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 . . .”
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.
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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.”
Cohen started experimenting with hallucinogens during his years spent as a vagabond in Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, Berkeley, the Sonoma area, San Diego, Santa Barbara — 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 — 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 — suddenly my analytical powers were heightened, and my creativity was slightly damaged; it made me able to arrange music and construct songs professionally.”
There often comes a time in a music fanatic’s life when he finds himself saying, “Not good enough — 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 pop poop.
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 — Loss Ainguhless — 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 — since Bob’s already wearing his spleen on his spine, it’s quite unusual.
In our 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 kids, too, I’d think.
“My philosophy was always to make it organic,” he says. “Captain Beefheart’s songs struck me as being able to do that — 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 is.”
Divergent, dedicated artists like Cohen probably would sell out if they could figure out who’s buying — 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.”
DANNY COHEN at “sound.” | At the Schindler House, 835 N. Kings Road, West Hollywood | Saturday, June 28, 7:30 p.m.