Last week I received word that my dear friend and once greatly feared Boston rock scribe JOE COUGHLIN finally had enough of this place and went to that great Buck Dharma in the sky. Having beat the shit out of cancer once before, its fraternal twin brother come back for more, and this time, Joe didn’t win the match.
Joe was a great and wonderful man, misunderstood by many, known by a select few. I don’t expect you to care about someone you’ve probably never heard of who was best known for an art that has ceased to be relevant or respected for real in the 21st century. However, I loved Joe like family and he was family to me, partially because it was Joe who introduced me /vouched for me to his often collaborative writing partner and now my wonderful wife, Amanda Nichols.
It’s nearly impossible to sum up Joe Coughlin because he was many things: one time Midway Café bartender and assistant ringmaster, extremely opinionated rock writer, dollar store defender, sober philosopher, would-be wrestler, and full time court jester. He went so far as to describe himself as “Punk. Hippie. Nerd. Clairvoyant. Prophet. Baloney shredder.” While Joe did get some play as the author of the stunning epitaph for GG Allin that appeared in Todd Phillips’s documentary Hated, it is the corrosive, twisted, black humor-stained, and flat out nasty (and, alternately, loving) reviews that he contributed to The Noise during the 1990s and 2000s that he is perhaps best remembered for by some of the older guard of Boston Rock. To get panned by Joe was an honor, regardless of how scathingly painful it could be. To get praised by him was like getting knighted while concurrently winning the Irish sweepstakes.
Joe could often be found in his pre-sobriety days on one or the other side of numerous bars, demanding friends come down to see his latest favorite bands at the Midway, some of which included the long departed Heidi, Langley, Burning Sensations, the Jumblies, and Innerpink, amongst many others. He was an early champion of both Darkbuster and the Rudds (the leaders of both of those bands carry on respectively as Lenny Lashley’s Gang of One and John Powhida International Airport), and many a soul can confess to Joe hounding them with epic descriptions and depictions of his love for both bands. Joe knew the power of strong local music, and he also knew the power of good criticism, and he was not afraid to defend both. In reality, however, Joe was a bit publicly shy but deeply warm hearted and kind, but any band that received a disemboweling from him in the pages of The Noise would never believe that. I think he liked it that way.
Much to the chagrin of those who wanted to tell him he knew nothing of what he wrote, Joe did play music himself, often with Kenne Highland in the on again/off again nothing post-Muscle of Love Alice Cooper tribute band Alice Highland (with Joe playing the part of Alice, usually sporting a Mexican wrestler’s mask), but it should be noted for the record that he was NEVER a member of Fred’s Bowling Ball (which he was accused of around the turn of the century in an attempted smear campaign.) He did, however, try out for Peter Prescott’s Volcano Suns, having been an incessant devotee of Mission of Burma the first time around (you know, before they used the plastic force field).
Above all else Joe loved Blue Oyster Cult and the Dictators/Manitoba’s Wild Kingdom to the point of obsessive worship. If whatever latest incarnation of B.O.C. or any one of Handsome Dick Manitoba’s musical crews was coming within a hornet’s breath of the Bay State, Joe would be on the horn to anyone he could think of who would care to go. “AH YA GOTTA SEE ‘EM – I’M TELLIN’ YA! YA JUST GOTTA!” When Manitoba played a club I used to book last May, I practically forced him to go and see them, knowing his health was fragile and that – truth be absolutely revealed – I booked them pretty much only so Joe could go and see them again. When he said it was one of the very best times he had ever seen Handsome Dick and his crew, I was glad in the end that I threatened him with I don’t remember what if he didn’t go. I had no idea at that point, however, that he was about to find out that cancer had re-entered his ring and this time it would not back down.
Joe also had a unique sense of humor: difficult to define and hard to describe except to say it was all Joe. Combining the absurd with the simple, the subtle with the obvious, Joe always had a joke and a smile for you (or a variation thereof) every time you ran into him, and there are rumors that he used to do stand-up in The Rat’s unforgivably dank men’s room . Joe was also an early pusher of the wild and weird world of the dark corners of the Internet (do a search on YouTube for “Why Do You Think You Are Nuts?” for one of his favorites), and some of his true stories were even funnier than his routines. Timing is everything and Joe had it down pat. Even if you didn’t get the joke, you knew you’d always get that knowing and forgiving look in his heartbreaker eyes, and it was worth it just for that.
With Joe’s departure, what little we may have had left in this town in terms of that dirty old rock and roll spirit has now been reduced to mere fragments. Often imitated, frequently misrepresented, but never, ever duplicated, Joe Coughlin was one of a kind and one of Boston's last true great originals. With his immortal epitaph on GG Allin (from his sadly unfinished book on New England’s favorite son), Joe very well may have been writing about himself: “He accomplished what he did right here in our faces in real time with little help from any tool outside his own mind. Them things cannot be denied. Could we have learned more if he was still around? Did we in fact learn anything?”
As we speak, Schmoey (as some of us called him) is no doubt high fiving Tiny Tim, pinching GG on the ass, and challenging Andre The Giant to a tumble.
Hope we meet again.
Joe Coughlin’s legacy is best understood and defined by the plethora of writings he left behind. Many of them exist online, and here are a few links to follow:
-- GG ALLIN, THE FIRST AMENDMENT, AND THE LAW
-- SO I HEAR YOU'RE WRITING A BOOK ABOUT GG... Or: The Truth Is Kind Of Important When You're Destroying Rock'n’roll
-- LOCAL LUNATIC – THE LOST GOSPEL OF GG ALLIN