Tuesday, May 26, 2015

1: Walking in Memphis - Marc Cohn

And we reach number one with a song that has probably been at the top of my list since I first heard it as a pop chart hit in the summer of 1991. I remember very clearly listening to an obscure Top 40 station called "Atlantic 252" on Long Wave radio (and that is something that doesn't even exist in North America) and hearing this regular, happy piano-driven pop song that would stop halfway through, have a beat of silence after saying something about when you haven't got a prayer... pause... but boy you've got a prayer in Memphis.

Then I listened carefully, heard it was by a guy called Marc Cohn, bought the album and over the years after that his other albums (which are very few in number), got to really enjoy his music - a kind of rootsy bluesy singer-songwriter thing - and hear various live performances, both official and bootleg, courtesy mainly of his small but devoted fan-base. But always 'Memphis' was the central theme, the focus of every show, the strongest song in the set and the one that tied it together, always my favourite.

And finally, after twenty-four years, I got to see him perform live about three weeks ago.

In that Arkansas concert he told the story of the song, which I sort of half-knew, but suddenly hearing it made it all make a little more sense. Essentially autobiographical, he really did take a plane trip to Memphis in the mid-1980s, he really did walk from Union Avenue up to Graceland to look round the Jungle Room and all the Elvis stuff, he really did go to Al Green's church and be deeply moved by the music and atmosphere of the place, and the chorus is about him actually walking between all these places, the cadence and rhythm of the song designed to feel like a brisk walk.

And he really did meet Muriel Davis Wilkins, the old school teacher who would play three or four hour sets of old hymns at the Hollywood Café in Robinsonville (which is technically in Mississippi, not Tennessee) on Friday nights. She really did invite him on the stage to sing 'Amazing Grace' with her (since it was the only song they knew in common). And given the proximity of Little Rock, Arkansas where the concert took place to Memphis itself, he said "Did anyone here know Muriel?"

The lady in the row in front of us, four seats to the right, shouted and raised her hand. Cohn stopped for a moment, acknowledged the hand, and just paused, then said "she really was something, wasn't she?"

And suddenly, from being a song on an obscure AM radio station, here I was in a small room with the songwriter and an older lady who had personally known Muriel who played the piano, feeling like I was right at the heart of this song I'd loved for almost a quarter of a century. You can read more about the story of the song here - including Muriel's frankly prophetic message to him that he was now ready to go an be a songwriter, and his return visit to see her after writing what turned into most of his first album, all the way up to the sad fact of her passing away just weeks before the album's eventual release, which of course led to Cohn winning a Grammy Award in 1992.

But for that show, and for those few minutes, I felt like someone had just opened up a secret door and let me inside the inner workings of a seriously great piece of music. I need to point out: 'Memphis' would be at number one on my list with or without that Arkansas concert, but it opened up a brand new dimension of this song for me, even beyond hearing live recordings such as the one offered below where he tells the story in another way. That brief silence, that nodded acknowledgement between Marc Cohn and the lady in the row in front of us, was somehow a momentary glimpse back to the instant of the conception of this song and indeed Cohn's whole career. And that isn't something you see every day.

So there are two videos offered here - the one above the original video release for the single, the one below a section of a recent concert with the story - and I make no apologies for saying that this, more than ever, is the number one on my Top 40 At 40.

At least as far as music is concerned... there's more to come, of course...

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