On "Jerusalem," the first song from Dan Bern's self-titled debut album, the singer's therapist suggests he "Get it out in the open." Similarly, anyone writing about Bern must also get it out in the open -- the comparison, that is. With his nasally voice and sprawling lyrics, Bern has been compared to Bob Dylan ad nauseam. While mostly favorable, such comparisons are bestowed with a dose of skepticism -- is this guy just some poseur, or is he the real thing?
There's no denying that there is a derivative quality to Bern's music. But it's no accident -- he's obsessed with American icons, like Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and yes, Dylan. And references to everyone from Marilyn Monroe to Monica Seles to Mother Teresa (who Bern guesses "must have gotten horny sometimes") find their way into his music. Clearly, with all the buzz that has surrounded Bern's recent tour, there's a demand for his '60s-style sincerity. As Eric Weisbard pointed out in a recent review of Bern in Spin, "Even Dylan won't sing like '60s Dylan anymore."
Though Bern's lyrics are sometimes painfully earnest, the subject matter is often downright hysterical -- take "Talkin' Alien Abduction Blues," for example. Swirling and sarcastic, Bern's lyrical style falls somewhere between a Douglas Coupland-inspired pop culture rant and an op-ed piece for the Nation. Like Ani DiFranco, Bern waves his folk flag high but refuses to be confined, allowing punk and blues influences into his songs. Bern also puts out some top-notch pop: "I'm Not the Guy," the first single from the album, could be the catchiest tune of the year.
As thoughtful and down-to-earth as the music he writes, the soft-spoken fledgling folk hero spoke with Salon during a recent tour date in San Francisco.0
Your producer, Chuck Plotkin, has said that you come at things from an "outsider's perspective." Do you see yourself that way?
Yeah, I think so. I've always felt slightly on the outside of things. When I was growing up in Iowa, I was the only Jewish kid in the school. My parents were foreigners. I never felt anti-Semitism or anything, because there weren't enough of us to constitute any kind of threat (laughs).
I don't think I'm some kind of complete just-off-the-boat outsider. There's actually a song that I'm going to play tonight for the first time that talks about this -- I'm not sure yet if it's called "Lithuania" or "Ghosts of Lithuania." It talks about straddling two worlds: "One foot in the black and white/Two-dimensional ghosts of Lithuania." That's my relatives, who I've never met. [Bern's father escaped from the Nazis; many of his relatives perished in concentration camps.] "And one foot in sunny California/Where people are all friendly and drive their Mercedes to the mini-mall/And take lunch and network with you/Or drive by and kill you for no reason." So it's kind of like that. I think if everybody has some kind of struggle, I guess that's mine.
What other outlets did you have growing up besides music?
Sports has been a big influence for me, in the same way I'd tune in to the Beatles and very Western musical forms. Maybe it's for some kind of grasp on American identity and rootedness. For the sports icons, it's very similar to singing -- it's entertainment in the guise of something else. Personally, I take a huge amount of inspiration and learning from watching people do something at a very, very high level. I aspire to that in whatever I do, and rarely in the world do we get to see people interacting at such a high level.
I was watching the Bulls' game the other night, and there was so much there. It's everything genius. It's genius intersecting with these personalities -- born leaders who are this close to going off, but who are keeping it together. Dennis Rodman is not an act -- he is so fascinating, so dangerous and so effective, and so potentially destructive to himself and his teammates.
You're finally going to take a break after two years on the road -- where are you're going to go?
I'm not telling (laughs). It's a big deal for me to be taking a break. I'm like a soldier, just keep marching. Right now I've got no home. Just a P.O. box and an answering machine in a friend's closet. It turns out that I see more people and I'm in touch with more people when I'm traveling. The problem is, I don't get to spend much time with them. What's that like? It's just part of it -- probably weird if you stop and think about it, but you don't. Things like refrigerators and beds become incredible luxuries. When I can go out and come back to the same place, that's incredible.
You have a song called "Talking with Woody, Bob, Bruce and Dan." What would you say to those guys if you were all in a room together?
I don't think I'd say very much. I'd be very quiet and hope they wouldn't see me hiding behind the couch. That's like asking a ballplayer would you rather sit down with Babe Ruth or Ty Cobb? What are you going to talk about?
So what are you trying to say with that song? It seems like in some of your songs, you are actually trying to pair yourself with singers who have come before you. But when I called your manager to set up this interview, she begged me not to talk about
the Bob Dylan thing, to compare you to Dylan -- she said you were sick of that line.
Since I gave my manager those instructions, I decided I don't care if people ask me about it. Of course it's a compliment, it's great. But it's stupid to play the guitar and write songs after [Dylan] and not learn anything. It's only on that song, really, that I talk about him. I was just trying to have fun.
There's this old legend about Bob Dylan visiting Woody Guthrie when he was really sick in the hospital, dying. Woody let him hang around, and from a historical perspective, Woody kind of anoints him and then Bob goes and carries the folk torch. So the song is basically this silly song about me breaking into Bruce's house and climbing in his bed, and trying to convince him that he's actually really in the hospital and he should anoint me, but he throws me out. And I go down the street looking for Prince or somebody.