Dan Bern photo by Judd Irish Bradley

Writing, Dan Bern once told me, is a “a place where you don’t have to be squeamish in any way. There’s nobody looking over your shoulder; there’s nobody telling you that you can’t say that or that’s inappropriate.” His song “God Said No,” from the album New American Language, attests to his fearlessness as a writer. Here he shares the story of how the song came to be. 

The story

For some reason I had been flirting around with the idea of going back in time. I guess it’s a pretty common thing. They say that if you give people the choice of one super power, traveling in time is pretty high up on a lot of people’s lists.

I had several songs where I was traveling around in time. In one of them, I go back in time to kill Hitler, and I actually succeed, only to come back and find that the same atrocities had occurred, only this time led by a Fritz Gruber.

But that one seemed long, and required too much exposition, and never really worked that well.

Like a lot of people I tend to go very high or very low, and one night I was in Kansas and I was feeling very low. Looking back, I don’t know what I had to feel so low about. I was living in a cool house in the country with a stream running out back and deer grazing around in the morning. I had a bunch of my fellows getting ready to record some songs. We played par-3 golf in the afternoons, for crying out loud. But moods and feelings are what they are.

So this one night I couldn’t sleep and I was feeling really low. So I started kind of arguing with God, as it were, about the going back in time thing. For my part I keep coming up with better and better reasons for disengaging with my present, and sliding back in time. And He keeps topping me—not just denying my pleas but systematically laying out why I was not going to warrant the bother and expense or whatever it would take for Him to allow me through the golden gates of time.

The next day I was playing the song for my piano pal Wil, and I couldn’t sing the song without getting choked up throughout it. They’re not all like that, but that one was.

With that one I felt like I’d finally gotten the going-back-in-time song thing wrestled to the ground for awhile. So I could leave that go for a bit.

—Dan Bern

The lyrics

I met God
On the edge of town
Where the wind meets the stillness
Where the darkness meets the light
Where the ocean meets the sky
Where the desert meets the rain
Where the earth meets the heavens
Out on the edge of town
I met God

I asked God
Do one thing for me
Send me back in time
Send me to Seattle
Let me go
Find Kurt Cobain
Take away his gun
Take away his bullets
Talk to him
Make him want to live
Tell him how we love him
Help him see his glory

God said no
If I sent you back
If you really found him
You would only ask him
If he could
Help you get a deal
If he knows a lawyer
If he can help you
God said no

I asked God
Do one thing for me
Send me back in time
Send me to Berlin
Let me find
The one they call Hitler
I will stalk him
I will bring him down
I will bring along
A powerful gun
Loaded with bullets
Obliterate his memory

God said no
If I sent you back
You would get caught up
In theory and discussion
You would let your fears
Delay and distract you
You would make friends
You would take a lover
God said no

I asked God
Do one thing for me
Send me back in time
Send me to Jerusalem
Let me go
Let me go find Jesus
Let me save his life
As they try to kill him
Let me take him down
Down from the cross
Take the iron from his body
Try to heal his wounds

God said no
If I let you go
If you really found him
Walking with the cross
You would stare
Your tongue no longer working
Eyes no longer seeing
Ears no longer hearing
God said time
Time belongs to me
Time’s my secret weapon
My final advantage
God turned away
From the edge of town
I knew I was beaten
And that Now was all I had
God said no

Update from JPR

In the fall of 2016, Roger Daltrey of the Who chose “God Said No” (along with Dan’s song “Marilyn”) for a playlist of favorite songs in conjunction with a British music award.

On a personal note, in 2016 I had the honor of accompanying Dan on this song (and a few others) at a house concert—here’s a clip.

In 2017, I backed up Dan again at Babeville, Ani DiFranco’s venue in Buffalo—a memorable gig you can read about here.

More

Behind the song

The Complete Singer-Songwriter