Cleveland is a bittersweet road stop for Marc Cohn, who played the Hard Rock Rocksino Northfield Park in October. “As many happy memories as I have there, I have a lot of sad ones too,” he says.
The sweet are his musically formative years. Long before playing his first shows in a coffee shop at Oberlin College, concertos from the piano of next door neighbor and legendary Cleveland Orchestra music director George Szell infiltrated the young boy’s mind.
“Sitting in his box in Severance Hall or just opening the windows in the summer to hear him practice, his music made a deep impression on me,” Cohn says.
But the bitter have haunted him for years. They take him to the Beachwood apartment where he mourned his father’s death at 12 years old — 10 years after his mother passed.
These experiences populate his music from the early “Silver Thunderbird,” where his father drives down South Park Boulevard, to the recent “Maestro,” a tribute to Szell.
“Cleveland is very easy to hear, especially on those first couple records,” he says.
Cohn might have left Ohio for New York City after his junior year at Oberlin, but life’s turbulence didn’t subside.
A high point was a 1985 trip to Memphis, where a late-night performance with a local musician named Muriel and a tearful trip to Al Green’s Baptist church — where the Jewish boy famously became a Christian for a night — inspired his most famous song “Walking in Memphis.”
“The song is about the transformational power of music and my struggles to do what I wanted most — to be a writer,” says Cohn. “That’s why it will never get old for me. Who can’t find truth in that?”
But the downswing wasn’t far behind. In 2005, he was shot in the head during an attempted carjacking after a show in Denver. “When the doctor wheeled me in and found the bullet had missed my skull, he told me, ‘You’re the luckiest unlucky bastard we’ve seen,’ ” says Cohn. “Another centimeter, I would have been dead.”
Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, he turned to writing for therapy. The resulting 2007 album Join the Parade explores themes of mortality, fate and chance. “I tried for years to process that event, until I came to the conclusion that there’s no making sense of lots of things in life,” says Cohn.
While he has only just started working on his next project, due out at the end of 2018, his autobiographical songwriting has plenty of themes to mine, including fatherhood (his fourth child was born soon after the shooting), the passage of time (his 2016 release Careful What You Dream celebrated the 25th anniversary of his debut) or even meeting his idols (he’s worked with Jackson Browne and wrote with David Crosby in 2016).
Because if you really want to know where Cohn is, just listen. It’s all there in the songs.