Marc Cohn @ The City Winery, 2012 Jan 26

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{This has apparently been sitting in my Drafts folder for four years.  Oops.  I never finished it, so it ends abruptly. -=-BLG}

It’s been a while (a real long while) since I’ve gotten to a Marc Cohn show, but this one was worth it.  He played the City Winery, which is an odd hybrid of concert space, fine dining, boutique winery, and microbrewery.  I ordered my ticket early and got a really good seat at the last row of tables on the floor, just before the risers to a second tier.  And I snagged one that faced the stage (as about half of them face away), saving myself a tremendous crick in my neck.

I arrived well early so as to get dinner ordered and done before the show.  The food selection is a bit limited though it seemed like there was lots of good stuff on the menu.  I got a flatbread pizza and finished with an order of house-made pretzels that somehow or another are made from the house wine.  I don’t really get how that works.  The pretzels were fine (crunchy and mostly unsalted, which actually is what I wanted).   Since I don’t drink, I can’t speak to the wines.

Rest for the Weary (30 Days of Marc Cohn – Day 19)

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Rest for the Weary
The Rainy Season

One of the things I like about Marc Cohn is that his songs aren’t all about finding, having, and losing the girl. Every album includes very personal songs that nonetheless seem to be universal. I’m also struck by how well his songs, without generally being all that upbeat, convey a certain subtle, almost unreasonable, hopefulness. More than optimism, it’s faith that, despite all appearances, there is something wonderful in even the most mundane times.

For a while this song was a touchstone in my life. It doesn’t really reflect any details of my personal history but I was very moved by the thought that someday, there will be rest for the weary. I think it’s both telling and fantastic that he passes by “love for the lonely” so quickly and dwells on “rest for the weary”. A lot of the time, that’s what we hope for: Not a surplus of joy but a cessation of struggle — just quiet time to enjoy life and life’s blessings.

I hope there was some laughter
Cause I know there were some tears

That is just an amazing line. It captures the whole arc of a family’s life. It’s also genuinely sad, in that he knows there were tears but he is unsure of the laughter.

Now I’m just another traveler
On another winding road
I’m trying to walk some kind of line
I’m trying to pull some kind of load
Now sometimes I move real easy
Sometimes I can’t catch my breath
Sometimes I see my father’s footsteps
And man it scares me half to death

These are the lines that made the song resonate with me. No child of suicide can ever think about his parent’s death without wondering, at least once, if there’s any difference — if the same siren song will call out. You try to understand but at the same time, you fear understanding. You don’t want to think the choice was senseless, but you don’t want it to make sense, either. And you always worry, in some corner of your mind, that you might have made the same choice, that you might still. For me, it’s never been a strong urge but I know that I shy away from thinking about my father’s death in part for this reason.

Although it probably wasn’t written that way, this is why the song is hopeful, for me: It gives voice to a hope I have, which is that after everything, my father found peace and rest.

The Rainy Season (30 Days of Marc Cohn — Day 18)

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The Rainy Season
The Rainy Season

The Rainy Season is not a happy album and “The Rainy Season” is not a happy song. While Marc Cohn held a wide mix of songs and styles, Cohn’s sophomore album is generally dark. What comes through more than anything is how hard love can be to maintain, especially when you’re on the road and apart for large stretches.

Clouds move in
From off the horizon
Feels like nighttime
In the middle of the day

This is a nice working of metaphor, which will extend to the refrain and indeed the entire album. Not only does he evoke memories of actual storms really well, but the threat of the future is pretty palpable here. When it gets dark in the middle of the dark, it’s not just any old storm. We’re talking flash-flood thunderstorm activity, something with lots of lightning and thunder and howling wind.

And I don’t know why
But it’s still so suprisin’
How a love grows stronger
Or it just fades away

The segue to the relationship is smooth, so smooth you hardly notice how much it hurts. He’s clearly not writing about a love growing stronger, is he?

But you look older today
Than I’ve ever seen you

I’m not expect on relationships, but things rarely go well when you tell your lover, “You look older than I’ve ever seen you”. But it’s a bit more than that: She looks older today — something’s changed, something that’s bringing the rain.

I think I know the reason

While I’m just making this up, I’ve always assumed that “the reason” is that she’s found out he’s cheated on her. (I think that’s backed up by “Paper Walls”) That’s the culmination of a process, of course, but the cheating (and her discovery of it) provide the singular act that cause her to look older today.

We might wash all our tears away
But you got to bundle up baby
For the rainy season

Here he’s holding out the hope — thin as even he sees it must be — that this won’t be the end of things. They might get through, wiping away their tears. But it’s going to take a storm to do it, and she’s got to be ready to walk through that storm.

I hear you breathing heavy
On the telephone tonight
I can feel the air is thick as thieves

If he’s calling her on the telephone, I’m not exactly sure how he knows she looks older today than he’s ever seen her. But let that slide. This line implies (to me) that he’s cheated; she knows he’s cheated; he knows she knows he’s cheated — but no one has said or confessed anything. That’s why the clouds are stil gathering. The unspoken accusation trembles in the air; it’s why he can feel the storm coming. Moreover, this opens the possibility that she doesn’t know and he’s just projecting his guilt.

Sometimes I just want to tell you
We’ll be all right
At least that’s what some part of me believes

Here, the forlorn hopefulness is just heartbreaking. He’s trying to offer comfort but he has none and (in my theory) it’s his own fault. He wants to think they can weather the storm but he knows, deep down, it’s unlikely.

Oh, oh I’ve been holding on so long
Holding on and holding on so long
Oh, oh I’ve been holding on so long

It’s interesting that he focuses on how long he‘s been holding on. This might upend my model of the relationship. Maybe the root cause lies with her. Or maybe he’s trying to justify his own failures. In the live version (which I prefer to the studio version), there’s an interesting twist: He says he’s “been holding on so long — holding on maybe just a little too long“. That signals, to me, that he’s come to understand things aren’t going to work out and that it’s been unhealthy for a long time.

All in all, you have to wonder what his wife thought when this song and album came out.

“Girl of Mysterious Sorrow” (30 Days of Marc Cohn — Day 17)

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Girl of Mysterious Sorrow
Burning the Daze

I’ll make a confession.  I did not get, at first, that this song was about graveside remembrance.  In fact I felt quite clever to figure it out.  Listening to it again, it now seems pretty obvious and I was just dense the first time around.  There is cleverness in the song, in that he never comes out and says he’s at a graveside, but it really isn’t as subtle as I had thought. In any event, it seems clear now that this is a part of his Missing Mother triptych (along with “Ghost Train” and “Momma’s in the Moon”). It would be trite to comment that losing one’s mother, especially when young, will be a formative experience that naturally influences everything else that comes in life.  It’s no surprise that he’s moved repeatedly to engage with that loss on every album.  Here he tackles head-on the lack of answers to questions he never had the chance to ask.

I’m coming to see you, tomorrow sometime
Gonna bring you some roses, gonna tear off the vines
Gonna talk to the wind that blows through the trees
Kiss you like always from down on my knees
Gonna ask you some questions, get no replies
Wipe all the tears, falling down from my eyes
‘Cause the one that I wanted, I never could know

I think I was misled because I was still in my literal stage of lyric comprehension.  I probably should have remembered that roses grow in bushes, not on vines, and thus the second line is about clearing a tombstone.  The first of many heartbreaks comes with “Gonna ask you some questions and get no replies”.

Gonna park in the street, gonna open the gate
Walk to the spot where you always wait
I’ll be shaking my head like I usually do
‘Cause the name and the dates tell me nothing about you

Here we see why he keeps coming back:  He has the facts of his mother’s life but not the truth of it.  She died when he was very young, before he could know her as a person at all.  One imagines he’s had family stories (although most likely people have been circumspect even in those), but he has nothing to connect them to.  He’s looking for meaning, for a connection that was broken far too soon, and this patch of ground is the only place he has to look for it.

But I’ll sit in the shadows and let you explain
All of the sadness and all of the pain
Did it all seem so hopeless you just had to let go?

This is odd at first.  How can he wait for her to explain?  She’s dead.  But that’s the point: He’s spent his whole life waiting for understanding that simply isn’t going to come.  There’s also the first hint of something even darker here.  I have no knowledge of the circumstance under which Marc Cohn’s mother died but this line makes me think it might have been suicide.  If not that, then the end of a long drawn-out illness.  People who die suddenly, unexpectedly, usually wouldn’t be described as having “let go”.

Yeah I’m coming to see you but I really can’t stay
There’s just a few things I needed to say
Like why were you hiding so much of yourself?
Why were you living for somebody else?

The lyric site I consulted has this as “but I really can’t wait”, but that’s pretty clearly wrong.  First, why would he be eager to visit?  The rest of the song sounds resigned and reluctant.  Second, of course, is the deeper meaning.  His life, unlike hers, moves on.  He can visit her in the past but he can’t linger there.

It might be putting too much import on a word choice probably motivated by rhyme scheme, but I think it’s significant that he doesn’t ask the questions; he says them.  He isn’t really expecting to understand.  He’s just expressing bemusement and confusion.  He might not even believe there is an answer.

Well I know that I’ve always been looking for you
But lately it’s not such a hard thing to do
‘Cause it seems like inside every woman I know
There’s a girl of mysterious sorrow

A bit of self-analysis for Cohn, here.  He knows that his mother’s death has cast a shadow over everything he’s done, even when he wasn’t conscious of it.  Her death informs his life, all the choices and desires and hopes and fears.  He’s been searching his whole life for the connection he can never make.  And then he’s explicit:  He’s been looking for his mother in all the women he’s known.  He senses there’s something universal to her story, to her plight (which is one reason why I believe it might have been a suicide).  The “mysterious sorrow” is that unbridgeable ineffable something that he can’t quite puzzle out but which he sees reflected around him.

This song speaks to me on two levels.  First, I recently lost my mother in a car accident.  Although I haven’t visited a grave yet, and though I had the joy of knowing her throughout my life, I can’t hear Cohn’s plaintive loss without feeling an echo resonate in that empty place that has erupted in my heart.  There’s something primal about losing one’s mother, something universal and personal all at once.

Second, I did lose a parent to suicide, though it was my father and not my mother.  I was closer in age to when Cohn lost his mother, too, right on the edge of teendom and looking for answers and guidance as I grew into a man.  It took me four years to even begin asking the questions, much less finding the answers, and like Cohn, I really can only say them, not genuinely ask them.  There is the same unbridgeable gap between what I feel and whatever my father felt.  Part of me worries I will never understand.  Part of me is terrified that someday I will.

More on my father and I when this compilation hits “Rest for the Weary”.

 

Walk Through the World (30 Days of Marc Cohn — Day 13)

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“Walk Through the World”
The Rainy Season

This song holds a special place for me.  Marc Cohn was a transformative album for me — heck, I even considered attending grad school at the University of Tennessee just so I could be “Walking in Memphis” — and so I looked forward with eager anticipation to Cohn’s sophomore effort.  This was both the first single and the first track on the album, so it burst upon me as the first new Marc Cohn I’d heard since the tremendous debut.  It had a high bar to clear.

The Rainy Season suffered in public estimation from being the followup to an album that won its artist the Best New Artist Grammy.  It had a different style and a different vibe from Marc Cohn, and it didn’t capture the public in the same way.  That’s a shame, because it’s really a strong album with many different nooks and crannies in which to find beauty.

“Walk Through the World” seems like an upbeat and cheery opener to the album, and maybe the dissonance this causes with the later, darker tunes helped undermine the popular appeal.  In any event, “Walk…” is catchy enough.  It’s a little unusual for Marc Cohn, in that it appears to be about a relationship that’s actually working.  There’s all the pop and hum of a couple in the middle stages of love, past the awkwardness, not yet pulling away.  There’s longing

I’m sitting in a lonely room without a view,
Wishing I was there with you instead

driven by a physical separation

I’m writing you this letter from some old hotel
I can feel the distance between us
From the Spanish Steps to the Liberty Bell
I know the angels have seen us…

But there isn’t yet the wistfulness of, say, “If I Were An Angel” or “Shadow“.

More interestingly, if The Rainy Season is a concept album (and I don’t think it is, but roll with me here), then this is the prologue/overture.  And that’s very intriguing indeed.  For while the song is peppy and the vibe hopeful, there are some dark clouds gathering.  First, although the singer sounds full of love, he has to implore his lover to walk through the world with him; they’re not doing it already.  There’s physical separation that, all too easily, could become emotional distance.    He’s writing not just from “some old hotel” room, but from a “lonely” one “without a view” — maybe the same one where things will fall apart in “Paper Walls”.  He’s wandered all over the world — from Rome (the Spanish Steps) to Philadelphia (the Liberty Bell) — but she’s stuck in New York (where I choose to believe Seventh Avenue lies).  Perhaps most importantly, she is just “hanging by a thread” — that phrase never means anything good.

Even though he’s in a room without a view, he’s “staring out across the rooftops”.  This means the room has a literal window but metaphorically he’s having trouble seeing — perhaps trouble seeing a future together.  Instead he sees the “writing on the wall” (another phrase whose common usage is ominous). And in what may the most brillant connection, he “hears a little bit of thunder” — a rolling tumult that presages the coming Rainy Season.

In the end, like many another pop-sounding song (say, “Every Breath You Take” or “Luca”), things are much darker underneath the brightly-speckled breezy chords.  “Walk Through the World” is less a paean to a flowering love than it is a self-consciously desperate attempt to will one into being.  Things are slipping away, and he doesn’t know what more to do but to earnestly exhort his lover to take the next step with him… knowing it likely won’t be enough.

Saving the Best for Last (30 Days of Marc Cohn — Day 8)

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“Saving the Best for Last”
Marc Cohn
I missed a day, so this will be quick.  The second song in my list from the incomparable debut album.  I like this song because it is so unconventional.  Not a bit about love, unless you count the line, “When I finally take this journey, I’m going to wave goodbye to her”.  It’s just a story about a guy who met a guy in a cab and heard his unusual philosophy.

 

If I Were an Angel (30 Days of Marc Cohn — Day 7)

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If I Were an Angel
Join the Parade

Yet one more in Marc Cohn’s intermittent series of relationships that are just bad news.  (Others include “Giving Up the Ghost” and “Shadow“.)  At least this time he takes some responsibility.

Well you probably think I’m foolin’ myself
That I just want to have my fun
But leavin’ you believe me
Is the first good deed I’ve done
I’m only tryin’ to save us from more heartache if I stay

Not that this action is entirely selfless, or even volitional:

I didn’t get a message
From anyone on high
And I dont get instructions
On who to save and why
No heavenly connections sent me down this way

It all ends up somewhat hopeful, though, in a bit of a surprise:

So look up in the sky tonight
Thats where I may be
High over the hillsides
Far across the sea
And if you hear the churchbells ring
Everything’s okay

In addition to the oblique California reference (maybe) in the hillsides, the singer asserts that it all works out, or at least, that it will. Here’s one bad relationship he is able to escape. The idea of rescuing someone by staying away from them is intriguing and counter to our usual expectation.

As a totally unimportant note, I’m happy he got the grammar correct in the title.  😀

 

Shadow (30 Days of Marc Cohn — Day 5)

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“Shadow” Marc Cohn Live 04-05 This is a slow sultry jazz-y tune that seems like it’d be fun to sing.  In keeping with a developing theme, it’s an anthem for a dysfunctional and probably unhealthy relationship.  After all, lines like

You’re a shadow Over my soul You’re the heart of darkness An unfillable hole

do not exactly sing of happiness and warmth.  And though the singer claims he’s beyond the relationship

Some have a lifetime of memories They say it feels like a curse Me, I can’t remember a thing about you And I don’t know which is worse

it sounds like he protests too much, because clearly he’s still in the grip of whatever possessed him in the first place:

I can’t remember your laughter I can’t remember your smell I can’t remember your body But I’m still under your spell The sound of your footsteps The touch of your fingers I don’t remember a thing about you Still, a part of you lingers

And while one could, with squinted eyes and determined brow, find a way to make this sound moving and attractive, it doesn’t take long to learn that things are less than they seem:

Now I don’t mean to hurt you Or forsake you I’ll admit there was a minute there I was hoping I could shake you

That is not exactly an expression of undying love, though it is something that won’t let go. One of the things I like about Marc Cohn’s songs is their nuance.  There aren’t usually heros or villains, just people struggling to make sense of the world they live in and the people they know.  And though the whole song has been an unrelenting denunciation, it end with a signature recognition that each of us is complicit in our own addictions:

I thought I was finished With all of this jive Is it you or me baby That keeps this thing alive

(Aside: In iTunes, this song is called “Shadow”.  On MarcCohn.net, it’s listed as “You’re a Shadow”.)

The Calling (30 Days of Marc Cohn — Day 3)

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The Calling (The Ghost of Charlie Christian”)
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This is a song that sort of snuck up on me.  I first heard it in concert (in at least 2007, though I think it was earlier), and it initially underwhelmed me.  The guitar is amazing, but that’s Shayne Fontane and to be expected.  It was haunting enough (being part of the Ghost Quartet) but didn’t grab me.

Or so I thought.  Because within a few days of receiving Join the Parade, I found myself humming the refrain at odd moments.  Apparently it worked its way deep into my hind brain, because I continue to return to it.  I can’t say that the lyrics speak to me much but the melody really does.  It probably doesn’t help that crossed circuits in my brain map “Charlie Christian” into “Charlie Wilson“.  Though I have always felt that Marc Cohn has a place in an Aaron Sorkin soundtrack.  🙂

Oh, by the way, Charlie Christian was apparently a swing guitarist credited with helping transition the guitar from a part of the rhythm section into a solo instrument in its own right.