Dan Bern: A Dylanesque singer in the Holocaust’s shadow
Dan Bern can’t escape the Bob Dylan comparisons:
Songwriter who plays guitar and harmonica, solo or with a backing band – check.
Sardonic songs about love and ambiguous relationships – check.
Lyrics ripped from the headlines – check.
Name-dropping of cultural icons – check.
Small town Midwestern Jewish upbringing – check.
Lyrics that aren’t always fit to reprint in this paper – wait, that’s the ghost of Lenny Bruce, whom Bern also channels.
Here’s how he’s different.
For one thing, Bern, whose first album came out in 1997 and is playing at Mexicali Blues on Sunday night, Feb. 27, has actually written more songs. Dylan has sung of politics, surrealism, heartbreak – but seldom on the same album. For another: Dylan’s last topical song was in 1985. Here’s Dan Bern on the economic crisis:
Now that our economy is going to the dogs
Maybe we’ll sing and dance and make love
Like they’ve always done in Spain
Maybe we’ll be like the folks in Argentina
Who know how to laugh
And take their showers in the rain
Bern’s most recent record – “Live in New York,” released last month – features one new political song – “Talkin’ Tea Party Blues” – and two songs concerning last June’s sporting news: the three-day Wimbeldon tennis match between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut, and Detroit pitcher Armando Galarraga’s almost perfect baseball game.
And where Dylan’s Jewish identity has been obscure – he changed his name, after all, from Robert Zimmerman to the decidedly un-Jewish Dylan; publicly embraced Christianity; and now attends Chabad on Yom Kippur – Dan Bern never hid from his Jewish heritage.
In one song he has played in concert but not released (Bern’s 18 albums include only a fraction of the more than 1,000 songs the prolific songwriter has composed), he sings with a twang:
I nosh me a kishke with grits and cole slaw
I blow that ol’ shofar on Rosh Hashana
I sing from the Torah while my dog chases wood sticks
The neighbors don’t like it, but they all are nudniks
I’m a Jew from Kentucky that’s what I am
The good Lord foresaw it with his infinte plan
Wherever I wander
Wherever I roam
Forever a Jew with Kentucky my home
Actually, Bern, who lives in Los Angeles, is a Jew from Iowa, where he and his sister were the only Jewish kids in their school. His parents were Jews from Europe. His mother left Germany on the kindertransport; his father fled Lithuania in 1939, one of two survivors of his family; the rest were massacred with the other Jews of Lithuania in 1941. The couple met in Israel in 1950, before moving to Iowa where Bern’s father, a classical pianist and composer, taught music.
As he sings in a song addressed to his sister:
You explained me to our parents
English wasn’t their first language
They spoke German
In “Lithuania,” he summarizes the lesson of history’s shadow:
I saw my dad tell jokes, and teach me how to laugh,
Thirty years after his parents, brothers, and sister were
Murdered in the streets of Lithuania
I see trees growing tall and the sun coming up, and the ocean roaring home,
And know I must go on I must go on
It would be cowardly to stop
It would be an aberration to do anything else
In 1999, Bern traveled to the Lithuanian city where his father was born and where his relatives had been killed. He met an old woman who remembered his grandparents’ factory. He decided to reclaim the family name of “Bernstein,” which his father had changed when coming to America.
“I didn’t follow through and do it legally,” Bern explained in a phone interview from North Carolina. “I had done so many things musically and publicly under ‘Dan Bern,’ and it was my dad’s name. But I make movies under that name. I do my art under that name.” (Besides singing and songwriting, Bern is a painter and a tennis pro.)
Irony is one of Bern’s lyrical tools, and he tried applying it to anti-Semitism. He dubbed his backup band he recorded and toured with “The International Jewish Banking Conspiracy.” In “My Little Swastika,” he sings of reclaiming the hateful symbol:
The Chinese had it for 20,000 years
The Nazis took it and made it spell tears
Still has power to hurt a little bit
But now I’m decorating my house with it
Bern returns to religion again and again in his songs, with irony, humor, and a post-Holocaust anger at Christianity.
In “God Says No,” Bern imagines asking God to send him back in time to fix the past: to prevent singer Kurt Cobain’s 1994 suicide, to kill Hitler, to take Jesus down from the cross. God, of course, says no.
Bern told an interviewer that he wants to save Jesus “and ultimately us, from this crazy story and this crazy cycle.”
Bern said: “If I could take him down from the cross, send him back to work, make sure the sheep get fed, build some nice cabinets, die an uneventful death at age 67 or so, I think we’d be better off.”
In other songs, Bern has suggested that God hears every prayer but is running a few million years behind in His responses and that God gave him a new revelation that “the best is yet to come.”
In “Jerusalem,” he claimed to be the messiah.
And now that I’ve told you
I feel this great weight lifted
Dr. Nusbaum was right
He’s my therapist
He said get it out in the open
Bern wrote this song while visiting his sister in Jerusalem, where she was training to be a cantor.
As for his own Jewish identity, “It’s difficult to exactly quantify because I’m not traditional in any way.”
“I was listening to an interview a week or two ago with Judd Apatow,” the filmmaker behind “Knocked Up” and two recent movies about rock musicians for which Bern wrote songs: “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” and “Get Him to the Greek.”
“Apatow was talking about how he felt his Jewishness so culturally, even though he wasn’t practicing, but it was with his every breath. That’s how I feel.”
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