Conversation: Dan Zimmerman

Dan Zimmerman first picked up the guitar in 1957, and since then he hasn’t stopped singing. Time spent has paid off quite well as his most recent album Cosmic Patriot ( Sounds Familyre Records) is one of the most wonderful surprises you will hear all year (think along the lines of Silver Jews, Leonard Cohen, and Lee Hazlewood).

Dan was kind enough to answer a few questions (thru e-mail) on his favorite books, low-voiced singers, and iconic magazines for teenage boys.

Hi Dan, hows life going?
Hi, Jay!
Thanks for asking! Life definitely has different seasons. Sometimes it feels barren. Then for awhile it gets all bunched up and inscrutable. Then suddenly it will open up and disclose a lot of important things. I just returned from my mother’s funeral on the high plains of Colorado. Today life feels raw and exposed to view.

I noticed you list Mad Magazine as one of your influences, and I notice a lot of people tend to mention that (myself included), what do you think drew you to it initially?
I was drawn by the incredible wit, the graphic immediacy of it. In about 1957 or ’58 my oldest friend and I decided to put together our own illustrated magazines and books. “Mad” was our template. Perhaps we felt a need to be creatively engaged with life rather than just accept it at face value. It couldn’t be that only “big people” got to play the game.
And then again..when does a person find out that he NEEDS to laugh? I was drawn to horror and sci-fi movies for many of the same reasons I was drawn to “Mad”. Did you ever read “Famous Monsters of Filmland”? I remember the strange and compelling juxtaposition of monsters and bad puns.
I guess I thought my world was rife with suppressed realities and misplaced devotion. The fifties and the early sixties were incredibly surreal in that way. But, meanwhile, some of us had a sneaking suspicion that life was different than it looked. The tumult of the late sixties was right around the corner.

What is your process for writing a song? Do you work on it over a certain length of time, or does it just come to you?
I have no one method, but usually songs come when I’m moved by something I’m a book I’m in the middle of..I try to remain open to hearing something revelatory, something that bridges a chasm in my thinking. Sometimes I’m stirred by just one particular word, or by the rhythm of a phrase. Then, I’ll either jot down my thoughts while they’re fresh, or go straight to my guitar. Usually the core idea of a song will come quickly, but sometimes I’ll rethink an old song or complete a lingering fragment several years later. I’m not the kind of guy who gets the music first. In my experience thoughts, ideas, and language are usually the beginning.

Your songwriting seems to call to mind a whole bunch of different periods of 20th century American music from Tin Pan Alley to Brill Building, and 60’s protest. Are any of those specific influences to you?
You’re hitting on it, very close. I think I get the Tin Pan Alley feel comes from my father, a singer of standards and Americana. He had an immense repertoire, and could rally whole crowds to the cause of song. When you mention the Brill Building I say, yes, I am most definitely a child of fifties rock n’ roll. And, yes, the 60’s were immensely pivotal for me, a time of protest, but as I look back I think of them more as a time when we suddenly saw immense possibilities, and stole a glimpse behind the scrim of accustomed reality.

I have this theory that guys with low voices tend to write the best songs (Leonard Cohen, Lee Hazlewood, David Berman of Silver Jews) whats your take on that?
I think, again, you’re hitting on something very interesting here. How do I relate to your theory? It seems like, in most music, people seem to be bellowing at you; most of the time it’s like a wall of noise. Either you are impressed and fall down prostrate, or you run away. What I look for is music that I can enter into and walk around inside, music that I am invited to participate in, music that I can hold a conversation with. Perhaps when someone sings to you in a lower register you are more likely to feel like you are included, being spoken to personally. There is a sense of respect in it. It makes you feel like you’re a part of the mystery, a drama that is unfolding in the song.

Aside from songwriting and painting, do you do any (non musical) writing?
I am working on a screenplay for a low budget sci-fi movie..animated by some of the existential concerns which brought “Cosmic Patriot” into being. I’m also abstractly musing over a possible memoir.

Have you been reading anything good lately?
Chronicles, Volume One by Bob Dylan- just started:so very rich and wonderful..
Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky-just finished; the last half blew me away..
and Behold The Spirit by Alan Watts-in the midst: of pivotal importance

Do you have a book that changed your life?
Please allow me more than one:
Brothers Karamazov (especially The Grand Inquisitor chapter) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The Meaning of the Creative Act by Nicholas Berdyaev
The Divine Milieu by Teilhard de Chardin