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.
Despite what might seem sensible, Bern does not sound especially eager to get off the road. "I try to have two or three days off every two or three weeks," he says. "But playing shows is what I like to do. All the other stuff -- traveling, promoting -- that's something you have to do. My time on-stage is when I get to let all that go and do my thing."
Bern tried to use the same approach in the recording studio. "It was fun, a very improvisational thing," he says of the sessions for his new album. "We basically recorded with what we had on hand. Some of the songs have backing musicians who are really just friends of mine. Some are just me banging away." Dan Bern, produced by Plotkin, is a remarkably diverse offering, ranging from folk laments ("Wasteland," "Queen") to chugging pop ("I'm Not the Guy") to sneering social commentary ("Go to Sleep"). The best stuff here is those deliciously indefinable cuts -- big, raucous songs told by strangely illuminating idiots such as the self-indulgent painter who spins the eight-minute epic "Estelle," or the ranting troubadour who proclaims himself "King of the World." Pop culture fixtures inhabit Bern's songscapes, but in wonderfully mutated forms. Marilyn Monroe, for instance, traipses off to Paris with Henry Miller; Pete Rose perishes in an airplane crash and winds up in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
"We live in a time when there isn't a lot of shared knowledge. Everything's splintered, like on the radio," Bern observes. "So I like to use characters that people are familiar with, as a way of communicating about real issues. I have this song about Joe Van Gogh, Vincent's son. Now I suppose you could say a lot of long-winded stuff about how hard it is to escape the shadow of your parents and make your own way. Or you could write a song about Joe Van Gogh and let him talk."
The issue of stepping out of the parental shadow is no small one for Bern: "I was always the black sheep of the family because I didn't pursue classical music. It was difficult at first for my parents to relate to what I did because it was so far outside their realm."
Despite the death of Bern's father, and friendly relations with his mother and sister, he still struggles with the psychic hold of the past. "I didn't realize to what extent until I decided I wanted to put some cello on the albums we recorded last summer. The first time I picked up the instrument it freaked me out, because I wasn't just picking up the cello, I was picking up my childhood. There was this flood of associations and memories, and I said, 'I can't do this.'"
Bern put the instrument down and went to bed. The next morning, he marched back into the studio and added cello parts to three songs. (The instrument's mournful undercurrent can be heard, most notably, on "Wasteland.") "I was shocked by how much I retained," Bern says. "I guess I'd been storing up those memories for when I needed them."
Among the hundreds of songs Bern has penned and performed, there is one he has yet to finish. "I've been working on this song 'Lithuania' for years," he notes. "It's about my family history, I guess, about my effort to find my place in all this."
The song has haunted him through all the shitty day jobs he ever held, all the miles on the road, all the hassles of fledgling fame. He swears he wants to finish the thing, to have some sense of closure. Then again, irresolution hasn't been so bad for Bern. He's been making some sweet music in the meantime.
Dan Bern performs Friday, March 21, at Stella Blue, 1661 Meridian Ave, Miami Beach; 532-4788. Showtime is midnight. Cover charge is $5.
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