Last week Jamie and I sat in a small, classy theater in downtown Franklin, Tennessee and listened as one of the finest songwriters in America blew my mind.
I first encountered Marc Cohn’s music in 1991, my junior year of high school. I was steeped in heavy metal, hair metal, pop rock, swamp rock, prog rock—basically, [choose any adjective] rock. (I know, I know. Shocking. I’m saving my Tesla/Extreme post for another time.) But when “Walking in Memphis” strode through the airwaves back in 1991, I experienced something altogether different.
I liked the emotion and the musical high I got when I was listening to straight-up rock and roll, but I often rolled my eyes at the lyrics (except for those of the aforementioned Tesla and Extreme). Lyrics mattered to me even then, but not enough to make up for my disdain towards what I thought of as Easy Listening music. Basically, if it was on my dad’s radio station, I avoided it like homework. This included James Taylor, Paul Simon, Jim Croce, Jackson Browne, and others I’ve come to love.
So, I kept looking for stories and deeper meaning in rock and roll, but I just couldn’t seem to find it. Then one day I heard a pretty piano part dance out of the car stereo, and a raspy, warm, and welcoming voice sang,
Put on my blue suede shoes and I boarded the plane
Touched down in the land of the Delta Blues in the middle of the pouring rain.
I sat up straight and paid attention. It was as if I had happened upon a deer in the woods. I froze. I don’t remember the exact moment I first heard that song as a seventeen-year-old kid, but I was probably driving my dad’s Pontiac station wagon with the volume cranked, wearing a look of dumb delight. Like a great film or a great book, that song goes everywhere your heart wants it to go, and yet you’re still surprised by it. It’s no overstatement that “Walking in Memphis” feels like a moment of grace.
As soon as possible I drove the thirty miles to Turtle’s Music in Gainesville and bought the cassette single (remember those?) with money saved from stocking shelves at the IGA. The B-side to that cassette was a song called “Silver Thunderbird.” Lo and behold, I was blessed among piano-playing teenagers: here was yet another beautiful, moving song to work out on the old church piano, along with an opening lyric that will always make me feel like I’m ten again:
Watched it coming up Winslow, down South Park Boulevard
Well, it was looking good from tail to hood
Great big fins and painted steel
Man, it looked just like the Batmobile
With my old man behind the wheel.
I’d love to type out the rest of that lyric, because every single line is just perfect—and if you don’t know the song I want you to, doggone it. (Here’s a link to a video of him singing it several years ago at NYC’s The Bitter End, a venue I was lucky enough to play with Caedmon’s Call about 15 years ago.)
I wore out that little cassette. Those two songs opened up to me a world of music. I discovered Songwriting, as distinct from just Music or Rock & Roll or “Dude, did you hear how high that Steelheart guy can sing?” I realized that behind some songs there was a writer with a story to tell, and all he needed was a piano or a guitar to tell it. I was no longer merely experiencing the emotional satisfaction of a powerful song, but the real, down-to-the-marrow resonance of a narrative set to music—the kind of narrative that tells you as much about yourself as it does the narrator. I hadn’t thought much about songwriting up to that point; songs were written by bands, hashed out in studios during jams, or—or something. Heck if I knew. But Marc’s songs sounded—don’t misunderstand this as arrogance—attainable. They sounded like a guy sat down at the piano and found a way to tell a great story. I heard them and thought, “I want to try that.”
For most writers there comes a moment when you encounter a book or song or poem that doesn’t just level you with its power, it also invites you in. It seems to show you the mountaintop and at the same time reveals the road that leads you there. That doesn’t mean you’ll ever reach the peak (I certainly haven’t come close to writing a “Silver Thunderbird”), but of course, the journey’s the thing. In hindsight, discovering Marc Cohn was a significant step toward my becoming a songwriter. I didn’t encounter Rich Mullins’s songs for another few years, so as much as I loved these new sounds it still hadn’t occurred to me that this newfound love of songwriting could coexist with a calling, as I feel it does now. Anyway, I splurged and spent $14 on the whole tape (yes, children, that’s how much cassettes used to cost). Song after song entranced me. I learned them all on the piano, even “Ghost Train,” which had the weirdest and warmest keyboard driving the song. As it turned out, it was a Fender Rhodes, the sound of which, even today, transports me straight to high school and lonely drives in the mist. Listen:
I’m telling you, that first Marc Cohn album is among the great records of the last thirty years, right up there with Graceland, August and Everything After, and The Joshua Tree. The lyrics, the melodies, the instrumentation, the sounds are all but miraculous. I wish I had time to tell you about every song: “Ghost Train,” about the passing of his mother when Cohn was a boy; about “True Companion” and how I sang it at my roommate’s wedding and goofed up the words; about “Dig Down Deep,” and how I included a nod to it in “World Traveler”; about realizing after a hundred spins what a genius lyric “Walk on Water” is. (It paints these pictures of people waiting for miracles, which seems like enough of a song, right? Then at the very end he sings, “I’m willing to wait for the miracles, but I just can’t wait…for you.” So with those two words the whole song changes: I have better odds waiting for a miracle than for you, he tells her. Painful.) And then comes “Strangers in a Car,” a beautiful, sad picture of two people who don’t know how to know each other any more. Then there’s “Perfect Love,” a sweet song made sweeter by James Taylor’s background vocal. Believe it or not, I could go on. And that’s just the first record!
The Rainy Season is another masterful batch of songs. “She’s Becoming Gold,” somehow sounds golden. How on earth did he do that? “Don’t Talk to Her at Night” is a great mystery to me, but I love it all the more for it; and learning the guitar part led me to writing “Pillar of Fire” late one night in 2002. I still play “From the Station” half the time I sit at the piano; that song led me to “Mountains on the Ocean Floor,” which is a straight-up Marc Cohn ripoff, as far as the sounds go. If you don’t believe me, one of these days I’ll tell you the story of how Marc sat in Ben Wisch’s mixing studio in Greenwich Village with Ben Shive and I and listened to it. “Beautiful song,” Marc said, when it was over. “Sounds familiar, I guess,” I said bashfully. “Aw, I wouldn’t worry about it,” Marc replied. “We were ripping somebody off back then too.” A gracious answer. I’m sitting here wishing I had a week to write about all the things I love about this guy’s songs. And I’ve only breezed through the first two records—there are several more, all with excellent songs. But I’ll get to the point.
At that show last week, Marc told the story of how he wrote “Walking in Memphis,” what he jokingly referred to as his calling card. And for better or worse, it’s true. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve mentioned Marc Cohn to someone and then because of the blank stare followed it up with, “You know, the ‘Walking in Memphis’ guy.” That bums me out, because he has so many great songs. But it seemed the other night like he had more than made peace with it. After all, if you’re going to be known for a single song, it might as well be that one.
Marc told the crowd that when he was a struggling songwriter in New York City he followed James Taylor’s advice (songwriters, pay attention!): when you’re stuck, go someplace you’ve never been, and the new environment might unstick you. Marc chose Memphis. While he was there he visited Al Green’s church (“Reverend Green, he’ll be glad to see you / When you haven’t got a prayer“), and had an experience. Marc said that, though he was Jewish, something profound happened when he heard Rev. Green preach the Gospel, that the man’s voice gained in strength as he preached hour after hour, and soon Marc found himself weeping. He joked that he had cried in temple when he was a boy, but not the same kind of tears. These were tears of joy.
Here’s the story, in his own words:
A few days later he ended up at a café called the Hollywood, where a sweet old lady named Muriel played the piano on Fridays.
Now Muriel plays piano every Friday at the Hollywood
And they brought me down to see her, and they asked me if I would
Do a little number, and I sang with all my might
She said, ‘Tell me, are you a Christian, child?’
I said, ‘Ma’am, I am tonight.’
That lyric couldn’t be any better. Writing it down just now, I’m as amazed as ever by the succinct, graceful way he sets the stage and tells us what happened, with all the emotion and magic that he felt that night. Marc said that in between Muriel’s songs he would talk to her, and she pressed in. He told her about his struggle to write songs, about his grief over the death of his mother. By the end, he was singing all these Gospel songs and hymns with her. He said that though “Walking in Memphis” is populated by famous characters like Elvis and W.C. Handy and Al Green, little old Muriel at the piano is the most significant character in there. Then he dedicated the song to her and played it. He brought the house down. I saw folks with their hands in the air, just like at church.
So here’s what I kept thinking. It was clear that Marc knew he had encountered something in Memphis all those years ago. Whatever it was changed his life. Not only did he weep with joy at Green’s church, but he was ministered to by a humble Christian woman. He came back to New York and wrote a legendary record. He won a Grammy and gained a career’s worth of dedicated fans. Then a few years ago Marc and his band were mugged after a show in Colorado. Marc was shot in the head and lived to tell about it. As I listened, it was hard to deny that this Jewish kid from Ohio was being pursued by, and perhaps even protected by, the great love of God. Maybe it’s to bring Him glory. Whether Marc meant to or not last week in Franklin, that’s just what he did. I don’t know where he is, spiritually, but think about this beautiful irony: the one song he has to sing at every single concert of his life, the song that changed everything for him—his “calling card”—reminds him night after night of Reverend Green’s four hour sermon about Jesus, about sweet Muriel’s saintly concern for him, about one luminous encounter with joy. Whether or not Marc believes in Jesus, I found myself the other night giving thanks not just for Marc and his music, but for the God who has lavished on him the grace to write these songs and tell these stories, to survive gunshots, to cast a warm spell over a room full of souls, to soothe and inspire us with a piano and a one-of-a-kind voice.
I get a sense that he has his ear to the tracks, and he can tell that something beautiful is out there and coming his way. I pray he’ll keep listening, that he’ll keep his eyes open, that he’ll look around from time to time at this beautiful, broken world and wonder if there’s not some secret companion following him through the trees—maybe sweet Muriel at the piano was telling the truth all along.
I made a quick iTunes playlist of some of my favorite Marc Cohn songs, in case you’re looking for a place to start. Click here to check it out.