A Few Minutes With… Dan Bern
By Don Wilcock
Singer-songwriter Dan Bern – who’s appearing at Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs on Friday night (March 31) – exercises his creative muse in so many different directions that if he were an athlete he’d be a musclebound Olympian. He writes songs for films, adult TV shows, kids’ TV shows and has released 24 albums in 20 years. He’s a published novelist. He’s exhibited his paintings. And he’s recently released a book of poetry titled “Reconsidering Nixon.”
On “Luke The Drifter,” from his 2012 CD Drifter, Bern mixes the mundane with the classic, mentioning Dylan in the same breath as 18th century poet Alexander Pope: “And maybe you’re thinking Dylan, but to me it’s just that shit Alexander Pope was running.” He explains: “He (Pope) was running a scam like all of us.”
On his 2015 album Hoody, he has a minute-and-a-half song called “Waffle House” about the difference between the north and south. On “Merle, Hank & Johnny,” he sings: “Got our records up at the hardware/Spent every last dime on rock ‘n roll/But on the radio it was Merle and Hank and Johnny/Buck Owens, Jimmy Rogers and George Jones.” And he’s not being condescending or satirical.
In a modern world where underground cartoonist R. Crumb rubs shoulders with da Vinci, Bern fits right in. “I’ve always had trouble with the let’s call it ‘museum’ side of folk music. You know, the preservationists. To me, the guys who were doing it right were Woody certainly. This is just turf that Bob (Dylan) winnowed out for all of us. He was playing on such a huge playing field, and he gave himself permission to do anything and to juxtapose anything and to have high art and low art in the same line next to each other. So, I guess to me a lot of it was already set out, so that was the path I found myself on naturally.
“Where do you put Bukowski? Did he get his Nobel Prize? Is he in line for a Nobel Prize? There’s not that sort of what we would think of as flowery, poetic direction. It’s like a punch in the gut, really. That’s where I write lyrics, from that place, too. I don’t need a lot of – I’m not trying to be fancy. I’m trying to be as spare as possible even when I’m going off. It’s not about how pretty it is. It’s about how you can get through all the filters that we have.”
Of all the creative exercises he does, he likes performing the best. “I think that’s the thing that feeds me the most. I love everything that I do. Take away any of the things I do, and I would feel incomplete and like something was missing which is why I seek out those serious things, but I think just being able to grab a guitar and be in a room full of people and play my songs or songs I want to, that’s the thing that if you took that away, I’d be in some serious trouble, I think.”
Making movies has some built-in limitations. “Oftentimes one of my friends would call me aside and remind me movies cost a lot of money and take a lot of time, and why don’t I just write the song. So, I write a few of those. I sometimes see all my songs as like this really big odd-shaped house, and each song is a room in the house. I get time to run around in those rooms and play around in those rooms.”
Writing children’s songs is a fun diversion but may be not as simple to accomplish as you might imagine. He wrote songs for each episode of Amazon’s “The Stinky and Dirty Show” and received the 2016 ASCAP Foundation Joe Raposo Children’s Music Award for his work on season two.
“I suppose that when I’m writing for kids, I’m writing for kids. I’m writing with them in mind. The form is different. It’s a smaller form. It’s like a kid-size form, bite-sized. The language is different. Melodies can be a little different – can be. If I’m handed a script and somebody says, ‘Write a song here about this with this feel maybe in a minor key about a minute 45,’ you know.
“It’s like if somebody says, ‘I want a 600-word or I want a 1200-word column,’ it immediately puts some boundaries on, and there are those supports that can be useful and freeing and welcome. So, a kid’s song in a sense, already has some of those strictures on it. If I’m writing completely for myself, maybe there’s some internal sense of finality, too. It’s probably more wide open in that sense.”
Bern will be performing solo at the Caffe Lena, although he admits it’s not his favorite way to go. “I love nothing more than playing with four, five, six guys. All my favorite stuff I’ve recorded has been some collective. That’s what you hear in your head when you write stuff oftentimes. And the more you play with guys, it does definitely inform what you’re writing. So, that’s where the excitement is.”
That said, he understands and appreciates the legacy of the recently renovated Caffe Lena. “A lot of places like that – these incredible old folk clubs – aren’t there anymore. So, the fact that Lena’s is still there, that’s a really cool thing. I can imagine for somebody like you having known the old Lena’s back in 1966 and walking into the Caffe might gulp a little bit, but at the same time, it could have just as easily gone the other way, so that’s really cool, and it’s nice to be part of a new tradition there.”