Britain's Bob Dylan

A year ago, cult rock star Kevin Coyne played the London's 100 Club. Days later, he was dead. Here his friend, Robert Chalmers, reveals the amazing life of the genius they called Britain's Bob Dylan
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The Independent Culture

The last time I met Kevin Coyne, he was reclined, his eyes half closed, breathing through two tubes, one implanted in each nostril, connected to an oxygen cylinder. A few friends were at his side. I don't think any one of them was confident of seeing him alive again.

"I'm not afraid to die," he told me. "Actually, I'm quite looking forward to it."

It was characteristic of Coyne's determination that this scene occurred not in a hospital ward, but in the dressing room at London's 100 Club. Our conversation was interrupted by a call for him to be on stage in five minutes. He made his way through the audience with difficulty because, in a last gesture of defiance, he refused to use his wheelchair. He died just over a month later, aged 60, from pulmonary fibrosis, the degenerative disease which impaired, and eventually stifled, his breathing.

A week before what proved to be the singer's last appearance in the UK, I'd called John Peel to see if he wanted to meet for dinner before the show.

"I'm going to be in Peru," he said. "Can you believe it? I never go anywhere."

Peel had single-handedly launched Coyne's career, and supported the singer for 35 years. The broadcaster's sudden death in Cuzco, four days before the 100 Club concert, had left the musician distraught. His other loyal patron, Radio 3's Andy Kershaw - normally a fixture at his London performances - was too deeply in shock to come out that night.

When Coyne reached the stage, still on oxygen, he delivered an emotional, 90-minute master class in rock'n'roll. His voice was strangely unaltered.

"It's funny," he said. "I feel better when I sing."

With his death, in early December 2004, Britain lost one of its most talented and original artists. Kevin Coyne was the first modern British songwriter, years before Morrissey or Jarvis Cocker, to take his inspiration from seemingly banal figures that wander the national landscape: fat ladies, mongrel dogs, OAPs and police constables. His admirers include John Lydon, Sting and Billy Bragg; the Kentucky-born maverick Will Oldham recently said that his music "changed my life. It made me question my place in the world." Jac Holzman, head of US Elektra, famously offered Coyne the job of replacing Jim Morrison in The Doors, a proposal the former bus conductor wisely declined.

It's been said that he was the greatest natural (omega) blues singer this country ever produced - the missing link between the mannered elegance of Van Morrison and the crude intensity of Joe Cocker.

"The thing about Kevin," John Peel once said, "is that nothing in his voice is contrived. He hated the idea of 'white blues'. But what he does seems to come straight from the soul. You could say the same of Elmore James, or Robert Johnson, or Howling Wolf."

I first met Coyne in 1974 in the bar at a decrepit venue in Belle Vue, Manchester. He was 30 and I was 16. Once described by Andy Kershaw as, "a punk before the word was invented," he was a man with no interest in haircuts, clothes or drugs. He didn't like pop stars or hippies but, having signed to Richard Branson's newly-formed Virgin label, had contact with both.

"They think I'm the Great White Hope," Coyne told me that night. "I'm not sure they're right."

It was the start of a relationship which continued, on and off, for 30 years: first through letters and phone calls, then over drinks or dinner in Amsterdam, New York, Paris or Leeds. I've kept letters that date back to his period of commercial success in the 1970s, when he worked with Andy Summers and Paul Wickens - now keyboard player for Paul McCartney. Later, he would write about sleeping off hangovers on German railway stations.

In the 1970s, Coyne was hailed by some as the new Bob Dylan, even though many of his songs - like "Marjory Razor Blade", a deranged a capella piece he thought up while shaving - had more in common with Max Wall. His best-known song, "House on the Hill", was a compassionate anthem inspired by his time caring for psychiatric patients. He used to perform a monologue in the style of Erik Satie, with a stark piano accompaniment, about a small boy punished for losing his duffel coat at school. It was called "Mona, Where's My Trousers". Released by Virgin as a 12in single, its sleeve bears the slogan "Disco Inferno". As a mainstream rock star, he would always be a work in progress.

And yet, through his fiction, paintings and 35 albums, Kevin Coyne has left a unique and enduring legacy. He never learnt to play the guitar with orthodox technique, but with his open-tuned Epiphone laid flat on his knee, he could sound like an orchestra. His first single still has pride of place in the small box Peel had marked: "Records To Be Saved In Case Of Emergency". His last album, which he recorded from a wheelchair, in the final weeks of his life, is released next week. It's his frank and ironic farewell to the world; he called the CD - what better epitaph for a buried renegade - Underground.

Coyne grew up on a council estate in Derby, where his father was a house-painter. He was two and a half before he could walk, because his large head made him overbalance. Doctors told his mother, Louie, he would be a genius or an imbecile. Coyne, who proved to be no fool, went to Derby College of Art, where he met his first wife, Lesley Fox.

Fellow-student Nick Cudworth, piano player in Kevin Coyne's first band, Siren, now has work hanging in the National Portrait Gallery. He first saw Coyne perform in the refectory.

"This little guy stood up on stage," Cudworth recalls, "and this incredible voice came out. It was the first time I'd seen a singer and thought: this person is truly amazing. I knew he was special right away. It was - is - the greatest voice I ever heard."

While Cudworth and contemporaries such as Ian Breakwell left Derby to develop their international reputation as artists, Coyne joined Trent Buses as a conductor. In 1967, he and his young wife took jobs as therapists at Whittingham Mental Hospital, near Preston. Their sons Eugene and Robert were born there; Coyne was still at Whittingham when he recorded two albums with Siren, for John Peel's Dandelion label. His first solo album, Case History, also on Dandelion, drew on his observation of psychiatric patients.

He brought his family to London, where he helped run The Soho Project, a rehabilitation centre, where he worked till he signed to Virgin in 1972. While most musicians appear to have made little impact on Branson, Coyne was an exception.

"I was with Richard a couple of years ago," says his authorised biographer, Mick Brown. "He turned to me and said: 'You know the one I really loved? Kevin Coyne. He was amazing.'"

Coyne had 10 years at Virgin, but none of his extraordinary albums such as Blame it on the Night and Dynamite Daze managed to attract a mass audience. Virgin hoped for platinum discs: Coyne gave them songs about lunatics, Jack Russell terriers, and suicidal women with bulimia, almost all of them recorded on the first take. Babble, his musical loosely based on the Moors Murderers, was recently acclaimed by Will Oldham as one of the greatest albums ever made. When it was released, in 1979, it had him pilloried, first by the Sun, then by the BBC.

"At Virgin I was swept off into this world of strawberries and champagne, on boats, in the afternoon," he told me, a couple of years ago. "I had two kids and I was struggling. It was very strange to be so close to such a lot of money and not to have a great deal yourself. I'm over that now."

He was friends with the playwright Trevor Griffiths, author of the classic Comedians, who wrote Reds for Warren Beatty. Griffiths and Coyne collaborated on a BBC TV drama called Don't Make Waves, in 1979.

"We had to meet in the studio, at 9am," Griffiths says, "and devise a play that would be broadcast live, at 9pm that same day. We had no idea what we were going to do. The pressure was intense. The director insisted on typing everything out. He appeared in the early evening looking distracted, clutching the script. Kevin glanced at the first page and allowed a slightly perplexed look to cross his face. The he said: 'But what has happened to the four firemen?' Who, of course, were never there in the first place. That's when I knew that he was a genius. That's when I knew I wanted him on my side."

Coyne - who, according to one friend, could have become "either a saint or a serial killer" - was a profoundly unusual character in that he was a generous and philanthropic man who had what you might call an edge. He'd always liked a drink. When his father Arthur died, in 1979, he entered a period of chronic alcoholism that precipitated what he called his "breakdown".

"He had fits of uncontrollable rage," a friend recalls. "At one point he believed he was an avatar. He saw a doctor, but said he couldn't concentrate because her eyes were emitting green light."

In 1984, on the borderline of sanity, he separated from Lesley and went to live in Nuremberg with Stephanie, mother of his third and youngest son, Nico, now 18. It was a brief and troubled relationship. (omega)

Helmi, his widow, met him in 1985, and saved his life. "He was living in a squat," she says, "He was permanently drunk. He couldn't eat. I'd see him at Nuremberg railway station. He never asked for money, but I'd give him 20 marks - I knew he had nothing. Everyone believed he was going to die."

Under Helmi's guidance, Coyne gave up drinking, in 1987, by which time he had settled down with the Lutheran religious studies teacher, in her modest apartment in Nuremberg. He channelled his energy into projects, unhindered by the constraints of a major label. He wrote a musical based on the entertainer Frank Randle, and performed it in German railway stations. Coyne developed a flourishing partnership with Gary Lucas, former guitarist for Rufus Wainwright and Captain Beefheart. In 2002 he toured the UK with British songwriter Brendan Croker. The two collaborated on a song called: "We Don't Know Each Other At All".

"You think I'm sexy," Coyne sang, "I think you're chic; We don't know each other at all."

He produced three highly entertaining volumes of fiction - the most recent, That Old Suburban Angst, has just been published in the UK. Coyne began to tour the US again, and was glowingly reviewed in The New York Times and Rolling Stone.

Many of his most interesting later recordings feature his son Robert, a prodigious guitarist (currently working with the Pittsburgh-born songwriter Amy Rigby, who has been called "The Elvis Costello of Soccer Moms").

"A friend stopped me the other day," Coyne told me, in early 2002. "He said: 'What's wrong, Kevin? You look different. You look - how can I put it - happy.' I said: 'I am.' He said: 'You are? Oh, dear.'"

Coyne continued to devote a great deal of his time to helping addicts. "Looking back," he said, "I never stopped being a social worker."

His brother Arthur had died at 60 (their older sister Angela still lives in Derby). The fear of early death never left Kevin who, as a young man had terrible nightmares, related to his Catholic upbringing, in which he died, was judged and found wanting. Even after his recovery, he was writing songs like "I Hope The Devil Don't Come".

In December 2002 he was flying back to Germany after recording in Chicago, when he began coughing uncontrollably. A year later, diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis - an incurable condition of uncertain prognosis - he was on oxygen 12 hours a day and was soon so short of air that he required a wheelchair.

His spirit, vision and courage shine out of his last completed work, Underground. Its magnificent title track ranks with "Knocking on Heaven's Door", or "Dock of the Bay". Coyne describes being stranded in a public park in his wheelchair, too weak to move, "flowers growing over me", staring down at the earth which is going to swallow him up.

"I'm going to sing right in - back to the darkness; back to the underground, where I just hear the breathing of a million souls, of a trillion souls..."

"I don't think I have ever heard a recording that moved me so much," says Ralph Steadman, who made the cover for the CD. "I had it playing constantly while I was working on the picture. If I made a mistake, I didn't correct it, because I know that was the way he worked. I used 20-year-old, ink-stained paper from my drawing board in the picture - I wanted to leave a part of myself in there."

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Underground is that it is not a morbid album. The final track, "Baby Billy", an affirmation of the joy of new life, was written for his infant grandson; a dying man's eulogy to a new generation capable of optimism and hope. Coyne never liked comparisons involving his work. But Underground is the best song he ever wrote.

He travelled to the 100 Club by ferry and car. The band administered his oxygen and, at night, took turns to check his breathing. Coyne showed a brave face to the world. The last entry in his diary has a different focus.

"December 1. It is the long trip to Vienna, and another gig, tomorrow. The usual anxieties prevail. I do my best to ignore them, placing my faith in God and my outstanding band. We are in a rich period of creativity. I mean to make the most of it. The house is a morgue without Helmi. She should be walking through the door at any moment, lifting the spirit within me immediately with her captivating smile. She is the love of my life."

That night he kept working at a macabre picture which showed the prone body of a man with a second, sinister figure peering over him. Unusually for Coyne, he couldn't finish it.

At 5.30am on 2 December, his wife woke up.

"He was standing in the room," Helmi told me, "and he said, quite calmly: 'I think I am going to die now.' For a moment I thought it was one of his jokes. I put my arms around him. He seemed to fall asleep again. I was dozing. When I woke up he was smiling but his eyes were closed. I didn't need to call a doctor. I knew."

I was in Zimbabwe when Helmi called to say her husband had died. A couple of hours later, I was sitting in the Holiday Inn, Bulawayo, sharing a bottle of red wine with cricket writer Derek Pringle who, by coincidence, is also an admirer of Coyne's: something about these circumstances lent an air of unreality to the news.

Even watching his burial, a week later, on a bitter day in Nuremberg, it was hard for any of us to accept he'd gone. As ill as he'd been, his death still came as a sickening shock. Kevin Coyne had been so strong for so long that we'd come to believe that voice would never go away; we thought it would go on singing for ever. And in a way - through Underground - it does.

'Underground' costs £11 from www.kevincoyne.de

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