Kevin Coyne (1944-2004)
by John Dougan
"Those of you attending the shows will probably note my reliance on a small oxygen tank and plastic pipe throughout. Recent advice from my doctors has led to this. Bravely puffing and panting through songs without extra air is now forbidden. I must preserve my health. This rotten lung fibrosis of mine demands I do what they say."
So wrote Kevin Coyne in October 2004, in what would be his last online newsletter. He was able to preserve his health until December 2nd, when the rotten lung fibrosis he'd struggled with for a little more than a year killed him, at age sixty. Throughout his thirty-plus year career, Coyne had been portrayed as an empathetic chronicler of social outcasts writing songs that were, among other things, influenced by the feral immediacy of the Delta blues. A deeply confessional (and occasionally confrontational) songwriter, Coyne shared little of the polite, fervent, sentimentality that marked many of his peers. Perhaps this had to do with writing songs that suited his thick, muscular voice, a baritone bray that sounded like a mutant conflation of Son House and leather-lunged Brit legend Roger Chapman. Even when he tried to be cloying, there always seemed to be a touch of acidity to his songs, as if he couldn't resist alerting us to the dark clouds hovering just above an elusive silver lining. Nowhere is this weltanschauung more compellingly displayed than on the jacket of his 1976 live LP In Living Black and White. The front shows Coyne politely smiling and bowing to an unseen audience; the back has the same photo taken from the rear, with him clutching an open straight razor.
As did many of his generation growing up in early post-war England, Coyne fell in love with American Blues and R&B. He played in the pre-Beatles era band the Vulcans in his native Derby, quitting to attend art school. After graduation, he continued to pursue music, teaching it (and art) as a therapist at the Whittingham Psychiatric Hospital in Lancashire, then moving to London's Soho to work with mentally ill alcoholics. What he gleaned from these experiences was a belief in creative immediacy, an intensely emotional, almost unmediated situational response he brought to his songwriting. "I write books and things," Coyne told Richie Unterberger in 1997, "and have concern for language, the written word. But when I do songs, I tend to be very spontaneous. I like to mirror the moment and the time. That all sounds very idealistic, but I'm a great believer in that."
In 1969, along with Dave Clague and Nick Cudworth, Coyne formed the pub-rock-ish Siren and were signed to John Peel's financial disaster of a record label, Dandelion. Siren managed two LPs, and Coyne squeezed out a solo record (the appropriately titled Case History) before the label went belly-up. Then, in one of rock history's unlikeliest scenarios, Coyne was briefly considered as a replacement for the recently deceased Jim Morrison in the Doors. Despite being the polar opposite of Morrison, physically – Coyne was short and round with a sort of pushed-in face – there was actually meeting at Elektra's London office (the label was familiar with his work, having distributed Dandelion); Coyne blew off the opportunity, showing little interest in the band and claiming he wouldn't be caught wearing leather trousers.
Just as he was about to return to social work to provide for his wife and young sons, Richard Branson, a Siren fan (think of that the next time you're watching Rebel Billionaire) phoned and made Coyne (along with Mike Tubular Bells Oldfield) among the first artists signed to his fledgling Virgin record label. During this period (1972-1980), Coyne was at his peak.
"I love 'em all [the Virgin recordings]," he told Unterberger. "I think I was at my very best then. I was wild and idealistic and younger, and I thought there was great passion in what I did." This fertile creative period was helped along by a great band that, at various times, included Andy Summers, Zoot Money, Jean Roussel, and members of the Ruts (Segs, Dave Ruffy, and Paul Fox). As for the recordings he loved so, it's quite a list: Marjory Razor Blade (anchored by arguably his greatest song, "House on the Hill"), Matching Head and Feet, Bursting Bubbles, Millionaires and Teddy Bears, In Living Black and White (featuring a heartbreaking rendition of "Fat Girl" and the proto-punk "Turpentine," which advocates, as the Clash would a couple of years later, burning down the suburbs with half-closed eyes), Sanity Stomp, and the tortured, galvanizing song cycle Babble, recorded with ex-Slapp Happy/Henry Cow vocalist Dagmar Krause. Babble, and the handful of shows supporting it, created controversy when Coyne admitted that this tale of lovers who share an inability to communicate was loosely based on the lives of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, the pedophile killers known as the Moors Murderers.
Cancelled shows and controversy over subject matter proved to be the least of Coyne's worries as he entered the '80s. Convinced that Branson underpaid him during his tenure at Virgin, and frustrated at the way his records were being released in America (many of the two-disc sets were heavily edited into single volumes), Coyne signed with indie Cherry Red, went through a divorce, and sank deeper into the alcoholism and depression he'd been struggling with for years. The records came less frequently and were only intermittently interesting; chaos, madness, and drinking had exacted their toll and convinced many (myself included) that Coyne would never again record with the ferocity, intensity, and feeling that defined nearly all of his Virgin output.
Fortunately, we were mostly wrong. In 1985, Coyne left England to tour Germany and stayed. He got sober, remarried, and started making records again, and in doing so became, in the words of one his more recent songs, a happy little fat man, who remained incredibly productive right up to his death. Working with his sons Robert and Eugene clearly re-energized him and his recent records Room Full of Fools, Carnival and the wonderfully-titled collaboration with guitarist Brendan Croker, Life is Almost Wonderful displayed an older, wiser Coyne who, still filled with piss and vinegar, seemed at peace.
"I wanted to make consciously happy music," he said at the time, "in reaction to the darkness I'd been through." And while many of us prefer singer-songwriters who articulate despair and rage rather than cheerfulness, Coyne's decision was consistent with the music he'd been making all his life, writing about people who, in their own difficult, inchoate, and idiosyncratic way tried to claim a place in a world that didn't seem to want them.
Coyne championed outsiders, not only because he'd shared a clinical setting with them, but because he was one too, and he tried to reflect this life honestly. "I've never romanticized depression," he told a MOJO writer in 1999, "and at the same time I don't take myself too seriously." On the track "Highway of Dreams" from 1999's excellent Sugar Candy Taxi (the cover art features a smiling man and women in a smiling car, plunging off a cliff) Coyne sings, "I want to take you to the highway of dreams/ Introduce you to all my plans/ And a million schemes/ That'll make you feel good/ When the darkness comes." That's a view of life fully cognizant of the pitfalls, yet filled with compassion, solace to anyone brave enough to be called an outsider.
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