BY JONATHAN HOULON Equally reviled and revered, the reputation of C&W bad boy David Allan Coe precedes the man by a country mile: ex-con, polygamist, cave dweller, prison philosopher, biker badass — in short, he’s an outlaw’s outlaw. From the tender age of nine until one year short of thirty, Coe was in and out of reformatories and then adult prison where he claimed to murder a fellow prisoner for propositioning him. Rolling Stone later refuted this as one of many tall tales associated with the Mysterious Rhinestone Cowboy as DAC would come to be called after finally slipping the criminal justice system in 1969 and arriving in Nashville where he parked his hearse outside the Ryman Auditorium and promptly landed a deal with Shelby Singleton’s Plantation Label to record the Penitentiary Blues LP he penned during his tenure in the tank.
DAC first achieved fame as the writer of other people’s signature songs. Tanya Tucker took an early Coe composition to the top of the Country charts in 1973 and many others would subsequently record his songs, including Johnny Paycheck who scored with DAC’s working class anthem, “Take This Job and Shove It.” Coe himself landed a post-Plantation deal with Columbia records in 1975 and had a hit with late great Chicagoans Steve Goodman and John Prine’s “You Never Even Call Me By My Name” on his second platter on the majors, Once Upon a Rhyme. To this day, Coe’s output on Columbia up until the mid-80’s stands as one of the finest catalogues in music history. DAC’s songwriting chops coupled with his lilting bel canto and interpretive gifts more than justify his legend. But here’s the thing: DAC is also a first rate dick. A vile racist, homophobe, and misogynist as amply demonstrated in this 1970’s interview with Screw magazine publisher Al Goldstein, quite the prick himself. Check it out … or don’t!
Sure, you could argue that the first song David plays for Al is actually a gay rights send-up of notorious human shit-stain Anita Bryant. You could point to the fact that Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown’s son was the drummer in DAC’s band or the legend that David learned to write his jailhouse jingles from Screamin’ Jay Hawkins when they were both prison inmates in Ohio. I might reminisce about my delighted surprise when Coe pulled off a more than credible cover of “Purple Rain” as I watched him perform before an audience full of bikers in Towson, Maryland. Or I could perhaps pull a post-structuralist move and argue that DAC’s “performance” in the Screw interview is actually an effort to destabilize the very hierarchies that allow for and play into racism, homophobia, and sexism. But, sorry Dave: HARD PASS.
So why give this guy a platform at all you may legitimately wonder? Two reasons: (1) It is important to call out hate speech. I would be remiss if I did NOT tell you about DAC’s ugly history (he is now a shriveled-up 80-year-old whose current Weltanschaung is unknown in these quarters). In his recent chapbook, The Three Dimensions of Freedom, Billy Bragg argues that freedom of speech without accountability is actually just another tool for those with the loudest voices to prevail. Safe spaces — and I am continually disappointed by the otherwise astute Bill Maher’s inability to grasp this — are necessary for all and different voices to be heard. Hate speech quells actual freedom of expression. (2) I do not mistake the artist for the art.
DAC, I would argue, should be mentioned in the same breath as his peers Merle Haggard and George Jones who are widely considered the greatest country artists of their generation. I’d give Hag the edge over Coe as a songwriter and Jones is clearly the best singer of the three. But, still, Coe’s body of work in ’70s and into the ’80s is one that must be considered by any serious fan of the genre. As a Jew, I am told that my interest in Wagner — with whom Nietzsche departed based on his one-time idol’s antisemitism — is problematic. But, again, I am capable of appreciating the art without endorsing the person who created it. Thankfully, especially given that I work in the field of child welfare, I do not have to answer the Michael Jackson question cuz I never thought he was all that good: The Jackson Five were sorta the Archies of Motown. I mean, compared with Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, Smokey and Stevie. Really? And while Off The Wall is a stone-cold masterpiece, have you listened to Thriller lately? Rubbish. Likewise, I don’t have to worry about Moz: The Smiths are, other than the Fall, perhaps the most over-rated band to emerge from England in the ’80s. But David is different. I love his work and, but for his disgusting persona (if that was “all” it was), I am quite certain that DAC would take his rightful place in the Country Music Hall of Fame. Here’s five reasons why David Allan Coe matters:
“Death Row”: DAC, despite bragging about it, was never actually on it according to the authorities at the Ohio State Penitentiary. But, still, you gotta admire his wish list for a final meal: “I wanna double yolked egg from an albino pigeon with fried bat wings over easy // The left hind leg of a black giraffe cooked medium rare, not too greasy.” Bat wings, huh? DAC as prophet? The wide influence of his Penitentiary Blues is evidenced by the fact that the liner notes from the 2005 Hacktone reissue include quotes from both Peter Case AND Kid Rock!
“Would You Lay With Me in a Field of Stone?”: DAC’s version of the song that would catapult him to songwriting fame based on Tanya Tucker’s version. It provides a good example of Coe’s unique ability to be creepy and tender at the same time. I’d tell you that he was having a bad hair day in this video but, honestly, the man has never had a good hair day. And it looks like he may have filched Captain Stubing’s jacket from The Love Boat. Ouch!
“Face to Face”: Do you know how hard it is to write a song this simple and still have it sound original and compelling? Very few (Hank Sr., Willie, Hag, Cash) can pull it off and DAC is among them. His vocal strength on this one is astounding. Tattoo, the album from which this number hails, is one of Coe’s best collection of songs and its cover illustration was no joke. DAC was covered in ink, kids, long before it was the cool thing to do.
“Castles in the Sand”: The title track from his 1983 album. Check out Coe’s Dylan imitation (especially the wheezing elongation of the word “face” in the final verse) on the title track of his 1983 album that, unlike most of his stuff, somehow troubled the charts. In fact, Coe included a riveting cover of Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody” on Castles. Dylan himself has identified DAC as one of his favorite songwriters and has been photographed carrying a copy of this very LP. Coe sings, “They even had the nerve to ask me if I could rewrite ‘Like A Rolling Stone.'” Yea, sure, Dave, whatever you say.
“Please Come to Boston”: In addition to being an ace songwriter, DAC is also a fine interpreter of others’ material. As mentioned above, his first hit was actually a Goodman/Prine number and he has memorably covered songs by peers such as Mickey Newbury and Guy Clark. I choose Dave Loggin’s “Please Come to Boston” because it is my favorite example of DAC’s interpretive abilities and also will give you a good peek into his Mysterious Rhinestone Cowboy phase [SEE top of this post]. David always complained that Glen Campbell stole this aspect of his act. Anyway, please come to Philly, David. Or, actually, don’t come right now. Maybe later.