A FEW MINUTES WITH… Steve Cohen and David Wilcox
By Don Wilcock
Producer, songwriter and bass player Steve Cohen will see 40 years of his musical life pass before him on Saturday night (November 17) at The Linda in Albany.
In 1978 he was founder of Fear of Strangers, arguably the best rock band ever to break out of Greater Nippertown and go national. The group featured Lonesome Val Haynes, guitarist Todd Nelson and drummer Al Kash. They broke up in 1983 after releasing one album for Miles Copeland’s Faulty Products label. Cohen went on to produce and play bass for two critically applauded albums by Lonesome Val, and he is currently Americana artist David Wilcox’s manager, producer and bassist.
Wilcox headlines Saturday’s show. Lonesome Val & the Lonesome Units featuring Nelson, Kash and Cohen open the show with Wilcox scheduled to sit in. Cohen will also play bass for Wilcox’s headlining set. The Units was Fear of Strangers’ original group name before they changed it to avoid confusion with two other bands that also called themselves The Units.
Cohen, who now lives in North Carolina, is excited about Saturday’s show. “Todd and Al are phenomenal world class players, and they never played with the two of us (myself and Val) as Lonesome Val. I think this is going to be really unique, and I’m looking forward to this a lot. We stayed close friends, all four of us, the whole time, which is a great thing. And it’s interesting for us to go visit this repertoire.”
Fear of Strangers was the most evolved and creative band to emerge from the Lark Street scene at a time when the drinking age was 18, and bars like the QE2, 288 Lark, J.B. Scott’s and The Chateau were jumping with amazing competition including Blotto. What set Fear of Strangers apart was an original repertoire that was as eclectic as the Beatles, their unique, high-energy instrumentation centering around Val’s vocals.
I asked Cohen if he knew how good the band was. “Yes! (Laugh) I did, and later on when I moved to New York, I played with a lot of people, a lot of really good people and a lot of really good situations. Val and I had a fantastic band, Lonesome Val’s band. I’m increasingly proud of that. I think in a way that band was just as good.”
Fear of Strangers didn’t break up in the usual sense of the word. The just went their individual ways. They remained friends and have occasionally played together, most recently at a reunion show at the Hollow Bar + Kitchen two years ago. “It’s not like some bomb went off with us. We all have different lives to live like a family where one brother goes to college, one goes overseas. That’s the way these things work, and we occasionally get together, sometimes for music and sometimes to see each other. It’s a great thing. We’re like a family – a little dysfunctional, but always close. We never separated in anger. We just somewhat went our separate ways.”
They’re calling the opening band Lonesome Val & the Lonesome Units as opposed to a Fear of Strangers reunion because their set will consist of songs from Lonesome Val’s repertoire rather than Fear of Strangers’. “I don’t think we’re doing any Fear of Strangers songs. I mean who knows? You never know what will happen. But the material from her two records, that’s what we’re really working on. Todd and Val have played together in and around Albany, and I think Al did a couple of things with them.”
Fear of Strangers had a sophistication rarely associated with Local 518 bar bands. “Yeah, I guess we’re a bunch of egg heads. It’s a funny thing because Val, I think she finished high school, but she went to Jr. College of Albany for a week and dropped out, and Al also I think had a strange upbringing, half of the time
in the United States, and half the time in Australia. I don’t think he finished high school, but the two of them are brilliant and really well-read people. Val went on to get a master’s degree and is kind of amazing as a prose writer, too.”
Headliner David Wilcox has released 20 albums in 30 years. His latest, The View from the Edge, features manager Cohen playing bass on four songs. “I imagine music was a tool to make my life better,” explains Wilcox, “and I set out on this journey as if music has a way that I could listen in on the wisdom of my heart as if it were a radio scanner that was picking up some frequency that I couldn’t normally get. I use music as if it were a translator between my heart and my mind.”
At shows, Wilcox often invents songs about a random member of the audience on the spur of the moment that relate to that individual’s mood or personal angst. “That is a deep spiritual process,” he explains. “There are people who make up clever little songs that include certain topics, but that’s not what I do. I really get to the heart of what someone else is going through and channel this mystical thing. I don’t really know how it works, but it is my love of music and my ability to really feel deeply and be sensitive to what someone else is feeling. I find that I can use my songwriter’s skills in service to someone else’s heart and someone else’s story, and the spontaneous factor makes it really fun for me.
“The whole audience can feel the trust that’s involved, and the fact that there’s a leaning into the unknown, the mystery and that feeling, this sense that everyone has to sort of have their hearts open to make this work. I love the spontaneous beauty of that. It feels like that’s what music is all about, to draw it to the moment. What I love about those spontaneous songs is they’re not recorded. They’re just returned to the circling winds.”
The songs on his albums, on the other hand, can take Wilcox weeks to craft. “Chain of Anger” on The View from the Edge took him three days to write. The title refers to a father’s anger that passes from one generation of another and is autobiographical. “We were getting on an elevator at a family reunion, and it was my dad and my mom and my wife, Nancy, and I, and my brother, and his wife. We pressed the button for the floor we were going up, and someone called for the elevator.
“So, I passed my hand in front of the closing door like you do, and they opened up again. When my son saw that, he was young enough at the time, four years old. It looked like some kind of magic. So, when the guy got on and punched his floor, and the doors started to close again, My son made that little motion with his hand, and those giant doors obeyed. So, he thought he was kind of a Jedi, and he was beaming, but my father started to grumble, and I realized that I had that tightness in my gut that was my warning me that Dad was getting angry.
“That emotion that my dad had came out as anger, and so when my dad went to reach for my son and yell at him, I stepped between them, and I looked at my dad with a kind but sort of serious expression. Kind of a wake-up call, and the rest of the elevator ride was very quiet. And I thought it was a powerful thing to have that strength of character, and it changed everything, and I wanted to explore that. I wanted to unpack that experience of how I was able to do that. So, I wrote the song, not just the initial sort of frustration or anger, but write it thoroughly so my father could feel the same intention as if he could have sung it for his father. The song was the start of a great conversation with my dad, and it became something that helped me remember my commitment to stop that generational emotional inheritance.”
Wilcox might have had some trouble addressing the issue of anger directly with his dad, but he could do it more easily through a song. “The reason why I came to music was not just to make more songs. The world has plenty of songs. What I wanted was the way to know my own heart, the way to know if there was something I needed to speak to the people in my life before it was too late, a way to listen in to the worries of the future, how to navigate my life. I just wanted basically to know the wisdom of my life.”
Steve Cohen is excited about performing with his old mates in Albany and with David Wilcox. “Far from resting on his laurels or slowing down, David is really impressive,” says Cohen. “So, I’m just really excited about this whole show. He’s really excited about this whole show, and it’s going to be fun for him.”
Fear of Strangers/Lonesome Val & the Lonesome Units photographs by Dave Suarez (left) and Lynne Harty (right)