Martin Kahan, a music video director who worked with major pop and rock acts in the 1980s before coming to specialize in top Nashville artists during the ’90s, died of cancer Sunday in Lakewood, NH. He was 74.
Kahan got his start in music videos working on live clips for Rush in the era just prior to the dawn of MTV. Once that cable channel took off, he became a go-to director for artists like Motley Crue, Bon Jovi, Scandal, Michael Bolton and Kiss. A run of success with country artists at the same time led him to do nearly all of his work in that genre by the time the 1990s arrived. Establishing residency there, he remained a top country video director for acts like Kenny Chesney, Alan Jackson, Hank Williams Jr. and Emmylou Harris, until an incapacitating accident in 2000 put an end to his directing career.
Friend Arthur Levy called him a “high-flying, hard-living and some would say notorious” character. But, as the son of a rabbi, he was also known for his dedication to his heritage. Pointed out Levy, “His death occurred on Tisha b’Av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, the most solemn day of fasting and mourning in the Jewish calendar — an ironic coda to Kahan’s two passions in life, his career in film and music, and his yeshiva heritage.”
Kahan shot Rush’s live promo clips for the songs “Tom Sawyer,” “Freewill” and “Limelight” prior to moving to New York in 1983. As MTV took off, he became a sort of house director for Columbia Records, where his first gig was Scandal’s “Love’s Got a Line on You.” From there he went on to handle videos for Columbia acts including Ian Hunter (his “All of the Good Ones Are Taken” got an MTV VMA nomination), Bolton, Eddie Money, Loverboy and Clarence Clemons, among others.
Broadening his efforts beyond Columbia’s roster, he directed the first two videos Kiss filmed when they opted to reinvent themselves as a makeup-free band, “Lick It Up” and “All Hell’s Breakin’ Loose.” His production company churned out work for Motley Crue, Bon Jovi, Scorpions and the Firm.
His earliest country music clips in the ’80s included memorable videos for Ricky Skaggs that included cameos by Ed Koch and Bill Monroe. A run of successes with John Anderson and Sawyer Brown led him to establish part-time residency in Nashville — alongside his other home in Santa Fe, NM — and he directed the famous water-skiing video for Alan Jackson’s possibly career-making “Chattahoochee.” He followed with projects with Hank Williams Jr., Neal McCoy, John Michael Montgomery, Confederate Railroad and Emmylou Harris (“High Powered Love,” “Crescent City”).
His final video was for Chesney’s “I Lost It” in the fall of 2000.
In December of that year, he fell down a flight of stairs at a friend’s home in Nashville and suffered a serious brain injury that forced doctors to put him in an induced coma. After he recovered, the trials Kahan faced included a period of homelessness, as attempts to get back his status in the music industry were in vain. “Ultimately,” says Levy, “his rabbinical family was able to provide long-term shelter and care for him at facilities in Lakewood. Though he suffered from anterograde amnesia (the inability to form new memories), his clarity of recollections of events from decades ago made him an enthusiastic storyteller and raconteur.”
Kahan was born on April 17, 1947 in New York, son to a renowned rabbi and social libertarian, Dr. Aaron Kahan, who raised Martin and his younger brother Sheldon after a divorce. When the family moved to Miami Beach while Martin was in his teens, he was described as trading the trappings of the yeshiva environment for the ’60s folk scene. A meeting with Frank Capra while he was at the University of Florida in Gainesville led to his interest in directing, which initially included a stint in documentary work.
Says Levy, “In his final years in Lakewood, Kahan never stopped theorizing about country music’s gradual downsizing of its promo video output, and how he could work his way back into the fold. ‘Did I ever explain to you about CMT?’ he would ask over the phone for the hundredth time, before launching into his answer, for the hundredth time.”