Dan Bern

Sharps & Flats is a daily music review in Salon Magazine

By Joe Heim
Published April 28, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Dan Bern has a Tori Amos problem.

He vomits words, sets them to music and somehow thinks this makes him an inspired songwriter.

Much of what you need to know about the post-punk neo-folksinger can be summed up in a verse from "One Thing Real," a song off of "50 Eggs," his recently released CD:

I'm up here singing these songs every night
Sometimes I wanna just want to make 'em all up on the spot
Maybe they wouldn't rhyme too good and they might not make sense
But then at least I wouldn't be repeating myself

As Henry Miller understood, stream of consciousness works best if your thoughts are uncluttered by clichis or obviousness. And for god's sake, even Miller had an editor. Convinced of his cleverness and facile wit, Bern plunges ahead, turning phrases with the grace of a garden slug, waxing eloquent on the trinity of Jesus, Martin Luther King and Monica Seles.

Berns' lyrics alone are more damning than any critical analysis of them could be. "Oh Sister" -- a song that proves that Bern listened to Don McLean's "American Pie" far too many times -- is meant as a loving tribute to his elder sibling. Indeed, his sister must be remarkable to put up with lines such as:

May your heart purr like a bumblebee
May all your backyards have a tree
May you always be
HIV negative.

"Chick Singers," his adrenaline-fueled homage to a laundry list of female singer-songwriters, includes this memorable verse:

These days it seems like there's a lot of girls who sing
And some of them are good and some of them are not
But it's always kind of cool that moment when they first step to the mike
If I was a girl I could sing real high and also then I'd know what having breasts would be like


"50 Eggs" is painful -- the sort of cringing, embarrassed pain you feel listening to a dreadful amateur comedian or a strident pseudo-intellectual expounding on topics well beyond his reach. His deepest thoughts are of the Jack Handy variety while his humor is closer to Pauly Shore than to his hero, Lenny Bruce.

Of course, it wouldn't be worth going on about Bern's failings if there weren't so many people, including Bern himself, who take him so seriously. His mildly interesting 1997 self-titled debut received many favorable reviews, with a few loathsome critics going so far as to call him the next Bob Dylan (although that had more to do with his nasal whine than with his songwriting ability). A buzz followed Bern, and after cutting a deal with Sony Work Group, Ani DiFranco -- another songwriter in need of an editor -- signed on to produce "50 Eggs."

But maybe Bern is just hard to get. Maybe he really is an idiot savant and not just the former. Then again, this is always the last escape of the truly moronic faux-philosopher: I'm so heavy that no one can possibly understand me. But Bern may have a point. Two hundred years from now, university students just might study quotes from "Different Worlds," his Sesame Street-like summation of black-white relations in America:

We live in different houses
and we drive different cars
We live in different parts of town
and go to different bars ...

Hey we live in different worlds
right along beside each other
Hey we live in different worlds
right up next to one another

It doesn't end there. The song goes on for several more verses, with the word "different" used a total of 38 times in the four-and-a-half minute song. On "One Thing Real," Bern clings to the single straw that may save him:

I'd like to leave America
for someplace where they would
not know a word of English
and I might be understood.

Bern, it turns out, is wrong. In any language, "50 Eggs" would be unlistenable.

Joe Heim

Joe Heim is a frequent contributor to Salon. He lives in Washington.


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