Living out the String
Story & Interview by Amy Jones
Photos by Dina Pielaet
When Marc Cohn’s gospel hued monster hit,
Walking in Memphis, won him a Grammy the music world eagerly awaited
continued greatness. Rock icon, David Crosby said, “…Marc
Cohn is easily in the top half dozen talents in the world. He writes
and sings at an amazing level. He has consistently written some
of the best songs in American music. I rank him with Joni Mitchell,
Bob Dylan, Randy Newman, Paul Simon, and Shawn Colvin. I believe
his music will last and be loved hundreds of years from now.”
Marc Cohn works by his own rules. Between an intense
commitment to family and his demand for the highest quality and
depth in his recordings, years went by between releases and tours.
Despite that, he maintains a huge following, and a reputation in
the business as “one of the all-time great songwriters.”
This summer when it was announced that Cohn was releasing not one
but two albums, and hitting the road again with his band and co-headliner
Suzanne Vega, many could hardly wait. Concert venues sold out. Ironically
just a few weeks into his tour, Marc had a life-changing experience,
one that brought him just about as close to death as one can go.
We spoke with him before and after that day in Denver when as Marc
puts it, “I met the devil in the street.”
On July 27th, we drove down the Pacific Coast Highway
from Ventura to the Santa Monica pier. Suzanne Vega, the great folk
singer/songwriter opened the show. Marc Cohn and his fabulous band,
each stars in their own right, jammed like it was Sunday. They are
Shane Fontayne (guitar), Jennifer Condos (bass) and Jay Bellerose
(percussion). It was a musician’s musical night enjoyed outside
with crisp ocean breezes and a colorful crowd. Live TV cameras broadcast
the concert on the side of huge white trucks for the audience that
had to take up spots in the sand below the crowd on the pier. And,
hundreds of lights and candles twinkled like fireflies.
Marc Cohn has an uncanny ability to inspire in
his audience a profound hope in the best person they might be. The
maturity of his songs cuts right to the heart of what is most important
in life. It was remarkable to hear how often his fans said things
like, “This is the song I want to sing my wife.” “This
is the song I would sing to my child.” “This is the
song I want played at my funeral.” Cohn’s music flows
out from the stage delivering precious kernels of truth to each
person present, creating an evening that is both sublime and poignant.
His work evokes a kind of odyssey experience –
a southern fried vision quest marked by pivotal moments and encounters
along his life’s journey. Each line of every song holds a
story, crafted for infinite possibilities of interpretation, the
hallmark of all great story tellers.
One morning about ten days after the Santa Monica
concert, our office was planning our Cohn cover story. I was piling
over notes about the rich references in his songs, lines like “there’s
catfish on the table and gospel in the air.” About the tragedy
in his life, of losing his mother and then his father at such a
young age that is at the heart of appreciating the wisdom, joy and
power in his songs. The story about his life changing trip to Memphis
where he visited Al Green’s church and sang with an old, sage-like
black singer named Muriel, who mysteriously peered into Marc’s
soul, dispensing pearls of wisdom that changed his life.
How many terrible things begin with a phone call,
I wondered when we got the call that, “Marc Cohn was shot
in the head in Denver.” That’s all we were told.
We huddled around the computer searching for information.
One of Marc’s lyrics, “I saw the ghost of Elvis,”
actually drifted into mind, painting a sad picture of our cover
story that might now, it seemed almost certainly, be a memorial.
Marc is married to our Creative Director’s cousin, and it
was wrenching to witness the process of bracing for tragedy about
to ripple through the rest of the family. Work came to a halt. Doors
were locked. Phones set to message service.
Another online news report confirmed that Marc
Cohn had been shot in the head by a car-jacker in Denver after a
concert as he and his band members were on their way back to the
hotel. We stood around the computer monitor, hands over our mouths,
in shock, thinking, people just don’t usually survive being
shot in the head. The worst seemed to be reality.
It seemed hours before we came across another internet
source that reported doctors were able to remove the bullet that
was lodged in Marc’s temple. Miraculously, he would recover.
Fate had smiled on Marc Cohn in Denver. We breathed a collective
sigh of relief and pictured his wife Elizabeth in flight on her
way to be with him.
Later when we saw an X-ray of the bullet so precariously
lodged in a small pocket of soft tissue, it seemed impossible that
Marc Cohn still walked among the living.
Even though it looked like he was going to be ok
physically, Marc and his band members were needless to say, emotionally
stricken. It also went without saying that our upcoming interview
would be postponed at the very least. However, almost a month later,
to the day, we did end up talking to Marc on the phone, us in Ventura,
him in Manhattan, about his horrifying ordeal, his music and what
it might mean that he had been spared.
Marc’s wife is Elizabeth Vargas, anchorwoman
of ABC’s television show, 20/20 and when her network presented
the story of Marc Cohn’s carjacking in Denver, we got a chance
to see him recovered somewhat from his injuries, but looking frail,
vulnerable and still in shock. Elizabeth recounted Marc’s
almost childlike recollection; that the gunman who shot into the
windshield of his van, looked like “a monster.”
When Dina Pielaet, our Creative Director, spoke
to Marc for the first time after the event at the start of our interview
and after many exchanged sentiments, she said that he looked like
his head was above water and blue skies were above, but that he
must feel a little like he’s caught in an undertow. And, Marc
replied, “I look ok, but people don’t know…Undertow
is an accurate word to describe what it feels like hour-to-hour…I’m
trying to process….One of the things that is actually a relief
is that it was so random and that it wasn’t a fan. That would
be much more difficult to handle.”
If you would like to continue reading our Feature
Story for our Fall 2005 please call: 805.641.9303 or click
here for details on how to order back issues.
For more information about Marc Cohn, his records
and tour dates visit:
marccohn.net (includes sound clips & Marc Cohn Live 04/05 with
the new song One Safe Place) and marccohn.org (official fan site)