Late in the evening of August 7, 2005, Marc Cohn was riding in a van in downtown Denver, Colorado. He had just finished one of the final dates on a nightclub tour he was doing with Suzanne Vega and was on his way back to his hotel room. The van pulled into a parking garage and was about to park when suddenly a man jumped in front of the van, brandishing a gun. The driver of the van swerved to avoid the man and just as suddenly the man raised the gun and fired a single shot into the van. The bullet smashed through the windshield of the van, striking Marc Cohn directly on the temple.

Marc Cohn - Track #1 - 1991 - Written by Marc Cohn | Performed by Marc Cohn

We are all such fragile creatures, wandering through life. We believe we are invincible, that those random acts of madness won't strike us down. Yet each of our lives is surrounded by a periphery of insanity, and once in a while a tendril of that insanity strikes directly at the heart of who we are.

I heard about the shooting incident in Denver this morning, where Marc Cohn was shot in the temple by a madman and how he was somehow able to walk away from the shooting and is just fine. The man took a bullet directly at his head, and had that bullet penetrated his skull, he would likely have been left dead, or in a vegetative state.

So I dug through my old cassette tapes and found it, an old, dusty cassette, his self-titled debut album. It came out back in 1991, back when you could scarcely turn on the radio without hearing Walking in Memphis, back when it seemed like he might be the heir to singer/songwriters like Bruce Springsteen.

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

The picture on the front of that old cassette shows a sepia-toned Marc Cohn sitting at a piano (note: the CD cover is cropped as to not show the piano) and his eyes are cast downwards towards the keys.

It is impossible to really know someone from a publicity shot and a cassette tape full of songs. It's impossible to even get a glimpse into their life, their perspectives, their thoughts and feelings and dreams. The best we can ever hope to do is take these fragments from artists and place them into the context of our own lives, and try to see where the things they talk about fall into the slots of our own existence.

W.C. Handy
Won't you look down over me?
Yeah I got a first class ticket
But I'm as blue as a boy can be

And that's actually what this song is about. Marc is apparently seeped in Delta blues, in gospel music, and in Elvis Presley and his own unique legacy, and this song is about a trip to Memphis to somehow get in touch with this legacy. You get this underlying sense of someone lost, someone reaching out to grab at something stable before the river of life sweeps them away. It sneaks out in the vocal intonations, in the piano playing, in the deliberate pauses and changes in tempo.

Cohn has a gift for musical expression. You can hear some of it here, when he's at his most "pop" oriented of moments, and you can hear it in other songs in his oeuvre, songs like One Safe Place or True Companion. He might not have blossomed into the enormous success of people like Billy Joel or Paul Simon, and he will likely be thought of as a one hit wonder by many, but he has his own triumphs.

Then I was walking in Memphis
Walking with my feet ten feet off of Beale
Walking in Memphis
But do I really feel the way I feel

This is probably one of the best examples of non-ironic pop music that exists and it is that lack of irony that makes many of the musical hipster crowd turn away from this song, putting it directly into the rubbish bin of pop music history, along with such luminaries as Tiffany and Sugar Ray. The problem with that sort of attitude is that a deep and bitter sense of irony becomes necessary to enjoy a pop record, and that's why so many find themselves bitter towards "mainstream" music, because so much of it does not have that ironic edge, and you find yourself making bizarre classifications of music, such as enjoying Kelly Clarkson's Since U Been Gone but yet deriding N-Sync's last album (which was actually just ham-fisted irony rather than non-ironic).

Saw the ghost of Elvis
On Union Avenue
Followed him up to the gates of Graceland
Then I watched him walk right through

This song was released at about the point when I began to "require" some irony in my music. I was delving heavily into the music of such groups as They Might Be Giants and Pixies in 1992 (Doolittle will tell some of that story), and this is one of the last "mainstream" songs that really appealed to me before I went into a ten year rejection of all things mainstream.

I think I identified with this song because I felt that the singer was actually being honest, which is something that you rarely hear on the radio particularly in the age of Clear Channel. And here I am, listening to the song again almost fifteen years later, and I still get that sense of honesty. Cohn isn't trying to paint some sort of marketable image here; he's simply singing about something he believes in, which is the connection of the blues and Elvis Presley to the person he is. Sure, he uses some very slick pop hooks to make it catchy to the ears, but underneath it, there's a core of something real in this song.

Now security they did not see him
They just hovered 'round his tomb
But there's a pretty little thing waiting for the King
Down in the Jungle Room

Whenever I hear this song, I think of those song snippets that Elvis wrote and threw out in the year before his death, powerful little fragments and beginnings of songs that never would be. I imagine him in his hotel suite, trying to work through the pain that he was feeling: the complete isolation, the ravages of drug abuse, the intense depression.

Elvis Presley is one of my personal heroes. One of these days, I should try to write up a little summary of my pantheon of heroes, with people like Bill Hicks and Eddy Merckx, and try to formulate what they have in common... but I digress. I grew up on a steady diet of his early rock records and his gospel records, listening to them spin when I was barely able to stand up in my crib. To know that our experiences crossed is powerful to me, as it seems to be for Marc Cohn as well.

Then I was walking in Memphis
Walking with my feet ten feet off of Beale
Walking in Memphis
But do I really feel the way I feel

I started off talking about how fragile everything really is, and I realize it when I think about how many people have died before their time and how much they gave during the short time that they had. I think of people we all know, like Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley and Ralph Ellison, but I also think of those who vanished at other times: my cousin, who hung himself with a belt when he was sixteen years old; my uncle, who was drug into the abyss kicking and screaming by the big c; about that girl in my seventh grade class who was taken by leukemia.

We all have such precious little time here and so much that we can share that I want to stay up at night, every night, writing and reading and watching films and listening to music, sharing and exploring what others have shared. I want to go around the world; I want to backpack into the Swiss Alps, take a dip in the Huang He, and eat a sorbet prepared by Thomas Keller.

There is so much to live and do and see and share and express that every second that passes by is a missed one.

They've got catfish on the table
They've got gospel in the air
And Reverend Green be glad to see you
When you haven't got a prayer
But boy you've got a prayer in Memphis

I sometimes worry that I am not long for this world. I get this very strong sense that I shouldn't be here on this earth, at least not now. I don't eat like I should, and I probably don't exercise enough, and I go through stages of deep, intense sadness, where I feel pretty much despondent. I use various things to bring me out of these slumps, and one of them is gospel music. Few things cheer me more than the Blind Boys of Alabama, or an old Soul Stirrers record.

Sometimes I wonder if I'm looking for a salvation that isn't really there.

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

I can almost conceive of the comfort that would come from visiting Memphis if I were a blues or gospel musician. It would be much like visiting Jerusalem if you were a Christian preacher, or going to Mecca if you were a Muslim. It's a place full of the things that have value to you.

I think of the scattered dreams left on the path of my life, and I wonder what would have happened had I followed them, where my Memphis would be when I began to question all of it. I dreamed of going to a culinary institute for a long while, and I still hold onto that dream of being a successful writer.

This song is about those dreams, I think, and finding a place where your soul can connect with them.

Then I was walking in Memphis
Walking with my feet ten feet off of Beale
Walking in Memphis
But do I really feel the way I feel

I can't help but wonder if such a trip to find your roots, like Marc Cohn is describing here, would be a balm for my soul. I wonder whether a month or so in the French countryside might not do me a world of good, wandering about, trying some wines and eating at a bistro or two, or taking a picnic on a wide, grassy lawn. Would this have the healing nature for me that I dream that it would have?

All I can say is that when I dream about it, I open my eyes and I feel at peace.

We are all so frighteningly mortal. Maybe I should go before I lose the opportunity to make the trip.

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 think I need to take the time to go to Memphis and stand outside the gates of Graceland for a few minutes, and imagine to myself that I see him in there.

Or, at the very least, figure out what my Graceland is.

Touched down in the land of the Delta Blues
In the middle of the pouring rain

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