David Bennet Cohen was a Greenwich Village folky before he hitchhiked out to California. After seeing the Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, he decided to be a rock star and thought the Bay Area would be the place to fulfill his dream. A few months after he landed in Berkeley, he was well on his way.
“I started hanging out in music stores like Lundberg’s on Dwight Way and The Campus Music Shop,” Cohen recalled. “They were frequented by all kinds of musicians. I met Barry Melton, who was playing with Country Joe McDonald. They had a jug band called Country Joe and The Fish, and they wanted to go electric. Barry asked me to play guitar with them.
“We got a gig playing at a club called The Jabberwock. We were there every night for a month, developing the songs that were on our first album, Electric Music for the Mind and Body. They had a beat-up piano in one corner of the club. Between sets, I’d sit down and play the boogie-woogie tunes I learned growing up in Brooklyn. Joe thought it would be good to add an organ to the line-up. Barry told him I could play organ. I’d never played organ in my life, but I wanted the gig, so I told them, ‘Sure, I can play it.’
“The band pitched in and bought me a Farfisa organ. I didn’t know what I was doing, so I took my guitar licks and transferred them to the organ. The critics said I had a unique style, but I was making it up as I went along. I played it on an instrumental Joe wrote called ‘Section 43.’ It gave Barry and me a chance to stretch out and improvise.”
“Section 43” became one of the band’s most popular numbers. It was included on the band’s debut, Electric Music for the Mind and Body, an album known today as a psychedelic masterpiece. “Section 43” was noted for its unpredictable structure and, in the years since, has been touted as an early inspiration for everything from prog-rock to acid jazz.
The Fish quickly became one of the most influential psychedelic bands of the ’60s, alongside The Grateful Dead, Big Brother and The Holding Company with Janis Joplin and Jefferson Airplane.
Cohen stayed with the band for three more albums—I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die, Together and Here We Are Again—before leaving to pursue his other musical interests. (He also played on the band’s Reunion album in 1977.) “We played 300 dates in 1968. I loved the road, but everyone started going in different musical directions. I moved back to New York to pursue my own career and songwriting. I love the blues, boogie-woogie and older pop music forms.”
Those instincts are displayed on Bittersweet, the mini-album Cohen recently released on his own logo. He covers a lot of ground on the six-track collection. “Hot Chocolate” has the feel of a classic pop tune from the ’40s. An opening salvo from a horn section sets up Cohen’s lighthearted vocal, as he sings the praises of his favorite libation, especially when served with a shot of bourbon and a donut. His piano dances between the R&B of Memphis and the second line strut of New Orleans. Cohen recorded “Booze” as an instrumental a few years ago on his Cookin’ With Cohen LP. This time it appears with lyrics written by his songwriting friend, Jane Richardson. It’s played with a funky backbeat, with the band joining in to sing on the unruly chorus, as Cohen lays out the joys and dangers of alcohol. He moves from a playful growl to the slurred delivery of a guy so plastered he can hardly speak, much less sing.
On the instrumental side, there’s “Dylan’s Hat,” a funky ragtime tune with alternating solos that show off Cohen’s piano wizardry and the bluesy electric guitar work of David French; the smoky, late night groove of “Afterglow” and the lilting title track, a duet between Cohen’s pastoral piano and the Celtic tones of Heather Hardy’s fiddle.
It’s a satisfying outing and the first recording Cohen’s made that features his lead vocals. “I never thought my voice was that good,” Cohen said. “In the past 10 years or so, I’ve been playing in a jam session every Monday night at the Red Lion on Bleecker Street, in The Village. We mostly play traditional blues tunes. Arthur Neilson, the bandleader, encouraged me to sing lead on some of the tunes. I finally decided it was time for me to sing a couple of my own things on a record.”
Bittersweet took a while to come together, partially because of the pandemic lockdown. “I’ve been working on it for a few years,” Cohen said. “The drummer, Roy Blumenfeld, is in California, so some of it was done remotely. The actual recording took 10 or 12 hours, when everyone was together in the same room, but it was spaced out over a year. Arno Hecht overdubbed the horns, and Heather Hardy played along to my take on ‘Bittersweet.’
“My idea of record producing is to find the best musicians I can find and let them play. Some of the songs were designed for stretching out, some weren’t. You should be able to say what you want to say in two or three choruses.
“I’m continually striving to get better. I want to be able to keep writing and making records until I drop, and I hope that’s not too soon. I have a lot more to say musically. Music’s a language that transcends everything. It’s not as specific as words, but you get a feeling from music you can’t get from anything else. There’s a need to create some peace in the world right now. Music is my way of doing it.”
David Cohen plays with Big Ed Sullivan’s World Famous Blues Jam on the first and third Monday of every month at the Red Lion, 151 Bleecker Street, in New York City. redlionnyc.com. You can download his music from the usual digital outlets or contact him directly through his website, davidbennettcohen.com.