Cohen keeps spirit of 60s alive with coffeehouses

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 Bill Cohen will present his "Spirit of the ’60s Coffeehouse" performance Nov. 9.

For Bill Cohen, as for many Baby Boomers, the 1960s didn’t really begin until he went away to college.

"The ’60s arrived for me when I left Bexley" for Northwestern University, the 1966 Bexley High graduate recalled. "During my high school years I lived a sheltered existence. When I got to college, I learned that we were at war, that I could be drafted, that I could be sent away to die."

This and other consciousness-raising experiences left an indelible impression on Cohen and his generation, something he has attempted to convey for 22 years with his "Spirit of the ’60s Coffeehouse" performances.

The next presentation, a fundraiser for Mid-Ohio Food Bank, will be staged Nov. 9 at 7:30 p.m. at King Avenue Methodist Church, 299 W. King Ave., at Neil Avenue.

The old church basement "feels like the ’60s" to Cohen, as he performs folk songs with the lights off and candles burning. "They may have had a coffeehouse there at one time."

His year-by-year review of the decade is meant to show that "the ’60s were not just tie-dye t-shirts and drug abuse. The message is that the ’60s were a time when people stood up for their beliefs, when they took risks, and tried to make a difference."

At Northwestern, Cohen discovered that there were all different sorts of people in the world, and he became interested in "big, huge policy issues," a passion that has continued through his career as a reporter on WOSU public radio.

He was influenced by the anti-Vietnam war protests and demonstrations for civil rights for blacks, women, and gays. Chicago was roiling in those days of rage, with riots at the 1968 Democratic convention and the subsequent trial of the protest leaders.

The previously clean-cut kid grew a beard, but when he returned to conservative Bexley he was advised to "shave off your beard so you can find a job."

He did as he was told, but a year later he grew back the beard that he still has (along with the job).

The lessons of the ’60s also stayed with him. He had his first paying gig playing folk songs at Whole World Pizza, for $20 and dinner.

He realized that he had a lot of newspaper and magazine articles that related to the major events of the ’60s and the songs he performed, and he began to add them to the show. Then came recordings of famous speeches and broadcasts, and then fashions of the era.

Between songs Cohen challenges the audience with ’60s trivia questions about movies and television shows (with ’60s-themed prizes given out).

He began mounting the productions as fundraisers about 15 years ago.

It’s all low-tech, Cohen commented, using slide projectors and tape recordings that would be alien to today’s digital generation.

Cohen occasionally brings his performances to schools, where they are more "a musical history lesson."

The coffeehouses mostly attract the crowd that lived through the turbulent times.

"I can feel the audience remembering," Cohen observed. "I can sense people getting a tear in their eye" when they recall where they were when John F. Kennedy or Martin Luther King  was killed, "or hear people laugh out loud when I put on the ’60s clothes, and they can’t believe we thought we looked so cool."

The performances are "serious, at times somber," Cohen conceded, and they allow people to look back on their better selves.

"People in the over-50 crowd are proud of the way they were, that they did something especially creative, that they stood up politically. They look back and say ‘I’m proud of what I did.’"

Cohen doesn’t try to sugarcoat the ’60s, and admits that there were excesses, and some protesters did get out of hand, while adding the majority marched non-violently.

And the anti-war movement wasn’t entirely altruistic, and came about through a convergence of idealism and self-interest on the part of those who could be called to fight through the draft, he said.

Cohen believes the absence of the draft today is part of the reason that protests against the war in Iraq haven’t been as pervasive.

As the Baby Boomers aged, they learned that "changing the world would not be so easy."

But changes, nonetheless, came about, Cohen asserted. At the beginning of the decade, blacks in many parts of the country could not even vote, while today there are many black leaders, he pointed out.

Cohen now lives in Clintonville, which he said, "in some ways is a haven for the ’60s spirit" where people are inquisitive about the world and involved in their community.

His favorite ’60s musical act? "Simon and Garfunkel. They brought poetry into folk music."

Proceeds from the suggested $10 donation for admission to the "Spirit of the ’60s Coffeehouse" will go to the Mid-Ohio Food Bank. Refreshments will be served. The program is suitable for adults and mature teens.

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