Wallace Baine: Baseball balladeer Dan Bern’s holy scripture
With baseball back, after a fearsome owner-player showdown, former Soquelite Dan Bern greets the season appropriately.
Baseball’s got me. Honestly, it’s had me for years.
Sometimes, I wish it didn’t. Sometimes, I’m dismayed when I ponder the staggering amount of mental energy and emotion I’ve devoted to this silly game, especially in the face of all the art and literature that I’ve yet to dig into, the world’s problems I’ve yet to tackle. If I had given the same passion to deciphering “Finnegan’s Wake” or understanding carbon-capture technology that I applied to crafting a nuanced and sophisticated take on the Hall of Fame candidacy of Barry Bonds, would the world be better for it? Would I?
Baseball’s got Dan Bern too. Bern is a veteran singer-songwriter who has been performing and recording for more than 25 years. He’s a nice fit in the Dylan-Prine-Wainwright school, a streetwise and emotionally honest poet/philosopher with a guitar. His songs are always incisive, occasionally funny, often brilliant. In a couple of dozen albums, his songs have ranged from the sharply political (“President” hilariously articulates a vision of a leader that we’ll never be permitted to elect) to the theological (someone, please make “God Said No” into a play).
But peppered throughout his prodigious catalogue of songs is a lot about baseball. In fact, I can’t name a contemporary songwriter who has recorded more songs about baseball. He’s recorded two full albums dedicated to baseball songs. It might surprise his casual fans, but this guy is a total seamhead.
Since Bern is due to perform in Santa Cruz this week (his first performance here since moving away from Soquel, where he and his family lived for a few years), and since it’s March, the time of year when, like newly hatched tortoises lumbering to the sea, the thoughts of people like me and Bern turn instinctually to baseball, I decided to reach out to him and talk baseball, through the prism of his music.
I knew Bern and I were roughly of the same generation simply because of the orientation of his baseball songs. His bouncy tribute to the Oakland Athletics, forthrightly titled “A’s Song,” is built on a joyous repeating line of “California gold, kelly green, wedding-gown white, and Vida Blue.” For the baseball-illiterate, that line might be gobbledygook. But to a baseball fan, especially one who grew up in the 1970s, it’s holy scripture.
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“I grew up in Iowa,” said Bern by phone from his home in New Mexico, “and we didn’t have a big-league team, so for much of my growing up, I kind of approached the game in a literary way, through all the books about it. And when I started going to games, it just seemed like the natural thing to do to write a couple or three songs about it, not really consciously. It was just part of the art in my bag of songs, you know?”
Bern’s baseball songs cover much of the big-league terrain. He’s written songs from the perspective of Red Sox fans and Yankees fans. He’s written about Wrigley Field in Chicago and Hank Aaron, no-hitters and Lou Gehrig. But it’s hard not to notice that much of Bern’s baseball music is decidedly West Coast-oriented. Who else but a Giants fan could write a song that name-checks such half-forgotten names as Dick Deitz and John Montefusco, called “The Sun Shines on McCovey Cove”?
My suspicion was right. “There was a time I lived in Chicago and could hear (Cubs legendary broadcaster) Harry Caray out my window,” Bern said. “But, for all my growing up, I was always a very strong Giants fan, even when I was living in L.A., which wasn’t always easy.”
After genuflecting to the Orange and Black, Bern turned to heresy.
“… and then it kind of flipped.”
That sound you hear is San Francisco screaming.
“We were living in L.A.,” he explained, “just a short walk from Dodger Stadium. My daughter came along to games with me, and at some point, I just decided, I’m not going to fight this anymore. I’m going over to the Blue Side.”
I think we just ripped a hole in the time-space continuum. Apparently, despite what we’ve all been raised to believe, it is possible to be a Giants fan and a Dodgers fan.
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In fact, Bern can get downright rhapsodic about the rivalry between the Giants and the Dodgers. His best baseball song might very well be “Rivalry,” which evokes the Giants-Dodgers rivalry going back to the days of Wilbert Robinson and John McGraw, two old-school managers who died before Willie McCovey and Sandy Koufax were even born. It goes on to recount many of the highlights of all the times each of those two teams got one over on the other.
Like Dusty Baker — great Dodgers player, legendary Giants manager — Dan Bern is that guy that can play well on both sides of the divide. Giants fans will love/hate “Five-Nothing Lead,” Bern’s lament over the lost 2002 World Series (and Dusty’s most painful Giants moment). And Dodgers fans will be drawn to “The Legend of Yasiel Puig.”
For a while there, it looked like the lords of baseball were going to destroy the game. And, despite the end of the lockout, they might still strangle the golden goose. But baseball will be back in 2022, and Bern is probably not done with the game as a songwriter. Both are worth celebrating.
Dan Bern performs live at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center on Friday, March 18. Opening is Alex Lucero. Showtime is 7:30 p.m.