The Write Job

Among those devoted to the preposterous notion that they can support themselves by making music, the recitation of day jobs is a hallowed form of commiseration. At its worst this ritual comes off as a kind of macho bellyaching, a self-pity sword fight. But the day-job comparison has more noble forms, as well. To fledgling players it offers the promise that, no matter how shitty the pay, no matter how painful the degradations, no matter how remote the prospect of fame, there is always a chance. For full-time musicians, recalling the day jobs of yore is a way of keeping the senseless serendipity of fame in perspective.

Which is no problem for singer/songwriter Dan Bern, whose lengthy day-job resume remains frighteningly fresh in his mind. "I've had some weird ones, no doubt," says Bern in a recent phone interview from San Francisco. "I spent half a year listening to both of Los Angeles's all-news stations and writing down every news story they read. It was like being hit in the head with two hammers at the same time. I taught tennis for a few years and gave lessons to Wilt Chamberlain -- that was my claim to fame. I wrote articles for various things, a literary journal in Chicago, the L.A. Times. So for a while I was walking around thinking I was a young Ring Lardner. Oh, and I was a bouncer at a jazz club. That was pretty mellow. I only had one guy ever take a swing at me, and he was so drunk I blocked it with seconds to spare.

"Then I got this one job promoting a restaurant where I had to stand out on the sidewalk with a fake organ grinder and a fake monkey. It got so bad that I actually called the cops on myself. I told them there was this man with a fake organ grinder and a fake monkey creating a public nuisance. A few minutes later a cop car went screaming by. I guess they had the wrong coordinates."

Far from bitter, though, Bern is apt to emit an adenoidal chuckle at the absurdity of it all. These days he can afford to laugh. After years of toil, the self-described "flat line" of his career has taken a sharp upward turn. Last fall Sony's Work label released a six-song EP, Boy Dog Van, which sent critics into paroxysms of praise. A self-titled debut has just been released to similar ballyhoo, compelling some scribes to compare Bern's work to songwriting legends such as John Prine, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, and, almost invariably, Bob Dylan.

While Bern bristles at the Dylan comparisons, there is no denying that his electrifying brand of folk rock calls to mind early Bob -- the nasal twang, the rich melodies, the wheezing harmonica, and of course the sly, poetic lyrics. The connection runs even deeper -- like Dylan, Bern is a Jew who was raised in the terra incognita of the Midwest. After fleeing Lithuania in 1939, the elder Bern, a classical pianist and composer, traveled to Israel and England before taking a job as a professor of classical music at a small college in Mount Vernon, Iowa.

"Yeah. Unless you live in or near Mount Vernon, you haven't heard of it. But it was a nice place to grow up. For a town of 2000, there's a good mix: farm people, college people, town people."

Bern (his folks shortened the name from Bernstein) was brought up in a home defined by classical music. His mother and sister both played piano and sang, and he eventually mastered the cello. The whole family was one sedate, Mozart-happy unit. That is, until young Dan hit puberty. "I remember playing a lot of Aerosmith and, of course, I took up the guitar, which is not the most melodious thing when you start out," Bern relates. "There were a couple of tumultuous years there. It wasn't so different from what other kids go through, except my family was all classical musicians."

Fortunately, Bern took a quieter approach than his early heavy-metal heroes. Like his father, he became a composer. A composer of folk songs. "I write a song pretty much every day," he explains. "No matter what I'm doing or who I'm with, no matter if I'm happy or depressed. That's what I spend my psychic energy on."

His move to Los Angeles nearly a decade ago did signal his descent into day-job hell, but it also put him at the epicenter of the music industry. He spent five years working open-mike and coffee-house gigs, which is how he came to the attention of Chuck Plotkin. The famed producer, who had worked the boards for both Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, was instantly taken with Bern. His enthusiasm, however, was not shared by the boys at the labels. Plotkin shopped Bern to the majors for five years before he found a home at Sony's Work imprint.

Bern took a brief respite last summer to record his debut; apart from that, his life has been one highway-striped blur. "I put 60,000 miles on the van last year and expect to cover about 80,000 this year," he notes. The road is not just his figurative home; he has no permanent address.

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