Book Review by Frank O’Shea
Phil Coulter. Bruised, Never Broken. Gill Books 2019. 282 pp.
ISBN: 978 0 7171 8413 2
RRP: €22.99 h/b
Towards the end of this fascinating autobiography, Phil Coulter quotes the late Luke Kelly of the Dubliners, ‘Coulter is not a genius, he’s a craftsman, and a very good craftsman.’ That is one musical professional talking about another and they have their own language. The duty of a book reviewer is to assess the author against other criteria, and this reviewer’s assessment is that on the basis of Bruised, Never Broken, Phil Coulter is a very fine writer.
Although he admits that he ‘never made it into the Super Rich Club’, Coulter has been in the music business for almost sixty years and has managed to make a comfortable living in his craft. When you consider the huge changes that have come over popular music in that time, this is quite an achievement, possibly close to unique in that fickle trade.
Coulter was not yet 25 when he co-wrote ‘Puppet on a String’, the song that won the 1967
Eurovision Song Contest for Sandie Shaw. ‘Puppet was my saviour’, he writes. ‘Not only did it get the bank manager off my back, it got my poor mother off her knees.’ The following year he and his partner Bill Martin wrote ‘Congratulations’ for Cliff Richard and it finished second in the same competition. At this stage and for some years the Coulter-Martin team was writing and arranging for many artists.
Some of his work was in Ireland with people like The Dubliners, Butch Moore, Paddy Reilly, the Fureys, Joe Dolan, Tommy Makem, pretty much every name in popular music at that time. He had a particularly close friendship with Luke Kelly to whom he entrusted
‘Scorn Not His Simplicity’ – about his second child who was a Downs Syndrome baby and died as an infant – and ‘The Town I Loved So Well’. He also cast Kelly as Pontius Pilate in his production of Jesus Christ Superstar at the Gaiety Theatre, a risky venture in its time that turned out to be a huge success. His tribute to his father ‘The Old Man’ was a winner for Finbarr Furey as was another of his songs, ‘Steal Away’.
He worked also with international acts like The Bay City Rollers, Elvis Costello, Van Morrison, Sinead O’Connor, Liam Neeson, Boyzone and Brian Kennedy. He and Billy Connolly were long-time friends and he worked closely with James Galway. His biggest financial successes were with his Tranquility records and later albums like The Songs I Loved So Well, Coulter and Company, Reflections and a series devoted to Christmas music. With all those names and all those albums, it is a little annoying that the book does not have an index.
The book is devoted to his musical career and there is only passing mention of his home life. He had three children with his first wife Angela, but their marriage did not survive his frequent absences and hectic work schedule. In 1974, he was asked to write a Eurovision song for Luxembourg. Searching for a singer, he found Dubliner Geraldine Brannigan, who finished fifth in the contest. They became partners and had six children together, marrying in 1998. All his children are now adults – one living in Sydney and one in Auckland – but none of them is involved in the music industry.
There is a danger in any book like this that the number of times the writer uses the first person, singular or plural, can give the impression of someone big-noting himself. That is not the case here. His account of growing up in Derry and his schooldays in St Columb’s College gives a good feeling for what it meant to be part of a community trying to do the best for itself and seeing education as the best chance of getting its children a better opportunity in life.
Late in the book, the author tells of a program titled Both Sides Now that he ran in the Derry Bogside and Belfast’s Shankill Row. It involved some coaching with a group of teenage schoolchildren, followed by a concert featuring these kids and some professional musicians. In Derry, the kids turned up with guitars and tin whistles and drum kits; in the Shankill, the kids were there, full of enthusiasm but without any instruments. Both programs were a huge success, with particular appreciation from the Shankill audience for this outsider. Coulter finished both concerts by singing ‘The Town I Loved So Well.’ On the Shankill, he writes, ‘When I sang the final words, the entire audience got to their feet and stayed there cheering for a good ten minutes. Unbelievable.’
Afterwards, Unionist leader Eddie Ervine who helped organise the event, explained to him the difference between the teenagers from both communities.
… it was all down to the fact that Catholic communities had long bought into the belief that education was the key to improving their lot and their chances of getting a career. In communities like the Shankill, he explained, education wasn’t regarded as essential. Historically, teenage boys would leave school and walk straight into jobs in the shipyards. Likewise, girls were pretty much guaranteed work in the linen mills and factories. David was a realist and I found his insights fascinating.
The book is enlivened by observations about some of the characters he met. Writing about the Dubliners, for example, he refers to Ronnie Drew’s ‘inimitable version of English.’ John Sheahan, as the only non-drinker among the group was ‘a steadying influence, he had the unenviable job of herding mice at a crossroads.’ Elsewhere, after referring to a number of honorary doctorates he received in recognition of his life’s work, he tells of an occasion when he and a number of friends were gathered for a meal.
Among the guests were Dr Brian Friel, Dr John Hume, Dr Joe Coulter [the author’s older brother, a priest] and my friend Cathal Curley who was suffering from gout and wearing open sandals to protect his swollen toes.
He met the organiser at a break in the celebrations.
Pretty impressive team in there tonight, eh Reggie.
His answer was a classic, a real Derry leveller, in case I was getting carried away.
‘My arse,’ says he. Four doctors in there and not one of them could put a bandage on Curley’s big toe.’
The book reads like a history of Ireland in song or a history of song in Ireland in the last sixty years. In places, as when writing about his Down Syndrome child, the writing is deeply emotional and reminds you that this is more than just another musician writing about his successes. His explanation of the genesis of Ireland’s Call, the song he wrote for the Irish rugby team is also full of interest, as is the background to Home From the Sea that he wrote for the RNLI.