sense; musician, writer, painter and even comedian. I know the last one may not fit with the others, but when you lay down practically half the soundtrack for the hit comedy of 2007-2008, “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” starring John C. Reilly, you have to have some sort of versatility. An even better example is with Bern’s release, “Breathe”. Bern’s take: ‘There’s something mystical about it I think. It’s the only record I’ve made that I didn’t go completely nuts at some point.’ Luckily for us, Bern is rereleasing his past albums as well which will once again involve me needing more space on my hard drive (iTunes, why do you tempt me so!).

When you find yourself filling your iPod with the Bern collection, song after song, running through your head, into your days and permanently placing a smile on your face, you’ll feel realived. Relieved in the fact that once again, true artists are in this world, alive and kicking. Bern says his influence comes from all corners, ‘I don’t always have control over it. It can be in a car, a bar, anyplace.’ Remember this when you find yourself “out of control” as you let Bern’s message overcome your new year. Check out his XXQs to find out more.

XXQs: Dan Bern

Pen’s Eye View: How and when did you first get involved in music?

Dan Bern: My Dad was a concert pianist and composer. He had a cellist over one time, Paul Olefsky, and they played. I thought it was cool. Up til then I had only been around piano. So I started playing the cello the next year, when I was six. When I was about 14 I quit the cello and started playin guitar. Needed more of a song instrument at that point.

PEV: Was there a certain point in your life when you told yourself that music was going to be a career rather than a hobby?

DB: Well, I got pretty serious about it in college. After that I went to Chicago and started playing seven open mikes a week. From that point I always put the music first, even though I had a bunch of different jobs along the way.

PEV: Growing up, what kind of music were you listening to? Do you remember the first album you ever purchased?

DB: The first record I bought was called “Tom Jones: Live in Las Vegas.” I got it for $2.98 at the hardware store uptown. Pretty cheesy. Great though. I mostly listened to the Beatles for a long time. And the Monkees. And my folks had the Tom Lehrer records, which I memorized. And then later, when I was about 14, I started listening to old folk and blues and country. And a lot of that is still my favorite stuff to listen to. But when I was falling asleep, my Dad would be practicing. Mozart, Chopin, Liszt, his own stuff…

PEV: Tell us about the first time you performed live. Did you think, then that you would be where you are now?

DB: I was just so scared beforehand, I think I was just relieved to get through it alive. But I liked doing it right away. That connection you get with an audience. Nothing like it.

PEV: What can people expect from a live Dan Bern performance?

DB: I don’t know, I’ve never seen one! I guess it’s different from tour to tour. Sometimes it’s with a band, sometimes not. We used to go to great lengths to involve people, get ’em to sing, come onstage, whatever. Or we’d unplug and go play in the audience. Or get everyone to leave and go outside and we’d sing in the street. Or make up songs. Anything. Just make it real, make it about that night.

PEV: Your song “Baby Bye Bye” was featured on the “Your 3 Words” segment on “Good Morning America”, on Saturday, December 29. The segment was a tribute to people’s survival of this past year and dreams for the upcoming year. Did you like the way your song was utilized?

DB: Yeah, I thought it was cool. But I almost always like it when my songs are used in different mediums. I think of songs as, you know, like chairs that you make. And you want to see ’em used. The segment you’re talking about, it had people sending in little videos with little 3-word messages. How can that not be cool? It’s not like the song’s being used to sell trucks.

PEV: Tell us about your work with the new comedy, “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” starring John C. Reilly. You wrote and co-wrote 14 of the 30 available songs on the soundtrack. How did you get involved with this project?

DB: Jake Kasdan, the director and writer, has been a good friend for a long time. He used my song “One Dance” in his first film, “Zero Effect,” some dozen years ago. Jake first told me about the Dewey Cox idea a year and a half ago, before there was even a script. I loved everything about it, and started writing Dewey Cox songs right away. Later I got to be involved in the whole collaborative aspect, with Jake and Judd Apatow and John C. Reilly, and Mike Andrews the music producer, and I wrote a whole bunch of songs with Mike Viola, who’s an incredible writer and musician. It was all really fun, and I hope to do more things like that.

PEV: How is your current album, “Breathe” different from your previous works as well as different from other music out today?

DB: Kinda hard to say. It was a group of songs written in a short amount of time, 2 or 3 months. It’s kind of a particular thing–the place the songs are coming from, how they sound, and all that. There’s something mystical about it I think. It’s the only record I’ve made that I didn’t go completely nuts at some point. Maybe because I was living on the beach in Malibu and saw the sun come up every morning and swam in the ocean and heard the waves all night. Or maybe it was the Ativan.

PEV: You recently re-released your 1998 self-released album, “Smartie Mine” and others. What made you decide to bring that back and how has your musical styling changed since that album?

DB: Well, that one’s now on itunes, along with some that never came out before, ‘Macaroni Cola’ from 2000, ‘The Burbank Tapes’ from ’98, to name some. It kind of appeals to me, the notion that people can get music now and there doesn’t have to be anything manufactured, no trees, no oil used up. I was ordering some DVDs of some old tennis matches, like McEnroe-Lendl, stuff like that, and it was all available. No big P.R. thing, but if you want them, they’re there. So I figured, what the hell.

PEV: Out of all your writing, is there that one song that still sticks out as the most special one? Why, yes or no?

DB: Not really. There’s ones that I still play after a long time. Jerusalem, Tiger Woods, Chelsea Hotel, Wasteland, I still like playing those. But mostly, I’m more interested in the new stuff, the stuff that seems more immediate. Or stuff that’s been around that I haven’t recorded yet. I have a couple of batches that are probably 2 separate records at least. So those I think about.

PEV: Who is currently in your CD player or on your iPod right now?

DB: Tampa Red. Big Bill Broonzy. Willie Dixon. The new Springsteen. Mike Viola’s “Lurch.”

PEV: What up and coming artist do you think we should all be listening to now?

DB: The Mammals. Chris Chandler. Janos, out of Las Cruces. Greyhound Soul.

PEV: In all your travels, which city do you think offers the best appreciation for music?

DB: Anchorage, Alaska. I guess not that many people make it up there. For whatever reasons, they make it seem worth your while. I think they think I’m a major star everyplace else, like Paul McCartney maybe. One time I finished a tour there with my band, the IJBC. At the end of “Alaska Highway” I swear there were 100 people on stage, singin and dancing and carrying on.

PEV: How is life on the road for you? Best and worst parts?

DB: When it’s going good, you just never want to stop. When you have a good band and the crowds are good and everyone’s having fun. Then it’s great. Of course, there are the other times too. When it’s lonely and you feel like it doesn’t matter that you’re out there. But you just never know. Lousy gigs can turn into great gigs in a moment. And you just never know what’s gonna happen, who might turn up. I’ve had great gigs with 5 people and crappy ones with 500.

PEV: When you are not traveling or performing, what can we find you doing in your spare time?

DB: I don’t really have a strong boundary between “work time” and “spare time.” I might be riding my bike or playing tennis, and have some lines running through my mind. So, I’m working. But the work is fun, or it isn’t any good. So, it’s all spare time. When it’s good it’s just a flow. Right now I’m reading my tenth Murakami book since the summer. He’s right there in a very short list of my favorite writers. Fante, Hemingway, Salinger.

PEV: You offer a lot of downloads on your site for fans. What is your opinion on the heated debate over downloading and file sharing music off line?

DB: Is that still a debate? Seems like it’s out there now. If you can get a buck a song, great. Sometimes people are gonna get music without paying for it. And, really, that’s probably how it should be. The music is supposed to be spread around. Would you rather have someone not hear your song at all? I don’t think so.

PEV: What’s one thing, people would be surprised to hear about you?

DB: I did the voice of Howard Cosell on a recent monday night football, introducing Dewey Cox. I gave Wilt Chamberlain tennis lessons. I write a sports column for the hot springs herald in New Mexico. I wrote a song with Hunter S. Thompson called “shit on your chest.” I met Gale Sayers when i was a kid. My uncle was a mathematician. My mom saw Kristallnacht happen. I met McLovin.

PEV: When you sit down to write music, what kind of environment do you surround yourself in?

DB: I don’t always have control over it. It can be in a car, a bar, anyplace. When I’m around home, I have a studio space that I go to. There’s a bunch of instruments, some recording stuff, my painting stuff, a ping-pong table…

PEV: What one word, best describes Dan Bern?

DB: In German, they have these really long compound words that can contain a lot of information. Like “Gitarremundharmonikasangerundliedermacher.” Which means, “guitar player, harmonica player, singer and songwriter.” So maybe that’s the one word. Or else, “Cheeseeater.”

PEV: So, what is next for Dan Bern?

DB: Dunno. I’m hoping someone calls me and wants me to write a bunch of songs for their next movie. I’ve got a fast pen and I’m ready, so…I ‘ve got some records I want to make. Some pictures to paint. And one of these days, I’m gonna play a boxer in a movie. Just like that DeNiro fella. And, of course, I might want to do some bullfighting.

For more information on Dan Bern, check out www.DanBern.com

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8 Comments

  1. Paul Como said,

    Dan’s music blows me away. So many great songs that have been heard by so few. Does that qualify Dan to be the most underrated artist of all time? As many songs that Dan has recorded of his wonderful music, I would like to see Dan record a double album of covers, as only Dan could do. For example-Jimmy Rodgers-Visions of Johanna-El Paso-Springsteen(twice)-Kinks-Beatles and as many as Dan’ imagination will let him. Thanks for your time-Ciao

  2. Pedro said,

    A one-man wrecking crew. Saw him perform “Lithuania” at the Clearwater Hudson River Revival in ’97 maybe, and afterwards I told him, “You made me proud to be a Jew, even though I’m an Irish-Catholic.” There is a great deal of depth to his writing and character, and, yes, he is underappreciated, but that’s because he’s unwilling to play someone else’s game. “…if you judge me tonight, judge me by the songs I write — that’s who I am to you.” — Black Tornado

  3. j scott gallagher said,

    me love bernie long time. if you’re reading this but haven’t heard the music start with
    smartie mine and work your way backward and forward. time well spent.

  4. Vike said,

    No one like Dan. Who else would write the Viking Song after spending three whole days cycling and walking around Manhattan in that summer before 9/11?

    Dan is one of a kind and although he doesn’t really sell the idea, he’s what’s best about being American – free-spirited, tolerant, rocking and compassionate – and he’s got a song to sing.

  5. eva said,

    After 11 years of friendship, hundreds of concerts that I’ve seen with him over the years, I have recently decided that Dan Bern is one of the best songswriters of his generation. If you don’t believe me, ask Utah Phillips.

  6. michael larkin said,

    dan is the best -in a world where mediocrity is rewarded dan is the breath of fresh air who treats every lyric as a new canvas he is the truth and american conscience that comes from guthrie townes van zandt springsteen and dylan long may you thunder up the noses of the hawks that have dragged the american flag torn and battered in the mud

  7. maren said,

    Saw him first and last time in Germany, very small town, not very well known, near Hamburg. LOOOOONG time ago. Think must have been in the early 80th.

    Was so impressing that I never forgot….and just for some time ago I found him again…Was not really expecting to find that much about him. (honestly ! Even though I was very happy that it was so 😉 )

    Was just a try – And here we go. Still the same impressing music…after all this years!

    Some music just touches you so much ….impressing!!!!

    I still like his version of “Es geht über den Main eine Brücke von Stein….balalala…..

    Never heard it before and never after but it is still in my head like so many other songs from this night and they still sound after as if it is live 😉

  8. Sean said,

    I was at that IJBC wrap up show in Anchorage. That’s a show I’ll never forget. One of my favorite live performances. In fact, I shared the mic with Dan on the Alaska Highway Song…along with 100 other fans. Dan’s the best. I have caught nearly every show he’s played in Alaska since the mid 1990s! I was searching his site to buy tickets for his December 4th show in Homer at Alice’s Champaign Palace. If you have never seen Dan, catch a flight to Anchorage. He is playing several shows through December 9.

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