Bern out, ‘Breath’ in
October 12, 2006
Dan Bern has been accustomed, in his decade-long career as a singer-songwriter, to looking outward and reporting back on what he sees. History, politics, current events and pop culture have all been chewed up and spit out, with humor and insight, by Bern. In the hard-to-forget “Tiger Woods” – any song about performing a particular sexual act on Madonna while the singer celebrates the size of his gonads has to be categorized as hard-to-forget – Bern took a mighty swing at our celebrity culture. The epic talking blues “Lithuania,” from 2002’s “The Swastika E.P.,” fused American car culture with an emotional recitation of the Bern family history of being slaughtered by the Nazis and a declaration of Jewish pride. “My Country II,” a 2004 EP, went after President Bush in “Bush Must Be Defeated” and the political system as a whole in “President.”But keeping close watch over the world, especially one that has produced 9/11, Hitler and the 2000 presidential election (not to mention the 2004 presidential election), is an exhausting occupation. Turning those observations into something both meaningful and entertaining can tax the brain. And hitting the road to bring those messages to bars and theaters across the country has predictable deleterious effects on the body.On “Breathe,” Bern’s new album released last month, the examination has turned inward. There is no Bush-bashing (and not because Bern can’t find good cause). About the only celebs to make appearances are Marlon Brando, Einstein and the trio of Jesus, Moses and Mohammed – roughly the number you might find in one line of a past Bern song. Instead, Bern assesses the state of the interior. In “Rain,” he retreats into a place where “all I’m going to do is sit / And watch the rain today.” In “Suicide Room,” he wrestles with things even worse than a spell of bad weather. And in “Past Belief,” Bern gets down on his knees and prays for nothing more than a good night’s sleep.The observations on “Breathe” are about as sharp, and the situations as unexpected, as ever. “Figured if I can’t beat this world / I can beat this room,” sings Bern in “Suicide Room,” about a hotel room with an ugly past. And there is humor: “They call Mother Earth ‘mother’ for a reason / She will revolt,” goes the title song. But the wit is wrapped inside a consistent emotional downbeat; Bern notes that “maybe these songs aren’t as wildly entertaining as some.”For Bern, the downcast tone and the turn inward come from a physical place. He may not be tired of the world. But he is tired.
“It’s … weary of something,” said Bern, who was raised in Iowa, spent several years in Southern California, and has lived the last five years in southern New Mexico. “I’ve been through the whole ’04 election thing, and doing shows pretty focused on that. There’s an accumulated thing to being on the road so many years.”Some of it was simply physical,” he continued. “Being on the road a lot, you don’t sleep much. You drink more than you normally would. You’re not as aware of your body.” For a year after the release of “My Country II,” and the distinctly political-oriented tours that followed it, “I was literally relearning how to walk and stand and how to hold your body.”Bern underwent a program of Rolfing, a massage technique focused on soft tissue. The process can be painful, as it was for Bern. But he also found the results to be beneficial.
It was “both extremely painful and extremely freeing and liberating,” said Bern by phone, while driving toward Cincinnati. “I felt like a new person. To this day, I still feel the effects. I felt I was being rebirthed, and these were the first songs that came from that process.”We tend to think of musicians in terms of their minds, not their bodies. But the road fatigue, then the recovery of his physical well-being, has been at the forefront of Bern’s brain. He adjusted his way of eating, spent time at home, and, for the first time, wrote a collection of songs from a stationary place.”That’s a pretty primal thing, you know?” said Bern of the physical adjustments. “And after years of neglect, that’s pretty profound.”The emphasis on his body translated into an assessment of himself, rather than the upcoming midterm elections, school shootings and footballer Terrell Owens, subjects that otherwise might have worked their way into his songs.”‘Breathe,” was a record and a group of songs I had to write and make and complete before I was able to move onto whatever else,” said Bern, who performs Thursday, Oct. 19, at the Wheeler Opera House, his first Aspen appearance in eight years. (Bern will be accompanied by fiddler and former Aspenite Paul Kuhn. Opening the show will be Treehouse, an Aspen ’90s band that featured Kuhn, as well as Dan Sheridan and Larry Good.) “There’s some old adage about, before you save the world, you have to save yourself. There’s some of that in these songs. I have to tend to some deep internal things before I can talk about pop culture.”The album, though, doesn’t find Bern isolated from the world. It’s more about where he finds himself in relation to the bigger things in life.
“I think a lot of my stuff in the past has merged the personal and the political, the outside,” he said. “This does too, but it’s further inside and further outside. It’s my soul and the clouds, not what I might have had for breakfast and the news of the day.”In 2003, Bern stepped onto a stage in New York and was surprised to hear the words, “Bush must be defeated” come out of his mouth. That led to the song of the same name, a few other songs in a similar vein, and a compulsion to push the agenda reflected in the lyrics.”Suddenly, any other kind of song that had been brewing got put on the back burner,” he said. “My duty – or personal role – was to go onstage and emphasize this concrete, here-and-now thing.”Now that he has taken time to find where he is, Bern has gotten a better handle on where he’d like to go. What he has found is a firm desire not to step back into the real-life political world he sang about in the “My Country II” years.”It was an aberration. I felt like I was campaigning,” he said. “I’m not going to spend two hours a night on it. There’s bigger things. There’s broader things. My thing is, I’m trying to transform the world, politically and culturally, and that goes deeper than who’s running this time.”I’ve chosen a different avenue – art, song, music – because you can say anything you want. At least that’s the way I’ve seen it.”Dan Bern, with Treehouse opening, performs Thursday, Oct. 19, at 8 p.m. at Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House. Call 920-5770 for ticket information.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com