Kevin Coyne

Idiosyncratic singer-songwriter

Saturday 04 December 2004 01:00

Best known to mainstream rock fans as the man who turned down the job of replacing the late Jim Morrison as frontman of the Doors because he didn't fancy wearing the leather trousers, Kevin Coyne was a formidable talent in his own right.

Kevin Coyne, singer, songwriter, guitarist, painter, poet and writer: born Derby 27 January 1944; twice married (two sons); died Nuremberg, Germany 2 December 2004.

Best known to mainstream rock fans as the man who turned down the job of replacing the late Jim Morrison as frontman of the Doors because he didn't fancy wearing the leather trousers, Kevin Coyne was a formidable talent in his own right.

A prolific singer-songwriter, he recorded more than 35 albums and was also a painter, poet, dramatist and novelist. Coyne's work as a psychiatric nurse, as a therapist and as a social worker informed his stream-of-consciousness "songs of hate and pain" and set them apart from the mundanities and clichés rock music often falls into. His haunting singing style (somewhere between Roger Chapman of Family and Joe Cocker), his blues-infused open-tuned guitar playing and his intense live performances earned him a dedicated following in France, Belgium and Germany, where he settled in the mid-Eighties. "It's practically a badge of honour with me never to play a song the same way twice," he said in 2002.

Coyne was born in Derby in 1944. When he discovered Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock" in a pile of 78s, his outlook on life changed. For him, early rock'n'roll created "a whole new dimension of expression and feeling that had always been there but had been smothered". In the Sixties, he attended the local art college and played in a succession of groups around Derby before moving to Lancashire to work as a therapist in a mental hospital, teaching art and music to the patients. "What I learnt about making art is that when people are in the turmoil of breakdown, they become more direct," he said.

Their masks fall away, they paint from heart to hand. I incorporated those concepts into my music. The first thing that comes into your head is often your best shot.

After moving to London in 1968, Coyne worked as a drug counsellor and a social worker but still found time to play music with the guitarist Dave Clague. Calling themselves Coyne-Clague, the duo sent a tape to the BBC DJ John Peel but, in typical Sixties fashion, forgot to include a return address. Peel was so impressed by the demo that he took to pasting "wanted" notices on lamp-posts around London.

When the duo eventually contacted him, Peel signed Coyne-Clague to his Dandelion record label. They recorded two singles for Dandelion and evolved into the five-piece group Siren, issuing two critically acclaimed but poor-selling albums - Siren in 1969 and Strange Locomotion in 1971 - on the label.

Following the death of Jim Morrison in Paris in July 1971, the three surviving members of the Doors and the Elektra Records president Jac Holzman cast their net far and wide, considering obvious replacements like the Stooges frontman Iggy Pop, but also looking to the UK and canvassing Kevin Coyne, who turned the offer down.

Instead, he went solo, releasing his début, Case History, on Dandelion in 1972 before becoming the second artist signed to Richard Branson's Virgin Records in 1973. Released a few weeks after Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells, Coyne's first album for Virgin, the double set Marjory Razorblade, again drew excellent notices but was rather overshadowed by Oldfield's groundbreaking effort. "I was disappointed by the reception Marjory Razorblade got. I felt I was tapping into something exceptional," Coyne said.

I'd managed to transfer Englishness into blues form, those crackly old records coming

through the ether that touched something inside me . . . But it didn't reach people properly, it was misunderstood.

In later years, Coyne complained that he "never received any royalty statements" from Virgin Records, but Branson's label released a further seven of his albums and gave him enough financial backing to tour the UK and the rest of Europe repeatedly throughout the Seventies.

The advent of punk put Coyne's fractured music in a different context and, after collaborating with Dagmar Krause on Babble, in 1980 he recorded Sanity Stomp with the Ruts before signing to the independent label Cherry Red. However, Coyne's lifestyle and radical approach to songwriting was taking its toll on him. He had been battling with alcoholism and depression himself for years. "I didn't know I was mad," he said later.

I literally woke up one morning, and realised I had been in a dark tunnel for months. Once you start to really believe in the entirety of the creative fancies with which you work, they become dangerous. You're tapping into all kinds of psychic possibilities, all kinds of strangeness when you write.

In 1985, he left England for a short tour of Germany and simply stayed there. "I remember the first two years there, I was in post-breakdown shock. I was thinking in a spaced-out way," he recalled. "And I'd lost touch with the things I love: music, football. I didn't play records for years." But with the help of his second wife, Helma, Coyne came out of his shell. He began recording again. "I wanted to make consciously happy music, in reaction to the darkness I'd been through," he said.

The new millennium saw Kevin Coyne working with his son Robert on the albums Room Full of Fools (2000) and Carnival (2002) and seemingly making peace with his troubled past. He became a prolific painter, exhibiting all over Germany, published two collections of short stories, The Party Dress (1990) and Show Business (1993), and wrote an opera about Syd Barrett, as well as collaborating with the British singer and guitarist Brendan Croker on the bluesy album Life is Almost Wonderful in 2002.

In Britain, Coyne remained something of an acquired taste. Andy Kershaw once referred to him as "a punk before the movement existed; our great unsung national treasure."

Pierre Perrone

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