with Thomas Greener

From the 'Beatnik Riot' to an Original Fish, Meet David Bennett Cohen

Sure, David Bennett Cohen -- playing an intimate house concert in KVMR 89.5 FM's Community Room this Sunday at  5 p.m. -- was one of the original Country Joe and the Fish back around 1965. 

But Cohen's musical activism goes back far before that to, yup, April, 1961 when he was one of the musicians involved in the so-called "Beatnik Riot" in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village, New York City, protesting the authorities' refusal to allow musicians permits to play in the park, where Cohen had started performing while barely a teenager. 

Now that's going back...and then some. 

"It was run by the idea I ... and others [had] that people had a right to sing,"  recalls Cohen. "So it's a peaceful demonstration asking for our rights." 

And it was truly symbolic of the decade that was then to follow. 

"It was a chaotic day, without a whole lot of rhyme and reason," documentary filmmaker Dan Drasin says. "But it was certainly representative of the era to come, when the people confronted established authority and started holding them accountable. It would've been unthinkable in the 1950s. But this was the beginning of the 1960s." 

A 2011 National Public Radio report picks up the story: 

New York's finest were not exactly impressed. 

"We go to the park," Izzy Young of the Village's Folklore Center recalls. "There's about seven or eight paddy wagons waiting for us and there [are] two or three cops on horses." 

Drasin's film shows Young trying to reason with the police, telling them, "It's not up to (Police) Commissioner Morris to tell the people what kind of music is good or bad. He's telling people folk music brings degenerates, but it's not so." 

When the cops didn't budge, Young tried to make his point with music. 

"I have everybody singing 'The Star-Spangled Banner,'" Young says. "I said, 'They can't hit us on the head while we're doing that.'" 

And, ta da, they didn't. 

According to NPR, the folkies did ultimately get their permit to play in Washington Square Park. Cohen — who went on to play keyboards for the band Country Joe and the Fish — says if the police wanted to discourage musicians from gathering in the park on Sundays, the plan backfired.

After all, it's hard to visit Washington Square Park today and not run into a musician; they don't actually need permits anymore, noted NPR's 50th anniversary story on the demonstration.

"Except for that one little glitch with the cops, there was never really any interruption," Cohen recalls. "If I remember correctly, it came back even stronger."

Four years later, that Cohen kid found himself in Berkeley, hanging around with the likes of Chicken Hirsch and some guy known as Jerry Garcia. 

Before he knew it, he was doing keyboards for Country Joe and The Fish on piano and organ. 

Only he'd, um, never played organ. 

"The band bought me a Farfisa organ and I started playing that. Of course, I had no idea of what to do with it, so I started to steal my own guitar licks." 

Recalls Cohen, "I would get these reviews saying what a unique style I had. The reality was that I had no idea what I was doing. Of course, eventually, I did learn to play it." 

Hah, another piece of San Francisco rock history explained. 

Cohen moved to England after leaving the Fish in 1969 post-Woodstock, became a member of The Blues Project and toured with them for a couple years. 

Later, he recorded both audio and video instructional tapes on blues, rock and ragtime piano. 

He even played keyboards and guitar for the national touring company of the musical "Rent" during the 1990s.

In the past few years, he also was part of the "Former Members", featuring, duh, former members of The Fish, Blues Project, Big Brother and other San Francisco era groups on tour in Europe. 

But his lifelong love of blues piano and boogie-woogie tinkling brings him to a solo performance in KVMR's community room, which will also be broadcast live on the Nevada City radio station.

"Mr. Cohen isn't the average hippie gone Wall Street, he's also a certifiably smokin' barrel house rumba boogie-woogie piano player in the James Booker-Professor Longhair-Dr. John vein," says the CMJ New Music Report. 

Adds KVMR blues broadcaster Thom Myers, "You can't get much better than this." 

No wonder Thom volunteered  to produce the concert for KVMR

Ironically, Cohen plays KVMR's Community Room the day after Country Joe McDonald himself is at The Center For The Arts in Grass Valley Saturday at 8 p.m.

Hmmm...a chance to catch two Fish within 24 hours?

We're guessing that's legal. 

David Bennett Cohen (bottom left) was an original member of Country Joe & The Fish in the day.

KNOW AND GO 

WHAT: Blues musician David Bennett Cohen, formerly of Country Joe & The Fish and The Blues Project, in intimate house concert. 

WHERE: KVMR Community Room, 120 Bridge Street, downtown Nevada City 

WHEN: Sunday, June 11th, 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. 

TICKETS: $25, available online at kvmr.org/events and can be reserved via phone 530/265-9073 

BROADCAST: Live on KVMR 89.5 FM and kvmr.org streaming 
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THE MOTH AT 20

What started as a small gathering of friends swapping stories on a Georgia porch has turned into a hit podcast and weekly public radio program. 

The Moth Radio Hour celebrates its 20th anniversary this Sunday at 8 p.m. with a special show featuring some of the program's most compelling and requested stories.