It used to be that it wasn’t cool to talk about Old Mike Doughty Stories.
If you liked Mike, you’d leave them behind, like he had.
You’d respect that he didn’t want to play THOSE songs, that he was now a pretty rad solo artist, so you’d move on. New music was a gift, old music was a curse. Then Mike Doughty wrote a book about the old stories. About the music, the drugs, the women, the oppressive bullshit of being in band that didn’t respect him and tried to meddle with him. About his soul and about Soul Coughing, that band you should no longer talk about if you liked Mike.
But I liked Soul Coughing, too. Loved them even. I once took a bus to Beelzebub – sorry, Buffalo, same diff – to see them. There, Mike ran onto his tour bus, grabbed me a book of poetry, Slanky, and inscribed it to me. (Did you know Mike’s handwriting is so cool someone called Chank once made a font out of it and called it “Wichita” after the song “True Dreams of Wichita”? Fact.)
I saw Soul Coughing in Toronto several times. I interviewed Mike after Ruby Vroom came out. We talked about Alanis Morrissette. That night, after a show, the affable Mr. M (back then he was just Doughty, M. Doughty) and I went out, and ended up sitting at a club a few tables away from Snow, the “Informer.”
So when I learned that Mike was going back to his Soul Coughing songs, trying to re-connect with them, figure out what he was talking about when he first wrote them, trying to make peace with them, and was going to put his re-imagined versions on an album and would we pledge to make it happen? I threw money at it. I like when old stories that are the flaky burnt edges of paper, become new, Phoenix bird-like stories.
Here’s how I first heard Soul Coughing.
I used to work in a boring suburban record store called Sound City in Toronto’s yuppie Beaches neighbourhood.
It wasn’t like High Fidelity, it was an overpriced, Van Morrison/Gypsy Kings/Ottmar Liebert-filled plastic-racked, fluoro Level 2 of Dante’s Inferno where we were all trapped in slush. I worked with a goth guy name Franz and a gay guy called Phil. WE were sort of like High Fidelity (I treasure the day I dressed down the guy who asked for the song with “love in the title”), but the street-level store pretty much could have been in any shopping mall on earth.
One day, one of the guys bought a stack of CDs to sell in our used racks, and in them was Soul Coughing’s debut Ruby Vroom. I loved the art, I knew fuck-all about the band, except I liked nerds, and they looked like nerds. The beanpole with the glasses looked the nerdiest. To this day I have no idea why I put on that album and play it in the store. But I did. And years later, I would still play “Screenwriter’s Blues”, like, four times a day. Why? Because of the words. The lyrics. The M Doughtyness of it all. That album had WORDS, MAN.
“Wild Loose Comma” became the name of my diary after the line: “He flicks an ash like a wild, loose comma” in “City of Motors”. In “St. Louise Is Listening” I had to look up what a “maquereau” was. I used to love yelling “L’ETAT C’EST MOI!” during “Is Chicago, Is Not Chicago” and….man, there are just too many good words in a Mike Doughty song.
But I never thought I’d hear some of those words live again.
In Vancouver on November 1, at the city’s Biltmore Cabaret, with drummer and upright bassist flanking him, M-Doughty-Who-Used-To-Play-in-Soul-Coughing stood crisply-shirted and be-jeaned. He was supporting the album which some of the contents of my wallet helped him make. The album title is basically just all the song titles on the album, so we’ll just call it Circles Super Bon Bon for now.
“L’ETAT C’EST MOI!” I got to yell, again, as he started with “Is Chicago, Is Not Chicago” in the Key of C. (And with that I learned something interesting: four days earlier I’d had septum surgery – singing out loud made the stents buzz inside my skull. Most discomfiting.)
Then it boomed as cool as “Sugar Free Jazz”, and then I was back in Buffalo for “Bus to Beelzebub”, only now my bus-driver friend Misha was dancing freely next to me, grin-yelling “THIS IS MY SONG!”. “Idiot Kings” came, after that the song that I would wake up singing the next day, “Unmarked Helicopters”, used on the soundtrack for the TV show the X-Files. The X-Files! Turn the clocks back to the 90s! “Lazybones” was suitably drawled, LAYYYYYZEEEEEEEEEEEE bones, and Doughty WAS A GIANT as he played a tiny pocket piano to accompany.
And then, and then, and then, and then. Mr. M Doughty placed an album on the turntable on stage and an unfamiliar instrumental came but the familiar words came after, and it was “Screenwriter’s Blues”. The spoken-word song poem. Every old story from the ratty diaries of my life flooded back, and I knew all the words. And up there was Doughty, not on a comeback trail, not trying to retro-rehash, not reliving the past but creating NEW STORIES in front of me, and they literally buzzed in my head.
The poetry flowed hip, “Uh, Zoom Zip” was wonky and weird and cool and beat and he prodded at samples from an electrobox. “Mr Bitterness”, “Soft Serve” (“dripping down in the June sun, I tried shoot a thought, but the thought sunk”) and the slow groove of “How Many Cans?” all rolled.
“Monster Man” got a bit metallic, crumply, and “True Dreams of Wichita” smoothed out the foil. And after that, another moment of history: “St Louise Is Listening.”
One of the old stories, a sad story, is when I remember Mike Doughty, sick and skinny, standing up on stage doing the “Let me get up on its” bits during the track and having to hustle for air. Him coughing on stage, gasping.
But the new story that I can now file in my library is a healthy and stocky Mike Doughty, standing up on stage doing the “Let me get up on its” and it sounding alive. A gift. The new versions are a gift.
Finally, the endings of the set: a clever, jive-talking “Moon Sammy” mixed in with “So Far I Have Not Found The Science”, and the of courses: “Super Bon Bon” (move aside, let the man go through) and “Circles”, punctuated with a little song that started on an answering machine, sung by a sleepy Rachel Benbow Murdy, and which is called “Janine.”
It used to be that you couldn’t talk about Old Mike Doughty Stories. But now you can, and I just did. I’m grateful that we now have New Mike Doughty Stories. They’re pretty good, you should hear them sometime. Buy Mike Doughty’s Circles Bon Bon here.\m/
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