Ear of the Beholder
Danny Cohen, beyond the fringe
the rub/Shakespeare once wrote/you can't mend a hole in the boat."
Cohen, "Nobody Showed"
When it comes to
"outsider music," there's kinda sad outsider and then there's
reasonably okay outsider. I suspect Danny Cohen falls into the latter
category. Despite his "popular" reputation as another in a long,
shaky line of demented musical freaks ˆ la Daniel Johnston, Wesley Willis
and Wild Man Fischer, all of whom are plagued with some certifiable kind of
condition that has relegated them in the public's mind to the lunatic
fringe, Cohen, at least judging by the wicked intricacies of his compositions,
is not exactly cracked ÐÐ he couldn't be. More likely he's among a heroic
and rarified group of musical minds who, by virtue of their idiosyncratic
ears, simply stand apart. In this group you'd find, say, Captain Beefheart
or Ornette Coleman, two men generally thought to be loonies by the
tone-deaf masses but who are, in fact, merely great composers dispatching
from their own very private worlds.
Similar to the Residents, Cohen makes music that on
careless casual listening might be dismissed as weirdness for weirdness'
sake, but upon deeper digging has its own ingrained strain of sheer beauty
ÐÐ and that beauty is one of its essential goals. This is an extraordinary
beauty struggling to get out, not an ugly beauty, a peculiar beauty. But where does it
In a way, Danny Cohen
is just another guy from L.A., though he was an extremely bright,
music-obsessed kid who came of age in quaint Larchmont. First we start mit
die mutter: "My mom was into Yma Sumac," he says in his SoCal
drawl on the phone from his home in Chico. "We'd see her at the Greek
Theater and ÐÐ what's that place, Todd's or something, across from the
Hollywood Bowl, they used to have, like, Easter pageants and stuff. And
Harry Belafonte, and classical music. When we were kids we would go to the
Shrine Auditorium to see opera and stuff on Saturdays, and when I got to
junior high I played lead guitar in a surf band, we did Dick Dale. I liked
his music 'cause it had that Middle Eastern influence. And I was always
interested in novelty music, and world music, and [afternoon TV's mystical
organ player] Korla Pandit. And [Zen master] Jack LaLanne ÐÐ the organ,
yeah, the exercises, you'd go, like, up [doodledoodledoodledoop] and down [doodledoodledoodledump]."
Cohen and his teen
band, it is said, invented punk rock in about 1961, though it may have been
as early as 1959. "We had recorded everything that we did in the
garage on this Sony reel-to-reel. The band had a guitar player who was a
pioneer as far as the three-chord, really aggressive type patterns like you
had later on in punk rock. And there were my own lyrics, which were, like,
pretty caustic and defiant. We had one song called 'Kill the Teacher,' then
another one about murdering your wife, and one about taking out the trash
and how bad it smells, and then we had a lot of songs about people that
killed people and then went to jail, and serial killers and stuff like
that." Cohen often took the band into different realms by adding
quasi-operatic vocals to the punky hash.
It's Los Angeles
itself, and being away from it, that had the biggest impact on young Danny:
"I'd always been interested in spirituality and metaphysics, and L.A.
as a city played a big part in that. I grew up in L.A. in the '50s, and
stayed till about the '70s, and then I went traveling a lot. I came back
periodically. L.A. had a very spiritual aura which it still retains, even
though the city's changed so dramatically. Like the Theosophists, and
Paramahansa Yogananda and the temple-ashram there. There were houses in the
Hollywood Hills patterned after Indian and Middle Eastern architecture, and
this guy Bataya who lived in the penthouse at the El Royale, he took us
walking in Griffith Park a lot and talked about vegetarianism and all of
that kind of thing.
experience growing up in L.A. was like a B movie; it was like my parents
were B-movie stars, too. I stayed up all night watching B movies, and Los
Angeles was like a big movie set to me. I thought the whole world was like
that ÐÐ strange architecture, strange street lamps, and nothing was normal,
so I had this sort of Twilight Zone-ish take on everything. I guess that has an
influence on the way I construct my chord progressions."
experimenting with hallucinogens during his years spent as a vagabond in
Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, Berkeley, the Sonoma area, San Diego,
Santa Barbara ÐÐ and in Tucson, where he was hit on the back of the head
during a mugging by two clean-cut college guys. "That had an influence
on my music, because I think it balanced the centers of my brain ÐÐ one side
is more creative and one side is more logical, and the creative side of my
brain had always been too heavy and the logic too meager. I think I got hit
on the creative side in the back of my head ÐÐ suddenly my analytical powers
were heightened, and my creativity was slightly damaged; it made me able to
arrange music and construct songs professionally."
often comes a time in a music fanatic's life when he finds himself saying,
"Not good enough ÐÐ I want to hear something that sounds different." Take a
shortcut and pick up a copy of Danny Cohen's Museum of Dannys, available on John Zorn's
Tzadik label. It's a mere tiny sampling of Cohen's enormous backlog of
home-recorded and deeply idiosyncratic music, whose archiving now dates
back 30 years. Here are 20 cuts of simply astounding sounds that play more
like small films or short stories than your everyday platter of pacifying
These are disciplined
constructions; Cohen writes out all the parts, and everything is
storyboarded, like a Hitchcock film. Songs about LSD, songs about himself,
of course, songs about musicians who can't play his music correctly, songs
about Satan, sex, barrios and bimbos. It might not matter so much what
they're about, considering their stunning instrumental settings, except
that Cohen also happens to be a lyricist of sardonic bloody wit and
satisfyingly snarly vocal nuance. (Nuance: In "Los Angeles," he
gets exactly the way Sam Yorty used to pronounce our city's name ÐÐ Loss Ainguhless ÐÐ that's crucial detail.)
In "The Devil and
Daniel Cohen" ("He drooled as he pleasured himself/just be a
nomad/and never shave") he intones the title like a scary preacher man
in a midnight movie. Cohen makes his clangoring guitar, accordions,
rinky-dink chord organs, Ralph Carney's horns, Joseph Hammer's tape loops
and chugging spoons and drums explode together with inference
, and he'll daub it all with creaky
Mellotron or Optigan for that twice-removed filmlike creaky noir you need.
Sometimes Cohen will sound like Bob Dylan turned inside out ÐÐ since Bob's
already wearing his spleen on his spine, it's quite unusual.
homogenized American culture, though, such strange beauty as Danny Cohen's
will always bring patronizing smiles upon its creator, as if there's
something basically pathetic about anyone in the position of having to
convey truly personal yearnings to an outside world. Somewhere along the line
Cohen managed to interest avant sax-squawker and odd-music archivist John
Zorn in releasing his music on Zorn's Tzadik label, specifically for
Tzadik's rather condescendingly named "Lunatic Fringe" series.
The lunatic is a category that doesn't sit comfortably with Cohen, and why
should it? He wants to be taken seriously as a composer.
"I was a little
insulted by the first CD's title, which was Self Indulgent Music, more so than the 'Lunatic
Fringe,' because the other two artists that were on this CD were completely
nuts, whereas my stuff is more accessible."
Which is true; Cohen's
music, while advanced musically and definitely challenging, isn't abstract;
it's just great contemporary music from a parallel universe. Nutritious for
"My philosophy was always to make it organic,"
he says. "Captain Beefheart's songs struck me as being able to do that
ÐÐ there was nothing artificial about it. His music is very much like
California vegetation, like chaparral, or Mediterranean vegetation -
wildness; even more so than modern jazz, there's this earthy perfection to
it, none of it seemed forced or technological like some avant-garde stuff
artists like Cohen probably would sell out if they could figure out who's
buying ÐÐ it's not as if they've chosen to be deliberately obscure about
what they're doing (some of them, anyway). Obviously they'd like to get
their music heard by as many as possible.
"It's a difficult
Catch-22 sort of a thing," says Cohen, "because I got the feeling
at my label that Zorn took umbrage when I tried to get a little more
accessible. If I gave him a tape that was done on a four-track machine that
had very poor technical quality and just sounded very, very bizarre, it
would have a much better chance gaining favor with him than if I gave him a
50-track studio recording which was highly arranged and that'd probably
appeal to a greater portion of people. I might have to court another label
for that type of music. But I continue to do the four-track stuff 'cause it
has a certain charm."