Walking in Memphis
February 7th, 2014
Todd plays "Walking in Memphis" on the piano.
MARC COHN - WALKING IN MEMPHIS
A one-hit wonder retrospective
Todd: So the Grammys are a joke.
- Clip from 29th Grammy Awards
- Announcer: The 29th Annual Grammy Awards.
Todd (VO): They've always been a joke. Me being so obvious to point out that the Grammys are a joke, makes [image of Master of the Obvious] me kind of a joke. No one on Earth sees a Grammy as any indicator of quality, and I say that even [footage from this year's Grammys, with Daft Punk winning Album of the Year] as we're coming off a fairly decent Grammys, where the winners were mostly unobjectionable.
Todd: And nowhere does the Grammys seem to get it wrong more often than...
- Brief clips of the Best New Artist Grammy accepted by Debby Boone, Paula Cole, Starland Vocal Band, and Men at Work
Todd (VO): ...the Best New Artist Grammy, which all too frequently seems to go to flame-outs, flash-in-the-pans, and all around just forgotten footnotes of music history. It's the Madden Curse of music.
Todd: And since we're just coming off of music's big night, I thought we'd check out one of its more notable victims.
- Video for "Walking in Memphis"
- Marc Cohn: When I was walking in Memphis
Todd (VO): Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you Marc Cohn, the writer and performer of the enduring semi-classic, "Walking in Memphis."
Todd: At the 1992 Grammys, Marc Cohn won the prestigious Best New Artist award.
- Clip from 1992 Grammys
- Robert Arkins: And the Grammy goes to...
- Andrew Strong: Marc Cohn.
Todd (VO): Yes, Cohn was apparently better than all the other acts that debuted in 1991, including [pictures of...] Pearl Jam, Cypress Hill, and Tupac Shakur, none of whom were even nominated. I'll give him this—of the nominees, Cohn was probably a better pick than [picture of...] Color Me Badd or [single cover of "Just a Touch of Love" by...] C & C Music Factory.
- Marc: Put on my blue suede shoes
Todd (VO): For a guy who's often noted as an example of the Grammys screwing it up again, his biggest and only hit, "Walking in Memphis," has held up incredibly well, including tons of covers and radio play to this day. When adult-alternative came around, most of the [single cover of Michael Bolton - "Soul of My Soul"...] easy-listening garbage that polluted the early 90s got [...stamped with "NO"] rightfully swept under the rug.
Todd: But "Walking in Memphis" was actually strong enough that we decided to keep it around.
- Marc: Walking in Memphis
Todd (VO): So if "Walking in Memphis" was good enough to survive that purge, you'd think its songwriter could've capitalized on that and kept it going. But instead, the only time people even bring him up is to attack the Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.
Todd: Shouldn't this man have some other legacy, and do you really feel the way you feel? Deep, man
- Marc: She said, "Tell me are you a Christian, child?"
- And I said, "Ma'am, I am tonight!"
Before the hit
Todd: Um... okay, I'll be honest, he didn't release anything before "Walking in Memphis," so I got close to nothing here. [Consults notes] Let me see...
- Picture of Marc Cohn...
Todd (VO): Marc Cohn was born in Cleveland, [picture of former] he liked a lot of 70s singer-songwriters like Van Morrison and Cat Stevens, [album cover of Crossroads by...] he was a session musician for Tracy Chapman, [wedding picture of...] he performed at Caroline Kennedy's wedding, [album cover of Music & Songs From Starlight Express, with clip from same] and he was on a rock album rerecording of songs from the musical Starlight Express.
- Marc: Here comes the diesel train
- With its steel refrain,
- Hear me knocking
Todd: What the hell am I looking at? Well anyway, let's get to the good stuff.
The big hit
- Video for "Walking in Memphis"
Todd (VO): That pretty piano riff that opens "Walking in Memphis" is actually really easy to play.
Todd plays the opening, with corresponding bar showing the notes.
Todd: Very easy pattern, basic chords, no black keys, it is shockingly simple to learn.
Todd (VO): There is basically no easier piano riff in the universe. [Clip of someone playing...] "Chopsticks" is harder than the riff from "Walking in Memphis." [Cover of Heart and Soul and Other Duet Favorites] "Heart and Soul" may as well be Beethoven's 29th Sonata, compared to "Walking in Memphis."
Todd: And yet, it sounds great, doesn't it?
- Marc: Put on my blue suede shoes
- And I boarded the plane
Todd (VO): Marc Cohn describes "Walking in Memphis" as a pretty literal story about a visit to Memphis he had in the 80s.
- Marc: W.C. Handy
- Won't you look down over me
Todd (VO): Now if you're not up on your music history, "Walking in Memphis" might need some footnotes. Suffice to say that Memphis has a gigantic legacy, as far as popular music goes, and...
Todd: ...Cohn name-checks pretty much every single bit of it. It's like [clip of Billy Joel's...] the "We Didn't Start the Fire" of Memphis music. To sum it all up...
- Montage of images including Beale Street in 1939, W.C. Handy, clip from AV Club visit to Sun Studio, Elvis lounging in Graceland, outside shot of Stax Records, and clip of "Let's Stay Together"
Todd (VO): ...Memphis's famous Beale Street is where W.C. Handy and his proteges invented and popularized the blues. It was where Sam Phillips opened Sun Records and discovered Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley, and it's where Elvis decided to build his own personal mansion, Graceland. It's where the legendary Stax Records made some of the greatest music of the 60s. It's where Al Green and Willie Mitchell invented Memphis soul in the 70s, and where Green still lives and works as a reverend making gospel records.
Todd: Truly just a profoundly important part of American music, and it's hard not to feel a profound sense of spiritual uplift when you hear music from the great city of Memphis.
- Clip of Three 6 Mafia - "Lolli Lolli"
- Juicy J: They call me the Juice when I'm at the strip club
- I put down a hundred or a du-uh-uh-uhhhb
- It don't matter to a player I'm a stu-uh-uh-uhhhd
- Cause when I leave the club I'ma fu-uh-uh-uhhhck
Todd: That came out after "Walking in Memphis," but I'm sure Cohn finds it just as inspiring.
- Marc: Saw the ghost of Elvis
Todd (VO): Now I've never been to Memphis personally—the...the closest I got was [clip from...] watching Hustle and Flow, which made it kinda look like a shithole—but you definitely get the opposite impression from this song.
- Marc: I was walking with my feet ten feet off of Beale
Todd (VO): Now I do know someone who's been there, and they said they went to [picture of Beale Street at night] Beale Street, and it's actually pretty great, like one of the few tourist traps worth visiting. Really, the song is a super-effective Memphis tourism ad.
Todd: [playing] Take a vacation in Memphis
Walk out on the street with [picture of Big Ass Beer stand] an open cup of beer
It's awesome drinking in Memphis
And don't go anywhere else except Beale Street because there's nothing else there
At least that's what I was told.
- Marc: Boy, you got a prayer in Memphis
Todd (VO): Cohn also says that this song is, in some ways, about his complicated feelings about religion, which is what this whole gospel part is about.
- Marc: Now, Muriel plays piano
- Every Friday at the Hollywood
- She said, "Tell me are you a Christian, child?"
- And I said...
Todd: Well, Muriel, here's a hint.
- Single cover of "Walking in Memphis" with "Cohn" circled, images of menorah and Star of David, "Hava Nagila" playing in background
- Marc: "Ma'am, I am tonight!"
Todd (VO): Actually, from what I can tell, Cohn is kind of agnostic. But at that moment in Memphis, Tennessee, he felt touched by God, or...by Elvis, I don't know, same thing I guess.
- Marc: Walking in Memphis
Todd (VO): Yeah, despite feeling something apparently very powerful, he doesn't know if this is a feeling that means anything or is going to last.
- Marc: But do I really feel the way I feel?
Todd (VO): If it's fleeting, he just wants to preserve the moment.
- Marc: And Reverend Green, be glad to see you
Todd (VO): And honestly, for me, it's the gospel stuff that really puts "Walking in Memphis" over the top for me. Without it, let's face it, "Walking in Memphis" would be one of the whiter songs that were written about black music. The gospel choir's what pulls it into the realm of true greatness; otherwise it would've been maybe too polished for what he's talking about. Like...
Todd: ...like that part about Elvis's ghost.
- Marc: They just hovered round his tomb
- But there's a pretty little thing
- Waiting for the King
- Down in the jungle room
Todd (VO): Yes Elvis is still having...
Todd: ...skeevy groupie sex in the afterlife. She's probably underage too.
- Marc: When you haven't got a prayer
Todd (VO): "Walking in Memphis" is basically everything the Grammys love. It's tasteful, thoughtful, serious, deeply a tribute to the classics, and doesn't really push any boundaries. Most of that basically applies to the [clip of Grammys] Daft Punk album that won all the awards this year, and I say that as a huge fan. The biggest surprise to me is that Cohn only got just the one Grammy. Of course, that year, all the awards went to [clip of...] Natalie Cole singing Nat King Cole, which is basically a perfect storm of Grammy-pandering that we'll never see again.
Todd: And certainly, Marc Cohn himself never came close to this level of popularity again...and I can tell you why.
The failed follow-up
- Video for "Silver Thunderbird"
Todd (VO): Marc Cohn's debut album had two more singles off of it, and they both only scraped the bottom of the genre charts. This is the first one, "Silver Thunderbird." It's about his dad and his dad's beloved T-Bird.
- Marc: Don't you give me no Buick
- Son, you must take my word
- If there's a God in heaven
- He's got a Silver Thunderbird
Todd (VO): Okay, um...
Todd: I'm from a different generation than Marc's dad, and I'm not a car person to begin with. All I can say is, from my eyes, [picture of a silver Thunderbird] that is the butt-ugliest car I've ever seen in my life.
- Marc: You can keep your El Dorados
- And the foreign car's absurd
Todd: [wrapping his head around it] Foreign cars are absurd. So [pictures of red Mercedes 300 SL] this Mercedes looks stupider to you than [...and another silver Thunderbird] this thing that's roughly the size and shape of the Wienermobile.
- Marc: Down the road in the rain and snow
Todd (VO): Also, I'm not sure I agree with how soft-edged this song is. I realize "Silver Thunderbird" is also about Marc's late father, so some somberness was always gonna creep into it, but...
Todd: ...it's a silly premise for a song. He clearly knows it.
- Marc: Great big fins and painted steel
- Man, it looked just like the Batmobile
Todd: I...I mean, compare it to how Springsteen sings about classic cars.
- Clip of Bruce Springsteen performing "Pink Cadillac"
- Bruce: I love you for your pink Cadillac
- Crushed velvet seats
- Riding in the back
- Oozing down the street
Todd: He could've stood to liven it up, is all I'm saying. Now, the other song was...
- Video for...
Todd (VO): ...easy more low-key—a love ballad called "True Companion," which was clearly meant as, like, a wedding song.
- Marc: Then I'll take you home and with wild abandon
- Make love to you just like a true companion
Todd (VO): Um...maybe I'm alone in this, but "true companion" and "make love" don't sound like they belong in the same sentence. "True companion" is what people call their dog.
- Marc: I will always be in love with you
Todd (VO): Listening to these songs, it's really clear why Marc Cohn's career didn't survive and thrive. He was just too slick, and the adult-alternative scene kinda swept him away.
Todd: He was outrocked by Sheryl Crow, for God's sake.
- Interview on VH1
- Marc: My songs seemed to come across in a much more real, organic way live than they do on record. I haven't quite figured that out.
Todd (VO): Yes, plenty of artists were successful being even less edgy, but Cohn backs up his super-easy-listening music with thoughtful lyrics that are meant to be taken seriously, and...
Todd: ...that's a really difficult tightrope to walk, you know. Like [respective album covers of The End of the Innocence and The Way It Is by...] Don Henley managed it, I guess, and Bruce Hornsby did it to an extent, but not many others.
- Clip of Phil Collins - "Sussudio"
Todd (VO): Now your Phil Collinses and your Bryan Adamses and your Richard Marxes, they were legit songwriters too, but they didn't worry themselves so much with being heartfelt and respectable like Cohn did; that's why they were way more successful. Marc Cohn...
Todd: ...probably didn't have a "Sussudio" in him, not that that's really a bad thing.
Did he ever do anything else?
- Clip of live performance
Todd (VO): He's released a few more albums over the course of his career, which you can look up if this interests you at all. And you can tell what kind of music he was trying to make by looking at some of the other more famous names he worked with. [Clip of Cohn performing "Crazy Love" with Jackson Browne] David Crosby, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, old-school stuff from the glory years of singer-songwritering. Look, here's a song to his unborn kid.
- Marc: Will you laugh just like your mama
- Will you sigh like your old man
Todd: Yeah, it's very middle-aged music he writes.
Todd (VO): Now I don't wanna make it sound like all he did was softer than soft. He was capable of grittier music. A lot of his stuff sounds like Clapton. [Respective pics of...] Not 60s guitar legend Clapton obviously; I mean like Unplugged 90s Clapton. But...
Todd: ...even light rock is more rock than "True Companion."
- Clip of VH1 performance
Todd (VO): Or take this one. This one's got kind of a rockish edge to it.
- "Lost You in the Canyon" plays over
- Marc: "I might lose you in the canyon."
- Then you went riding up the coast
Todd (VO): Okay, that's clearly Tom Petty. That's Tom Petty, right? I mean, that's Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. I don't hear Marc Cohn anywhere else on this; this has to be Tom Petty.
Todd: Oh, I almost forgot to mention also.
- Clip from The Ellen DeGeneres Show regarding...
Todd (VO): Back in 2005, he got carjacked and got shot in the head. And he survived with only minor injuries. Yeah.
Todd: Well, I guess he did have a prayer in Memphis.
Did he deserve better?
Todd: Look, if your tastes run toward easy-listening light rock, you could certainly do worse.
- Marc: Walking in Memphis
Todd (VO): I saw one writer describe Marc Cohn as "the last singer-songwriter," which sounds about right. He would probably have a much better reputation if he'd started in the 70s. He's probably the last of his kind to slip into the popular consciousness before that window closed. There is still a market for this kind of music, of course, just not really in the mainstream pop sphere. More like at Starbucks and Barnes & Noble; I don't even know if they were selling music when Cohn first started. And he's still recording today, by the way, including a covers album just a few years ago.
Todd: Marc Cohn probably did not deserve to be called the best debut of 1991. But he wasn't a bad artist by any means, just too...tasteful. And "Walking in Memphis," who doesn't like "Walking in Memphis"? Um...go Grizzlies.
- Video ends
Closing Tag Song: Cher - "Walking in Memphis"
"Walking in Memphis" is owned by Atlantic Records
This video is owned by me