Songwriter finds humor in darkness

Eric Berger, Associate Editor

Much has changed in the 18 years since singer-songwriter Dan Bern, who is Jewish, released his first album with his backing band, the International Jewish Banking Conspiracy.

When he came up with the name of the band, Bern said, he took inspiration from the book by comedian and social activist Dick Gregory, who used the N-word as the title.

In the dedication for his autobiography, Gregory wrote: “Dear Momma—Wherever you are, if ever you hear the [N-word] again, remember they are advertising my book.”

Bern said: “I thought that was great. And so I thought, in a similar fashion, from now on when someone is talking about the International Jewish Banking Conspiracy, they are just talking about my band.” 

New Mt. Sinai Cemetery advertisement

Bern writes and performs songs with funny and thought-provoking lyrics about famous people, deceased and alive.

The New Yorker described Bern’s songs as “prolix, spiky, and sometimes sentimental, and he’s a natural in concert.”

Last week, for the first time in 15 years, he reunited with IJBC to perform shows in Colorado, and he will perform in St. Louis on Wednesday, Oct. 9, at the Gaslight Theatre in the Central West End. 

Bern has faced a tumultuous couple of years. In March last year, then living in snowy upstate New York, he reached into a clogged snowblower to clear it out and “it bit back.”

“It was a pretty scary thing,” he said. “I lost almost an inch off my middle finger and a bit off my pinky finger.”

During months of rehab, he was unsure whether he would ever return to playing guitar, but he was able to spend more time on the piano. 

Now healed and back on the six-string, Bern thinks that today “stepping out of your house is a brave act,” but that he feels great. 

“I’m not going to sit home, just putter around the garden,” he said. “I’m going to keep writing songs.”

Bern started writing music as a child in Mount Vernon, Iowa, where his father was a concert pianist, composer and teacher at Cornell College. His mom was a pianist, singer and poet.

“Music was really the center of our lives, I suppose,” he said.

Bern “said there was no room on the piano” at his house, so he started on the cello. Then he discovered Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie and Phil Ochs. 

“There is no way to overestimate (the impact on me of those musicians),” he said. “It was like a thunderbolt, just everything…suddenly made sense and it immediately caused me to pick up the guitar.” 

Bern’s parents talked a lot about their history, he said. His father escaped from Lithuania in 1939; his mother escaped from Germany on one of the last Kindertransports, a child rescue effort in the nine months before World War II began. 

“I saw my dad tell jokes/ and teach me how to laugh/ Thirty years after his parents, brothers, and sister were all shot/ Murdered in the streets of Lithuania,” Bern sings in “Lithuania.”

A prolific songwriter, Bern has released 27 albums and EPs over the past two decades. He is attracted to the medium because of its scope.

“There is nothing you can’t do in song,” he said. “If you are a moviemaker, every idea you have involves money and time and people and catering – all these logistics. But if you are working in song, you can throw Moses and Jesus and Einstein and Gandhi and Trump together in a room if you want and let them have at it.”

During the writing process, Bern sometimes will share lyrics with his sister, a cantor, and she has said to him, “Rabbis do this sort of thing,” which is: Playing with these themes and bringing these old stories and old characters to life and bringing all that into the present time and allowing those old, dusty figures to sort of step up and walk off those pages and be real in today’s world – or the other way around, for us to go and visit with them,” said Bern, 54, who lives in Santa Cruz, Calif. 

Bern’s songs feature sometimes-goofy lyrics and ideas. He has written two that focused on Tiger Woods, who plays more minor roles in other tunes.

The first one, “Tiger Woods,” was written before the golfer won his first major tournament, and the lyrics focus on Bern’s balls. Bern had already written and recorded “Dear Tiger Woods” when Woods won a major tournament for the first time in 11 years in April. 

Bern had to drive six hours to rerecord one line, subbing out “You didn’t win a major, but whatever,” to “You even won another major; it was awesome.”

The song, which is on Bern’s recent new album “Regent Street,” is centered on Bern’s plea for Woods “to step out of his narrow golf world and use his fame and notoriety to become a leader. I mean really, it’s a call for all of us to do it.”

Bern sings: “Dear Tiger Woods, do you remember when you first came along / And how your dad said you’d change the world / And how you’d be a leader, maybe like Gandhi.” 

Rather than wait for Woods, who recently accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Donald Trump, to become Gandhi, Bern will continue to write and perform songs to try and mobilize people to work to shift to a “sustainable and humane planet,” as he sings in “Dear Tiger Woods.”