Dan Bern is not the smartest man in the world. Nor is he the wisest or the wittiest. Nor does he have the largest vocabulary. But he is honest, and he seems comfortable with what he thinks and who he is, and he brings that honesty, that comfort and those thoughts to his songs. He wants but for simple things. “I have a dream of a new American language,” he sings on the title song of his new album. “One with a little bit more SpanishI have a dream of a new pop musicThat tells the truth, with a good beat and some nice harmonies.” If you listen to him with an open mind, and don‘t approach him with pretension, and don’t laugh at the honesty, the comfort and the occasional goofiness, you may hear that particular greatness present in American singer-songwriters who make music that seems to foretell which way the wind blows.
Which way did the wind blow? Bob Dylan gave us a midcentury America heedless and wild, full of romance and hope and holocaust, mystery in the past, death in the future. “Blowin‘ in the Wind,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “The Times They Are A-Changin‘.” Irresponsible and irrepressible, full of poetry and generalities, Dylan’s music came at a moment when America could afford to make bold, beautiful, stupid pronouncements in politics and love, without paying off the debts that boldness and stupidity in either arena usually require.
Springsteen‘s vision, too, was heedless and wild, full of romance and something like hope. No holocaust, though, just diminished expectations — good jobs and cheap homes in the past, few prospects for the future. “Born To Run,” “Thunder Road,” “Hungry Heart.” Springsteen’s was an America in twilight. Take the lyrics to Born in the USA‘s title track:
Down in the shadow of the penitentiary
Out by the gas fires of the refinery
I’m 10 years burning down the road
Nowhere to run, ain‘t got nowhere to go
But like the America of the ’80s, darkness came cloaked in sentimentality and nostalgia — anthemic choruses, blazing guitars, and lyrics that cloaked the truth in big, stupid smiles. The song continued: “I was born in the USAI‘m a long gone daddy in the USABorn in the USAI’m a cool rocking daddy in the USA.” Only Springsteen would allow a disenfranchised Vietnam vet to describe himself as a “cool rocking daddy.” Ronald Reagan could be excused for using the song in his re-election campaign, confusing an indictment for a celebration.
In 1997, after several barnstorming, play-anywhere, live-in-the-back-of-your-van-type tours, Dan Bern was signed to the Work Group, an imprint of Sony, the company that owns Dylan‘s and Springsteen’s master tapes. He released two records on the label, an eponymous effort produced by longtime Dylan and Springsteen producer Chuck Plotkin — Plotkin also produced Bern‘s latest album — and Fifty Eggs, produced by Ani DiFranco. One can’t help but think that Sony looked upon him as the next in a line of bankable properties. Troubadours of the Zeitgeist can build a brand through good press and touring. It‘s cheaper than the massive marketing campaigns required for most contemporary pop stars. Low overhead. Excellent return on investment.
It didn’t work out. After these two immature efforts, the label folded. Unlike his predecessors, Bern was not allowed to “develop.” It‘s a different world.
So, which way does the wind blow now? Bern’s new America exists in the morning after twilight. It‘s still here — paved over, only intermittently wild, but still full of romance if you have the heart for it. Sometimes it’s even heedless, though when it is, it pays . . .
Bern understands this. He used to live in Los Angeles, but recently he embarked on his longest tour yet, and when it‘s finished, he has plans to move to a small town in New Mexico. It’s named after a game show. It‘s called Truth or Consequences.
Like his predecessors, Bern plays deracinated folk music, although I bet he wouldn’t mind that tag as much as they would. (I also wonder if he‘d understand what the word deracinated means, but to be honest with you, I had to look that one up myself.) When traces of older tunes appear, their provenance as folk songs is dubious. They’re just as likely lullabies (e.g., snatches of “Hush, Little Baby” appear in the lyrics of Bern‘s “Tape”).
This makes sense, because Bern is best when he’s humble, sabotaging the self-mythologizing stories singer-songwriters like to tell themselves about themselves. In “God Says No,” he asks the Almighty to send him back in time so he can kill Hitler and save Jesus Christ and Kurt Cobain, but God denies his wish, explaining that Bern would squander the opportunity. Instead of changing history, he‘d find a German lover, freeze up before the crucifix, ask Cobain’s advice on hunting for a record deal.
The wonder, though, is when Bern makes you believe that small incidents of goodness mean everything. “Sweetness” leads off the record like a bona fide single, with chiming guitars and good hooks and a bridge that whets your appetite for the sing-along chorus. Remember when you were 8 and you rolled down hills but your body didn‘t bruise, and it would make you laugh and laugh and laugh? “Sweetness” is kind of like that, a simple pleasure, a simple sentiment: “What’s there to talk about?What‘s there to figure out?Where has the sweetness gone?Where is the loving song?” Who cares if his lines are short and the rhymes aren’t strong?
We call this music Americana: a steady backbeat with a sugar buzz, keyboards lending both variety and a base line of comfort, twangy guitars tearing off a solo every now and again. Bern‘s voice has the nasal, Okie effect that Dylan stole from Woody Guthrie, but, raised only one or two states away, in Mount Vernon, Iowa, Bern’s Oklahoma is real rather than the permanent dust-bowl, Grapes of Wrath world Dylan occupies. It‘s the accent of contemporary Midwesterners, softened by years of television and pop radio. When Bern gets word-drunk, he name-drops celebrities and brand names, from “Cheech and Rae Dawn Chong” to “Budweiser, Budgetel, Bukowski.” Physically, Bern even looks like the new Midwestern man, milk-fed and huge, raised on grain and growth hormones.
In a way, Bern isn’t an inheritor but a throwback. Like Guthrie, his ego is manageable enough that he doesn‘t mind acting as a newscaster, writing topical songs too hot off the presses to make it onto albums. Recent ones include “America, Hometown of the World” and “NYC 911.” He writes songs that high school kids could quote as epigraphs on their lockers and desktops and yearbooks. One topical song, “Kids’ Prayer,” takes the point of view of a suburban high school shooter. Bern‘s songs are as much about lyrics as they are about music, and while I object in principle, I love them in fact. Today, it takes genial disillusionment like his to make us hold on to hope.
Does Dan Bern possess greatness? Does it really matter?
Comparative literature: Listen to Springsteen’s “Glory Days.” A sad portrait of suburban divorcees and ex-athletes in the ‘80s, characters whose best days were behind them when they graduated from high school, it’s also the sympathetic story of the sad, drunken narrator: “Now I think I‘m going down to the well tonightand I’m going to drink till I get my fillAnd I hope when I get old I don‘t sit around thinking about itbut I probably willYeah, just sitting back trying to recapturea little of the glory of — well, time slips awayand leaves you with nothing, mister, butboring stories of glory days.”
Bern lives for today. On “Albuquerque Lullaby” he sings, “I have a friendSits in his officeWhere he’s had his big successNow he cries all dayHe says the InternetIs stealing his royaltiesTalks of his glory daysI say no one cares about your glory days.”
The closing line of the song sums up his message better than a thousand words. This is why we listen: “Don‘t let your heart get broken by this world.”
Dan Bern and the International Jewish Banking Conspiracy perform at Temple Bar, Wednesday, December 5.