“Everybody talks about some fateful day
And I guess that this was mine
I may be here to tell some kind of story
But I think it’s gonna take a little time”
– Ghost Train, Marc Cohn
I spent a good portion of the week with an acute case of the birthday “blahs”. I spent the day wondering how much longer I’d be able to say I was in my “mid” twenties, and started wondering if I had accomplished enough in my first quarter century. Fortunately, I had a concert to look forward to.
Last night, Kim I went to see Marc Cohn perform at the Aladdin Theater. I’ve mentioned him on this blog before, but for those unfamiliar, he’s best known as the guy who sings Walking in Memphis. Yes, this was our second Portland concert in which we were the youngest people in the audience by 20 years. Fine by me. There will be plenty of time to see some younger artists.
Cohn is a talented and nostalgic songwriter with such a profound respect for the power of soul and blues music that most are surprised to learn that the man behind the voice is a white Jew from the suburbs of Cleveland. His self-titled album, his first and his best, was one of the most-played CDs in my household growing up. My dad used to accompany Marc with back-up vocals as he prepared dinner, and I distinctly remember my mom softly swaying her head to the lyrics with her eyes-closed. Every song on the album is image-laden and deeply personal.
Years later, in college, I was driving to the Lewisburg farmers market in my green Jeep Cherokee with a cute blonde in the passenger’s seat. It was the early spring of my senior year, and I had only been dating Kim for about a couple weeks. I was hyper-aware that every gesture, joke, song choice would inform her in impression of me. When Cohn’s True Companion starting coming through my speakers, I was nervous she’d find me saccharine and overly sensitive. After all, was tune about finding the love of your life. To my relief, Kim turned to me and said, “I love Marc Cohn!” It was one of the many moments that spring that I realized Kim and I would be together for a long time.
Given our long history, I had expectations for the show last night. Early on, I was worried that a letdown might be in store. Cohn began his set seated at the piano with Ghost Train, a personal favorite, then began Perfect Love, when he promptly broke his guitar. While his stage crew scurried about trying to find a replacement, the 51 year-old Cohn told us he was battling a larynx infection, and was doing his best to put on a show anyway.
Fortunately for us, Marc and his band proved to be a group of wily veterans. I should have known better, considering that five years ago, Marc survived a botched carjacking in which he was shot in the head (no I’m not kidding). A bad cold kind of pales in comparison.
The band carried on with some great covers, including Van Morrison’s Into the Mystic and The Box Tops’ The Letter. On The Letter, Cohn and band-mate Shane Fontayne (sweet name, right?) broke into a stunning guitar duel. These old guys could still wail.
My favorite part of the evening was when Cohn shared the origin story behind his calling card, Walking in Memphis. Marc was 25 years old and depressed that he hadn’t written a hit yet. He knew that James Taylor wrote Fire and Rain when he was only 20, and that most musicians’ careers were halfway over by 25. Cohn read an interview with Taylor, in which he discussed his process for overcoming writer’s block. James suggested taking a “geographic”, a trip to some place completely new. Cohn said he immediately started booking flights to places with rich musical histories, the first of which was to Memphis. He did Graceland and other touristy things, but also visited Reverend Al Green’s Full Gospel Tabernacle Church, and performed gospel music with an elderly woman named Muriel at the Hollywood Café. Cohn said that while he’s Jewish, he felt something of a spiritual awakening during his time in Tennessee. The trip provided inspiration not only for Walking in Memphis, but for most of his first hit album. Muriel didn’t live to see Marc’s success, but he did have a chance to play his songs for her. She said she liked the one in which she was mentioned the best. She wasn’t alone.
Cohn’s performance of Walking in Memphis included a novel interlude with lines from blues classics like Midnight Hour, but retained its original luster. I guess your mid-twenties isn’t too late for a big break.
An encore included a heartfelt rendition of True Companion to end the night on a sentimental note, and Kim and I ventured out into the rain in search of a bus back across the river to northwest Portland. I couldn’t help but smile thinking about Marc’s quip earlier in the evening that, “if you hear a reference to rain and a mode of transportation, you’re probably listening to a Marc Cohn song.”
This morning I woke up to delicious homemade waffles and a brand spanking new digital SLR camera: the ultimate birthday present. Maybe this will be the year I write my opus. It’s certainly off to a great start.