WHEN THE PRODUCERS of the 2007 John C. Reilly comedy Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story needed a batch of songs for the film's soundtrack, they suddenly realized they had a tall order to fill: songs that not only accurately reflected the evolving styles of periods from the '50s to the '90s, but ones that could also conceivably be written by the Dewey Cox character, and that were (hopefully) funny. One of the songwriters they tapped was Dan Bern, who was able to perfectly capture the zeitgeist of Cox's Dylan and Beach Boys periods. Bern also managed to do something utterly surprising, given the strict parameters: He made them good.
Bern has certainly had enough practice; he is perhaps the most prolific songwriter around (yes, including you, Ryan Adams and Robert Pollard) and while his discography has sprawled impressively since his debut EP in 1996, it barely scratches the surface. His newest release, Live in Los Angeles, collects a few tunes that so far haven't made it to wax.
"There's some old favorites on there and some new stuff," Bern says, "but there's some stuff that only works live that I've never put on a record for that reason, stuff like 'Most American Men' and a song called 'Jack Kramer Wood Racket,' which gets a little bit unprintable but involves the audience a bunch, and a thing called 'The Fifth Beatle'—stuff that sort of defies being done in a studio."
"The Fifth Beatle" theorizes what might have happened if the Fab Four hadn't broken up—and if musicians like Dylan, Costello, and Springsteen had joined their ranks as fifth members. Its best moment comes when Bern, doing note-perfect imitations, has Kurt Cobain trading verses with Paul McCartney. Live in Los Angeles also includes one of Bern's longtime signature songs, "Tiger Woods," whose barbed refrain of "sometimes I wish I was Tiger Woods" has acquired more significance than ever.
That song wouldn't have made it onto Bern's previous album, Two Feet Tall. "I had a kid, so I had a bunch of little songs that I was singing to her," he says. "Right from the start, it was a way to communicate and really reach her and she always responded. Now I can't pick up the guitar without her wanting to strum it." Two Feet Tall has a whopping 38 songs, recorded in various fidelities, that he wrote for his daughter. "I gave them to people that had little kids and they liked 'em. I also heard that even if people don't have kids, it's really good for road rage."
Meanwhile, Bern has a couple upcoming albums in the works, including one with his current touring band Common Rotation, and another record in the vein of old-school country. "I was living in New Mexico for several years and it kind of went along with the terrain there," he explains. He's also contributing songs to the forthcoming Russell Brand/Jonah Hill comedy Get Him to the Greek with his Walk Hard collaborator Mike Viola, plus a few songs for the independent film Drones, as well as Jonathan Demme's off-Broadway production of playwright Beth Henley's Family Week, one of which is a duet with Emmylou Harris. "It all feels new," he says of the various projects. "It continues to push forward and that reinvigorates the old stuff too. If I just had the old stuff, I think I'd feel like it was getting stale—but fortunately that's not the case."