“If you put me in a box, make sure it’s a big box.”
—Dan Bern – “Jerusalem”
“If I was to stage a theme show of my songs, say, around girls’ names, what would you put in there?” Dan Bern asked over Indian buffet near lower Lexington Avenue last September. He had been staying in New York for longer than usual and we made haphazard plans to get together and chat on-and-off the record, take in a film, walk the streets, smoke cigars, and, as Dan likes to say, throw a few back. I did not hesitate to make suggestions from his vast catalogue of material: Of course, “Marylyn” from the first record, Fleeting Days’ “Jane,” “Monica” (about Seles, not Lewinsky), “Sister”—not really a girl’s name, but a beautiful one about his only sibling from 1998’s Fifty Eggs, the stirring “Estelle,” and suddenly we were off and running.
“Exactly,” he smiled.
Later, as a collection of unreleased tunes for a planned album filled out the street sounds penetrating his modest suite at a downtown hotel that was framed by crudely beautiful renderings on the walls painted by his four-year-old daughter, Lu Lu, Bern began to build on the idea. “I could see maybe renting out space off-off-Broadway and putting on shows based on song themes; a different one every night.”
There was no arguing that he, more than anyone this side of Randy Newman, could pull it off. For over 20 years now, Dan Bern has been writing songs (along with books, poems, and kids’ stories) with a reckless abandon—some of them even composed on demand for fans to help defray the costs to get this bulging phalanx of tunes out to the public and still others for the films Walk Hard, Get Him To The Greek and friend Jonathan Demme’s Jimmy Carter: Man From Plains. Pressed to count them all, Bern will first insist he cannot, but will eventually acquiesce with a sighing, “Okay, over a thousand.”
Yup, Bern writes songs like most of us read the paper or peruse the internet. It is almost a daily routine. He breathes, plays tennis, enjoys a bike ride, loves his family, and writes songs. Since 1997, this prolificacy has resulted in 14 studio albums, two live, five EPs, a collaborative song-cycle adapted from the letters, essays and poems of the Western folk legend Everett Ruess, and a collection of children’s songs; the second volume is already done and is brilliant and another country-flavored record is poised.
Suddenly, here was Bern imagining, even scheming a place for this disparate group of melodic brothers and sisters, heroes and despots, celebrations and protestations to go—one place, as if, well, as if a theme park.
Bern brought the “theme” idea up again a few weeks before leaving for the West Coast in early December, citing several reoccurring slices-of-life to his canon: pop culture, politics, history, literature, family, tennis, baseball, travel, etc., along with the obvious subjects available to any songwriter: love, loss, protest, and inner revelation.
Once back in L.A., he was inspired by an online concert his friend and sometime collaborator, Mike Viola, had hosted on the website shareit.com, wherein artists such as Bonnie Raitt, Indigo Girls, Plain White T’s, Jason Mraz, Jimmy Buffett, Sara Bareilles Better Than Ezra and Ingrid Michaelson, among many others, create backstage, in-house podcasts to interact directly with fans. It seemed Stageit was the perfect vehicle for the “theme” idea, and it did not take Bern long to begin fashioning a one-man show around not only his moving, hilarious and poignantly striking music, but sprinkled with his razor-sharp wit, and officially call it “Theme Park.”
“All of my song subjects are so far afield, and with my songbooks here, I can pretty much pull from everything I’ve ever written and come up with setlists,” Bern said from his L.A. abode over the phone in mid-February after he had a couple of Theme Park shows under his belt. The first theme, Football, broadcast the week before the Super Bowl, included such luminary musical numbers as “Namath, Mantle & Me” (written when he shared a similar knee injury to the ailing stars), “Who Gets Serena?” (an imagined double-date between the Manning brothers and the Williams sisters) and “O.J. Simpson” (you know), and the second, Love, for Valentine’s Day, featuring his unique sentimentalities displayed in “Love Makes All The Other Worlds Go Round,” “My Love Is Not For Sale” and “I Need You,” among others.
“I’m doin’ stuff I wrote this fall mixed with stuff I wrote 20 years ago mixed with stuff people know from the records, and it’s focused and it feels like a new thing,” Bern says, as he excitedly previewed a third one coming up for President’s Day.
So without much prompting, I had to “tune in” or more to the point, login to see it.
I became a member of Stageit the day of the show, which was simple using Paypal, and since Bern mentioned more than twice I could “set the price, and in my case, it’s a dime,” I did, but went for broke at an outlandish $2.50. He informed me of the opportunity to “tip” the performer, as if he were playing in a downtown subway. “I started offering these little perks for top tipper,” said Bern. “For the Super Bowl one I signed a football jersey, and for the Valentine’s one I gave away Henry Miller’s Wisdom Of The Heart, and for the President’s Day show, I painted three presidents (Lincoln, Nixon, and LBJ), and in honor of the Winter Olympics, I’ll give them to the top three.”
At 9:00 PM Eastern, there was Bern, captured by his MAC camera, nattily attired in a suit and tie (very presidential) and welcoming his audience with a very theme-y Theme Park theme song. Then he immediately launched into a toe-tapping ditty called “Strange Little Thing,” which playfully recites the bizarre coincidences between Lincoln and Kennedy’s time in office (not the least of which both were initially elected 100 years apart, to which Bern lyrically warns whoever is elected in 2060 better keep on his toes).
The humble USB mic did the trick, as the intimacy and immediacy of the performance was striking. I have seen Dan and hundreds of musicians ply their trade in every possible venue, from cramped clubs to upstairs lofts, garages to Madison Square Garden and Carnegie Hall (including Bern), but this is far different; personal and interactive. As Bern played, viewers started messaging, the comments floating up on a stream to his right. Interspersing pithy comments, one spot-on imprecision of LBJ, and displaying his original paintings auctioned off to the “top tipper,” Bern was in his element and the fans loved it.
It was during a brief introduction to the next song as having been written as something of a dare that I realized my own request would make the show. As is my tradition, when invited to such ad hoc events, and knowing Bern’s ambitions run deep, I emailed him earlier that day to pen a song about William Henry Harrison, who infamously died 32 days into office from pneumonia thanks to his refusing to wear a coat on a bitterly cold and rainy Inauguration Day. “That kind of story is ripe for a folk song,” I wrote, unsure if even he could pull it off.
Sure enough, he did.
“Hey, a challenge is a challenge,” Bern said when I called to thank him the next morning. “My first thought was, ‘That fucking Campion! That’s not in the rules!’ Then I thought, ‘Eh, I’ll do it.’”
Bern rounded out the 50-minute set (it was only scheduled for a half hour) with nine more songs, his haunting introspection of Lee Harvey Oswald in “Marine And Me,” a couple of verses of Tom Waits’ “On The Nickel” (“…even Thomas Jefferson is on the nickel over there”), and his 2004 call for candidacy in “President” were the highlights.
Then, just as quickly as he popped up, he was gone.
“It’s weird for me, because when I do this show online, although I’m home and not in a club, I still feel that post-show glaze,” says Bern. “It could really grow into a biweekly thing for me, but it’s really the gravy, because if I finish touring and then come home and go a week or two without a show, it’s like arrrrrrrr. And to have something like this to focus me—getting the set together for that show’s theme and then doing the thing, and it’s only seven o’clock and you’re done—it’s kinda great.”
The experience, which began percolating in New York a few months back as a kind of local cabaret act, became a reality on the other side of the continent and has suddenly gone global. Some members of the audience were from Greece and all points abroad.
“The theme idea along with wanting to stay focused for 50 minutes of playing has allowed me to get 11 to 15 songs into each show, and by getting my paintings in there and being able to play more often to a larger audience beyond touring, it’s just a cool way to do all the things I like to do, and never leave my house.”
But one wonders when Bern does go back on the road, which he will this spring with dates already set to begin here on the East Coast in March and crisscross back to Los Angeles, before heading to Holland in April and returning for another week of gigs around New York in May, will Theme Park live on?
“Oh, I’m gonna keep doin’ ‘em,” Bern insists. “I can do a Theme Show anywhere—the hotel room, or I’ll come out to your place and we’ll do it.”
Dan Bern will play at the YMCA Boulton Center For The Performing Arts in Bay Shore, NY, on March 15, and at Rockwood Music Hall (Stage 3) in NYC on March 16. For more information, go to danbern.com.