A Singer's Second Chance
11/12/2007 at 01:00 AM EST
After winning a Grammy and becoming forever identified by his soulful ballad "Walking in Memphis" in the '90s, Marc Cohn found himself at a crossroads in 2005. Drained creatively and craving time with his wife, 20/20 coanchor Elizabeth Vargas, and their young son Zachary, the singer, now 48, says he yearned for "a shot in the arm" to kick-start his writing. What he got, Cohn says with a wry smile, was "a little bit off."
He can joke about it now, but the events that inspired Cohn's new album, Join the Parade, were terrifying. After playing a show in Denver on Aug. 7, 2005, Cohn climbed into a van with his band and noticed "somebody off in the distance, running very fast," he recalls, "and about five seconds later this figure just stands in front of the van. I think I was the only person who [saw] the gun." In a failed carjacking attempt, the gunman (Joseph Yacteen, who was sentenced to 36 years in prison for attempted first-degree murder) fired one shot through the windshield; the bullet hit the singer's left temple. "The first sensation I felt was just blood," he says. At the hospital, "doctors told me I was the luckiest unlucky guy they had met in a long, long time." The bullet barely missed Cohn's eye and lodged near his skull. After it was removed, he was kept under observation for just eight hours before being released. "In a way, that makes it even more difficult to process," he says. "Why did I come that close?"
It's a question that dogged him in the weeks that followed—which coincided with Hurricane Katrina. Watching TV coverage of the storm, Cohn—who hails not from Memphis but Cleveland—was struck by a line from an essay by writer Rick Bragg about the people of New Orleans: "But I have seen these people dance, laughing, to the edge of the grave. I believe that, now, they will dance back from it." And with that, his creativity surged. "I thought, that's a song I can write. 'Dance Back from the Grave.' It would be a story to tell about New Orleans," he says, "but it resonated for me too." Adds Vargas: "He couldn't write the songs fast enough. He would leave voicemails on our home phone with lyrics and melodies. I knew not to erase them!"
Having battled several months of post-traumatic stress ("I still feel like I'm not as safe in the world as I used to think"), Cohn is focused once more on music and family. He and Vargas—who met at the '99 US Open when she tried to land an interview with Cohn's pal Andre Agassi—welcomed a second son, Samuel, last year. (Cohn also has a son, Max, 16, and a daughter, Emily, 13, from his first marriage.)
Between teaching Zachary, now 4, that not everyone's parents are TV anchors and musicians and throwing Samuel his first birthday party ("he was asleep after 10 minutes"), he's grateful that life at home in New York City is back to normal. The same can be said for life on the road: Now on a 27-stop tour, Cohn is thankful when fans call out to hear him sing "Walking in Memphis" yet again. "It's a wonderful kind of ghost," he's said of his signature tune. "But I'd be lying if I said I wouldn't love a few more ghosts."