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Evolving Doors

Kevin Coyne might have been the next Jim Morrison. Instead, he forged a route of his own.

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Fit for a Lizard King: Kevin Coyne.
  • Fit for a Lizard King: Kevin Coyne.

In 1971, Kevin Coyne was the lead singer for an English blues/folk outfit called Siren. The band had released a couple of marginally well-received albums on DJ John Peel's Dandelion Records and had been picked up for distribution in the States by Elektra. That same year, singer/poet/shaman Jim Morrison, the incendiary frontman of the Doors, died in a Paris bathtub, his legendary excesses leading to a fatal heart attack at the age of 27. Within days of Morrison's death, the surviving Doors made inquiries as to the possibilities of replacing Morrison. It had been only three months since the release of L.A. Woman, and the album's enormous success almost demanded a tour to support it.

Coyne was one of three singers considered as a possible replacement for Morrison. (The others were the Stooges' Iggy Pop, a known rock commodity and an outrageous frontman in his own right, and Howard Werth, who bore a physical resemblance to Morrison and was fronting a band called Audience at the time.) Coyne was perhaps the unlikeliest of the candidates, and he had no interest in the job.

"My manager in London was head of the European Elektra operations, and he put my name forward," says Coyne via phone from a tour stop in West Virginia. "With the result that one morning, I was asked to come into the office and talk about this idea. I didn't show any enthusiasm, so it was forgotten. I didn't like the Doors, to be honest. I like them today, but at that particular time, I wasn't impressed. The thought of those leather trousers put me off as much as anything."

By the time he was approached by the Doors, Coyne had already lived a varied life. Born to a gifted musical family, he attended art school in the early '60s, which led him oddly enough to a career in social therapy at a mental hospital. In 1968, he joined Siren and began to pursue his musical career more seriously, having sporadically moonlighted as a singer-songwriter in local bands throughout the '50s and '60s. By 1972, Coyne split from Siren and left the mental health profession for a solo music career. His first album, Case History, featured songs that were inspired by Coyne's experiences with the mentally ill.

A series of critically acclaimed but confoundingly different albums in the '70s for Virgin Records (Marjory Razor Blade, Matching Head, and Feet, Blame It on the Night) represented Coyne's propensity for stylistic variations and made him difficult to promote. He began dabbling in musical theater and wrote a number of productions, including Babble, a controversial musical about the Moors murders of the '60s that he recorded with German vocalist Dagmar Krause. By 1981, Coyne's years in the music business had begun to take a toll on him. His drinking was spiraling out of control, and his work schedule had become grueling. The combination of alcoholism and exhaustion led to a nervous breakdown.

"I didn't go into the hospital or anything," Coyne says. "I had a caring wife and family who supported me through the nightmare. I carried on working. I made an album in pretty poor condition -- at least I was -- called Sanity Stomp, around that time. I plodded my way through it, and everybody nodding and smiling, and me thinking everything was normal. But when you're mad, you don't know. It just faded. It was a dark time for everybody. And I couldn't draw on my early experiences, ironically. I had these intellectual insights into schizophrenia, but when I actually had a breakdown myself, I was totally unprepared for the horror."

In 1985, Coyne relocated from London to Germany, a move that was fine for him as a creative artist, but not particularly good for his public persona. Although he made a number of well-received albums during the late '80s and early '90s, few were released outside of Germany, and none were available in America, further reducing his recognition.

"My name almost left the map for a while," says Coyne. "Germany is hardly the center of the rock and roll world. I was working and recording albums, one a year, and touring all around Europe as ever, just not as much in Britain."

The last six years, however, have been a fruitful period for Coyne. In 1995, he wrote and recorded The Adventures of Crazy Frank, an album that mutated into an improvised stage show about the life of English comedian Frank Randle. In 1997, Coyne recorded the stellar double album Knocking on Your Brain, featuring guests Jeff Buckley, Joan Osborne, and former Captain Beefheart guitarist Gary Lucas. Coyne's 1999 album Sugar Candy Taxi marked his debut with Ruf Records and the first time in years one of his albums was available in the U.S. His latest album, the raucous Room Full of Fools, is his second full collaboration with his son Robert and an incredible return to the form he exhibited on his work in the '70s. He is understandably proud of the album and heartened by the attention it is receiving.

"You think nobody knows [about Room], but they do," he says. "That's the beauty of the Internet. My website [kevincoyne.de] gets sufficient interest to make me feel that there are people around the world who know what I do."

Undoubtedly, many more would know his work had he chosen to go with the Doors all those years ago, but Coyne shrugs off the what-ifs.

"I'm not a guy for thrusting myself forward into high-profile situations," he says. At this point in his career, he is content to continue doing exactly as he's always done, no matter how marginal it might be. He's an accomplished artist, with frequent gallery shows around Europe; he's written five books of short stories and plays; and he contributes drawings and reviews records by way of a cartoon strip for a German newspaper. And he writes and records in whatever style suits his current fancy.

"I didn't find a product and continue to market it. I'm always changing," he says. "This makes it difficult to categorize. In the Virgin years, my records sold pretty good, and the company, as ever, wanted the same thing again. But I didn't do that. I did what I wanted to do. That may have stymied things a little for me. But even so, I'm not at all discontent about that. Having people applaud on every street corner is not really my idea of heaven."

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