Sugar Candy Taxi
By Alec Hanley Bemis
"I don't think it's a put-down to say that a white kid can't sing black man's music," former Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman recently told the Oxford American. "I don't think it applies. You can usually see that, if you go to both shows, you prefer the black man's version....But if you really love the music, you can get pretty close and you can do it your way--you don't do it their way."
Unfortunately, for many British electric blues acts the "white" way was to take the blues's sound and forsake its soul. Like the artists immortalized on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, the original bluesmen were spokesmen for what Greil Marcus calls "old, weird, America," for a citizenry alienated in a strange, foreign land. On records by artists like Robert Johnson and Leadbelly, who had a direct connection to prerecorded blues, you could still hear it. But rather than try their hand at analogous portrayals of postwar working-class Brits, the Stones struck empty poses ("Midnight Rambler") and wrote lascivious songs about black girls ("Brown Sugar").
Rent Gimme Shelter sometime and watch Mick Jagger and Keith Richards's baffled faces as they watch the playback of footage from Altamont. Their reaction is partially horror, but more than that they seem simply unable to fathom the behavior of the wild kids in attendance or the Hell's Angels security force--having a helicopter at the ready whenever you need to exit a bad scene will put you out of touch with the little people real fast. Even when the Stones addressed the issue in song, it was from a distance: "And when I search a faceless crowd / A swirling mass of gray and / Black and white / They don't look real to me / In fact, they look so strange," Mick Jagger sang on Beggar's Banquet in 1968.
Kevin Coyne--who plays at Lounge Ax on Saturday--may be the only British musician who ever really had the blues. He emerged in the 60s as the front man for Siren, a Chicago-style blues group that recorded for Dandelion, the label run by BBC disc jockey John Peel. Siren was a mere twig on the family tree that produced the Stones and their ilk, but Coyne's plaintive nasal wail didn't go completely unappreciated: in 1971, mere days after Jim Morrison croaked in a Parisian bathtub, Coyne got a call from Elektra suggesting he might make a good front man for the Doors. He passed up this dubious opportunity and instead went on to cut his first solo album, Case History, for Dandelion.
A blueprint for the rest of his career, Case History was a series of portraits of liminal figures--the unloved, the wronged, the insane, the faces in the faceless crowd. Coyne was working from real-life experience: he'd witnessed an older brother's nervous breakdown, and it sent him on a lifelong quest to understand madness. "I can remember he started doing really strange things and saying odd things and I realized my inadequacy," he told me in a phone interview from his home in Nuremberg, Germany. "I wanted to know more. I wanted to know how to cope with these things." He worked summers in institutions, and after graduating from art school in 1965 he worked as a counselor, for three years in a mental hospital in Lancashire and then with drug addicts in London.
In some singers' hands, such intensely specific angst can come across as overwrought, self-indulgent, or even silly, but Coyne's obvious identification with the people in his songs, along with his peculiarly theatrical delivery, makes for some devastating performances. Yet only a handful of his 30-some albums are available, and ironically his biggest audience is in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland--what he affectionately calls "the Bavarian market"--where he's not sure fans completely understand either the lyrics or the music. "There's a lot of subtleties and nuances that they miss, you know," he said. "The boogie element...they do it, but sometimes they don't count bars the same way or something. I mean, they're really good at it; if you know bands like Can and this sort of thing, they do wonderful music, I think....But when it gets down to getting down, they somehow miss it."
A year after his solo debut, Dandelion folded and Coyne quickly signed with the recently launched Virgin label, which put him in the company of multi-instrumentalist Mike Oldfield and the experimental prog-rock group Gong. In 1973 he released his best-known and probably best-loved album, the double LP Marjory Razorblade. Over a musical backing of straight electric blues--as if Cream had never existed--Coyne grows downright anguished by the fate of his characters. At his best he stops talking about them and instead becomes them, channeling their voices. In "Good Boy" he's an authority figure talking down to a young child, repeating the same words over and over but in a coo one time and a snarl the next. In "House on the Hill," he details the sad minutiae of life in an institution like an insider: "The place where they give you pills / The rooms are always chilled / They're never cozy / Where they give you three suits a year / And at Christmas time a bottle of beer."
After Marjory Razorblade, Coyne went on to cut ten more albums for Virgin, first with larger bands (several of which included a pre-Police Andy Summers) and then with a series of stripped-down combos. His recordings grew progressively eccentric, less musical and more theatrical. "Fat Girl," from Coyne's 1976 live set In Living Black and White, breaks down into a dialogue between a pair of lovers, the man a venomous tormentor, the woman a weepy victim; "Mona, Where's My Trousers," also from 1976, features an abusive father, a tormented daughter, and a detached narrator. Although most of the songs seem very well structured, many of Coyne's performances were entirely improvised in the studio: "Mona" is played out over nothing but mumbling electric piano.
Eventually Coyne did acknowledge the rock life in his work, but not the way Jagger and Richards did: his 1978 record Millionaires & Teddy Bears included the song "Having a Party," which ridiculed the stars; appropriately the Mekons covered it on their F.U.N. '90 EP. He's also satirized the music industry in a collection of fiction, Show Business, published by Serpent's Tail in 1993. Celebrity remained so unimportant to him that until now he's never even properly courted the States. "Certainly during the Virgin period I was offered things," he said. "I remember [Virgin owner] Richard Branson of all people ringing me one Christmas and saying how about doing a tour with Frank Zappa. I really didn't want to come to be honest. I was very much a family man in those days." Coyne is now in the midst of a five-week U.S. tour, his first performances here aside from some early-80s dates in New York and a few shows piggybacked on a Canadian tour.
In 1981 Coyne parted ways with Virgin, and for the past two decades he's struggled to get his records heard. He recorded a couple albums for Cherry Red, but alcoholism and divorce led to a nervous breakdown of his own in the early 80s. In '85 he followed the woman who would become his second wife to Germany, and seemingly resigned himself to being big in Bavaria.
Although he's been quite prolific since, his last half-dozen records, released on the German label Rockport, are only spottily available in the English-speaking world. His back catalog's in sad shape too: In England only a few of his Virgin releases remain in print, along with Sign of the Times, a 1994 best-of collection culled from his years on the label. And in the States, where even the records that made it over the first time around were inexplicably truncated, it's hard to find anything but his 1990 Peel Sessions and the See for Miles label's 1995 reissue of Case History.
Coyne has made his living by expanding the scope of his creative pursuits. In addition to writing fiction and following a reduced gigging schedule, he's a bona fide "outsider artist" whose drawings and paintings have been exhibited across Europe. Recently he signed with the German blues label Ruf, which has released his latest collection, Sugar Candy Taxi, in the U.S. as well as at home. Coyne's band on the new record includes his son Eugene, who sings backup on one song and plays keyboards on another, and his son Robert, who plays keyboards, drums, or guitar on almost everything. Snippets of guitar fuzz, twitters of flute, and extended synth passages cut through the blues groove, and some of the tunes have rough edges not unlike the ones that scrape your spinal cord in Tom Waits's or Captain Beefheart's music.
Some of the songs tell the sort of stories he spun on earlier records. "My Wife's Best Friend" is sung by a man who covets a neighbor who dances naked in the garden; "I'm Into Your Game" addresses the slightly passe topic of phone sex without turning into a Weird Al-style embarrassment; and "Porcupine People" is a classic Coyne ditty about paranoia: "If I had a Porcupine knife I'd cut off their Porcupine quills / And treat them badly like they treat me," Coyne sings in a strangled voice. "I'd take them out to Porcupine tea / And I'd poison every cup." But there's also the sweet "Highway of Dreams" ("When you get old / I don't want you to be sad / I don't want you to be blue / I don't want you to think there's no one for you") and "Happy Little Fat Man," which earnestly concludes, "I love the human race."
"I think on the older things I was much more...very close to the Communist Party really," he told me. "The songs were social awareness things, songs about people in mental hospitals, old people, the inadequacy of society in terms of looking after the deprived. And I was really concerned about all of that. As I've become older, for want of a better word, I've become a bit more petit bourgeois. I can't claim to be that close to the streets anymore. I think maybe it's reflected in the records too. But I don't mind. I think I'm old enough to have some overview and to see it's a normal progression in life."