Sunday, February 19, 2012

Spoken Word: Jerusalem

Dan Bern: Jerusalem


If I went to see Springsteen (and I haven’t since college) and he didn’t play “Born to Run,” I’d be unhappy. When I saw Led Zeppelin in 1977, I would have been horrified if they didn’t play “Stairway to Heaven.” And I expect to hear 1952 Vincent Black Lightning when I see Richard Thompson. A Dan Bern show, to me, is not complete without “Jerusalem.”

Bern, a Jewish Midwestern singer songwriter with a nasal voice, has regularly been compared to Dylan, and he doesn’t seem to shy from the comparison, considering the number of talking blues he has written in Dylan’s style. Not to mention his hysterical “Talkin’ Bob And Woody, Bruce And Dan Blues” which updates Dylan’s “Song to Woody” (and which I thought about writing about, but decided to write about “Jerusalem” instead). Bern has long been a family favorite, with his songs that are funny, poignant and political. “Jerusalem” is one that has all of that.

As is common in Bern’s songs, “Jerusalem” takes a meandering route. It starts off with its somewhat cynical theme—the singer has expressed his love to someone, but warns that his love should be accepted and not tested, because it may be that he doesn’t really “love you all that much.” The song abruptly turns to an admonition to people who want to know what music he is going to play, and those who want to pigeonhole him—“And if you must put me in a box, Make sure it's a big box,” he sings. Then, out of nowhere, the song heads off into a strange place, with Bern talking about being asked to become an “ancient king”, and works in a reference to Einstein’s theory of time.

Bern then discusses how everyone seems to be waiting for the Messiah, and that he knows how hard it is to wait, illustrating the triviality of religion by equating waiting for salvation with waiting “for a bus or something; An important phone call,” before announcing that, in fact, he is the Messiah. He tells us that he was going to wait to make this announcement, and build the suspense, but his therapist, Dr. Nusbaum, suggested that he would feel better if he got it out in the open.

So, why exactly is this song called “Jerusalem?” Because, the singer then tells us, he spent 10 days in Jerusalem, eating nothing but olives, but that it was OK because, “I like olives.” He then segues into “I like you too” and a reprise of the initial warning about not testing his love. At shows, the audience sings along to this crazy song, which to me highlights a couple of Bern’s regular themes—ambivalence about love and ambivalence about religion. And it is very funny.

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