Interviewed on RTÉ Radio recently, smoky Irish blues singer, Mary Coughlan, revealed that music streaming service Spotify had paid her £39 in royalties for the year 2019. The singer got about £0.01 per play. The music business has always been hard-nosed and the casualty list of once young and talented enthusiasts is an extended one. Two Derry men who have carved successful musical careers in their chosen, specific genre, published memoirs in 2020, Phil Coulter and Paul Cassidy.
There are some similarities in their early childhood and school days in Derry but the differences are much more remarkable. A policeman’s son, Coulter grew up in the modest comfort of a terraced house on the perimeter of what became Bogside in the late sixties ; Cassidy’s father was a successful publican who bought an elegant mansion , complete with tennis court, landscaped gardens and stables on the outskirts of the City. The purchase was controversial since the area was designated a Unionist fiefdom but crafty old Cassidy bought it in a sealed auction. Both boys attended St Columb’s College, having passed the 11+ entrance examination but their attitudes to the school were totally contrasting. Coulter , following in the footsteps of a bright, older brother welcomed the discipline and work ethic . Cassidy despised the rigid, often brutal discipline and was frequently in confrontation with staff. Twenty years separated their sojourns in St Columb’s and Cassidy would have been a pupil at a time when the people of the City had begun openly to question the morality of a range of previously sacred institutions.
At seventy-eight, Coulter has wide experience of the music business and he charts his career chronologically through it, from early days in Denmark St, London, to the White House and many illustrious venues in between. There is some disingenuous spin when he writes about a South African visit in apartheid days , feigning surprise to learn there that he could not have coffee in a cafe with a black performer. The enlightened shop-girls of Dunnes Stores in his adopted home city, Dublin, fully appreciated the horror of the apartheid state when they remained on strike for three years, rather than handle tainted RSA produce. A fellow past-pupil of St Columb’s joined them on the picket line – the poet, Seamus Heaney. Coulter is a thorough and hard-working, professional musician, spending time on preparation for each project. His writing, I suspect, got the same treatment; a feeling lingers that some models were scrutinised as templates and their components analysed before a word was written. The skills of a record producer are employed in the writing process – genuine emotion and there have been some profoundly dark moments in his life; a liberal sprinkling of celebrity encounters , counterpointing the rare failures. We all develop a work flow or style ; it shows in Coulter’s music and is evident in his writing. He exercises control; nothing escapes or is allowed to intrude which might prove damaging to either family or legacy.
Born in 1959, Paul Cassidy writes with the confidence of a new Irelander; his values have been honed by the Civil Rights movement , the war against the British and international exposure to intellectual discourse. Initially, there is a semblance of a chronological approach to his storytelling but it is slowly jettisoned and we are treated to an entertaining but random selection of stories, featuring the writer. Some are genuinely funny and others reveal emotional depths , particularly in family matters , headed by a coolly indifferent father for whom business achievement was the main priority. There are passages where Cassidy has clearly embellished incidents, particularly where he deals with a troubled school life; hyperbole is present too in his disenchantment with the Catholic clergy. He alleges, at one point, that confessors were seen to leave the confessional box and physically attack the penitent! Cassidy was a musical prodigy , playing violin in local and national youth orchestras from an early age. His dedicated industry, learning the piano ,while holding down a couple of part-time jobs, earned Cassidy a place at the highly regarded London College of Music . He writes of a new maturity in his approach to learning and it is reflected in the writing style too. In the Brodsky Quartet, he found a congeniality and conviviality that was absent for much of his childhood. Classical musicians and their recorded output are not the best rewarded financially in the entertainment world but it is evident that this is not a major issue for the author. He found two loves and true ones in making music and his devotion to Jacky.
Both books, Coulter’s ‘Bruised, Never Broken’ and Cassidy’s ‘Get Beethoven’ prove an enjoyable read. Neither has an index which, in the digital age, should not add much to publication costs since I imagine that most publishers will already have the software in-house. Coulter is soberly putting down a marker on what he views to be the salient contours of his long career whereas the younger Cassidy has childhood emotions and feelings to unload on the reader, in addition to revealing the high points of a successful and fulfilling career to date. ‘Bruised , Never Broken’ , for the most part, is a book about the author’s involvement in the music business; success is calibrated in record and sheet music sales . I am mindful too , that Coulter has a large family, including , for a time , a second household, to support. Cassidy convinced me that his primary interest is in performance and any rewards that follow are secondary. Phil Coulter is guarded on his views of the big topics, the Six Counties and its governance, relations between North and South, the Catholic Church and its fall from grace. The younger Cassidy is explosive and youthfully naive in the opening chapters on those same topics.
Mary Coughlan , apparently , is living on State Benefits.
Bruised not Broken is published by Gill Books
Get Beethoven is published by Matador