With the release of Rough and Rowdy Ways last week, Dylan’s first album of original songs in eight years, I found myself wanting to track down and talk to the person who had both written the greatest Dylan parody song of all time and inadvertently changed my relationship with his entire catalogue. That would be musician Dan Bern, whose original songs have also been inspired by and compared to the man himself.
“We were trying to write really good songs that were also funny in the context,” Bern told me about the team of songwriters who were hired for Walk Hard. “It felt like the Manhattan Project, where scientists dropped their work to go work on the A-bomb together.”
For Dewey’s Dylan phase, Bern personally wrote four songs over the course of three days, trying to channel the Blonde on Blonde era. Two ended up in the film: “Royal Jelly” and “Farmer Glickstein” in the closing credits. (“Red clouds on the road required / Three new garbage men just hired.”) If the writing was efficient, the process of how he actually did it was more amorphous. “It was just allowing yourself to go wild with images and metaphor and not have to worry about, how is this making sense in some linear way?” Bern said. “I like to think I sort of got into the headspace that Dylan was in when he was writing, or at least a glimpse of it. It was a really freeing thing to do.”
“I think it starts with just one line. I mean, as soon as you get ‘mailboxes drip like lampposts in the twisted birth canal of the Coliseum,’ it’s like, write the next one!” he added. “I mean, it can be anything.”
Some of the final recording involved John C. Reilly riffing as well. Bern said Reilly spontaneously shouted “You’re a liar” at the end of the song as a nod to the infamous 1966 Dylan show when he responded as such to a heckler who called him “Judas.” “John had enough of a sense of all that history,” Bern told me. “He was fun and funny, and he approached everything with such a seriousness, too.”
Reilly, for his part, told The Ringer in a 2019, “I found myself getting really emotional when I was singing it. It was a real testament to the fact that it doesn’t matter what the words of a song are. If you put your spirit into it and you really mean it, you really can try to connect with an audience.”
And how does Bern feel about “Royal Jelly” now? “I’m proud that I had a hand in it,” he said. “I’m proud that Dewey Cox wrote it or sang it. I’m really grateful that I got to do that, mostly.” (Bern’s personal favorite tune from the film is “Beautiful Ride,” the ballad that Dewey sings on stage at a lifetime achievement award ceremony, before dying exactly three minutes later.)
Years after Walk Hard came out, Bern learned that Dylan had some choice words for him—not about “Royal Jelly” but another Dylan-related parody of his. Back in 1991, Bern had written a spoof “interview” with Dylan’s mother, for a small magazine called Song Talk, in which “she” revealed that she had actually written all of her son’s songs. In 2015, Bern was informed that Dylan had supposedly seen the piece in 1994 and wrote a letter to the magazine calling him a “scurrilous little wretch with a hard-on for comedy.”
“I had to work through it a little bit,” Bern said. “But hey, not everybody has a blurb from that guy.”
Bern has, of course, listened to Rough and Rowdy Ways, saying, “I look forward to continuing to absorb it, but I think it’s great. I love the sound, it’s swampy, it’s real bluesy. The songs are deep. They’re all about death and religion and the sacred and the profane all mixed together.”
Before I hung up, I asked Bern my most pressing question: did he remember where the name “Royal Jelly,” technically a honey bee secretion, came from? “No,” Bern replied quickly, before venturing, “I eat royal jelly, so maybe I had some royal jelly on the counter?” Fair enough. As a wise man once said: “inside the three-eyed monkey within inches of his toaster oven life.”
As you’ve gotten older, has Judaism remained an important part of your lives, as it seems like your experience was largely cultural?
Alana: When it comes to Judaism, the thing that really kept us together was the family aspect. It was the High Holidays, coming together as a family for an event. A meal.
Este We did Shabbat, but that was more about just coming together as a family.
Alana: I also think my parents knew that Friday was when kids got into trouble. That was my parents’ evil play. Every Friday, all the cool kids would go to the Galleria and every Friday night, I remember being like, Mom, can you please drive me to the Galleria? And she’d be like, let’s see how we feel after Shabbat. My parents would drag Shabbat out for as long as they could and then be like, “What, are you going to go for a half an hour and then I have to pick you up? This isn’t happening.”
Have you played any bar or bat mitzvahs?
Alana: No, and I’m down! My dream when it was bat mitzvah season was to be a bat mitzvah dancer. What a fun fucking job! You get to go to bat mitzvahs all the time and just get the party started. That still might be my dream. I’ve never experienced more parties in my life. I’m fucking 28 years old and I may be going to a party once a year. That was every weekend for a year. I was the belle of the ball. It was really a roaring bat mitzvah season, and I do miss it. We were, like, freak dancing in front of grandparents. We were grinding, and I would literally would see someone’s poor grandma who they rolled out…
Este: …who’d survived the Holocaust
Alana: And I’m literally getting down to Ciara. What was I thinking? I guess hormones are just like, We don’t care! Let’s go! If I went to a bat mitzvah now and I saw like, like, 12 and 13 year olds dancing how I was dancing, I would run away and cry.
Danielle, have you thought about having a bat mitzvah now?
Danielle: I should!
Este: A not mitzvah.
Este: Your 26th birthday is your not mitzvah, and then 39 is your hot mitzvah. Hopefully 13 years after that, hopefully you celebrate your kid’s bar or bat mitzvah.
What advice would you give your 13 year old selves?
Alana: I would tell myself: Keep going. All these dudes that are rejecting you are going to come back around one day. So fuck them! Harell Dahari, you could have had this! If I could go back if I could, like see myself as a 13 year old, I really wouldn’t be like, just wait until those braces are off. Your life is gonna change when those braces are gonna come off. I know you cry every night. Wait till those braces come off. You’re gonna be great.
Este: I would probably tell my 13 year old self to start therapy now. I think the worst time of anyone’s life is middle school. That’s when you need therapy the most—to have an hour to just talk about how you’re feeling and your problems. I read back on my diaries—I had super terrible emo poetry. Obviously looking back I’m like, Bitch, shut up. However! However, when you’re going through it, and you’re feeling all the things, it would probably have been helpful for me to be able to talk to someone. I talked to my parents as much as I probably could, but when you’re 13 you don’t think your parents understand you
Alana: I’m not gonna go to my mom be like, “Mom, Harell Dahari just won’t make out with me. How can I seduce Harell Dahari? Can you give me a play by play?”
Este: Mom’s advice was always, like, “Keep a little mystery.” I have no idea what that means. Also, my mom didn’t let us shave our armpits or our legs.
Danielle: That would be my advice: just do it. Once it’s gone, your parents can’t fucking do anything about it.
Alana: Save your fucking life and don’t be the hairy girl.
Since police officers murdered Eric Garner in New York in 2014, his last words, “I can’t breathe,” have become a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement. High-profile figures like LeBron James have worn the words on T-shirts, and protesters have chanted them at anti-police-brutality demonstrations.
“I can’t breathe” aren’t just Eric Garner’s last words. In multiple fatal encounters with police, both white and Black people have said the same phrase while begging officers not to kill them. The most recent incidents include George Floyd, whose murder in Minnesota set off the latest wave of protests nationwide, and Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old Black man in Colorado.
New York Police Department officers have also mocked Garner’s last words, wearing shirts that said “I Can Breathe” in 2014 to antagonize people protesting Garner’s murder.
On Wednesday conservatives in Scottsdale, Arizona, held a rally against face masks, protesting public health measures to slow the spread of COVID-19. At one point, in a now widely circulated video, Scottsdale city council member Guy Phillips took the microphone while wearing a mask. He yelled, “I can’t breathe” twice, before dramatically removing his mask to cheers from the crowd.
Denunciations came quickly. Scottsdale mayor Jim Lane called Phillips’s comments “callous and insensitive.” In the Arizona Republic, columnist E. J. Montini wrote that Phillips made it clear he believes it’s “acceptable to exploit the death of a man” and turn it “into a punchline.” CNN contributor Keith Boykin tweeted, “It was no joke when Eric Garner, George Floyd, Elijah McClain, Manuel Ellis, Javier Ambler and Derrick Elliot Scott said ‘I can’t breathe.'”
Face masks have become a focal point among conservatives who don’t believe that the ongoing pandemic is either real or serious. In the weeks before police brutality protests swept the country, mostly white protesters staged their own protests demanding that states end measures intended to slow the spread of the virus, including requiring face masks in public. Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have refused to wear masks on many occasions. In addition to his opposition to wearing face masks, which public health officials almost unanimously agree is one of the most effective ways to fight the pandemic, the Scottsdale official, Phillips, previously shared a Facebook message, in earnest, claiming that “COVID literally stands for ‘Chinese Originated Viral Infectious Disease’ and the number 19 is due to this being the 19th virus to come out of China.” He was forced to apologize for that bit of racist misinformation.
The New York Times is reporting that Arizona is currently “overwhelmed” with demand for coronavirus tests, and it’s one of seven states currently seeing their biggest spikes in cases since the outbreak began. As of Thursday morning, more than 122,000 Americans have died as a result of the disease, representing over a quarter of the global death toll.
Do you think it’s important that Biden choose a Black running mate?
[laughs] The choice of VP has been an issue of intrigue. The beautiful thing about the options on the table is that all of them are more qualified than the current occupant of the White House. Whatever the choice is, I think we will have a VP who’s more qualified than the president, and that’s a good thing. And all of them are women, and that’s even better.
We’ve seen in the last few weeks some pretty blatant voter suppression tactics in the Georgia and Kentucky primary elections, targeted at Black communities. How is the NAACP planning to address this?
The number one response to voter suppression is to increase voter turnout. So we’re launching our campaign in targeted areas to increase voter turnout among particularly infrequent voters, because the more people we have lined up the better we can overcome some of the voter suppression methods. At the exact same time our legal department is fanning out across the country to partner with local attorneys to be our rapid response, to file lawsuits whenever possible and to prevent voter suppression. Quite frankly it has become a landmine to ensure democracy is afforded to everyone, and many of the most “patriotic” voices out there are the leaders of suppression of the vote and democracy. So we’re fighting back as much as we can, but the number one fight we have to take on as citizens, both Black and white, is to increase turnout and then have legal support at the polls to document real time and respond when tactics are put in place to suppress the vote.
Last week you had a big Supreme Court victory for DACA recipients in NAACP v. Trump. Would you call this the most significant SCOTUS victory for the NAACP since Brown v. Board of Education?
It’s a huge victory for us. The Brown decision was a huge victory. We’ve had multiple housing and fair employment cases that are big wins, but this was also a big win because of the impact on many individuals who simply believed in a contract that was provided by this nation– that if they do certain things, they can be ensured of a certain response from this government. Any time we as a nation renege on contracts with people, it undermines the confidence in our government.
With the Dred Scott [v. Sandford] decision in the 1800s, the case said Blacks have no rights that whites were bound to uphold. When we looked at the DACA rescindment by this administration, we felt that there was the same principle involved: there are certain rights we should uphold as a nation. So we decided to file the lawsuit, and we’re proud that we were successful, not just for the stereotypical faces you see that are DACA recipients, but all the DACA recipients. Because we have members of the NAACP who would’ve been impacted: individuals from the Caribbean, from the African continent, who are very productive, have been here since they were children, who were were brought here outside of their power. That is what has made this nation the nation that it is—we’ve always accepted immigrants from other countries. “Bring me your poor.” That’s the slogan.
I want to talk about police reform. Where do you stand on calls to defund or disband the police?
We absolutely support the call for changing the culture of how policing is done, particularly in African American communities. It is oppressive, it has created a military state in far too many communities. African Americans are preyed upon and denied certain rights and comforts. And so there needs to be an absolute change in the culture of policing, and much of that change can be found in the budgets of policing and the budgets of jurisdictions. When you deemphasize funding for mental health support, but increase funding for police, you’re sending a message of what your priorities are. When you don’t provide the necessary support for social workers and others to address individuals who live in communities or households of trauma, you can’t address behaviors before they become criminal in nature. The question of defunding is not a question of abolishing; it’s establishing priorities that place prevention and public health needs above military responses.
We seem to be in a watershed moment with regard to race relations in this country. How much hope are you allowing yourself to feel, that things might really change this time?
I see opportunities emerging, but I’m cautious to assume they’re going to be realized. We’re at an inflection point in this nation. When you look at the protesters across the country, you see America. When you hear corporate America finally standing up and acknowledging structural racism is a problem in this country, you see potential. Because there’s an election in November where people can make a clear choice as it relates to the values of this country, that’s the path forward. When you have those three opportunities—corporate acknowledgement, political will, and peaceful protest expressing clear values, with an election coming in a few months—that gives a clear path forward to address systemic racism in this country. Now I want to see it executed on, and I want to be a part of navigating how it’s done.
There is no other reaction other than: they’re doing WHAT and they’re doing it WHEN? The news causing the spit take is an announcement from the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode (FHCM), France’s governing fashion organization, that it’s planning to move ahead with Paris Fashion Week at the end of this September.
The coronavirus already wiped out the men’s and haute couture fashion weeks planned for the summer. The smart money would have been on the same happening to September’s big-ticket Paris Fashion Week, which requires many attendees to fly in from other countries, sit side-by-side, and then spread out around the city. That didn’t have to be a bad thing: the pause, it was said, could give designers and brands the opportunity to take a deep breath and reimagine a fashion system they saw as deeply broken. “When you try to explain how fashion works to people not in fashion, it’s impossible,” Dries Van Noten told The New York Times after he and a group of others in the industry wrote an open letter outlining a slate of desired changes. “Nobody can understand it.” Others brands, like Gucci, have already announced intentions to jump off the traditional calendar.
The FHCM wrote in its release that it will follow all “recommendations of public authorities,” but details around what the resulting shows will actually look like are very fuzzy. In addition to Gucci, other brands have already committed to changing the way they show, or leaving the calendar entirely. Earlier this week, Dior announced plans to physically show its cruise collection in July—without any crowd present. (The concept of a physical show exclusively shown online is being branded as “phygital,” because the fashion system can’t make tweaks without trying to stick it with a catchy word or phrase. Remember “see now, buy now”?) Dunhill will only be part of the week’s “digital calendar,” and plans to “present an evocative film,” according to Mark Weston, the brand’s creative director. Matthew Williams’s Alyx confirmed to GQ it will participate, while Dior, Burberry, Chanel, and Fendi have all voiced support for getting back to physical shows, according to Business of Fashion. “In Paris in September, we hope to be able at least to have some audience, if not a full room,” Pietro Beccari, Dior’s CEO, told BoF. (Ami, Bode, OAMC, and Loewe all either declined to say whether they would participate or did not respond to a request for comment.)
PFW is forging ahead but some brands are still taking this time to completely reimagine what a fashion show looks like. Villaseñor, for instance, is planning on releasing a film showcasing his new collection in July. The collection is much smaller than previous showings, for one, and Villaseñor focused on repurposing fabrics and excess leathers that were floating around his design studio. Comfort is also a major priority for the collection—a direct result of the designer, along with most everyone else, spending the last handful of months at home. More than any of that, Villaseñor said, he’s thinking broadly about how the system does (or doesn’t) work: “I just don’t think [the current system] makes sense. For the first time we’re actually going to have enough shelf life to sell something for the actual season it’s meant for.” Villaseñor isn’t sure whether or not these changes will stick post-coronavirus, but he’s certainly considering it.
Despite all the groaning emitting from fashion houses about the current system, there is a reason Paris Fashion Week is so steadfast in moving forward. People who work in the industry—like buyers, editors, and stylists—will tell you how important it is to see clothes in person and how they move on a model, to feel and touch a garment before putting it in your store or magazine. Even the fanciest, highest-production video can’t replicate that experience. “Even if the current situation has led to a great deal of innovation in online projects,” Pascal Morand, the executive president of the FHCM told BoF, “nothing can replace the physical event.”
It’s very difficult not to laugh while talking to David Dobrik. After just a few minutes of talking, the charm and sincerity that made the low-key everyman a YouTube sensation are clear. And, sincerely: He is not a gym rat. “I was supposed to work out with my trainer today, but you called so I cancelled on it,” he says. “So, thank God for that.”
He got his start on Vine, but Dobrik is best known for his YouTube vlogs, which have gone from pranks on his friends to and giving away cars and driving around L.A. with Kylie Jenner. Over the years he’s amassed almost 18 million subscribers on YouTube, spinning the aforementioned charm to a truly massive audience. However, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dobrik stopped making vlogs. He’s decided to pause on his YouTube channel and take some time to experiment with other platforms and stay safe from the virus.
He talked to GQ on how he’s filling his days during the pandemic, dealing with the stress of the YouTube grind, and winding down with his favorite candle.
GQ: What’s your average day look like during the pandemic?
David Dobrik: My average day feels like it’s just day and night. During the day, I’m waiting for it to become night and then at night, I’m waiting for it to become morning. It’s getting so repetitive.
Usually I wake up around 10 or 11. I work with my roommate and we’ll get on some Zoom calls. And then usually they’ll go out and go on a run or they’ll go work in the backyard and I’ll make some sort of excuse where I have to shower, or I have to do some more important things [laughs]. But there have been a lot of days in a row where I’ve used some excuses to skip that part of the day.
Actually, I was supposed to work out with my trainer today, but you called so I cancelled on it. So, thank God for that.
Happy I could do that for you.
Next month, you know, I’ll work with the trainer next month. There’s gonna be lots of months in the future. I’m not the best at working out. I absolutely hate working out. I should say that: I hate lifting weights. I hate doing sit ups. I just don’t understand activities where there’s no clear goal or game involved. I love, love playing basketball and soccer. I love sports for a purpose and there’s a winner or a loser in that moment. There’s something about lifting weights that I find it’s so boring. I just end up getting so angry by the end of it.
That’s so funny to me, part of me has been dying during this whole thing because I can’t lift weights. I’m like: I’m gonna go to the gym and I have this super structured program that I’m following. It’s all about certain numbers I need to be hitting.
Why do you do it? Are you seeing serious body changes? Is it like, the second you see a little change in your body you’re addicted to it now? How does that work?
I enjoy the numbers aspect of it. I love watching like the strength gains you can make—being likelast month I couldn’t lift this but now I can.
What you’ve done is you’ve built a game into what you’re doing. So you go and you’re competing against yourself, which is cool. I could never do it [laughs].
This is a “me” thing. I don’t think anybody’s ever had this problem, but when I grip weights and I’m like “Okay, I’m benching something.” I get really in my head. I think about my hand around the weight and I think about how my veins are bending around the weight, and how the inside of my hand is looking and it grosses me out so much.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard somebody say that before.
I really love tennis, and tennis before quarantine happened. The courts were open and I could go out with a pro to play. It’s a three-in-one because you get a work out, you have fun, and you get a tan. My favorite part about coming back from tennis is looking tan. I don’t know why, I just love it, it feels like an added bonus.