BLOOMFIELD, NJ — “I don’t see any library staff around, so we’re going to go for it, you know, with the show.”
So began a tour of the American West through songs written by one-time Bloomfield resident Marc Berger, who sang, and played acoustic guitar and harmonica, backed by his three-piece Ride band. The one-hour concert, performed Saturday, May 21, in the Little Theatre of the Bloomfield Children’s Library, was the latest once-a-month theatrical offering from the Bloomfield Public Library.
Berger’s first number was bedrock western, a song about trains and the end of the line. “Nobody Gonna Ride on the Railroad” began hauntingly, a few solitary notes played by Berger and then by Marc Shulman on electric guitar, followed by Deni Bonet on violin. A standup bass was played by Jeff Eyrich. The solitary phrasing provided a sense of terrestrial space and loss: “Say a prayer for every soul on the line / Nobody rides / On the train that made this great land of mine.”
The second song, “Take It On the Chin,” feels at home in a saloon.
“The next song is about a cowboy who thinks he’s got his act together until he meets a horse and he can’t figure how to stay on top of it,” Berger said.
This song pits a man against a wild and unmanageable horse, with some deeper metaphors. Again, the music begins simply, with Berger strumming and Shulman providing some attention-catching and beautiful vibrato, his body and guitar shaking.
“And you can feel it in your chest / When she rears back and kicks / You are dyin’ to possess her.”
Between songs, Berger’s talk was autobiographical and engaging.
“As you can tell by the first two songs, I’m from New York,” he said. “But I am from New York and I made a trip out West. I was living in Bloomfield, N.J., on Franklin Street, about to start law school at Rutgers in Newark.”
He and a friend decided to have a summer adventure. They had never camped before, but they bought a tent, got into a car and headed west.
“We didn’t know how large-scale everything was out there,” he said. “Our point of reference was the Northeast.”
When he returned, Berger began law school but said his life was changed forever. All he wanted to do was return west. For the next five summers, while living in Manhattan, he would choose a destination in the West and just drive.
“I lived on 23rd Street, a nuthouse,” he said. “The drives out West were therapeutic. But those experiences I had are no longer available, because I didn’t have a cell phone. Once I got into the car, I wasn’t talking to anyone who recognized the sound of my voice or my face. This experience is no longer possible.”
He said after you drove past Chicago, travel got interesting along U.S. Route 2, as “the environment comes up to the car.” On one such trip, he drove to Montana.
“Those high plains in eastern Montana are Big Sky country,” he said. “And the plains start to slope up toward the Rockies and there are no trees. … You can see the surface of the earth in every direction because of that.”
Berger said he had been driving and had not seen another vehicle for two hours. In every direction he could see hundreds of miles. He stopped the car, got out and began screaming at the top of his lungs. It was at that moment, he said, that he realized this experience would be with him for the rest of his life.
To capture that feeling of freedom he felt, the band played “Montana.”
“Don’t know my mama, don’t know my daddy / Don’t know my name or my place of birth / But when I got a look at the Big Sky country / I knew I had a home on this earth.”
Berger said living in Manhattan had made him think everything was extremely important. But out West, he realized he was this tiny thing and nothing was important.
“I loved this feeling,” he said.
But misfortune, as expressed in “Time Waits For No Man,” is the flip side to this freedom when a woman sends a man out to buy liquor just to steal his van.
Berger began to write songs while in law school, finally bringing some to a publisher. To his surprise, he was signed to a contract and never practiced law a day in his life. His song, “The Last One,” was covered by Richie Havens. Berger’s album, “Ride,” is available on Spotify.