Marc Cohn wrote a great song, once. "Walking in Memphis" has been a hit three times now, in Cohn's own, aching version, as an illicit remix, and in a version by Cher which still brings the song's lovers to tears. Marc Cohn is telling his audience a story about his hit. Last week, he was on German TV. He overheard executives nervously discussing his cover of a Cher song. The crowd boo this fresh outrage. "Yes, I know," Cohn says gently. "But what will I do when you're not with me?"
I half-expected this night to be cancelled, the victim of disinterest in a man whose time was spent. Instead, that hit has sparked obsessives. When Cohn forgets the words to an unreleased song, a fan politely finishes the line. The venue is jammed with people hungry for his presence. The man they're seeing is bearded, affable, Californian in manner, a star with no likely re-entry to any British chart. But in the banana republic of the one-hit wonder, he still has a place. As he moves through the sensitive ballads on his latest album, these fans, none younger than their thirties, cheer him on.
"Walking in Memphis" shares elements with Cohn's other songs: a gospel piano and obsession with Americana common in sub-Springsteen songwriters. On this occasion, Cohn turned those elements to gold. He mentions a ghostly Elvis slipping through Gracelands for sex with a teenage girl, he pictures himself touching down in the blues' mystic home. And, without precedent in the AOR ballad it almost sounds like, he provides religious elevation.
"Son, are you a 'Christian?" he's asked.
The fervent reply: "Ma'am, I am tonight."
Cohn really doesn't have any other songs that are as good. Carefully rhymed, often non-specific in their efforts at transcendence, sung in the gravelly power-ballad style where Ray Charles' inspiration came to die, I should hate it all. But there's something in the man, and his easy camaraderie with this unexpected crowd, that stops me. There's something solipsistic in his efforts at first, and when the crowd first join in, it's more embarassing than anything. But the intimacy builds. When he sings a song early so a fan can catch his train, and the fan decides to stay to hear the rest, the night is sealed. It's true that only one Cohn song deserves your attention. But Cohn and his fans deserve each other.
Marc Cohn's album 'Burning the Daze' (Eastwest) is released on Monday.
'SIX MORE ONE-HIT WONDERS'
"Japanese Boy" by Aneka: tinny pop song sung in a "hilarious" Japanese accent by an English housewife.
"Grandad" by Clive Dunn: Dad's Army's least forgivable side-effect.
"Didn't We Have A Lovely Time, the Day We Went To Bangor?" by Fiddler's Dram. No we didn't.
"Matchstick Men and Matchstick Cats and Dogs" by Brian and Michael: maudlin Lowry tribute.
"99 Red Balloons" by Nena: German anti-nuclear farrago, played in Grosse Point Blank.
"Spaceman" by Babylon Zoo: the curse of the jeans ads trikes again.