Dan Bern has a tough act to follow. Not Bob Dylan, nor Elvis Costello or the half dozen other established artists to which his singing and songwriting are inevitably, and positively, compared. No, the ghost that will haunt Dan Bern, should he ever grow complacent, will be that of the early Dan Bern. Or, more precisely, his current repertoire, songs that are to the intellect what a day at a world-class roller-coaster park is to the body. The man takes your mind to the brink of a steep incline, suspends it there for a pregnant moment, then drops it mercilessly into a convoluted, logical spiral.
During his performance at the recent Music Waste Festival (His reason for opting out of the higher profile Music West? "It's not some huge statement either way. These are my friends. It feels psychically right."), he sent the audience on a 360-degree loop-the-loop with what was then his latest song. Its inspiration? "I was in Colorado, tired from going from one gig to another. I just wondered about how sometimes you want to feel like you're doing some great thing and other times you want to feel like you're basically okay. For whatever reason, she [Mother Teresa] popped into my head and I wondered if she felt those things too." A nice simple premise, two chronic do-gooder idealists out to save the world, yet questioning their right to do so. Yet in Bern's warped, but humourous, lyrical extrapolation, the questioning evolves from 'great things' like salvation and sainthood to a more earthly issue and the startling refrain, "Mother Teresa must have got horny sometimes." Not a thought I, for one, care to linger on for long.
Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Tiger Woods, Henry and Arthur Miller, Pete Rose, Marlon Brando and other such icons populate Bern's songs as well -- but never as you'd expect. In "Too Late to Die Young," from his current self-titled CD on the Sony label, Bern suggests that, had Elvis died young, his image untarnished (as did James Dean), America would have "breathed a sigh of relief." A "mercy killing," as Bern postulates it. In "Marilyn," on the other hand, he speculates that she might still be alive had she married Henry, not Arthur.
So why this fascination with the fates of the great -- late and otherwise? "It's just natural for me. I think of them as touchstones." Touchstones! An interesting word to choose. It means a criterion for judging something. And the critical judgment on Bern is that he, like many of the aforementioned, is destined for fame if not greatness.
If his lyrics are to be believed he knows it as well as anyone: in the song "Jerusalem" he sings "I am the Messiah," and in "King of the World" he arranges to have himself elected to that lofty position. And, lest there are Doubting Thomases among us, Bern punctuates his live performance with a song that boasts of his "big balls... big as small dogs." But, just when you're about to take offense at this unbridled egoism, he plants tongue firmly in cheek with the after-thought that the only problem with having big balls is that you "wish they were bigger."
Of the vanity of it all, Bern, who is surprisingly modest in person, says "I have some songs where I go just as far except it's the other way... the depressive side, the manic things. It's just about trying to express the way you feel. Sometimes you feel bigger than the world and sometimes you feel just like a roach." Examples? "'Wasteland' or 'Rome.'" In the former he laments "I saw the best of my best of my generation playing pinball" and takes the listener on a depressing ride through contemporary society, inundating the listener with images that grow darker and more pessimistic with each twist and turn, relentlessly doing what Bern does well, confronting his listener with an image of the world "so there's just a bit more grit to the teeth."
An experience, in this writer's modestly humble opinion, not to be missed will be Bern's return to Vancouver for the Vancouver Folk Music Festival (July 18-20 at Jericho Beach), possibly solo or possibly with a band ("I'm sort of straddling the fence right now."), but doubtless with a mind boggling arsenal of new material -- he writes nearly a song a day -- and hopefully with further word about a project he mentioned as we concluded our conversation: "I might put out a book this summer of a whole bunch of other stuff that I've written. Some stories and some poems and some drawings. All the lyrics. I'm trying to figure out if I want to do that, actually, to figure out if it's okay to be available, or if I shouldn't be."
It's okay, Dan. Be available. You might just rescue a generation from their video games and pinball machines. And I, for one, will nominate you, horny or not, for sainthood.
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