Worst Songs Ever: Marc Cohn’s ‘Walking in Memphis’

Like a good single, a terrible one reveals itself with airplay and forbearance. I don’t want to hate songs; to do so would shake ever-sensitive follicles, and styling gel is expensive. I promise my readers that my list will when possible eschew obvious selections. Songs beloved by colleagues and songs to which I’m supposed to genuflect will get my full hurricane-force winds, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t take shots at a jukebox hero overplayed when I was at a college bar drinking a cranberry vodka in a plastic thimble-sized cup.

Marc Cohn – “Walking In Memphis”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #13 in July 1991

If Paul Simon can praise the Mississippi Delta shining like a National guitar on his way to Graceland,  Marc Cohn can slip into his blue suede shoes as he boarded a plane also bound for the Elvis estate. Instead of the thrumming growl of Bakithi Kumalo’s bass, “Walking in Memphis” uses the tinkliest piano: this is a serious song about being transformed and transported by the blues, a serious adult contemporary song without a blues lick or feeling in sight. Cohn’s idea of transport is to ask a black choir to sing the chorus in the last third — a trend in the spring of 1991, a quarter when Rick Astley hit the top ten a final time with his own bid for seriousness “Cry for Help,” Gloria Estefan celebrated surviving a car accident and triumphing over fast songs in her #1 “Coming Out of the Dark.” Best was Luther Vandross’ expertly sung “Power of Love/Love Power,” his biggest pop hit to date.

These songs share a belief in the transport of which choirs were capable when the material is hymnal or, if secular, aspiring to a kind of spiritual buoyancy. Schticky, icky, and rickety, “Walking in Memphis” isn’t hymnal or buoyant: this is Bruce Hornsby with piano weighed down by debris in an L.A. studio; Cohn’s riff is goopier than anything plinkety-plonked out by the author of “The Valley Road” and “Mandolin Rain.” Cohn goes ballistic with those details fetishized by creative writing courses (Make It Local!): W.C. Handy, mais oui; also, Union Avenue, Beale Street, the Jungle Room. With each proper noun Cohn chews  on another handful of gravel; by the time he’s outsinging the choir he makes Joe Cocker sound like Jimmy Somerville. But the Memphis residents, presumably black, reward Cohn for his exertions. “Do a little number!” he’s urged by Miriam at the Hollywood, where he sings “with all [his] might” (well, yeah).

Rewarded for realizing the promise of Steve Winwood’s “Roll With It,” Cohn wasn’t asked back on the pop music stage. The second single “Silver Thunderbird” didn’t even make the top forty.  The video, adored by VH-1 in early 1991, is a relic of the Paisley Vest Era in rock history, during which Jeff Lynne and David Stewart competed over how much flora and fauna they could wear to Le Dome. Luck has smiled kindly on Cohn. In 1992 he walked onstage to pick up a Grammy for Best New Artist, beating Boyz II Men, C+C Music Factory, Color Me Badd, and Seal. He married ABC News reporter Elizabeth Vargas (they have since divorced). Most impressively, he survived getting shot in the head in 2005. With such developments I wouldn’t begrudge Cohn for responding like his character in “Walking in Memphis” does when asked by Muriel if he’s Christian: man, I am tonight.

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