Songs from the blood
Wealthy, successful and happily married, Phil Coulter seems blessed among men. And yet he has had more than his share of tragedy: the drowning of his b
Wealthy, successful and happily married, Phil Coulter seems blessed among men. And yet he has had more than his share of tragedy: the drowning of his brother, the murder of his sister and the death of his four-year-old son. This extraordinary tapestry has produced an exceptional oeuvre of music. Joe Jackson delves into Coulter's psyche
PHIL Coulter is not prone to public displays of emotion. Nor does he normally discuss his emotions. Publicly. Particularly those that stem from the dark side of his psyche. Indeed, at one point during this interview, while discussing the murder of his sister, Cyd, Coulter exclaimed, "I can't go there. I want to, but it's like a wound that's still weeping and if I touch it, it'll burst wide open."
He then fumbled in silence before finally reaching for a glass of wine and sipping just enough to fight the rising tide of raw emotion. Likewise, Phil will draw back from a similar psychic space during his forthcoming concerts at the Gaiety if the face of his late father floats too close as he sings The Old Man. That's just how Phil Coulter is. Why, we'll get to later.
But to start, Phil clearly has no problem discussing feelings of sheer delight fired by the fact that his latest album Highland Cathedral "beat about 2,000 other New Age releases" into the top five nominees for a Grammy Award. He's just flown back from the ceremony in LA and though not actually wearing his Gold Grammy Nominee medallion, he has placed it on a table near the fireplace of his home in Bray. Presumably he doesn't plan to burn it later as a protest against Eminem's controversial Grammy victory.
"No," he says. "But my kids are talking about Eminem all the time. And even if I haven't listened to his music, the LA Times, on the day before the Grammies, printed a full page of his lyrics, so I did have grave reservations about the guy. But he certainly delivered on the night. And despite my reservations in terms of the homophobia and violence, his rap was superb. Presley brought black music into the white consciousness in the Fifties; Eminem is doing the same for rap right now."
You read that right. Phil Coulter, who has been playing piano since he was a boy and who studied music at Queen's University and now creates albums such as Tranquility, does appreciate far-from-tranquil rap. Not only that. He "absolutely" believes that his own original role models, Leiber and Stoller, penned "precursors to rap" in songs like Shopping For Clothes. But how does Phil, as a dad, respond to the "white consciousness" of his own kids being "expanded" by Emimen telling them things like "you're young/ You got a lot of drugs to do"?
"I'd be more concerned about my kids watching Jerry Springer," he responds, "at least in the sense that they might believe it's normal to have, say, a transvestite boyfriend/girlfriend who turns out to be your long-lost brother or sister! What Springer does is a freak show, not everyday reality. So to be vigilant about Eminem yet let your kids watch Springer is crazy. But I would be worried about anyone influencing my kids to take drugs."
Naturally enough. Phil reveals that Kim O'Donovan, the teenage "best pal" of one of his daughters, was "found dead from an overdose in a B & B in Talbot Street last August", having "escaped from care" where she'd become "a victim of the system".
This tragedy, he says, "definitely struck home" because Kim came not from "the rough edges of society" but from a well-to-do family in Killiney. Yet it didn't make Phil warn his daughter about drugs. They'd already had that discussion.
"However, I did say: 'Danielle, can you believe this is your pal who's died? That is the reality of drug use."'
And that is a reality Phil says he himself never experienced. But in the late Sixties, having made his breakthrough with hits like Puppet on a String and Congratulations, he did become a bit of a puppet to alcohol.
"I remember at a party I was playing cards and had a bottle of gin and tonic water," he recalls. "I reached down to pour myself another gin and tonic and there was no gin! And I thought, through this drunken haze, 'A full bottle of gin, over a game of cards this is not good.' Another moment of truth was when I was bombing down Marlybone High Road, drunk, in a BMW at two o'clock in the morning, coming back from some nightclub, doing 95mph. Those were wake-up calls, in terms of the drink. I still drink but not to that extent."
When Phil started running wild in London nightclubs like The Revolution ("Unfortunately for my wife!"), he was married to Angela, the mother of his first three children.
Was he a "good boy" as far as fidelity is concerned?
"Not as good as I should have been."
The marriage eventually fell apart and "after an initial period of acrimony," Coulter and his wife realised they had to "keep some lines of communication, some way of civilised interaction open, for everyone's sake". Now he "gets along well with them all". But this healing process took time.
"There's a lot of bitterness, anger and frustration after a split," he explains. "It's easier to slam doors and let all that venom eat you away. That did happen. But those negative emotions demean a person. And I don't want to be at war with anyone."
Phil Coulter also, obviously, doesn't want to talk about his family life. "I am in the public eye but that doesn't mean I have to let everyone in my front door," he rationalises. "On the contrary, it's my job to protect my family, give them as much normality as possible, make sure they grow up knowing their father has some kind of profession and is moderately successful rather than think he is a superstar."
Coulter's reticence in this respect he traces back to the death of his sister. In September 1985, Cyd, a social worker, got a phone call from a client during her son Stephen's 10th birthday party telling her he was "in need of help".
"She put the ice-cream cake in the fridge and said, 'This shouldn't take too long we'll finish it when I come back,' but she never came back," Phil recalls. In fact, Cyd was missing for several days.
"And her family home, with kids all under the age of 10, was under siege," he adds, angrily. "There were TV cameras in the garden and a non-stop supply of journalists knocking on the door, most wanting to talk to me. They were asked to go away and they'd say, 'We just want to know how he feels.' How did I feel, with my young sister missing? That, to me, is intrusiveness and insensitivity bordering on brutality. To this day, the memory makes my flesh creep."
Tellingly, when Phil Coulter finally stood "on a pissy wet night, on the pier in Buncrana" and saw a crane lift his sister's car from the water into which it had been driven as "some kind of suicide trip" by her client, he "took a step above" himself.
"It was like looking at a bad B movie, something I was watching, rather than experiencing." And he kept the "turmoil" of his emotions at a distance until they finally settled in the poignant In Loving Memory track from Highland Cathedral.
"Though 'settled' may not be the right word because there's still a lot of unanswered questions about Cyd's death," he says. "I don't think anyone will know what she went through in those final hours."
That thought alone would make many of us want to kill the guy who did that to a sister. "No point, in my case," says Coulter. "He died with her."
And compounding this tragedy is the fact that less than a year before Phil's sister died, his brother, Brian, drowned in a wind-surfing accident on Lough Swilly.
"To lose any member of your family is painful. But to lose two, unnecessarily, through unnatural causes, where both could have been saved, is probably the hardest thing of all," he surmises. "My sister could have been saved if she'd stayed at the birthday party. If she was a bit more selfish, maybe she'd be alive. And if Brian, rather than go wind-surfing alone, had said, 'Shit, I'll sit and pour myself a glass of wine and wait for you,' to his friend Jim, instead of saying, 'I know Sunday lunch is important for you guys I'll leave you to it and go out on my own,' maybe he'd be alive. And losing my brother, sister and father in an 18-month period was a triple whammy."
But, again, as with his sister, Phil's brother is commemorated in a song, Home from the Sea. And their father, as I said, is the subject of The Old Man. So when did Phil Coulter's folks die?
"My mom died first, from a heart condition, in her early 60s. And dad died a month before Cyd at the age of 85. I sure hope I take after his side of the family!" he replies, suddenly smiling.
"Y'know, my mother never could conceive of how anyone would make a living from 'that jazz music', as she called it," he explains. "But after the success of Puppet on a String, the mayoral car came to the front door of our little house in Derry to bring her, my father and myself to a reception. Never mind that the reception consisted of only one glass of sherry. For my mother, that was winning the Eurovision Song Contest, not the glitz and glamour of the actual night her son being invited to the mayor's parlour."
Even so, as soon as Phil focuses on this relatively joyful memory, he also remembers that '67 was the year he first realised life can give with one hand and claw back with another. At that point, Coulter also had to face his "biggest trauma yet". His son, Paul, was born with Down syndrome. Paul died before his fourth birthday. Yet the song he inspired Scorn Not His Simplicity remains one of Coulter's most enduring, and seminal, compositions.
"For the first six months after he was born, I pretended he didn't have Down syndrome, which was pretty unhealthy. But that was my defence mechanism. And that is what I do in times of crisis," Phil admits. "So Scorn Not His Simplicity was some sort of exorcism. I also wonder would I have written it at all if it wasn't for Luke Kelly to sing. He was a man of great integrity, always pushing me to write about 'grown-up' themes. So I tried it, knowing he wouldn't trivialise the song.
"And I have a file of letters, cards and emails from people still discovering Scorn Not His Simplicity. Their consistent message is, 'We get consolation knowing the same kind of thing happened to someone else, somebody famous.' They relate to every word of the song. And say they never realised any song addressed the subject of Down syndrome. That, to me, is hugely gratifying."
But this does raise, yet again, the question of how Coulter can directly address such subjects in songs, yet not do so, fully, in public.
"Perhaps it's also my sense of Northern Ireland reserve," he says, "whereas writing is different because I'm in control. I determine how many layers of myself I will peel off. And, in that sense, Scorn Not His Simplicity was difficult to write. But it was a breakthrough for me, as a maturing writer. Yet, as the first song that addressed anything so personal, there was a certain amount of bloodletting on my behalf."
Quite. And one could suggest that the more "blood" Coulter pours into his music and the deeper the shadows he attempts to discharge, the better his songs will be. The evidence is there in his most personal compositions. Scorn Not His Simplicity, Home from the Sea, The Old Man and In Loving Memory. Requiems one and all. And his new single, Our Quiet Hero, is also a "heartfelt" requiem for racer Joey Dunlop.
"Maybe I'm just a lugubrious bastard!" he jokes.
Hardly. But let's not leave Phil Coulter's home without asking if we might one day hear a similar requiem for his current marriage to Geraldine Brannigan, who was formerly a singer but now "has gone back to her first love, painting," and is the "full-time mother" of their six children. Or is Phil's life finally as perfect as is suggested by the countless framed family portraits on his fireplace?
"Nothing's ever that perfect!" he responds, laughing. "And I'd never tempt fate by saying, 'Here is Phil Coulter, in his perfect home, with his perfect family.' Because having learned life can claw back what it's given, I know that as soon as I'd say life was perfect it'd fall apart!
"Gero and I have the same problems any couple has. There always is that double edge. I also know you set out, in this interview, to get at the 'hidden stories' behind my music because you said I don't go deep enough into that area when I'm introducing the songs on stage but I wouldn't want there to be any perception that I see myself as a victim of life. Or feel I got dealt a bad hand. Sure, I've suffered losses in my family. Yet I could take you down any street of Derry and show you families that have been suffered a lot more. And have more reason to be angry. Besides, I've too much to be positive about to indulge such negative emotions."
Like what, Phil?
"The fact that at the age of 58 I nearly won a Grammy! As in, got that kind of recognition from my peers. So now I've a new ambition. Tomorrow morning, I'm going to start work on my next album and try like hell to win one next year!"
* Phil Coulter is playing at Dublin's Gaiety Theatre from March 5 to March 17 inclusive