Standing an inch or two above 6 feet, Bernson is thin yet imposing, like a scarecrow, with soft features and a searching gaze, which on this sunny day is hidden behind round-rimmed sunglasses. We're strolling down a deserted beach near the small town of Point Reyes Station, wet sand squishing between our toes, seaweed and dead crabs strewn alongside brown bottles and driftwood.
Off in the distance are high, rocky cliffs. In the foreground, nestled amid waist-high grass, is the solitary structure on this long stretch of beach, a two-story Victorian house that looks to be at least 100 years old, its faded green paint peeling on all sides. Though we're a few dozen feet away, you can almost hear the floorboards creaking, the pipes rattling.
The closest Bernson's ever come to entering this place was in 1994. Back then, he was still living in and around Point Reyes Station, and he went to this house to invite its residents to Ray's Vast Basement's first show. But, he says, being reclusive, eccentric types, they chased him off the property before he could even explain himself. Standing here, staring at this strange building with its undeniable gravity -- it looks like a Hollywood set, something out of a Hitchcock movie -- we both marvel that these people have no idea their home is the centerpiece of a vibrant fictional universe.
As Bernson tells it, the imaginary forefather of his real-life band, Ray Mckelvey, was born in January 1879, the third generation in a line of property owners residing in a town called Drakesville. Upon returning home from World War I, Mckelvey decided to reconstruct his family's coastal ranch 200 yards south of its original location. He built it on a cliff, at the base of which was a cave accessible only by boat and originally discovered by Mckelvey's grandfather. Before laying the foundation, though, Mckelvey tunneled down beneath the site to create a second entrance to the cave. Two days after Prohibition was put into effect in 1920, Mckelvey turned the cave into a speak-easy. The speak-easy soon became the lively center of Dionysian activity in the small town of Drakesville. Thus was born Ray's Vast Basement.
The story, however, doesn't end there. Eventually Mckelvey got caught for smuggling booze and went to prison, where he died. The building changed hands countless times until the '90s, when it became an illegal trailer park inhabited by a collective of musicians and artists; raves and surf contests were held there. Finally, in 1995, the park's owner was forced to sell the property to an international investment firm, which destroyed Mckelvey's long-standing ranch house and built a tourist resort in its place. In 1998, a group of musicians, former tenants of the trailer park, moved to San Francisco and formed a band with the goal of preserving the memory of the ranch, the cave, and all who came in contact with them. Thus was born Ray's Vast Basement -- again.
Of course, all of this is make-believe -- with the exception of the band, which does exist, of course. Bernson classifies his art as musical fiction, and the story of Ray's Vast Basement is at its heart. The house we're standing in front of was the original inspiration for the project, which ended up consuming the last decade of Bernson's life. Before the '90s he lived a nomadic existence, during which he logged time in New York, Montana, and Europe, sometimes living out of his trailer-truck, others sleeping in a tent. (He now resides in the Mission.) The son of recalcitrant parents who told Bernson little about his family's history, he says that his life has been a search for a past. When he realized he'd never find one, he invented it.
The output of Ray's Vast Basement -- which is Bernson plus Colin Held (guitars), Chris Linnevers (drums), John Williford (bass), and a dozen occasional guest players -- consists of an extensive Web site (www.raysvastbasement.com), two CDs containing 23 songs total (the latter of which, By a River Burning Blue, was released this month), and close to a hundred flashcards (sold with the CDs), each a description of an event or a character connected to the story of the illusory Drakesville.
As we drive around Point Reyes Station, Inverness, and the surrounding environs, Bernson points out landmarks that inspired this or that tidbit of a song or story. He shows me the barn he lived in for a time and the street that Ramblin' Jack Elliott lives on; he identifies the tiny local library that's no bigger than a coffee shop, where he whiled away months researching the entire history of the California coast. Because in addition to extending forward to today, the story goes all the way back to the Neolithic age, when the cave was first formed; it includes accounts of Francis Drake's landing as well as tales of Spanish missionaries on their way up from Mexico. It's like a multimedia version of a James Michener novel, only far less organized.
"The hardest thing to explain to people," says Bernson, "is that I didn't come up with this time line so I could write songs about it. And I didn't come up with songs and then try to create this time line so I could market my music. All these little fragments sort of came into place over a long period of time. I didn't have this scheme. ... I wanted it to be the mystery that kind of unfolds the way it unfolded to me. I realize that asks a lot. Some people are not into it. They don't like it."
One of the reasons they may not like it is simply because it's a lot to take in. A cursory listen to the songs on both CDs will leave many scratching their heads, wondering what in the world this guy is singing about. If you give it enough time, though, Bernson's invented world begins to unfurl before your eyes.
Luckily Bernson's music is pretty irresistible. He and his crew (which sometimes includes multi-instrumentalist and By a River co-producer David Macgillis) create a wily mix of folk and rock songs that offers just enough atmospheric elements (keyboards, samples, etc.) to give it a mysterious edge. Falling somewhere between Tom Waits, Jimmy Buffett, and Bob Dylan, the tunes are jangly and fun, as if designed for Bernson to sing with an acoustic guitar slung over his neck as he ambles through a crowd. If you have the right imagination, you can sometimes hear the crowd yell back things like "Amen!" Which is not to say that Bernson is some kind of religious figure, merely that his dedication -- his fire -- is a rare and inspiring thing.
"This whole process was about discovering what the past is all about," he says, "and then creating a past that I could believe in, that excited me, inspired me, and made me feel grounded, that led up right to my current life. And it's amazing because since I've done that I feel so much more grounded. It's like, I have a past."
I point out that this past is fictional.
"It's not!" he asserts. "It's not, for me, because it's rooted in a real place, real experiences, real creation, that I have lived. I lived the creation of it, which has made it real to me. ... I think that's the amazing thing about art and about your life: You create it yourself. You create yourself by what you do."