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Ear of the Beholder 

Danny Cohen, beyond the fringe

Thursday, Jun 26 2003
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Photo by Kaaren Johnson

“There’s the rub/Shakespeare once wrote/you can’t mend a hole in the boat.”

—Danny Cohen, “Nobody Showed”

“Inhale . . . exhale . . .”

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—Jack LaLanne

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 à 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 — 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.

In Art: Sounds Different: Doug Harvey on more music outside the box, with Danny Cohen, John Zorn, Irwin Chusid et al.

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 — 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 come from?

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 — 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 — 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.

“My whole 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 — 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.”

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