Friday, November 04, 2011

Dan Bern

My favourite saying, or personal philosophy, is the Picasso statement "Je ne cherchez pas; je trouve" translated as "I don't seek, I find." This way of looking at things, in my case, applies particularly to the way I once built up a record collection and how I now go about building a CD collection. I have gone, and still go, to various CD shops simply to browse and then come out with unexpected finds, some of which turn out to be unexpectedly brilliant finds. Dan Bern's debut album is one such find.

Vibes Records in the Old Mutual Arcade, Cape Town CBD, was, with Outlaw Records in Riebeeck Street, one of my favourite music shops in Cape Town from the mid-Nineties through to its demise in the early years of the 21ste century. As the name implies Vibes originally concentrated on LP records, vinyl, as kind of specialist collectors' and second hand shop for old fashioned vinyl, which somehow clung on and even regained cachet in die era of the CD.

I, for one, completely abandoned records when I started buying CDs, because I saw no sense in duplicating my expenditure and because the quality of sound on CDs seemed so far superior to records that it was a no brainer to adopt digital technology and abandon analogue. The other really pertinent factor was that the surfaces of compact discs did not deteriorate as rapidly as record surfaces did. Anyhow, I did not frequent Vibes all that much when it mostly sold records, as I had no interest in their vinyl.

After a while Vibes started stocking CDs as well, probably when it realised that diversity of stock would ensure more sales. At first the CDs were displayed in a row of display cases along the outside window of the shop, with the central floor area given over to the mass of records. By and by the stock of LPs shrunk and CDs took over more and more space. When the store relocated to larger premises in the main part of the Golden Acre Concourse, Vibes sold CDs almost exclusively. The time of records, especially second hand records, was well and truly over.

I did buy a couple of records at Vibes, though, mostly J Geils albums, such as The Morning After,
Love Stinks and a live album. This was when I still had a working Yamaha tape deck and could record the records to audio tape, which I listened to rather than the vinyl.

Anyhow, browsing through the CDs at Vibes became a regular lunch time routine for me and I was in there at least twice a week, just to see what they had in stock. Over the years I bought many good items there, such as the 2-CD Neil Young live album, Weld, and the Fleetwood Mac double album Blues Jam in Chicago, to name just a few. I also started my South African music collection at Vibes, with the likes of Squeal, Sugardrive and Springbok Nude Girls, and many obscure others. I quickly became adept at sniffing out local product even most of the bands were completely unknown to me before I laid hands on their CD. Lastly, I bought a whole bunch of equally obscure, mostly American, rock music on the basis of price, primarily, and just curiosity. I was not averse to risking R10 on the album of some American punk band I'd never heard of and had not become internationally famous. I googled most of them and discovered that in many instances I had bought the first and only album the band had ever released. The best part was that most of the albums were quite good. Some of the hard rock was pedestrian and not very compelling but the punky type stuff was often excellent and made me wonder why worldwide fame and fortune had not followed.

One of these discoveries, based on price, was Dan Bern. The cover photograph shows Bern (for I guess it must be him) strolling along a dusty alleyway in what I guessed to be Los Angeles (don't know why) carrying a low slung acoustic guitar, and dressed in long shorts and T-shirt as if he were a skate board punk playing folk music. When I studied the CD inlay I could see that he was backed on some tracks by musicians but none of the information gave any clue as to what the music would sound like. If I remember correctly the CD was priced at R8,99 which was dirt cheap. I think Vibes had a whole selection of obscurities they were trying to get rid of by pricing them way down and I was steadily working my way through these. After a few weeks of seeing the Dan Bern album at Vibes I finally bought it along with some others.

I have a lifelong habit of buying music by obscure artists simply because the records or CDs were cheap enough for a gamble. Ninety nine percent of the time I've been pleasantly surprised. Apart from some records by early Eighties American new wave artists, I cannot recall any disastrous purchase. A number of the albums actually became hot favourites. Dan Bern's debut is one of them.

When I studied the CD insert I saw that Bern was backed by musicians, though the front cover photograph suggested that he was a punk folkie, and this was a motivation for buying the CD as I was not particularly interested in purely acoustic music, even from a punk folkie. The pleasant surprise was, even though Bern's musical backing was mostly his own acoustic guitar, that the accompaniment was a mixed bag of furious strumming and small combo, at times reminiscent of the breakthrough sound of "Like A Rolling Stone" with its emphatic, yet also almost subliminal Hammond organ part.

As soon as Dan Bern opened his mouth on opening track, "Jerusalem", I realised that I was dealing with something unexpectedly weird and delightfully eccentric. Mr Bern's persona was very much modern neurotic Jewish guy, unlike the poetics of, say, early Bob Dylan, and that he had a way with words that was kind of out of the box, semi-hysterical, funny, sardonic and very, very erudite and articulate. The two antecedents that come to mind are, again, Bob Dylan in his days of Desire, where he told cinematic stories that were far removed from the Dylan the Rock Poet days of "Like A Rolling Stone", and the similarly erudite, articulate and wordy songs of Paul Simon. Dan Bern just came across as much more neurotic than either of these examples.

I guess that Dan Bern is a storyteller and does not rely overly on biographical detail. When he starts ranting about how many olives he ate in "Jerusalem", apropos of nothing much, I realised that I was listening to either one of the best minds of his generation or to a crazy weirdo with a recording budget. Seeing as how Bern has released more than one album, though I've never seen the others, I guess he must have found an audience.

Apart from the seemingly autobiographical tales like "Jerusalem" and "Rome" (he must be well-travelled) Bern also muses on the fates of Marilyn Monroe, Henry Miller and James Dean, and waxes lyrical about the best minds of his generation playing pinball in the modern cultural wasteland, and other such concerns of the intellectualised artist of today.

There is even a song that is very much a pastiche, or adoring homage, to that "Like A Rolling Stone" sound I've referred to above. That Al Kooper organ part is so distinctive and makes such a dramatic impact on the song that it has been copied in various songs over the years by artists who want to emphasise to a greater or lesser degree their debt to the master rock poet of all time (to date hereof anyway) by a musical reference to one of the great songs of all time. Some of the music of Lloyd Cole and The Commotions are in this vein and Michelle Shocked's "Anchorage" plays to the same strengths, and was the compelling reason why I actually bought Short Sharp Shocked.

"Estelle", Bern's take on the "Like A Rolling Stone" template, works better than most because he may actually be trying to do an entire homage to the |new Dylan" cliché by doing an impersonation of the kind of impersonation comedians used to do when they spoofed Dylan and the school of protest folic singers that followed in his wake. Bern seems at the same time deadly serious and slyly humorous.

This is in many ways an amazing and truly delightful set and I would almost never want to hear any other Dan Bern record, in case the shock of the new and the delight in the weird wonderfulness of his worldview cannot be sustained. Ace Ventura: Pet Detective was great; Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, less so. The first Matrix movie was innovative and marvellous and the next two provided seriously diminishing returns. I would not want to spoil my perfect record of the Dan Bern experience with a less than brilliant follow up.

This debut album also shows that one can pay less than R9 at a budget shop and find a treasure simply by taking a chance.

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