BY GREGORY J. M. KASUNICH
[The following article has been edited from it’s original form. The review section of Mike Doughty’s new record has been removed and will be published later as a stand alone piece.]
I first came across the musician Mike Doughty by pure providence late one rainy Valentines Day evening among the remnants of a Philadelphia winter in early 2005. He was the unassuming opening act for the somewhat avant-garde, twenty-six member independent pop-rock group that called themselves The Polyphonic Spree. His performance was, unexpectedly, the general antithesis to the main event. The Spree, as their fans have come to call them, clad themselves in colorful robes, dance manically around the stage, each member playing a different and increasingly exotic instrument. The band plucked and played everything from a harp to a Theremin, lending the group the appearance of an eclectic and benevolent musical cult. Doughty on the other hand with his thinning blond-brown hair, three day beard, jeans and un-tucked button down shirt looked less like a rock star and more like any middle aged man you might pass on the subway without a second thought or lingering glance. In fact, if not for the sundry tattoos adorning his arms, one would be more likely to mistake him for a gap-toothed clerk rather than a musician. He took the stage with nothing more than a guitar and microphone and proceeded to pour out song after song, each one filled with tales of drug addiction, debt, recovery, loss, love, and yearning to the soggy and enraptured audience. Pausing intermittently only to shift the position of his capo or trade quips with the audience about the contentious relationships between cheese steak vendors and the merits of the day’s holiday, he confidently commanded the small venue. He was engaging, charming, and funny. His songs, all which had begun to sound a bit the same when played back to back, ran together into an evocative and poetic movement of jangly folk rock. After Doughty left the stage and The Spree stepped in to offer up their signature bombast, I was left thinking about this gravel voiced troubadour, I had to know more.
As it turned out, this Mike Doughty, the heart-bearing solo guitar slinger, used to be known by the truncated moniker, M. Doughty, the front man, vocalist, and song writer of the genre hopping acid-jazz-alternative-rock band Soul Coughing which had some minor hits in the early 2000’s with the tunes “Super Bon Bon” and “Circles”, the former used by professional wrestler Danny Dorning as his entrance music and the latter used as the soundtrack to a Hannah-Barbarra cartoon mash-up for the Cartoon Network. M. (Doughty, interestingly enough, was also the voice behind the syncopated emphasis shifting “Fall Into the Gap” commercials where he spouted the kaki vendor’s slogan over and over on top of footage of kids cartwheeling around in overalls and branded hoodies.) After enjoying the two discs of solo material, 2000‘s full length release Skittish (which Doughty recorded in one day and was promptly rejected by his label at the time Warner Bros.) and 2003‘s Rockity Roll EP acquired at the merchandise table after the show, I had to have more, and here is was, a back catalogue of tunes I could consume while I waited for Doughty’s next solo release.
In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s Soul Coughing released three full length LP’s each one brimming with the bizarre morphed, pitched samples of Mark Degli Antoni, the fat circling bouncing bass lines of Sebastian Steinberg, the tight schizophrenic hip-hop beat of drummer Yuval Gabay, and of course the slinking stuttering guitar and the unmistakable scatting, trumpeting vocals of one (M)ike Doughty. Here was a full, slickly produced, funky-fun, awkwardly named band that was the candy coating to Doughty chocolate center. At times, more often than not, the production, arrangements, and instrumentation undercut the smart beat poetry and simplicity of Doughty’s lyrics and guitar lines, but still there remained innumerable inspired moments throughout the three records. In fact, the band in many ways elevated Doughty’s sound. There, alone on the stage at the South Street venue Doughty’s tunes blended together, a result of his affinity for the same three or four chord progressions and strumming patterns (using the capo to change the key and give his tunes some form of variety). That is to say nothing disapproving of his gift for melodies, which deftly bob and weave through his simplistic guitar work. With his former band, the songs found teeth. Beats pounding aggressively propelled forward by the sometimes-manic-sometimes-beautifully-restrained bass and jittery atmospheric samples. The music was interesting, fun, and, purely in retrospect, the logical predecessor to Doughty’s stripped down solo work. One can very clearly hear each of the individual band members contributions, which is to say most of the songs Doughty played that first night could have been demos for future Soul Coughing songs had the band not been slain by Doughty’s own hand.
Mike Doughty is hardly the first front man to eschew his band mates and pursue a stripped down solo career, but in Doughty’s case this move seemed less of a sea change in artistic direction and more of a past life amputation. See, after Soul Coughing started to get some mainstream traction, with a music video on MTV (when MTV still played music videos), Mike quit the band. His reasons he later recorded in his succinctly written and disarmingly honest memoir The Book of Drugs, the title itself an indication as to why he stepped away from the band. At the time Doughty was abusing a number of drugs including heroine and found his relationship with his band mates to be uneven, unfair, confusing and toxic. So he left, got clean, and headed out on the road with an acoustic guitar in the trunk of a rented car and his rejected album Skittish, which, thanks to the file sharing website Napster, found an audience even before Mike had a chance to play the songs live. Of course during these shows any number of fans would request some of Soul Coughing songs. Sometimes Mike would oblige, other times he would become defensive or dismissive of the requests, insisting on only performing post-Soul Coughing songs. He even has gone on the record several times in magazines, personal blog posts, radio interviews and even in is memoir, to document his disdain for the way the Soul Coughing songs were realized. In fact, it was during the promotion of The Book of Drugs where he was forced to speak about exorcising his demons and his experiences with Soul Coughing that he formulated a plan to recapture ownership of his creative output with his former band.
So here it is, after years of gestation and rumination, the truest true vision of what these songs should have sounded like. Thirteen songs, which are all, according to Doughty, the ontologically perfect representations of Mike Doughty original intent, finally recorded. And the audience has to believe him. He is the original author. He wrote those songs alone, just him and his guitar. He knew what he wanted his audience to hear when they played those records at home and now he can share that vision with the world. The only reason they never turned out this way originally was that he claims to have been hindered at the time by abusive, delusional, obtrusive band mates and label executives. But now, the songs can finally be heard the way they are supposed to be heard, and Mike Doughty can finally put all the pain of those formative musical years behind him; or can he?
This all begs the question; just because something is possible, should it be done? Just because Doughty could quickly and easily, whithout interference from a label or a large financial burden, rerecord songs recorded nearly two decades ago, should he have, and since he did, what purpose does it serve? In 2004 Brian Wilson, famously of the 1960’s surf-rock band The Beach Boys, released a record somewhat confusingly, titled “Brian Wilson Presents Smile”. This release was a reworking of a number of tunes the he had originally written with his band back in 1966. Originally Smile was meant to be a follow up to the widely successful and historically influential album Pet Sounds. As the band worked on the new record the concept album bloomed into an unwieldy endeavor for the band and for Wilson himself who suffered from emotional instability and substance abuse. Ultimately the project was all but mostly abandoned. The Beach Boy’s did end up releasing an album called Smiley Smile in the wake of the discarded sessions, which was a stripped down version of some of the songs from the Smile sessions which ended up being recorded in Brian Wilson’s home studio. The resulting album entered the charts at the lowest position in the bands career. So, some twenty-five years later, Brian, still sore from those deserted, unrealized, songs, and perhaps as a way to rid himself of the mistakes he made, both personally and professionally in the past, decided to rerecord and release the material himself.
Wilson made several changes to the tunes from the originally period of recording with his band going as far as to even change the lyrics of the much loved and instantly recognizable Good Vibrations back to the “original” lyrics that he wrote stating that this new version was how he had always intended the lyrics be recorded. The reviews of the album were mixed if not at least reverent. The story of The Beach Boys is one steeped in the Mythology of Americana. It has it all, relative rags to riches, family drama, success, fame, money, drugs, loss, creative brilliance, cultural impact, redemption, and music. When the world finally got to hear “the real” version of the mysterious Smile record the band never completed, it was ready, but like looking back at an old photograph of yourself, the result was both a mix of recaptured glory and youth as well as melancholic nostalgia for things forever lost to time. The tunes sounds similar to a Beach Boys record, but they were not recorded and realized by the Beach Boys. It stands to reason that those dusty tapes, ageing in a vault somewhere, containing the remnants of the failed record persisted in Wilson’s mind as an unkind specter reminding him through the years of one of the lowest points of his life and by reclaiming those songs, finishing the un-finished, he could put a new coat of paint on his past. He could take a memory of the past and rather than run from it or deny it, he could dive straight into it, reclaim it, and therefore he could finally be set free from the self imposed manacles of unrealized dreams.
Here we have a musician Brian Wilson, divorced from his band, revisiting songs that have already been released and embraced by the public in order to show the world how these songs should have sounded. Although it is unfair to put Mike Doughty and Brian Wilson in the same category of songwriters, the fact remains; both stories bear some meaningful similarities.
One more: George Lucas’s hotly debated, and what some consider arbitrary, revisions to the original version of the 1977 film Star Wars. Casual fans of the series have come off as ambivalent if not confused by the alterations, whereas die-hard fans have vilified the film’s writer/director George Lucas for both betraying the art form and for being a hypocrite. A younger George Lucas years before he first took to the edit room to revisit his most famous contribution to film history famously sat before congress in 1988 during a public hearing on the colorization process of film. He lambasted the process and harangued the studios decision to add color to black and white films. Lucas said during the testimony, “People who alter or destroy works of art and our cultural heritage for profit or as an exercise of power are barbarian.” He Continued, “Today, engineers with their computers can add color to black-and-white movies, change the soundtrack, speed up the pace, and add or subtract material to the philosophical tastes of the copyright holder. Tommorrow, more advanced technology will be able to replace actors with “fresher faces,” or alter dialogue and change the movement of the actor’s lips to match.” All of which flies in the face of Lucas’s later decision to alter his own films in a similar fashion. Since the initial release of Star Wars, the film has undergone a myriad of changes over the years. From changing the title from simply Star Wars to the more complex Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, to more egregious modifications including adding computer generated creatures into the film and reordering crucial character moments to change the characters original intent. Over and over the film has been enhanced and updated by digitally restoring the negative to changing the soundtrack to recreating the skies to retiming lines of dialogue all of which has been documented in detail by film preservationists. Lucas claims that these films are his, and that with each change he is bringing the film closer to its truest incarnation. At the time when the movie was originally filmed there were obstacles preventing George from fully realizing his vision, but years later, with new, cheaper, processes, he could revisit and rerelease the films as he saw fit. Each time he does he is met with a chorus of detractors as well as capital gains for his efforts.
What some do not know, or easily forget (in no small part due to George’s own efforts to black ball her in the filmmaking community) is that Star Wars owes a debt of gratitude for its success to one Marcia Lucas: George’s ex-wife. Marcia was by all accounts the warm, open, heart to George’s cool, logical, head. She balanced him, encouraged him, and, literally, helped him craft his films and career; she was not only his wife, but also his editor. She convinced him to leave in some of the more heartfelt moments in the original Star Wars film that George would have rather seen on the cutting room floor. To this day George Lucas has not received an Academy Award, yet in 1978 Marcia took one home for editing Star Wars.
After Lucas’s initial success with Star Wars he set about building an empire of his own called Skywalker Ranch. In 1978, after Star Wars and before The Empire Strikes Back, Lucas began acquiring land in Marin County and laying the groundwork for his independent film studio conceived as a creative, professional, facility that would recreate the culture and atmosphere of collaboration and communication between filmmakers that he experienced during film school. The ranch would also act as the unrealized dream of his friend and mentor Francis Ford Coppola. Years earlier, under Coppola’s tutelage, Lucas adopted the independent spirit as Coppola set about building American Zoetrope, an independent studio free of the bureaucracy, culture and politics of Hollywood, which Coppola found stifling, in San Francisco. After Zoetrope all but collapsed and Coppola was saddled with the bill, Lucas set out to make films on his own. As time pushed on, George became more and more involved in his films, overseeing both Return of the Jedi and Temple of Doom at the same time while still pressing forward with the construction of the ranch, sparing less and less time and for his family. Something was bound to break, and finally in 1983, after fourteen years of marriage, Marcia left George.
His long time friend and collaborator Steven Spielberg said of the divorce, “It pulverized him. George and Marcia, for me, were the reason you got married, because it was an insurance policy that marriages do work…and when that marriage didn’t work, I lost my faith in marriage for a long time.” After George lost Marcia he was left living with the ghosts of her contributions, both in his films and in his life. That film remains to Lucas both his greatest achievement and deepest wound. The film that built his empire was recognized by the Academy not for George’s writing and directing, but rather for Marcia’s editing. The most successful and creatively productive years of George’s life were spent with this woman binding her memory and influence to everything that George had accomplished. It stands to reason that George would then go about using all his power and time and money and influence to slowly chip away at what Marcia had done in terms of her contribution to Star Wars. With each iteration the film becomes, in some small way, more George’s and less Marcia’s. It is George’s way of reclaiming his film, to say to himself and the world that there are his films, no one else’s, and he alone has the power to rewrite his own past as he sees fit. Every time a new version of Star Wars is released, another layer of George’s past erodes away taking him farther from Marcia and closer to a future of his own design.
Side note: A friend of mine once had a girl friend in the formative years of his life with whom he shared his most loved musical discoveries. Songs he felt he had personally unearthed which expressed to others the parts of him he was unable to express himself. When the relationship finally broke apart these songs had become tainted with the memories of his failed romance. But he still loved those songs dearly and he was not about to throw the baby out with the bath water. Sure, she had taken a part of him with her when she left, but she was not going to get the music too. So, in order to reclaim the songs he made a number of mixed tapes containing the songs with the most heart-retching memories and then, over the next year or so, played the songs during the most fun, joyous, and exciting occasions he could find, essentially reprogramming his brains associations with the music. It worked.
So the question remains, who is Mike Doughty’s re-interpreted album for? Who was Brian Wilson Presents Smile for? Who are the revised Star Wars films for? Is there a vocal minority of pop culture consumers what are incessantly clamoring for changes, updates, revisions, and additions to previously-released and widely-embraced popular art? Or is it that artists and creators themselves are never satisfied with their own creative output. Picasso, Van Gough, and Dali all painted over completed paintings, deeming them unworthy of themselves regardless of what others felt when they saw the original paintings. They wrote and rewrote their own art, over and over again. Martin Scorsese once said that his films are never completed they are just released. What he meant is that as a filmmaker he always feels like something could be better, finessed, perfected. As an artist, perfection, either in conceit or execution, is essentially the goal. Even artists that embrace improvisation, spontaneity, and imperfection still strive to convey their conceit in the most meaningful way possible. When complications and limitations arise, creatively, physically, or otherwise, concession and compromises are inevitable. It is those decisions, it is every decision, that an author makes as they create and navigate the limitations that ultimately shape the final product. Sometimes the wrong choices are made, sometimes the product is a failure, but sometimes it’s not. Screenwriter William Goldman, when speaking about how to choose a Hollywood project said “nobody knows anything”. Artists are unable to effectively predict the impact of their art, but what they can do is create art with intention and hope.
Perhaps is something more than just the inability to let go of imperfect representations of the artist intent, but rather the artists reclamation of their past work is a form of self therapy in order to rewrite a period of their life so that they can finally move on. With Mike Doughty, he is closing the chapter on a section of his life that essentially made him who he is today as a musician despite his best efforts to take his music in a different creative direction. By rereleasing these songs he is saying to himself, and to the world, that he is the true creator of this music, that he never needed his band. He is shedding the skin he had finally grown into. His solo career is successful, it pays the bills, and he has a doggedly faithful and sincere fan base, but people still see him as Mike Doughty of Soul Coughing instead of just Mike Doughty, which is perhaps all he ever wanted to be; just Mike Doughty. Wilson has recently reunited with his old band mates and has released a new album under the Beach Boys banner. He has moved past his failures. He has moved past Smile. In fact, the entirety of the original Smile has now been released in a beautiful box set and contains all the stems, alternate takes, mixes, etc. of those sessions from long ago effectively trumping Brian’s earlier effort to bring those songs to light. Lucas also is entering a new phase in his life and career. He is now engaged to be married, he has sold off the Star Wars franchise to Disney, he is starting a museum, and he seems happy. He no longer tinkers and tweaks the film edited by his ex-wife. He no longer is rewriting the past, instead he is writing his future.
In each example, these re-releases are not disingenuous cash grabs or an artists inability to stop striving for perfection, but rather, somewhat successful, attempts to sooth the wounds of the past. These are not cries for help, but instead creative individuals serving themselves. These records and films are not for the world, they are for an audience of one: their creators. The world will always have the originals. Soul Coughing records of still for sale online and in used record stores, as is Brian Wilson Present’s Smile. Dusty VHS copies containing the unmolested version of Star Wars languish on thrift store shelves or can be snapped up online. Once art is released into the world it no longer belongs wholly to it’s author but instead it is claimed by those who have a personal experience with it. These revisions to the past might be nothing more than public self-therapy, but then again, all art in someway or another is created as a means of momentarily quelling that relentless voice inside us all.