You been east side, west side up and down, all around the town
Stomped through your old stomping grounds, cracked open your old crown
You say the sidewalks are made of concrete, instead of Mountain Dew
You say the city has changed, well maybe it's you.
Dan Bern, what the hell happened?
I was introduced to the music of Dan Bern when I was in middle school. Dan Bern was a local legends, a talented musician who grew up near my hometown. He still had ties to the community, which made him even more awesome. Some of my older friends took me to my first Dan Bern concert at CSPS in Cedar Rapids, right around the time he released his New American Language album - which to this day is probably one of his best works.
That concert was phenomenal. The auditorium was packed with hundreds of his local fans, many of whom had watched Dan grow up. He must have been on stage for three hours - including coming back for two encores for the deliriously happy, roaring crowd. He took requests, performed several sing-alongs (which if you've ever been to a good Dan Bern concert you'd know are tons of fun) and even did a Talkin' Blues piece. It was on terrorists, if I recall correctly. It was, in a word, amazing. I dont' think I've ever been to a concert so full of life and joy - it was a concert that left a warm, happy feeling in my guy for days afterwards. Even thinking about it now, more than a decade later, I can't help but grin.
Dan Bern seemed genuinely happy to be singing for us that night. So... what happened Dan? What changed?
My friend Jess and her guy-thing Scott invited me along to a Dan Bern show in Iowa City this past Sunday. It was sort of a belated birthday gift, since Jess paid for my ticket and had neglected to get me anything for my birthday last year. (Psst - I forgot her birthday too, so don't think badly of her. It happens.)
I was really excited. Due to college and a distinct lack of money over the past few years, I hadn't gotten out to see Dan Bern for awhile. Hearing that unique sound (I call it midwestern heartland folk-rock) was going to be the high point of my weekend - perhaps even the entire month. Instead, we got forty-five minutes of "twangy country stuff," one song that he had to end halfway through because he forgot the words and one halfhearted sing-along that less than half the audience knew.. He sang two classics - just two. No Talkin' Blues, no requests and the wimpiest encore I've seen from any musician. Come on, one song? That's not an encore, that's a placation!
It almost seemed as if he didn't want to be there, in a cozy establishment with his local fans. Again I ask - Dan Bern, what the hell happened?
Jess told me that the past few local Dan Bern shows she'd been to (and she's been to tons of his concerts) had been similar to last Sunday's disaster - short, rushed, with little love for the fans and an air of "half-assery." And each time, it seemed as if Dan just didn't want to be there.
I don't know what changed. Is it because he lives in Los Angeles now? Is it because he got a big break writing songs for a major motion picture? Is it because he'd been living in a can for the past week? Or was he always like this, and I was too young and naive to see it?
Regardless of the reason... I miss you, Dan. I had to listen to my copy of Smartie Mine on my two-hour drive home, just to cheer myself up. You probably don't know how much happiness you brought my friends and me back in high school. Some of my best moments growing up had your music in the background. Like driving down 5th Avenue in Jess's old red Ford Temo (Vishaka!) at midnight, windows down, singing Black Tornado as loud as we could and not caring who heard. Or the time we all piled into the cars and drove up to Minneapolis, with Chelsea Hotel and Alaska Highway blaring through the speakers. Or the time one of our drunk friends tried to cover Chick Singers and failed miserably... on camera. Or the time I sang the entire Fifty Eggs album to a skinny, terrified foster dog in the back of my car.
Where has the sweetness gone
Where is the loving song
Where oh where in the world.