Music Rags: The art of the song

My introduction to Dan Bern went something like this: “I got big balls, big ol’ balls/Big as grapefruits, big as pumpkins, yes sir, yes sir/And on my really good days they swell to the size of small dogs . . .” You can imagine how much amusement a group of guys in high school took from a song that starts, and really ends, like that. But for all the big-ball bravado in “Tiger Woods,” it was a different line that got me. After the narrator’s friend achieves his life-long dream “to go down on Madonna,” he becomes despondent. So goes the line, “And ever since he’s been depressed, ’cause life is shit from here on in.” That line stuck with me . . . hard.

Those words touched my ears with all the subtlety of a jackhammer. I had never heard anything so tragic and funny at the same time. I had never heard anything so innately human. This man, this artist — singer, songwriter, painter, writer, tennis player — had massively shifted my worldview with nothing more than a song.

“I’ve thought from the very beginning [that] ‘song’ is such a big playing field, and most of the time people make it much smaller and have ideas of what songs can be about — what is appropriate and not appropriate for a song,” says Bern from his California home. “It has to rhyme, has to have certain kinds of words, be about a certain subject. All that can be fine and can work, but it can also be very limited. If you start to take the limits off, it just opens up. All our great song heroes were playing on a big playing field.”

A wide playing field allows for more manoeuvrability in not only song structure and timing, but also, perhaps more importantly, in subject matter. No matter the words Bern sings — words about jail stints, alien abductions, evolutionary theories or even being the Messiah — his songs carry the weight of the human condition, of our quest to discover meaning in the world, whether he means to or not.

“I really trust the randomness more and more. I feel like human beings are meaning-machines,” says Bern. “We create meaning whether we want to or not. Sometimes, you’ll just grind it out and you get to the end, look back and say, ‘Oh wow. That’s pretty cool. I didn’t even realize that was happening.’ ”

So prolific is Bern (his online lyric archive contains more than 400 songs, with many still not on there) that there are times he has to force himself to not write. “There’ve been times when I’ve intentionally decided I’m not going to write a song, on this trip or something. That’s a different thing, I think. I’ve sort of been able to keep my channels open. I don’t know. Other people might disagree, but to me it feels like a semi-conscious thing.”

As a writer, this is baffling to me. Writer’s block is something I struggle with on a near-constant basis. But perhaps it’s merely a self-made construct, Bern explains. “I think writer’s block happens when people expect certain things to be the result. And so I think that’s why you get writer’s block or just any kind of block, where you have this preconceived notion of how something has to be — this idea that something has to be as good as something else. Little kids don’t have blocks where they suddenly forget how to play. They just do it. It doesn’t have to be the greatest playtime ever, they just play.”

And if you ever feel like you’re being hindered by some kind of block, like your playtime is being disrupted, just follow the simple but sagely advice in the refrain of Bern’s song “Breathe” — “Stop what you’re doing and breathe.” I’ve taken the advice many times, even while writing this column, and it’s always worked.

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