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Marc Cohn honors his predecessors, and plays Aspen

Stewart OksenhornAspen Times WeeklyAspen, CO Colorado
Published: Marc Cohn
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ASPEN – The first song on Marc Cohn’s first album announced the Cleveland native’s arrival as a musician. The song, “Walking in Memphis,” from his self-titled 1991 album, earned a Grammy nomination for best pop male vocalist, and on the strength of the song, Cohn, 32 at the time, won a Grammy for best new artist.The song also proclaimed Cohn as a music fan as much as a musician. “Walking in Memphis” pictured a man communing with Al Green, and the ghosts of Elvis Presley and W.C. Handy, wondering if his feeling of ecstasy is even possible: “Do I really feel the way I feel?” he asks himself. The moment is rapturous enough to border on the religious. When a club piano-player asks is he’s a Christian, he replies, “Ma’am I am tonight.” (Making it an even better line, Cohn himself is Jewish.)It’s not unusual for a songwriter just getting his start in the business to bubble over like this in his affection for music. What’s extraordinary in the case of Cohn is he never stopped feeling like the teenager discovering music as though it were a sacred gift. On his 1998 album “Burning the Daze,” he recorded a cover of Harry Nilsson’s “Turn on Your Radio,” another song about the power of music. And Cohn’s most recent album, 2007’s “Join the Parade,” opens with “Listening to Levon,” a reflection on Levon Helms of The Band, and continues with “The Calling (Ghost of Charlie Christian),” about the pioneering jazz guitarist. Even when not so specifically about musicians past or present, Cohn’s songs feature dancing, hand-claps, trumpets, Mardi Gras parades.”Alongside being an artist, I’m a fan,” Cohn said from his home in Manhattan, where he has lived for 25 years. “It’s impacted me so deeply.”On his next album, Cohn makes his affection even more explicit. The album, due out in June, is tentatively titled “Listening Booth 1970,” and it is a loving tribute to the year that solidified Cohn’s desire to be a musician. Cohn credits four albums in particular, all released in 1970, that gave his life direction – James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James,” Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush,” Van Morrison’s “Moondance” and Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” – but the album includes Cat Stevens’ “Wild World,” Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Long As I Can See the Light,” Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed,” and one obscure track, “Look at Me,” from the Plastic Ono Band album.”When I listened to those four records, I had no idea I could sing or write,” said Cohn, who counted the words in songs from “After the Gold Rush,” thinking there might be some mystic connection between the number of words and the quality of the song. “I didn’t know I could do it, but I willed myself to sing and write and climb into that portal.”Cohn says 1970 was significant not just for the music released, but for how it was listened to. “As I was looking at the list of music of that year, two things struck me: It was the golden age of the single. And also the dawning of the album age, these pieces of art that were meant to be listened to in one long listen,” he said.

Cohn’s 1970 recording is intended to repay a debt to the artists who helped him start his career. But the obligation is not just an old one; the songs have also given Cohn more recent assistance.Cohn is a notoriously slow worker. He has just four studio albums in nearly 20 years, and went nine years between “Burning the Daze” and “Join the Parade.” He has struggled with writer’s block. But after he ran into John Leventhal, a producer and musician known for his work with Shawn Colvin and his wife, Rosanne Cash, Cohn got the itch to get into the studio. But he didn’t have songs, or at least not a collection that fell together as an album. Songs written by others came to the rescue. “Listening Booth 1970,” he says, “was born of my love of making records, and my inability to make them very often.”Cohn had actually kept a play list of songs that he considered covering – “Wish You Were Mine,” he called it – for nearly 10 years. But he wanted an album with a connecting theme. He listened to albums he admired that didn’t feature material written by the performer, including a pair that most wouldn’t think of as “cover” albums: Alison Krauss & Robert Plant’s Grammy-winning “Raising Sand,” which featured takes on traditional folk tunes; and “Nick of Time,” which had Bonnie Raitt singing tunes contributed by other writers. Those albums showed Cohn “there was a different way” of making an album of other writers’ material. “It didn’t have to be any less of an original statement.”The covers record has given Cohn a way to create a record that didn’t require him to face catastrophe. The long intervals between albums stems from a tendency to write only when an urgent need strikes. So it was in August 2005, when, following a concert at the Denver Botanic Gardens, Cohn was shot in the head during an attempted carjacking in downtown Denver. Cohn escaped serious injury and was released from the hospital the following day. But a different kind of disaster struck three weeks later, when New Orleans was clobbered by Katrina.”I watched Katrina as a musician, in a way that was separate from just a human being,” Cohn said. “Any musician had to ask, My god, what’s going to happen to the culture of that fabulous city? And then I read that Fats Domino was missing, and that opened another level of horror.”Cohn says that he typically doesn’t write unless he is “so raw that I don’t have a choice but to work it through by writing.” In this case, the result was “Join the Parade,” which referenced the destruction, the jubilation, and the importance of music.”It takes something – not cataclysmic, but that gets me to a place where I have to write,” Cohn said.

As much of a music fan as Cohn is, his heart belongs largely to those first influences. He does search out new artists, but only sporadically do they hit him in a way that approaches what he felt 40 years ago.”It’s a slower absorption rate. My life is focused now on other things,” he said. “It’s the older stuff that grabs me the best. Maybe because it’s deeper; maybe that was the golden age. Or maybe it’s that the stuff you hear when you’re young always has the biggest impact. But I think everybody pales in comparison to the originators. Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Paul Simon. It’s been a long time since I heard a voice that moves me in that way.”stewart@aspentimes.com


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