Songwriter Dan Bern is so prolific and topical that he's become a musical short-order cook of sorts, making juicy song-burgers out of sacred cows. His latest batch in the record racks is My Country II: Songs to Beat Bush By, an album that attacks the current political climate from every angle: nightmare dreamscape, indictment of a willfully ignorant populace, poignant lament from a wounded soldier and even a tuneful platform of what Bern himself would do if he were president. The Los Angeles musician has already followed up those broadsides with the new, five-song Anthems EP, which he calls "hopefully post-Bush music." This year Bern has also self-published his first novel, Quitting Science, which follows the travels of Cunliffe Merriwether, a travelling "scientist" performing "lectures" with a band of "assistants"--a thinly veiled account of life as a thinking man's troubadour. WW caught up with Bern by phone on a rare day off from the road, at his mom's house in Iowa. (Jeff Rosenberg)
WW: Do you have a sense of just "preaching to the converted," or do you think you're actually influencing hearts and minds?
Dan Bern: Well, you don't really know. I've had people come up and say they weren't going to vote, and after the show they're going to. Plus, there's just those tentacles--hopefully somebody talks to somebody, who talks to somebody else. You can't follow people home and make sure their lives are changed forever. Even Springsteen doesn't know that. So you don't take anything for granted and you do what you can.
Your new book talks about "quitting science," reflecting ambivalence about your career at the time you were writing it. Do you still think about giving up music?
Not really. I don't know if writing the book was cathartic in that way, or if it's the politics; this fall has been a grueling tour but feels like it has a purpose that carries you along. You're tired and worn down but seem to always find some energy somehow.
How much of the book was stream-of-consciousness, and how much was carefully crafted?
Things were shaped, rewritten, pulled out, added. Certain passages were written as things were happening, others were reminiscences of things exactly as they transpired, some with changed context, some completely made up. The glory of it was I had complete freedom to mix those things, because it was basically a new form for me. You write songs for so long, even if you're free and open with forms, the walls can't help but close in a little bit. Again, with Springsteen, there's a difference between "Jungleland" and "Thunder Road" vs. "Lucky Town." You start with this wild openness of form but you start to get constrained. Doing the book felt like, wow, no constraints.
Dan Bern plays with Chris Chandler Friday, Oct. 29, at Berbati's Pan, 231 SW Ankeny St., 248-4579. 9:30 pm. $13.50 advance, $15 day of show. 21+.