The mysterious showman
Danny Cohen remains the diligent songcrafter
In the spirit of full disclosure, it should be noted that the writer of this piece has intermittently performed live and recorded music with Danny Cohen for more than 10 years, and is also the “graphic manipulator” of the packaging for Cohen’s We’re All Gunna Die (Anti- Records, a label he shares with Tom Waits, Elliot Smith, and Blackalicious among others) and the upcoming Shades of Dorian Gray (due out in February). But trust me, 10 years is a drop in the bucket of Cohen time, and repeated and extended exposure to the man and his music tend more to deepen the mystery than illuminate the muse that motivates this formidable artiste.
Cohen is literally a child of 1950s Hollywood, born to Gene, a bit player in such pictures as The Killers with Burt Lancaster, and Lois, a continuity sketch artist who worked on such productions as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
Steeped in the lore of movieland, and obsessed at an early age with the soundtracks of sci-fi film scorer Bernard Hermann (The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Birds, Journey to the Center of the Earth), Cohen’s interest in combining dramatics and music led him to, as he put it, “create and perform my own versions of TV ‘hero’ theme songs like Paladin and The Swamp Fox” by the time he was 11. In junior high he began playing lead surf guitar in bands such as Polka and the Dots and Organized Confusion, decked out on stage in uniforms hand sewn by a bandmate’s mother, and trying “to sing in an operatic style.”
His affinity for vocal histrionics still manifests itself in the protean range of character voices that emerge during the singing of such songs as “The Devil and DAniel Cohen,” “Frat Fucks on Drugs” and “The Barrio.”
A Cohen show is always more than just watching a guy and his backup band. As he told me during a recent phone conversation, “I’ve always been more into entertaining the crowd than showing off a bunch of hot licks, and that approach sort of runs counter to the Chico scene in general. In the Chico music scene, I’m regarded as a ne’er-do-well nobody whose music has never caught on with the in crowd.”
Which it too bad for all concerned. Cohen has a penchant for bizarre and ornate costumery and set decoration that may have him appearing in a silk smoking jacket topped with a half-head plastic falcon mask accented with holographic Teletubbies goggles, while his keyboard and any nearby flat surfaces are bedecked with plastic figurines of fantasy creatures, fluorescent bugs and assorted light-emitting devices.
Those who remember the scene of Captain Nemo performing melodramatic renditions of Bach on the art nouveau pipe organ aboard the Nautilus in Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea have a clue to Cohen’s performance style on the keyboard.
But along with the sci-fi and classical influences, Cohen, like every other musician who came of age in the ‘60s ingested the lysergic influences of Bob Dylan, Stax/Volt R&B, the British Invasion pop bands and the more rustic aspects of world folk music, all of which manifest themselves in his more folky, “simplistic” guitar-based songs, such as “Cousin Guy” and “Among the Cows.”
Cohen doesn’t play often in Chico, but his shows are well worth attending for both their musical quality and mutated showbiz entertainment value. Look for him to come out of hiding after the release of Shades of Dorian Gray in February, before he heads to Europe where, he told me, “I’m popular with the critics, sort of like the way the French like Jerry Lewis.”