11. Marc Cohn - Walking in Memphis

If you haven't guessed it by now, I'm a pretty big fan of music.  When I'm listening to music, especially on headphones, I'm listening to the little nuances, the small sounds that the producer doesn't think I hear.  But I do.  That little wisp of hammond organ at the end of the first verse, barely a third of second long?  Yeah, I got that.  The doubling of the bass to give it that extra thump at the low end?  I heard it.  I'm not bragging, I'm just telling you how much I appreciate music and how it's put together.

When I listen to music, I'm not visualizing what the singer's trying to portray, I'm absorbing all of the music and the melody, bit by little bit.  That's why lyrics are often completely ignored by me, other than seeing them as a melody delivery device.  "Hey Jude" could've just as well been "Hey Dude" and I probably wouldn't have noticed.  It's not often that lyrics really catch my ear, much less cause me to put my metaphysical need to delve into the minutiae of the music aside and let a visual reference jump into my head.  Putting this list together and writing these essays on each song may have changed that forever to a certain extent, but that's still my disposition.  Paying attention to lyrics takes an effort.  Breaking down the music into individual elements is something that just comes naturally to me.

To steal a riff from the greatest comedian who ever lived*, "I told you that story to tell you this one."

Just like there are iconic guitar riffs, there's also the lesser-known, kid brother of the guitar riff - the awesome piano intro.  Played just right, an opening piano line can really catch your ear, pulling you out of whatever you were doing and making you listen.  #78 had one.  So did #67, #66, #63, #38, #33, #20, and #13.  #4 on this list has one (good luck Todd trying to guess it).  I like the piano.  Even though it doesn't get its just due in rock & roll for the most part, it does on my list.  But none of those other piano intros did what the piano intro for "Walking in Memphis" did for me.

It's a rainy night in the countryside.  You're not sure where you are, but you know you're in the South.  The rain started slowly - just a few drops to make you wonder if you were seeing things or not.  Before too long, it's raining just hard enough to bring that pleasant "it's raining" feeling to you, but not so much that it's going to be a big inconvenience because there aren't many street lights on this stretch of the highway.  You're going south from Memphis, where you had an amazing few days.  But real life beckons, and you're heading home.  But not just yet.

The song on the radio isn't doing it for you and you're a bit hungry, so you pull off at the next exit, chuckle at a sign that it actually says "Hollywood," and in less than a minute, you pull into a parking lot of one of those diner/juke joints that you only see in movies.  You smell frying catfish and hear the strains of good - no, great music spilling through the crack of the door that the fry cook left open while he finished his cigarette, which he prematurely snubbed out because the rain was really starting to come down now.  Without hesitation, you walk in.  Before long, you're best friends with a guy you just met named Rodney, who you're telling about your recent trip to Memphis.

That's the vision that jumped into my mind, fully formed, while I listened to this song for the first time.  The piano refrain was the rain, and the lyrics helped paint the rest of the picture.  It was like a dream that I was fully awake for, complete with soundtrack.  That kind of thing never happens to me, so that's why this song lands so high on my list.  Well, that and it's an amazing song sung by a guy with one of those great meaty voices.  Marc Cohn is one of those rare people who's both blessed with tremendous talent in his instrumental ability as well as his voice.

The song is full of tons of references to all things Memphis.  His "blue suede shoes" are from Carl Perkins' great song, Beale is the musical heart of Memphis.  WC Handy is a blues legend, while Union Street is the home to the legendary Sun Studio.  Graceland, of course, is Elvis' home, while the jungle room is where Elvis and his pals "took care of business."  I'll leave that last part to your imagination.

Marc puts it much more poetically, so I'll use his words:

Saw the ghost of Elvis
On Union Avenue
Followed him up to the gates of Graceland
Then I watched him walk right through 

While the piano is the star of the show, without the rest of the music being strong as well, the song may have collapsed under the singular weight of just the one instrument.  The way he hits the keys with his piano, Marc is the first person who establishes a beat.  But drummer Steve Gadd then takes over, hitting the rim of his snare to maintain the beat but not to distract too much.  He lightly dances over his cymbals and toms, giving that off beat jazzy feel to the song while also keeping the actual beat to move the song forwar  d.  It's easy to write about, but much harder to accomplish. 

Guitar in this song is purely of the rhythm variety.  It adds nice atmosphere while it doubles the piano line, giving the song some extra sonic texture.  There's just the slightest hint of organ early in the song.  As the song progresses and the pace picks up, the organ pops through occasionally, unable to contain its enthusiasm.  When Marc sings about "gospel in the air" and mentions former soul legend turned Reverend Al Green, the church organ takes its brief moment in the spotlight.

It's at this point that Marc's lyrics perfectly sum up how gospel music has really permeated through to secular music.  The inspiration and enthusiasm of gospel music is so contagious that popular music just can't ignore it.  The influence is in countless soul, rock and pop songs.  When you see people play and sing with such vervor, you can't help but want to jump up, singing and dancing with them, even if you're a card carrying atheist.  Marc captures that scene:

Now Muriel plays piano
Every Friday at the Hollywood
And they brought me down to see her
And they asked me if I would --
Do a little number
And I sang with all my might
And she said --
"Tell me are you a Christian, child?"
And I said "Ma'am I am tonight"

I've traveled all over the US, been to 39 of the 50 states (including Tennessee), but I've never been to Memphis.  After listening to this song, I feel like I have.  And I want to go back.

*Bill Cosby - The line is from "Buck Buck," from his album Revenge - the first introduction of Fat Albert.

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