Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Herb Cohen,1932-2010. R.I.P.

Herb Cohen, a concert promoter, record company executive and business manager for artists like Frank Zappa, Linda Ronstadt, Tom Waits and Tim Buckley, died yesterday. The cause of his death is unknown. He was 77.

Cohen is most closely associated with Zappa. They were business partners in several different record labels (Straight, Bizarre and later DiscReet) that were distributed by Warner Brothers. But by 1976, their business relationship had disintegrated and the two were entangled in lawsuits for years thereafter.

However, I am familiar with Cohen because of his association with Tim Buckley. Cohen was a stark contrast to the waifish Buckley. Here's how David Browne, currently a contributing editor to Rolling Stone, described Cohen when Buckley first met Cohen in 1966 in his 2001 book Dream Brother: The Lives & Music of Jeff & Tim Buckley:

One of Herb Cohen's clients would later say that Cohen - or simply "Herbie," as he was often known - should have managed wrestlers or boxers, not rock stars. In fact, Cohen resembled an aging boxer himself. Short and stout, with a sliver of facial hair framing his jaw and a hardened, perpetually frowning mug, the thirty-four-year-old could have passed for a bearded fire hydrant.

Cohen not only looked tough he could act it as well whether it was in a Los Angeles nightclub or half way around the world. He also had an air of intrigue and mystery about him. Browne elaborates:

At that club (The Unicorn) and the Purple Onion, it wasn't uncommon for Cohen to keep a loaded .45 under the bar in case any fights broke out. If that didn't work, he would resort to whatever was available to stop a brawl. Associates and musicians recall seeing him unflinchingly smash sugar jars or coffee mugs into the faces of anyone who dared misbehave in one of his joints.

As the '60s began, restlessness and police hassles over cabaret laws led Cohen to begin another, entirely different career. Although Cohen himself won't confirm or deny it ("anything's possible," he comments), it's said he ventured into gun-running or mercenary soldiering in - depending on the source of the story - North Africa, Cuba, the Congo, or all three regions. "He was mainly seeing the world, but he was a wild guy," says Jerry Yester, who, as half of the Yester Brothers, worked with Cohen before his trip....Next came artist management, where his first client was Judy Henske (who would later marry Yester), an imposing, big-voiced Wisconsin singer who had played at Cosmo Alley. Henske was initially skeptical about the stories of Cohen's travels. "I thought, 'This is just some more of that Hollywood stardust stuff,'" she says. Then, while reading Peter Matthiessen's '60s Africa-travelogue book The Tree Where Man Was Born, Henske came across a description of "a bearded American veteran of the Israeli wars with a hidden sheath knife, beret, dark glasses, and gold earring." Recalls Henske, "I thought, 'Hmmm...It could be Herbie.'"

When Herb Cohen's memorial service occurs he will be described by mourners as many things. Boring will not be one of them.

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