Q&A With Marc Cohn
Following an August 2005 concert at Denver's Botanic Gardens, Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Marc Cohn was shot in the head in an attempted carjacking. Almost three years later, on Friday, July 11, he returns to the venue to perform on a bill that also features Aimee Mann -- a gig that will stir memories of the sort he shares in the Q&A below, which is making its debut appearance in Backbeat Online.
The conversation was conducted in January 2007 for a Westword profile published just prior to Cohn's initial Colorado gig (at the Boulder Theater) after recovering from the incident. He talks about his reasons for booking a show in Boulder rather than Denver; his first performances after returning to the road; the importance of humor in the healing process; the writing of Join the Parade, an album that was released in autumn 2007; the handful of post-injury interviews he conducted; and the circumstances under which his wife, ABC News anchor Elizabeth Vargas, was replaced as anchor of the network's World News program by Charles Gibson. (Vargas left the program after her co-anchor, Bob Woodruff, was severely wounded while covering the war in Iraq.)
Cohn concludes by talking about the sentence handed to Joseph Yacteen, the gunman convicted of shooting him. Yacteen's actions, and his lengthy recovery process, will no doubt be on Cohn's mind as he retakes the Botanic Gardens stage.
Westword (Michael Roberts): Are you at all nervous about playing your first show in Colorado since the shooting?
Marc Cohn: I would be lying if I said I didn't have a little bit of anxiety about it. I'm thinking about bringing a brother of mine along just to cushion the experience a little bit.
WW: Does he have a calming effect on you?
MC: He does, he does. He's one particular older brother of mine who was actually one of the first people that our guitar player called after it happened, because he's also a doctor. I don't know for sure yet if that's going to happen. I know everything's going to be fine -- as much as you can ever know that. Now, of course, it's a little closer to happening, and I suppose I'm more aware that I'm thinking about it much, much more than I would about, say, a gig somewhere else.
WW: In writing about your show, the Denver Post implied that you were performing in Boulder because you didn't want to play in Denver right away. Was that part of your decision about where to play?
MC: No, for me, Boulder is close enough. No, the reason, really the main reason was, not going to Denver in this case, I have a record I just finished, my fourth record after a long time, and when it does come out, which we hope is going to be in the next six or seven months, that's the time we sort of thought to go back to bigger cities. That's the only reason that I'm not hitting Denver now.
WW: I found some reviews of a show you did in Minneapolis at the end of 2005, which struck me as quite soon to be back on the road. Did it feel soon to you?
MC: It felt okay. I remember it feeling okay to go out at that point. It's a little difficult to remember now, but it felt like it was still a little bit shaky. I think I still felt a little bit shaky, but I knew if I waited too long, it would only make it worse -- that somehow I just needed to get myself back on the stage again and prove to myself that just because fate took a strange turn right after I was doing a concert doesn't mean that's going to happen again. The only thing I could think about, actually, that helped me was that great scene in The World According to Garp where Robin Williams is out looking for a house and the realtor is showing him a house... Did you see that movie?
WW: Many years ago.
MC: At some point, while the realtor is showing him the house, a plane goes right through the center of the house. And he says, "I'll take it," because he knew that would never happen again. That's what I kept telling myself about getting back on tour.
WW: In a review of that Minneapolis show, the writer quoted a joke you'd made about the shooting. According to her, you said you'd been praying for inspiration, but you were only hoping for a shot in the arm. At what point where you able to joke about what happened?
MC: I think that once we all knew I was going to be okay, a couple of my bandmembers were in the... Where was I? Just in some holding area waiting for X-rays to come back. We were joking already at that point. Within a few hours. The first couple of hours were really hard to joke, because it was really unclear what the damage might be, or if there was going to be any. In fact, I remember them not even being certain, because I was talking and so alert, if it was actually a bullet that was inside my head. It took a while before they knew for sure what it was. Obviously, this has been a two-sided thing for me. It was really important for me once I got home to talk it through -- I went to a counselor who specialized in post-traumatic shock syndrome. I think I had a bit of that. So it was important to be quite serious about it, and try to deal with it in a very direct way. At the same time, it was really important to be able to joke about it and see it for what it was, which was a remarkably unfortunate but, in the end, kind of miraculous turn of events. So I've looked at it from every possible place I could.
WW: I understand you've written some songs that were inspired by what happened.
MC: I have. One is called "Live Out the String," and I have another one called "Life Goes On." I think the incident definitely impacted a couple of these songs. I wouldn't say I really talk about it too directly, but obviously all of the sort of themes about fate and mortality and chance, those are interesting things to write about anyway, and I guess I felt that I had a perspective I never planned on.
WW: How many of the songs on the new album were written after the shooting?
MC: A good number, a good number. It's funny. It reminded me, strangely, of what happened to my writer's block, which I was having right before I wrote "Walking in Memphis" a long, long time ago. I went to Memphis, met some really amazing people and had an incredible experience there, which sort of turned my whole writer's block into a complete opening, and this did something very similar. I hadn't written a song I liked for at least a year or a year and a half, and I was desperately trying to finish a record. I had some of it but not nearly enough of what I would consider a full piece of work. And it was after this event, within a few months, that I had the rest of the record.
WW: Your last album of new material came out in 1998. Why has it been so long? Was writer's block the main reason?
MC: I would say writer's block was the biggest one. Also, since then, I got divorced, I got remarried, I had two more children. So my life has been pretty rich and very full and sometimes very stressful, so that was definitely part of it. But for me, it's just a very difficult process to come up with twelve songs that are not only good songs, but for me make up what I would consider an album. And I grew up in the Seventies, and an album sort of had a flow to it, and a story somewhere in it. You sort of understood why a group of songs were put together even if there was no overt theme -- that the listening experience would take you from the beginning to the end. So it just takes me, unfortunately, forever to make that kind of record, and it's the only kind of record I'm interested in making.
WW: What label will the album be on?
MC: That's still yet to be determined. I made the record myself, which gave me an amazing amount of freedom, which I've never experienced, ever -- because all my other records came out on Atlantic, years ago.
WW: Was it nice not to have someone looking over your shoulder when you were making the album?
MC: It was a very liberating experience. Because record companies, they usually are only concerned with one thing, which is, "Can we get this on the radio?" So it was a really liberating experience to make a record that was all about, Is this the best record I can possibly make? Obviously, I'm not looking to keep it off the radio, but it wasn't my primary concern.
WW: Have you started shopping it around yet?
MC: I was offered some deals from some people that were nice enough, but I didn't feel they were -- that the deals I was being offered were worth taking. For me, the interesting part is, if you're really going to market and promote a record the right way, that ends up being the thing that's prohibitively expensive. So I could actually make this record myself. I was very lucky, and those that can should, because in the end you can sell it to a record company that can do the promotion and the marketing. And you can keep the ownership of the masters, which is what I hope I can do. So that remains to be seen, who's going to end up actually promoting and marketing it, and so far, I feel pretty positive about a couple of places where it might wind up.
WW: After the shooting, were you surprised by the attention it got?
MC: That was completely surprising to me. And Elizabeth and I, I have to tell you, didn't discuss it until the offers started coming in to please come talk about it -- some of them came from Elizabeth's network. But, you know, I would say that took a couple of weeks until that was part of the discussion. I wasn't aware for several days, until I started getting phone calls from people who never would have known about it if it wasn't for the coverage it got, that it had become the story it became. Let me tell you, after you've been shot, that's just not what you're thinking about. But once it kind of started to happen, I suppose, I understood it.
WW: Did you feel pressured to talk publicly by all the interview requests you got?
MC: No, I took the time I needed before I did talk about it. You know, the thing that's always remarkable, the thing that always fascinates me isn't that the media asks for a story. It's how many times people actually give it. You're never forced to tell your story. I made my own decision and felt, actually, that it would be part of the healing process for me to talk about it, and so I did it. And I only did it a limited number of times. The thing that was kind of interesting was that the requests kept pouring in and, you know, at some point I was like, I've told the story. What's the point of retelling it?
WW: I was going to ask if by doing a few interviews, you hoped that the flow of requests would stop. It doesn't sound like things happened that way -- but did you and Elizabeth talk about it?
MC: No, that conversation didn't happen. For me, it was purely like, do I want to tell this story? When do I want to tell it? Where do I want to tell it? How many times do I need to tell it? And I kind of played it by ear, really, which is the only thing that I know how to do. I decided I did want to talk about it after some weeks had passed -- I can't remember how long now. And after I told the story one, two, three, four times, that was enough. But it was nothing consciously decided upon in advance at all.
WW: Speaking of Elizabeth, she was the co-anchor of the main ABC News broadcast until Bob Woodruff was hurt -- and after he was, it seemed as if she was pushed out. Did it feel that way to you?
MC: I don't feel too comfortable getting into it because it was a very complicated situation, and I think the characterization that she was pushed out is a little simplistic. It actually was pretty complicated. There was a lot of really difficult and unfortunate things that happened once Elizabeth and Bob got the assignment. I don't want to get into Elizabeth's experience. I can only say I think she handled it beautifully. We had our own reasons why, actually, in the end, it was actually a good thing.
WW: A good thing?
MC: She's the mother of a four month old baby and a four year old toddler, and that job [as anchor] felt like... Well, to us, and it's something she couldn't have known before doing it, but twenty hours a day was probably not going to be enough to do it right. And you know, that's okay for some people, but for new, expectant mothers, that's not okay. So purely as her husband and the father of her children, I had my own personal biases about the way it seemed to be working out. But I think it was a very complicated situation that she handled beautifully, and I think when the time is right, she'll be doing a job just like that -- I hope -- in the future.
WW: I couldn't help but wonder that if a man and woman were co-anchors and the woman had been injured or incapacitated in some way, if the man wouldn't have been allowed to continue...
MC: Well, that's a good question. That's a very interesting question, and I don't know the answer. But you can't really frame it that way, because not only was Bob hurt horribly, but Elizabeth told them a few weeks later she was pregnant. That was an enormous part of the decision, too. I certainly know it was for her, and I think it was for them as well -- knowing that come September, which was going to be the big time when Katie [Couric] was going to be on the job [as anchor of CBS' nightly news broadcast], and Bob wasn't going to be at the desk, and neither was Elizabeth. That played an enormous role in everybody's decisions -- certainly ABC's. I don't see how it couldn't. But I'm not an expert in it. I don't know what all the machinations are, and frankly, I don't really want to know. The part about it I care about is Elizabeth and those issues and things we discussed on our side about what was best for our family.
WW: When you start talking to labels interested in your new album, I'm sure there are going to be people on the marketing staffs who'll say, "Hey, this whole shooting thing -- we've got to play that up, because it's a great news hook." Have you heard that kind of things?
MC: I haven't had those conversations yet, but given the fact that I've written a couple of songs that allude to it, or at least can be interpreted as allusions to the incident, I'm sure that conversation's going to come up. I've just finished the record, and it's not sold to a record company yet, so I haven't even begun to process what my response is going to be. But I've handled those things pretty well in the past. I've never felt I've allowed myself or any of my experiences to be... Like my experiences even before they had anything to do with the record, I'll talk about them until I'm uncomfortable. And the only way I know how to talk about it is honestly. If a record company wants to use it in some way that I'm uncomfortable with, it's not going to happen.
WW: Did you follow the sentencing of the man that shot you?
MC: The DA in Denver kept me apprised of everything that was happening. I think they sort of have to. So yeah, I knew pretty much what was happening all the way leading up to the sentencing.
WW: Did the sentence he received seem appropriate to you?
MC: Yeah, it did. They asked me to appear, to be there for the sentencing. They thought if I was there, there'd be more coverage and the judge would be more inclined to give a stricter sentence, and I just didn't feel like this was a personal attack. And so I thought, let the chips fall where they may, and in the end, I think it felt like a just sentence.