Happy Little Fat Man

Steve Koenig

[November 1999. Originally appeared in La Folia 2:2.]

For the first time in nearly twenty years, Kevin Coyne has toured the United States, making a New York stop at The Bottom Line, promoting his new album on Ruf Records, Sugar Candy Taxi. Coyne is sui generis; you immediately recognize his work. Although you can detect similarities with such disparate tale-spinners as Tom Waits or the Danny O’Keefe of Breezy Stories in their quirky, almost cinema-worthy verités, Coyne’s been at it solo since 1970, being one of the very first artists signed to the then-virginal Virgin Records. His voice is strange, as is his aspect, and I felt in love with his work on first hearing. I had read so many reviews of Marjory Razorblade, Coyne’s touchstone disc, that I knew I had to find it. I knew we were destined to be an item, but it was nigh on impossible to find it. One day a radio promo copy found its way into my hands in a used bin, and that began a long-time search for all the rest of his discs, difficult to find, even though in America they were distributed by Atlantic. I found one pressed in Greece, with a green Virgin label, and then other British or German pressings of Coyne’s discs. Years later I stumbled upon the original U.K. double-disc of Marjory Razorblade, not even knowing until then that the American version had been condensed. The American Virgin/Atlantic (long before the airlines) LP is sequenced well, but imagine finding out Sgt. Pepper had really been twice the length in England. As I checked through my personal Coyne discography, I was amused to find him filed between the black-discs of Noël Coward and Sugarboy Crawford. If you are not familiar with his work, perhaps the following conversation will illuminate that connection. Having heard rumors of an impending visit, I called Coyne’s U.S. promoter, begging for a chance to meet Coyne, um, I mean, conduct an interview. The next day I received a call from his wife, Helmi, and my wish was granted. Camped outside the Bottom Line since 2 p.m. was a fan from another state, just waiting to hear his favorite performer at the eight o’clock show. So was I, and a twenty-year long-distance relationship via polyvinyl chloride was about to be consummated in person. On stage, Coyne’s patter is self-deprecating and funny. “I’d like to jump and prance ariound the stage, but I’m getting old…and obese…and I don’t care,” he says, second before he launches into a high energy rocker. “I could be a major arena rocker and a café folkie.”

After his talk of the influence of rockabilly and the early rockers being an influence, these things are even more apparent this performance. He hiccups the last syllable of “help me find the rivER.”Sugar Candy Taxi (Ruf1032) continues the Coyne discographic legacy in perfect continuity, from the title character who wants some to “help me be a normal man/ What the hell is a normal man?” to the “Happy Little Fat Man” who keeps repeating without irony, “I love the human race,” so different from Randy Newman’s deliberately disturbing “Davey the Fat Boy.” During the first set, he dedicated “Happy Little Fat Man” to himself. Even the simplest Coyne characters have complexity, if only because of his vocal inflections. He says of the song “Sugar Candy Taxi” that he thinks “this could be a big hit in Bolivia.” The audience cracks up. “I’m not used to laughs; I’m used to playing for a German audience.” In his standard “Having A Party,” he uses clipped, idiomatic blues phrasing. I had never realized until now how blues-influenced his music has always been. “Normally I have a bunch of roadies who come and carry me off stage like James Brown, but I can’t afford it. This is a cheapo production,” he giggles. For an encore, he plays B.B. King’s “Rock Me, Baby,” bubbling, rolling. “Nice and slow,” he instructs the band. “Turpentine” has chords like an early Talking Heads song, and his vocal chirps recall David Byrne, for the first time, in my mind, tying Byrne to the rockabilly tradition. Like Byrne, he says, “Maybe I’m strange. Oddly passionate. What’s so odd about being passionate?” Pause. “What a lotta nonsense. I’m just me, your little Kevvy Wevvy.”To my readers: Read into everything with a dry, understated irony. Coyne is defenseless; that is to say, he is totally open.

The first time I heard of you was when Elektra/Dandelion had an ad in Rolling Stone or Fusion Magazine saying it was their worst-selling record of all time, but they believed in it, and offered each Siren LP for 69 cents. So I did, and I didn’t like them, although the labels were gorgeous, but I didn’t like most blues stuff then.

How old were you then?

I’m forty-one now.

A mere child. You wouldn’t understand it… Me? I’m fifty-five.

I didn’t know of John Peel then; most people in America didn’t know of John Peel [BBC Radio announcer, programmer and record producer], but I knew a little bit just because I read NME (New Musical Express) because I was a Bowie and Kinks freak, and that’s when they manufactured all those disputes between Marc Bolan and Ray Davies and Bowie. What was it like working with John Peel?

What do you mean “working” with him? He was a disc jockey. He never produces anything, and though he has “producer” written on his radio shows, he’s never actually there. The record label, yes, the usual record industry hype I guess, yeah? No money. The records still sell today, but no money.

Do you get anything from the Virgin reissues?

No. Something, bits and pieces. The record industry is full of arseholes, um, yeah you put that down, uh, maybe one or two exceptions, maybe Tomas Ruf, my new record company; he’s a nice guy. He puts his money where his mouth is. But most of them would be better off selling carpets or whipped cream, including Jac Holzman, Elektra Records, that’s another one. Only interested in money, basically.

The first time I had heard of you I read the reviews of Marjory Razor Blade, but I couldn’t find it anywhere, and then I found a promo copy and so I picked it up, and from the first second, I was hooked.Good.I forgot to copy the promo sticker telling the radio station which tracks to play. It was only years later, I found out it was condensed from the two-LP.

Ruined, in fact. Cut in half for no particular reason other than some curious American idea of what sells and what doesn’t. I had no input into how they edited it; I was very irritated by it. They did the same with an album called Living Black and White; which was a double album, and a strong live album, from the seventies. In America they reduced it to a single album.

I’m a teacher, I have and work with disabilities, so I had an affinity for many of your themes, but musically as well, before I went into these fields, there was an attraction. As a gay kid, hearing the lyric “I think I’ll turn bent” in “House On The Hill” and about “my homosexual brother,” in “Nasty,” [both songs from Marjory Razor Blade] I wondered if you in fact had a homosexual brother.

No, I don’t have a homosexual brother. Some people thought he might be, but he was very adamant that he wasn’t; he wasn’t. He didn’t get married, he thought that was a dreadful imposition for him; he was a bit old-fashioned. But things have changed, and thank goodness for that, I would say. I don’t know why I put that in, it was just part of the story. It’s a fiction.

It’s almost off-hand. I know not to confuse the writer with the character…

But people do, in fact. You get this with fans; they think, “Oh, this is about him.” It’s funny, I was recording in Rockaway here, for the last two days, and there’s this guy in the studio, and I sang a song about a boy, called “Einstein.” I was sitting with my guitar, improvising, as I pretty well always do, and apparently, asked my son, who was on the session, is that song about me. And it was about him, partly, because there was something about him that made me lyricize the situation, but he was pretty sharp, really. He guessed right.

I had just read that you had worked with Carla Bley and Michael Mantler on their record Silence, [based on Harold Pinter texts] and that you weren’t pleased with it. I was always a big Mantler fan. Do you remember anything about those sessions?

Yeah. I remember that Carla Bley produced it, and it was in a mobile studio somewhere in the middle of nowhere in England. She was rather pleasant; smoked a pipe if I remember, rather extraordinary. I would say full of herself, but she’s a very talented woman, as we know. Personally I thought the singing was awful, but the piece, I like Harold Pinter very much, and I thought the piece was deserving of some good music, but they didn’t quite get the idea right. I think they missed the point, somehow. They missed the humor it it. They took it too seriously, far too ponderous. It’s like when people do Beckett. There are two sides to these people (the writers). One can squeeze out the life, the humor, and make it dull, and that’s what they did. Mantler, he’s an Austrian, and they’re not noted for their sense of humor. They are noted for their sense of humor, they’re actually very witty, very German, laconic.

Were you given any particular instruction for the Mantler?

No, just do the best you can. There were notes for the music, but not for the singing.

Your songs are little, condensed short stories. You have short story books as well.

Most of the time, yeah. They’re put out by Serpent’s Tail.

It’s a good company. People will buy them just for the name. Did you look for them, or…

They’re all right, yeah. They’ve done two of my books. It’s a class act. Big time intellectuals. People sometimes collect the whole set. They looked for me, and I agreed, as it were, but there are three books which are translated in Germany but not out in England, so there are two books in English and three in German. There’s a new one coming out at the end of the year, which is basically about Elvis Presley and some other stories mostly rooted around the music business. One of the books which came out on Serpent’s Tail is called Show Business. Yeah, it did get good reviews, but it didn’t sell enough, I don’t think, the same old story, but you never know. It’s still around.

Are you very fond of Elvis Presley, because I never liked him. I keep trying, but not even the Sun recordings…

I didn’t like him in the beginning, but no, I’m a big fan. I’ve studied his life and work and don’t dismiss him as an overrated, overweight, whatever. Well maybe you have to keep trying. To me, he invented rock and roll and that’s it. I don’t care whether they say he was influenced by Joe Williams and Blind Willie Whatever; basically he did it himself. Country boy, and he did it himself, and he invented a style of singing which we’re all indebted to. Whether we like it or not, we’re all singing this curious thing called rock’n’roll-style singing. He started that, really. It’s not really blues singing; it’s something else, really, isn’t it.

Who were some of the people who moved you early on when you were a kid?

Well I liked all the rock’n’rollers: Chuck Berry and Little Richard, all those people. I like vocal groups very much as well, the Drifters, and many of the more obscure ones which American record shops are full of, golden oldies. People like the Jive 5, and the Capris, I like doo-wop music, but I like what generated rock’n’roll music: Jerry Lee Lewis, people like that. When I was younger I think I had maybe one, two, British records; the rest were all American. Which is typical for people my age until the Beatles, the blues boom started, and then people started buying British, but I didn’t even then.

When I was a kid in summer camp, seven and eight years old, all the counselors were playing only British songs, “Tired of Waiting for You,” “Henry the VIII I Am,” that’s what they taught us to sing.

“Henry the VIII” is old music. [Herman’s Hermit’s had a big hit with it in the 1960s, but it was a famous British music hall song.] For a few years the American charts were simply flooded with English records, weren’t they; they outnumbered the Americans.

[Stanley Holloway did Henry the VIII on a ten-inch LP a ton of years ago, along with a number of less well known, frequently hilarious English music-hall songs. I imagine that would be a very difficult disc to come up with now, but certainly worth the search. Ed.]I wanted to ask you about your about your art work, because it definitely has a “folk-art” style.

I would describe my work as modern art; folk art is something else. It’s kind of simple stuff, folk art in the main, Grandma Moses and all that. I’m not actually a naïve [-style] painter. I was trained in art school, eight years at various art institutions.

Tell me more about that…

I was just telling you.… [We laugh.] For people who don’t know too much about it, they think it’s kind of naïve art, but it’s not that at all.

I see a lot of modernism in it. I’ve not very up on art...

Well this is why you said what you said of course, and you very honest enough to admit it, because many people commentate on art and literature, well literature is something you do know, but they don’t know about art and they say, “Oh, that’s naïve, it’s like a child,” but children don’t draw like that. I don’t feel I have to defend it, because I sell a fair amount of pictures and people like it.

I wasn’t insulting it. Some of it reminded me of this American artist, a Southern guy, Rev. Howard Fenster. Some of the visuals reminded me of…

Well I don’t know this guy, but..

But when I see your work, I can immediately identify it as a Kevin Coyne painting, although I can see influences, as you can with anyone.

Well people do say that, and they seek them out. It’s the same with the music, really.

I was looking through some of the people working with you on various records.

Gary Lucas, yes, very nice. I liked him very much and, wonderful guitar-player. We had no problems at all, but it’s difficult to get together on a more regular basis. All kinds of things get in the way, but he’s certainly somebody I enjoyed working with. The Ruts, well they were a terrific band, equally adept at punk and very good reggae players too. They really could do that stuff. When I was working with them they had just lost their singer, Malcolm Owens, and it was the record company’s idea to push us together, but it worked very well, actually. I liked it.

Other than the early Dandelion records with Siren, do you see your work as being in stages or periods?

I do very much. Most people know the Virgin [Records] period, people who are into music, they all know Kevin Coyne and the Virgin albums, Marjory Razor Blade, Millionaires and Teddybears, all these are sort of “classic” in their way, but they don’t know too much about the German discs. I’ve consistently made albums there, but normally because of the lack of distribution, the last company I was with had no really international reach. The German market is very big. You don’t really need to be anywhere else; you can sell enough record there that you can say I don’t need America really, if you want to, and they do. You’ve got Austria, as well as Switzerland in the German-speaking areas, and so it was a lack of international focus for many years which made the records seem like rarities to people, which is sad, really, because the German record shops are big ones; they’re all in there.When I was in Germany for the first time, in Hannover, I stopped in the Hänssler shop [the major German chain and label], and said, “Oh my God! A Kevin Coyne record! And one that I don’t have! How the hell did I find this here!” Then I looked closer and said, “It’s on a German label. Made in Hannover.” On white vinyl.

I like that one. Stumbling On To Paradise.

They guy that does much of the German catalog, and other things too, is very particular. He doesn’t like to make a large living, but a steady, good living. He doesn’t like to sell out to large record companies or lease things. Ruf [Coyne’s new label] is a German label, but has international distribution deals pretty well everywhere.

When I listen to the German period, it’s a bit more rock-y in sound. Maybe not more rocky, but more of the sound of electric guitars.

Well they play differently there. They play with their fingers and certain Germanic sensibilities rather than their heart and their soul and British beat. It’s a different technique; a different way of working. Rock as such, as we understand it in America and England, really doesn’t exist in Germany. It exists, but it’s German rock. They play ostensibly the same chords and stuff, but it doesn’t feel the same, and they’re not really what I’d describe as a rock’n’roll nation. It’s a kanon, a Kraftswerk nation, a techno nation. That’s what they do; they do this very well, but…

Preparing for the interview, I’ve been playing through all the records, and thematically, there’s a really strong continuity that’s…

It’s all about the ups and downs of being human, really, isn’t it. There’s lots of stories of romance, failed and successful, and tragedy, some comedy, all the things that interest me.

I wrote in my notes that in some sense they’re all love songs, whether about connection…and I wondered what you thought about the connection between love relationships and stability. A lot of the characters have problems with stability, as we all do.

A lot of the characters rather don’t accept that stability exists, but make the most of it and show a positive side in the end. I think my record are actually positive if you view them with an open mind and see life as a bit of a gamble, but if you’re going looking for solid truths and great wisdom, it’s not there. I’m not a great believer in that, anyway.

That goes back to what you were saying about Beckett, where most people see him as depressing and life-negating, but I see him as absolutely the opposite. He’s the most uplifting writer I know. It’s the phoenix; you can rise from anything.

Absolutely. I mean, he’s difficult to read, and a lot of his stuff is concerned with literary style, a magnificent literary style, and as a writer of prose, he’s almost unequaled, really. I think [James] Joyce. And he’s a very great poet, an astounding poet, but all of that you have to take into consideration before you get to the humor, often, and I think people are put off by that. He doesn’t read easily enough, and so they often miss the point. They mix up difficult with depression; I think that’s the problem. Mind you, I have a problem too. [We laugh.] It takes a while to get into that stuff. And I think sometimes I feel the same way about my music; it takes some time to get into it. If you don’t sit down and listen to it properly, you’re gonna say, “Oh that’s depressing, or that’s boring, or that’s difficult.” It just requires an effort on the part of the listener. Not that I’m Samuel Beckett, but you know…the approach should be there. Patience, tolerance, sitting down, listening.

A lot of your songs do have those themes, too. Some of them are more or less direct or indirect pleas for that. The song “Listen to the Children…

Yes, I know that one. That’s on Sanity Stomp, isn’t it. But that’s the whole point. I was quite ill when I made that record, as a matter of fact; I was quite mad, basically. That’s why it’s called Sanity Stomp. I had a nervous breakdown and, ironically, I don’t want to say ironically…amazingly…I was able to carry on making records. That’s a record I made when I was was clinically ninety-five per cent nuts, and the themes are rather odd, but somehow it comes out as sounding all right. I’m amazed.

But these are the things that keep you going.

But I don’t recommend this to anybody. It’s a fucking awful state. You don’t know you’re mad, and it’s extremely painful. You don’t know you’re mad; that’s the scary thing for me. You don’t know.

Even the songs that are pleas for understanding are not cloying; they’re direct. [I refer to my otherwise favorite lyricist, Joni Mitchell, and one of her cloying songs about feeding the poor starving children in Ethiopia.]

You can’t really politicize emotion, that’s the point. I choose emotion over dogma and regular thinking. That’s why my lyrics are spontaneous; I hardly ever write things down.

Was it always like that, even in the beginning?

Pretty well, right from the start.

If I had to use one word to describe your themes, I would say empathy. In the Dandelion reissue box, there’s a poem “Zebra” that pretty much says it all right there. There are contradictions, but they work. I see “stabbing’ and “paradise” a lot.

When you’ve got people in paradise, you’ve got to expect them to continue to be people. They certainly don’t grow wings, that is, if there is a paradise. You know, everything will be on offer [discount], but we’ll continue to be act as people.

The story about you being asked to fill in after Jim Morrison’s death, was that because of Jac Holzman?

In sense, initially, yes. He was a fan of Siren, but he became disillusioned when he came to England and there was a gig organized and we were all drunk. I don’t think Jac appreciated that, and after that, when the Jim Morrison idea came up, maybe he put the markers on it and stopped it at the last minute or something, because I was I was certainly asked, but I didn’t show too much enthusiasm anyway, so I guess the thing fizzled out rather rapidly.

I had read in interviews where you had said you didn’t want to wear the leather pants, and I didn’t know if that was just a flip answer, or part of the reality of not wanting to be in that kind of…

Yes, absolutely, and I didn’t much like the Doors at the time. In retrospect, they were good, I think, but I didn’t like them at the time .

[The Doors are more popular now than ever with the young kids. In México, there are Doors books, tee shirts, bootlegs on every corner. SK]

He’s a good-looking guy, there’s all that, isn’t there. A real teen idol. He wasn’t much a singer, that’s for sure, but he had his own way.

I wanted to ask about Burning Head.

That’s an album with a drawing. Each album has an individual drawing done by me. It’s an edition of 1000, with a CD, and rather expensive, but the price has gone down now. Which was an idea from the last company, Rockport Records. Yes, the print is the size of the CD; it’s a handmade cover. No, the music are not available elsewhere, theoretically, but it slips out on one or two albums. Two of the songs have appeared on other albums, but different mixes.

Listening to last few records, especially The Adventures of Crazy Frank and Knocking on Your Brain, again you have some pieces with overdubbed talking in the background, to me a sort of sound poetry.

I like to do that. It’s just somebody chattering away, in a small, misty idea. It’s just another dimension, really. You don’t have to follow the story of what the guy’s saying, but one is tempted to listen to what he’s saying, opposed to the music. I rather like that, the choice. On the lyric sheets I never wrote down what the guy was saying, so you have to listen. I do like voices in the background. The new album Sugar Candy Taxi has got quite a lot of a capella things with me doing voices in the background, voices, but I do like that. The talking side of things is a kind of distraction, but it depends on how you look at it. I want to do more of that.

Have you worked with electronics?

I’m doing some things in Germany, with extremes of avant-garde people, which is all spontaneous. Actually there is a CD, not available yet, but I do like working with the avant-garde because I always find they want to be rock’n’rollers, really. [We laugh.] Yeah, it’s very strange. These are guys who are not particularly well-known. Achim Goettert [Kevin’s wife Hemli assists me with the spelling] and several other German guys whose names I can’t remember, but he’s the leader of the whole thing. We’re doing a thing in the Leipzig Opera House next month [October 1999]; quite a grand thing. Operatic, but it’s improvised. It’s about Syd Barrett [of early Pink Floyd, a schizophrenic, and ultimately a suicide]. It’s called “Opera For Syd,” because I love his mad ramblings. Very sad man, but also very gifted at certain points. Not all of it works, but this is essentially based on his life. Goettert is a very interesting saxophonist and writer. I’ve done things with him before, and this works very well. I have lots of new material to come out. A lot of it’s basic rock’n’roll, really. My son working with me now; he’s the bandleader; Robert Coyne [sitting with us] is my son. Eugene Coyne is my other son. He’s a singer, really.

And you pronounce it “Cohen”?

“Coy’n.” Lots of people think it’s Cohen but it’s not. It might have been Cohen once upon a time, but I have no idea. I’ve often wondered about that too, because the family comes from the East End of London which is…

And it’s time for Mr Coyne to hit the stage, and rock out to an audience which adulates him, but also makes him work for them, which he gladly does, sweating profusely as the crowd calls out demands for old favorites, which he offers most sparingly. The new material is not necessarily so new; there are over twenty years of material to choose from. Although both set-lists overlap much, they band plays with all they have and everyone are satisfied. Except that we want more. Expect a follow-up with information about new discs, reissues, and more about Coyne’s writing and artworks. Even as we go to”press,” I received an update from Helmi Coyne:

Kevin had a couple of busy weeks: flying in and out of Amsterdam to do some big festivals. In betweeen, he was on stage with an excellent group of jazz musicians and an American guy David Moss to perform an improvised piece about Syd Barrett (Pink Floyd).

I thank my colleagues at Perfect Sound Forever magazine for their previous writings on Coyne and Websites and links; check them out on the handy-dandy previous-article PFS search machine at www.furious.com/perfect/. Thanks also to Glenn Leslie management.