All the ancient kings came to my door
They said, “Do you wanna be an ancient king too?”
I said, “Oh, yes, very much…
But I think my timing’s wrong.”
They said, “Time is relative —
Or did you misread Einstein?”
I said, “You really mean it?”
They said, “Whadaya think we come here for —
Our goddamn health or something?”
I last heard Dan Bern play a lifetime ago — back in 1998 — so I wasn’t sure what to expect. But when he arrived on stage and began arranging his bottle of beer and extra harmonicas on the stool beside him, it was quickly reassuring. I’d seen him do the same thing before. He had an ease about him too — perhaps acquired from all his days on the road — and the aura of a musician at peace with who he is and what he does. When he hollered “Hey, New York!” and fixed a capo to the third fret of his guitar, a woman shrieked, “I love you, Dan!” Everyone laughed. He replied, “Save some for later, geez.” And with that, he dropped his head and began to strum.
During the show, he tried out some poems from a chapbook he just self-published called Reconsidering Nixon  — as in Richard Nixon. Imagine, 41 verses pondering the former president! But imbued with Mr. Bern’s wit, there were those that sounded like one of his songs. Take the first lines of “Yoga,” for instance, which go
Coming back from a yoga class
I wondered if Nixon ever did yoga.
My guess is no.
If he didn’t even take his shoes off
At the beach,
It’s hard to imagine him doing
Cats and cows
And the rest.
It certainly is! But reading the words back, I can almost hear Mr. Bern conjure a forthcoming tune for them — like maybe the one he did for “Talkin’ Woody, Bob, Bruce, & Dan Blues” where he sounded as if he wrote it instantaneously. He’s one of the best at performing that illusion.
Yet Mr. Bern’s poems were more than feigned scenarios. Some were also didactic. During “Victory at Sea,” for example, I discovered the old president could play a piano:
He also played the saxophone, the clarinet, the accordion and the
He even wrote a piano concerto, ‘Richard Nixon’s Piano Concerto
He played it on the ‘Jack Parr Show’ in 1963.
Still others were prescient. On “I’d Rather Have Rather” — as in wishing Dan Rather would rescind his retirement — he wrote
Now in 2016
Hardly any of the reporters
And the head of CBS
is Les Moonves
Said Trump’s rise
‘May not be good for America
But it’s damn good for CBS.’
After the performance, I waited to buy the book. There were paintings available too, portraits of Richard Nixon that Mr. Bern finished with smiling, pouting, or otherwise frowning features. I stuck with the poetry.
But the closer I got to where he was signing things, the less I could read. The more I felt detached. He seemed to be friends with the people ahead of me.
A woman kissed his cheek. My ears began burning. She told him they met nearly two months before. I could step out of line. I think that she handed him her number or email. What would I say to him anyway? She gave him a hug. I forgot what to say. What should I say?
“Hi, I’m Rick.”
“Sorry. Rick. Nice to meet you.”
I handed him the book. “Nice to meet you too. I never knew Nixon played piano!”
“He played it on that TV show, right? I saw a tape of it once.”
“That just blows my mind.”
He returned the book, autographed.
“Thanks! Great show, man!”
“Thanks. Whadaya do?”
“I’m a writer.”
“Oh, cool. You should check out my website sometime. Lemme know what you think.”
He turned to the merch table and picked up a painting, but it wasn’t of Nixon.
“Here, take this home with you.”
It was Donald Trump. But a diagonal line drawn through a crimson circle had been brushed on his face. I snickered. Mr. Bern said something about it being apropos.
“Maybe you’ll review the show. If you do, send it to me.”
“Ok, great. I will.”
We shook hands. I stuffed the Trump and the poems in my bag.
“Thanks! See ya.”
I walked out to Varick Street. The Tribute in Light was still piercing the sky for its annual toast to the Towers.
Lyrics from “Jerusalem” by Dan Bern, 1997.
Photos by Rick Stachura. Mr. Bern at City Winery. September 11, 2016.
(This story was originally posted to my old Tumblr site on September 19, 2016.)