Tribute to Cathal Coughlan

Aside from my father, Cathal Coughlan has had a more profound influence on me than any other man, and I think it right that, in light of this, I record how sad it is that he has passed and to pay tribute to his achievement in the hope that someone who has not encountered him gets to enjoy his work. I first encountered him on Snub TV (how spoilt were my generation?) tied up with rope in a church (how on earth did he get permission?) intoning the song ‘Only Losers Take the Bus’. Microdisney had passed me by though I had partially enjoyed the title of ‘We Hate You South African Bastards!’ but there was something in the anger of the voice, in the cheek of the conceit and in the surrealism of the lyrics – “Can you paint the Chinese flag? It’s three blue lines and six dahlias” - that caught me. He was fronting a band called The Fatima Mansions. I later learned that the song was in response to some classist garbage that Thatcher had spat out or dribbled and that the band’s name was a housing estate in Dublin. I liked to cut of this guy’s jib; I liked the fact that it seemed more or less everything he did was complicated and political and sacrilegious. ‘Only Losers Take the Bus’ was all of these things.

On a night out in the early 1990s with my old friend, Sally, we passed the Powerhouse in Islington. The chalked blackboard advertising the act said, ‘Fatima Mansions’. There were still tickets left. “We’re in luck,” I said to Sal, “This guy’s the real thing.” We paid our fare and walked into an inferno. Cathal was half way through screaming his way through ‘1,000%’. It was coruscating and scalding and real.

It would have been about the time of ‘Valhalla Avenue’, which remains, for me, perhaps the darkest album I own – not stylistically but in terms of the timbre of the words. The singer had clearly gone though or was going through something awful; he was clearly, from the sheer level of lyric writing, quite spectacularly intelligent and the experience of listening to the whole album was an immersion into an intellectual’s experience of pain.

Years before, at College I’d encountered the book ‘A Rebours’, the completely flawed English translation of which was ‘Against Nature’ – a phrase untimely ripped from the pages of ‘Macbeth’. In the early 90s, I spent two or three years chained to a whirring Amstrad most week-day evenings trying to adapt the pretty well unstageable novel into a script for a one man show that I dreamed I’d one day put on. I had more or less saved the money it would take to do so.

Investigating the Mansions back catalogue, I noted that they had released a mini album of the same title as the book I was adapting. I wrote my first and last ever fan letter.

Cathal wrote back pretty quickly saying he would be happy to write the overture for the play I was intending to put on. We went for a drink. He was yet to give up alcohol (as far as I know, he had embraced his “fine sober demons” for over thirty years by the time of his death) and had a good night only partially ruined by me saying at the end of it what an honour it has been to meet him. He produced the music on time, and I still cherish the memory of making him read out excerpts from ‘The Satanist Bible’ in the voice of Michael MacLiammoir. I still have the result on a dusty CD.

He’d always make a point of dedicating a song to me if he saw me in the audience at a Mansions gig. He was that kind of guy: generous, warm, thoughtful, and in 1996 he agreed to produce my first album: the record ‘Hangover Square’ by the forgotten band Avalanche (who were formed of the remains of the perhaps more successful but equally forgotten band, Ennui). I recall him sitting at the back of the studio, quizzical expression permanently etched, the subtlety of his suggestions, him being impressed by my range as a singer, his liking of the bass player, Buddy Velour, who had no idea who he was and so wasn’t overawed by being in the studio with his hero, and his joy in putting bulldog clips on a detuned guitar which he then pulled the most awful noise out of. (He is credited on the album as Kaffir Cockland playing special needs guitar – I’d not yet trained as a teacher). Cathal came to the album launch in 1998, by which time my life had fallen to pieces through self-inflicted means. After that, I saw him one more time in a pub in Wapping.

It never developed into a friendship. I was just too much in awe of his talent to be in any way natural with him though by that last meet in Wapping we’d known each other for a while and I was able to be a bit more relaxed.

I followed his solo career, was overjoyed with ‘Black River Falls’ which contains some of his best ever songwriting, was disappointed with ‘The Sky’s Awful Blue’, loved ‘Foburg’ and have still not got along properly with his most recent record. I am sure I will like it at some point in the future. But that’s the thing with Cathal: sometimes he makes you, the listener, work at it. I knew that he had had to take a day job and that, for me, is, (perhaps even more than his artistry), the defining thing about Cathal Coughlan – he sure as well wasn’t doing it for the money. He had a fire in his soul that had to be given vent and a purer integrity that anyone else’s I have ever met. He was a serious artist who didn’t really get the level of success his seriousness deserved, yet still he continued.

I found out about his death while in a hotel in Bletchley on the night before the last day at my favourite school I’ve ever worked at. On finding out, I immediately posted the following on Facebook:

“Cathal Coughlan was a hero to me and more or less any songwriter that took lyrics seriously. I am shuddering at finding out he has passed. I loved him; I loved his work; I loved his seriousness. In a world where there is an excess of stupid, he shone as a beacon of real intelligence. He was and is a genuine artist in a world of frauds and the world just got a whole lot shitter today. Thanks CC: for your humanity, your uncompromising artistry, for your friendship, for your aural company on many dark nights of the soul. You will and must be remembered as one of the greatest Irish poets. And me and a lot of other serious music fans are fucking pissed off. Keep everything evil.”

The day after, I flew to the ‘none more appropriate’ Romania (Mansions fans will know the significance of this) to do a couple of gigs with my band. On the way back, we passed Ceausescu’s palace. I thought of Cathal.

I’ll end this by saying that the old ‘Never meet your heroes’ bollocks does not apply when they are such special people as Cathal Coughlan and with a piece of advice that, if this tempts anyone to listen to Cathal or to The Fatima Mansions, then ‘Lost in the Former West’ is one of the greatest records ever made.

Sleep well, tiger. You were the nonpareil.

Added Mon, 4 Jul 2022 15:31

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