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Friend or Coe? 

A troubling portrait of a country music outlaw from Durham's Shambhavi Kaul

See also: Ten years after | Friend or Coe? | Of time and Charleen | Strange fruit | Capsule reviews

click to enlarge Has he ever been called by his name? The enigmatic musician David Allan Coe - PHOTO COURTESY OF FULL FRAME DOCUMENTARY FILM FESTIVAL

David Allan Coe isn't a racist. At least that's what he says. Still, late in Shambhavi Kaul's new Coe documentary, Field of Stone, Coe is standing onstage in Daytona Beach, Fla., during 2003's Bike Week, his tight gray dreadlocks hanging over a black leather vest and his massive, grizzled beard woven through acrylic beads that sport his initials. He's singing what's probably his most (in)famous song, right up there with "Take This Job and Shove It" and what's called The Redneck National Anthem, "You Never Even Called Me By My Name." This song is called "Nigger Fuckers," and it's as vile as it sounds: "Said she finally found a man/ whose dick was so much bigger/ And then that scumbag motherfucker/ ran off with a nigger."

When Coe sang that song in Daytona Beach four years ago, Kaul—a 34-year-old Indian woman who left South Bombay to join her husband in North Carolina less than a decade ago—was just a few feet from him, capturing the moment on her camera. She was surprised that Coe was going there, especially knowing that her crew was there with his permission, filming a documentary about the six weeks she was spending on the road with him. It was the first and last time Coe played the song on the tour and he never mentioned the moment to Kaul before or after it happened.

Indeed, Coe has spent part of the last two decades purportedly trying to distance himself from songs like this, songs that reached the marketplace on a pair of X-rated albums released in the late '70s through a biker magazine. Other titles include "Whips & Things" and "Little Suzie Shallow Throat." Still, when New York Times critic Neil Strauss named Coe's work "among the most racist, misogynist, homophobic and obscene songs recorded by a popular songwriter," Coe said it wasn't true. The rights to those albums have been sold, he says, and he doesn't make any money from their sale. Still, those discs are sold at his concerts and on a Web site linked from his official home page. Is Coe a racist or an entertainer or even a hard-line humorist?

"When I started making this film, the biggest realization was that I was trying to make an intimate portrait of a very complex person," says Kaul, insisting that the inclination to label the true outsider of the outlaw country movement as a racist or misogynist simply doesn't work. "But, on some level, this was going to be a film about not knowing, a film about not getting the answers. I still don't know what he is."

Indeed, Coe is a litany of contradictions. He's played with a black drummer for years and at one point during Field of Stone, interjects his "You Never Even Called Me By Name" with the chorus from Eminem's "The Real Slim Shady" with Kid Rock onstage. He claims to have spent 22 years in prison and to have killed a fellow inmate, but, during Field of Stone, he seems genuinely kind to everyone around him. Coe even asked Kaul if she had been treated differently after 9/11 because she was an immigrant. She says the question seemed borne of concern. Still, he prides himself in having been a man since he was 7, when he says he first entered a juvenile reform center. But he takes his oldest son, Tyler, on tour to teach him how to be a man and musician. He's been married seven times, and on film, he seems deeply devoted to his younger girlfriend. As she watches from the side of the stage, though, he tells a crowd of fans he will never marry her.

Exactly who is David Allan Coe, and what does he believe in? Kaul's not saying on Field of Stone or in conversation because she doesn't know, and that's the provocative edge of her work. Kaul's film is devoted to these contradictions without passing judgment. The director says she was able to do this with Coe because she doesn't identify with a strict regional sense of American history. Kaul, after all, grew up in South Bombay, the daughter of experimental filmmaker Mani Kaul. Her father and mother had married across castes, and—in post-colonial India—she was exposed to a whirlwind of different ideas and ideals.

As a result of her background, Kaul doesn't bring her personal baggage to Field of Stone. "If I tried to pick who I was and define what I am, I would have to deny so many other parts of myself," she says.

It's that attitude that defines Field of Stone, represented through Kaul's interest in whether Coe is a musician or an entertainer. The complex intersection between his stage life and off-stage life takes the lead for Field of Stone, from his interactions with his girlfriend and son down to his drinking habit. Even the living room of the Florida house he calls home for 17 days of the year during Bike Week (he spends the rest of his life on the tour bus) looks like a stage, or at least a constant reminder of it. Memorabilia is scattered everywhere. On one end of the living room, there's a giant banner with Coe's head taking up several square feet and his name written in big, black block letters. It's the kind of thing that would hang behind and above Coe on stage in Daytona, and—in his living room—it suggests that he's always performing.

"He spends half of his life on the stage, and half of his off of it. I think that is his life," says Kaul. "I don't know if one life is more real. I'm sure, when you're as old as he is, you start to identify with both narratives. And, when he's onstage, he's not playing so much as he is talking about his life, telling stories. He's putting on a stage show about his life."

Well, that or a fairy tale.

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