I Got My Name From Rock and Roll

Brad Lindert

Dan Bern went to Lawrence. He graduated from Lawrence in 1981. In 1997 he released what possibly might be the greatest folk record of our time. His self-titled album is equal parts Bob Dylan (okay, a huge part Dylan), Costello, Kerouac, and pure originality.
“Jerusalem” kicks off the album. He rambles on and on and on about topics like love, ancient kings, relativity, religion, waiting, therapy, Jerusalem, and olives (“mountains of olives”). To let you in on the rambling: he sings 392 words in 3:44.
Bern kicks it up a notch with the next track, “Go To Sleep.” Electric guitar and pounding drums are the backbone to the lyrics: “There’s some tomatoes / Chemically engineered / They come out square / To fit in boxes / There’s some people / Chemically engineered / They come out square / To fit in boxes.”
But don’t think that Bern is all about rocking folk music. “Wasteland” is a slow, sweet song that builds slowly to Bern repeating over and over how “every single block looks like every single block.”
“Marilyn” shows one of Bern’s apparent obsessions, old movie stars. This track puts forward the idea that if Marilyn Monroe married Henry Miller instead of Arthur Miller she might still be alive. The only throwaway track on the disc would be “King of the World” which really isn’t that bad, but it is nowhere near as good as the rest of the album.
Two folk pop rock gems come back to back with “I’m Not the Guy” where he sings, “I’m not the guy who loved you, Babe, and kept his fingers crossed.” “I’m Not the Guy” is followed by “Never Fall in Love” which has a great harmonica lead and lists ways that he avoids falling in love such as: “I got a walkman on my head every step I take / put Thorazine in my morning coffee break.”
“Estelle” is a monster of a song. Count them: 917 words in 7:36. “Estelle” tells the tale of painter who can’t paint anymore. We meet different characters and we see him try to paint a girl he met in a coffee shop. This song is such a trip; it just makes you want to live the bohemian lifestyle: drinking, painting, and talking on the phone to a drunk Mormon woman named Estelle. And at the end of the song the narrator realizes that “Sometimes it seems like the only thing you need / is holdin’ someone’s hand as you walk through town.” After all the words and distances traveled he ends with such a simple idea.
I haven’t had the chance to hear much more of his catalogue. But the rest of his stuff I have to say is quite solid. He recently released an album “My Country II” on Ani DiFranco’s record label Righteous Babe Records, which Bern refers to as “music to beat Bush to.” Even though we didn’t beat Bush, that album is pretty solid also.