9.10.2008

Marc Cohn - "Silver Thunderbird"

One of the most unexciting new genres of music to emerge in the late '80s was Adult Contemporary (AC)--which would later go on to explode in the '90s.

AC isn't really a style of music per se, it was more of a format developed by genius record executives and radio station owners in order to let the baby boomers have their own kind of music. Think about it. Had it not been for AC, baby boomers would have had to, oh, I don't know, listen to new music? Seek out some kind of new sound that might challenge them? Or maybe they could have been content with the oldies stations, which is partially what AC stations played. Stations with names like Mix 92.9, Star FM, Sunny 105, Easy 102.5 and Magic 95, played a mix of '60s and '70s soft rock: Seals & Crofts, Chicago, Fleetwood Mac, The Eagles, with '60s and '70s singer songwriters like James Taylor, Carole King and maybe even threw in some Motown or Stax R&B cuts to make the baby boomers think that at one time they might have had some soul. They called it the paradoxical "lite rock" or "Easy Listening"--because who doesn't want to listen to a type of music tailor made to help you fall asleep at the wheel?

And then of course, there was some new music. But it wasn't really new. Some of the songs may have been technically new, but the people making them were mostly names you knew; people who had been popular (and maybe even good) in the '70s and early '80s now making slick, ultra-produced, plastic-wrapped soft rock: Phil Collins, Rod Stewart, Stevie Nicks, The Commodores, Sting, Peter Cetera, and of course, Elton John. AC wasn't listened to by anyone under 40 if they could help it, although they invariably were exposed to the electric pianos and whining saxophones anytime they got in their parents' car before they were 16. It was an exclusive club of has-beens and very seldom did some untested young Turk get in. For every Michael Bolton who made it into the storied ranks were a hundred guys playing their surprisingly contemporary and fearlessly adult songs at piano bars all across the Midwest.

So how'd this Cohn guy get in you ask? Let's see.

J. Marcus Horatio Cohn, IV (name I just made up) was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1959. Since it was Cleveland in the '70s, Cohn had little to do except drink ten cent beers at Cleveland Municpal Stadium, stand outside the Agora Theater listening to rock bands, watch theatre at the Cleveland Playhouse and sing in a junior high garage band (I like to imagine they played mostly Bob Seger and James Gang songs). During a stint at Oberlin College, he learned how to play guitar and began to write songs. This is also where he learned to play piano. (dun dun DUN!)

But Hollywood began a-callin' young Mr. Cohn, and he made the bold decision to leave behind the sunny shores of Lake Erie for the dry desert valleys of Los Angeles where he enrolled at UCLA and continued with his own music playing coffeehouses, steakhouses, playhouses, greenhouses, outhouses--hell, anywhere that kept an open ear to piano-based soulful singer-songwriter compositions. But it wasn't long before he found himself moving back east to New York City where he started a 14-piece band (complete with horn section) called The Supreme Court that would get the chance to play at Caroline Kennedy's wedding.

But...as we've learned this far into the story, Cohn just can't be tied down. He soon he quit the glamorous life of playing Kennedy family weddings and went back to his coffeehouse roots, solo. During this time he made some demos and sent them off to Atlantic Records where they gained the attention of a couple of producers who would go on to collaborate with Cohn and make the adroitly titled, Marc Cohn.

The one hit that emerged from the album was "Walking in Memphis" a song so wannabe soulful, yet still so sensitive, nostalgic and so incredibly tailor made for baby boomers it might as well be titled Big Chill: The Song.

But that's just cynical, isn't it? All snark aside, it's actually a pretty good and heartfelt song. Aside from clunky lines like "do I really feel the way I feel?" and a what amounts to a fairly touristy look at Memphis, it's a nice little story of finding one's soul in a city known for it. One can't help but smile at a line where Cohn describes himself talking to a soul singer at the Hollywood Bar in Tunica, Mississippi (just south of Memphis):

And she said--
"Tell me are you a Christian, child?"
And I said "Ma'am I am tonight"

See it's clever cause Cohn is Jewish, but the soul of the place made him feel like praising Jesus. Clever! No? You're hopeless. It's not surprising the song is often attributed to Bruce Springsteen on the Internet as Cohn's vocals seem highly inspired by Tunnel of Love-era Boss and his gruff, but soulful white man voice.

And oh, man, that piano riff! If you hate Cohn tickling those ivories, your heart is blacker than the flats and sharps on Cohn's Yamaha.

As for the charts, well, the song wasn't a number one smash hit, but it made it on nearly every conceivable chart: AC, Hot 100 (where it went to #13), and Mainstream Rock. It even lit up the country charts. But charts are only one piece of the puzzle, and this song eventually gained a life of its own. It's been covered by pretty much every bar band that has ever been to Memphis, and probably some who haven't. Even goddamn Cher covered it in an astoundingly awful version that did little to change it except add goddamn Cher's vocals and a shitty dance beat.

I apologize for that, but it's for your own good. Now, even if you hate Mr. Cohn's version you know how much worse it could have been.

Now onto the main attraction: the follow-up single--"Silver Thunderbird". The notes I wrote down when listening to the song was "Warren Zevon does his best Bob Seger" and I still can't think of a better descriptor than that. Cohn's vocals on this song sound so much like Zevon circa 1976 it's amazing. Not just the way he sings, but the vocal melody sounds like something Zevon would have come up with. Listen to "Desperadoes Under the Eaves" and then "Silver Thunderbird" and tell me if I'm crazy. I can take it.



The song is about a young Cohn living in the Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights, coveting his father's car--which happens to be--and he is explicit about this--not a Buick, not an El Dorado, not a foreign car but in fact, a silver Thunderbird, which, despite its color, looks "just like the Batmobile." Cohn pretty much just talks about how cool the car was and how sweet his dad looked in it. Some might say the content sounds more like a Springsteen song, but here's the thing: if it were Springsteen, the song would end with the dad getting drunk and crashing. But, because it's just about a bad-ass ride, it's falls into Seger-territory. See how that works?

How does it stack up to "Walking in Memphis"? Pretty well, actually. It was a worthy follow up and for all intents and purposes, should have cemented him as an artist to watch. But for whatever reason, it didn't. I have no real explanation for this, unfortunately. The nostalgia of the '60s cars alone should have added to the baby boomer appeal. Then again, they never made Big Chill 2: Electric Boogaloo, so maybe even baby boomers have their limits.

The best I can come up with is that it just didn't sound enough like "Walking in Memphis." Maybe people wanted less singer-songwriter stuff, and more bombastic gospel choirs. Like I said in the comments on the Blind Melon post, sometimes a song comes along and scratches an itch America has, and for some reason, that's all they want to hear the artist do.

The best I can do is make a shitty metaphor.

America is like a child who falls in love with a blanket. It becomes their security blanket. No one's sure why this kid became so attached to that blanket, but it did. Inevitably, the blanket gets dirty and ratty cause it's been around so long, so they try to give the kid another blanket: exact same material, exact same cut. The same damn blanket. It's just as good, and maybe even better.

But the kid rejects it! Why? Because it's still not that blanket. Then, the next day, the kid up and throws the first blanket in the trash and never speaks of it again.

That's how America deals with one-hit wonders. We're a nation of Linuses, and sometimes that's a damn shame.

Download: "Silver Thunderbird"
Download: "Walking in Memphis"


Addendum: This has nothing to do with the song but in my research I found that Marc Cohn was shot in the head during an attempted carjacking in 2005, and survived. What a badass! He's still out there touring somewhere. He even came out with an album in 2007. Good on ya, Marcus!

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

BRAVO!

Captain Stuben said...

I know you think you are slick because you made it through an entire Adult Contemporary post without mentioning Cat Stevens. He fits in the same category as James Taylor and you know it. Also, he sucks.

The Second Single said...

I'm sorry, Capt. but Cat Stevens fits into the category of "good music" while James Taylor fits into the category of "music played while you get a prostate exam"

Surfer.... said...

Found this by searching on the web for 'silver thunderbird one of the best songs ever' Have to say I love this song and you gave some good insights into why Marc Cohn never made much of an impact. I've got two of his CDs and his selection is very diverse, which may be too much for the mainstream.