Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Zero Effect: Dan Bern's Unreleased Title Track

Above: Dan Bern, circa 1997-1998.

As part of the Chronological Snobbery coverage of the tenth anniversary of the film Zero Effect (which was actually released ten years ago this very day), today's post profiles folk musician Dan Bern and his 1997 song, also called "Zero Effect." Never released, the song exists only as a 1997 live recording in those corners of the Internets where such unauthorized recordings may be found. In an interview with this site, Bern reflects upon the song and its origin as a tune told from the point of view of Gloria Sullivan, the character played by actress Kim Dickens in the film, and sung to the character of Daryl Zero, played by Bill Pullman.

By the mid 1990s, Bern had released three self produced cassettes, a self titled full length album, and an EP called Dog Boy Van. His friendship with director Jake Kasdan led to his song, "One Dance" being played over the closing credits of Kasdan's 1998 directorial debut. Just two months after the release of the film, on March 31, 1998, Bern's new record, entitled 50 Eggs and produced by none other than Ani DiFranco, would hit stores. (The full version of "One Dance" would appear on this album.). Somewhere along the way, though, Bern composed a song, "Zero Effect," which includes these lyrics relevant to the film's plot and premise:

All your fancy words
Your well-constructed theories
Everything that you wore
Everything that you swore
Was what brought me to you

It was nice - all of it
It was sweet - all of it
But it was not the thing that made me come to you

It had zero effect--on me
It had zero effect--zero
It had zero effect--
The thing that brought me to you
Was you

You coulda looked for the clues
Till your magnifying glass was worn out
You coulda talked to everybody that you've ever known
Collected evidence--found a lot of evidence
Everything you think was there - was there
Everything you think took place - took place
But it was not what made me come to you

Bern played the song publicly, perhaps only once. On May 11, 1997, during a gig at Portland's Aladdin Theatre, Bern played the song and introduced it as follows:

I wrote this when I - when I - when I heard my friend was going to make his movie. So I'm going to try to do it. It's actually - it's not to him - in fact if - if - like - if something inspired this song it was reading the script and thinking about it from the woman's point of view - in that thing. So that's really what's in this song, but my vice isn't high enough to approximate it, so it will sound like me still. [Laughter].

In an email interview with Chronological Snobbery a decade later, Bern confesses that he has but "a vague recollection of playing it at that show; it was probably the only time." He recalls:

i am pretty sure i wrote the song "zero effect" as a pitch to jake for his film. i might have performed it once, and i think i recorded it well enough to give to him as a possibility for him. my guess is that it was too literal, in that it was the name of the film and all. as a director, it seems he wanted things that would resonate with his picture more obliquely than to have a song with the actual film title....somewhere in my vaults i may have the recording, but i can't even be sure about that.

Kasdan did, however, choose Bern's "One Dance" to be prominently featured in the film. The track was also released as its own promotional single. Bern remembers:

obviously, it was cool that jake used "one dance" over the end titles for zero effect. it was a really cool movie, i thought, and i was thrilled when "one dance" would come up at the end. i remember writing it in the stairwell of some hotel at a music conference somewhere, and i used it for my second sony/work album, 50 eggs, that ani difranco produced, and we did a special edit for the was my first foray into having a song in a movie, and it was awesome. especially that it was jake, who i had become good friends with a few years before, when we met in a coffeeshop in LA through a mutual friend. what a great guy. funny, smart, and incredible instincts about many things. when i first met him he was just a kid really, and we both had lots of free time for sitting around, playing scrabble, and musing on things. now he has, let's say, just a little more on his plate (!), but a great guy always. that's what i remember about zero effect, the song and the movie.

But over ten years later, Bern admits that his memory of the song "Zero Effect" is not very strong as it once may have been:

i'm sure i read the script, and i may have also seen footage; i also got to see one or two days of shooting (in portland, by the way), so any of that may have contributed to writing the 'zero effect' song. BUT...i really don't remember when i wrote it, in the timeline of the movie itself.

Bern and Kasdan have certainly kept in touch since Zero Effect. Recently, the two worked together on 2007's Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. The December 15, 2007 Bern Bulletin (his periodic email newsletter) notes:

As many of you may know, Dan has been dedicating a lot of time and energy working on the film "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story." Dan has written, or co-written, a great deal of the songs that "Dewey Cox" performs in the film. And from what I've heard, if you appreciate the song writing style of Dan, you'll really get a kick out of hearing his contributions to "Walk Hard." So, please go out and see the movie, and support this project which Dan has been so proud to work on!

But will anything ever come of his song about Daryl Zero and Gloria Sullivan?

"Maybe I'll dig up the song and use it for something else sometime," says Bern. "That's how these things work sometimes. you just never know."

Tomorrow: In tomorrow's coverage of the Zero Effect tenth anniversary, Chronological Snobbery focuses on the ill-fated 2002 attempt to turn the film into a TV pilot and series.

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