Making the Best of Bad Situations

The PFG Social Club: Mike Doughty at the Drake Underground

As someone with no shortage of fandoms and cultural obsessions I always find it fascinating to witness someone else’s, the level of devotion that can be summoned up from someone who usually exists outside the normal arenas of fandom.

Take The Lady. When we first met, one of the things I found interesting about her was her love of the largely-forgotten jazz-hop quartet Soul Coughing and subsequent solo career of frontman Mike Doughty.  This is no casual enjoyment; we’re talking multiple bootleg concert recordings, autographed setlist pinned to the fridge with a magnet, a drawer full of t-shirts, worked as the mailing list facilitator at a show in Michigan just to speak to him before showtime levels of devotion. There’s a scene in the movie “Knocked Up” where Paul Rudd comments to Seth Rogen that he wished he liked anything as much as his kids like bubbles; I wish I liked anything as much as The Lady likes Mike Doughty.

Last night we hit the Drake Underground for her eighth Doughty performace and my fifth.

Doughty’s on the road to not just to promote his latest album Yes and Also Yes, but also his recently published memoir The Book of Drugs, so readings from the book were sprinkled throughout the performance.  In addition to all that, Doughty took questions from the crowd, some submitted before the show, but most shouted out by the small but devoted crowd in attendance.

Doughty’s career path has been turbulent to say the least. He founded Soul Coughing in his early twenties, envisioning it as the loudest live rap band in the industry, and recruited a trio of musicians much older than him that he knew from his days as a doorman at The Knitting Factory in New York. They got signed, put out three albums that are still beloved by many today, and had one radio hit with ‘Circles,’ from their final album.

Conditions within the band began to deteriorate and Doughty ended up strung out on heroin. He broke the band up, got cleaned up, threw an acoustic guitar in how car and started traveling the country playing solo shows and making music that sounded nothing like Soul Coughing, culminating in the release of his first proper solo record, Haughty Melodic.

This is the time in his life the memoir recounts, and the time he wanted to talk about at the show last night, explicitly stating he was only interested in answering ‘gnarly questions about Soul Coughing.’

The lesson learned is: Don’t hold your breath for SC to join in with the 90’s rock reunion trend, as Doughty cannot put enough distance between himself and the other three. And not without reason; this isn’t the petulant stubbornness of some musician harboring a personal grudge, there is serious hurt and damage there.

“I grew up in an abusive family, I was going to find those people again,” Doughty said of his former bandmates, specifically
recounting bizarre moments where Soul Coughing bassist Sebastian Steinberg [though Doughty refused to refer to him or any of his former bandmates by name] tried to pin overseas long distance calls on him while on tour, or replying to fan emails claiming Doughty didn’t know how to tune his own guitar among other assorted backstabbers, in addition to the other members’ tenacious legal claims towards publishing on songs they had nothing to do with, like the track he collaborated on with the DJ BT, which Doughty alleges contains a verse from an a song he brought to his bandmates who rejected it, yet sued for publishing when it showed up on the BT song.

“It’s unfortunate when I meet Soul Coughing fans, because I’m not one,” said Doughty, likening listening to Soul Coughing to what most people feel when they listen to Nickelback.

“Do you think any of your songs were improved by what the other three brought to them?” asked The Lady from the crowd.

“Not a one,” said Doughty, without any hesitation, though he did concede that he did have a sort of detached satisfaction towards some of them.

For me, it was a night probably better suited to my level of fandom than The Lady’s. Aside from three songs from the new album he didn’t play any songs newer than the material on Haughty Melodic, and spent half the night dishing on his old band, and I’ll always be a sucker for band gossip of any sort. For her, these were stories and facts she already knew, but for someone like me who was hearing them for the first time, it was an altogether engrossing night of music, literature and, in its way, catharsis.

And, as with so many other things this I seem to encounter lately, there was a moment of the show custom-fitted to my February-fueled creative meltdown.  Someone asked Doughty why this was the right time to write the book. He said the primary reason was someone called his bluff, having heard him muse that he should write one enough times that they finally gave him some money and told him to go do it.  He said the hardest part of most creative endeavours, and the key to creative anxiety, is simple:

“If you put things out there, you lose the luxury of considering yourself an undiscovered genius.”

Yow.  Yeah, I thought about that a lot the rest of the night.

Near the end of the show, Doughty let the crowd know he was A-OK with stealing music, encouraging those in attendance to buy the album if they could, and pass copies along to as many friends as possible, since he believes Napster saved his career in the late 90’s, as he toured the country selling copies of an album his label didn’t want.  Of all the songs from that first album, he credited this one for keeping his momentum going during that shaky time. It’s also a song I downloaded from Napster in the late 90’s.  Full circle, that.  Watch his performance of that song, a cover of ‘Real Love’ by Mary J. Blige, below.

The Book of Drugs is available in finer bookstores now.

A Note for Lisa

At Book Expo Canada, 2008. Back when I was 40 lbs heavier and dressed like a white guy.

She was one of the people I first talked to on a regular basis when I started my job. I was new to Toronto, didn’t know anyone, and I’d started working at a business where it seemed like most of the staff had a certain history, one I was entering but still outside of.

But she was one the one who spoke to me first.  She called me kid, even though I was clearly older than her. She demanded I tell her ‘stories’. That was her big thing, whether she hadn’t seen me in two days or, after she got sick, two months: she’d want me to tell her some story. So I’d tell her about a night out or what games I was playing on XBox and she would listen intently then reply in that weird cadence of hers, ‘Yeah. That’s cool.’ And then walk away.

Her voice is what I’ll remember.  When I tell my Lady stories about people from work sometimes I have to use nicknames as shorthand so she can distinguish who I’m talking about.  I somewhat regret referring to Lisa as ‘Tommy Chong,’ in reference to her laid -back, relaxed speech, so strange coming out of a tiny Chinese girl. She was so wonderfully awkward and strange.

I remember I would walk into the lunch room and she’d be stirring her freshly heated lunch, rice and chicken and Chinese greens, which I thought was amazing but to her was as pedestrian as a PBnJ.  She’d give me this exasperated ‘What are you talking about?!’ then offer to have her mom make me lunch the following week.

And of course, as anyone who worked with her will tell you, there was her appreciation for beautiful men.  When the Toronto firefighters, or some Harlequin cover models would do appearances at the store, she would get so bashful, but there was always a glint in her eye, a flash that told you she’d never be so forward as to ever make a first move, but god help the man who did. She’d tear him apart.

But the first story that popped into my head when I heard she was gone was some random day, must have been a Sunday since that was the only day she was working at that point.  I was posted up in Fiction like usual and Susan Boyle was playing on the stereo. She walked by, her kerchief and ponytail meticulously positioned to conceal the cysts on the side of her head.  She stopped where I was and did that little head nod of acknowledgment she would do.

“You like this music?”
“Oh, you know I do, L-Tran.”
“Yeah, I could tell. You love this. It’s your favourite. You go home and sing it every night,” a point she illustrated by launching into the most hysterically exaggerated performance of ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ I will ever hear in my lifetime, in a voice I’d never heard her use before or since.  It was a brief glimpse into who she was outside of work, the woman her friends and family knew well.

They’ll bury her the day after my birthday this year.  I’ll wake up on that day like I woke up on this one, thanking life for the day ahead, because it’s already one more than she got.

Rest in Peace, Lisa Tran.

Shots Fired, Part Two

For three and a half years, I was fortunate enough to have someone pay me actual money to take words from my feeble little brain, organize them into sentences they then would print in a newspaper or post online.

And I still never called myself a ‘writer’.

I have a problem with self-labelers.  I have a problem with people who give themselves titles they haven’t deserved yet.  You might do these things, but that doesn’t make you the thing you say you are. If you write, you aren’t necessarily a writer. If you play music, you aren’t a musician, and if you paint, you aren’t a painter, if you take pictures, you aren’t a photographer.

I’ve seen this discussion a million different places, with most people opting to soothe the battered egos of the aspiring artist, essentially letting them off the hook and telling them, ‘If you need to say you’re a writer to get your ass in the chair, then fine you’re a writer,’ or, ‘if you write everyday, you’re a writer.’

Um, no.

I might shoot some free throws at the hoop over the garage, it doesn’t mean I’m a basketball player.  The title denotes a level of professionalism, and if you haven’t earned it, I don’t think you should have it, is all. I am clearly the odd one out here, judging by the proliferation and popularity of sites like Redbubble.

The problem with Redbubble [or Deviantart, or Livejournal or hell, even WordPress] is this: Yes, there is good quality, there’s the stuff that gets posted to the main page or gets picked up and reposted somewhere and goes viral.  And then there are millions of contributions that exist only in the profile of one poster and his or her followers.  They post a shitty poem or drawing and sit back for the accolades to come in from people as amateurish as they are.  The cost for these compliments is to offer equally vapid and thoughtless [meaning without thought] compliments to them in return, creating this vacuum of sycophancy and mediocrity that I just don’t have the time for, not anymore.

See friends, back in the heady days of 56 K we had forums: awful places with awkward interfaces, but they were the first way most of us started using the Internet to connect with people from across the world, and if you were a writer a quick browse through Yahoo’s category listing could give you some poetry magazines.  This is how I found VOiCE.  VOiCE was a zine published out of Indianapolis which never took my submissions probably because I wasn’t quite miserable enough and didn’t listen to enough industrial music </sourgrapes>. But they had a forum and a dedicated group of people who would read whatever went up and sometimes offer criticism but most times just offered support.  You know what constant support gets you?  Shitty poetry, that’s what.

But it was the order of the day, and I just wanted to fit in, so I’d leave two-word niceties on most people’s work so they’d repay in kind when I posted, or at least go easy on me because I was a nice guy.  For the most part it worked, but one day one guy wouldn’t let me off the hook, asking me why I always heaped compliments on work that was inferior to my own.  It’s still the kindest thing a stranger has ever said to me, and an endorsement I’ve never forgotten, one that shook me out of the coma of cheap flattery I’d been in.  I stopped posting not too long after.  A quick check of the web address reveals an aborted attempt to relaunch the site as an archival blog, choked with spam comments.

This is an epiphany most Redbubble seem content to live without.  They enjoy their complacency, so good on them for it, I guess.

So keep on throwing up first drafts with no revision and call yourself a writer. But you ain’t fooling me, friends. I respect the art too much to toss the title around so frivolously.

Remembering Satoshi Kon

Thank You. Rest in Peace.

I haven’t purchased anime in about two years, but the last time I did was when I found the final three discs of a show called Paranoia Agent on clearance [Geneon had closed its anime distribution by then, I think] and the only reason I bought them is because it was only a 13-episode show and helmed by Satoshi Kon.

A lot of anime is garbage. Can we admit this honestly? Even the ‘good’ titles are often rehashes of familiar scifi and fantasy tropes. But occasionally something comes out that actually makes use of the freedom allowed by the medium of animation to create something well above a pandering cartoon.

Perfect Blue is one of those films. Kon’s first movie is a psychological thriller about a former pop idol who wants to make it as an actress and finds herself stalked by one of her former fans who isn’t pleased with her more adult career choices. The movie displays the start of Kon’s fascinations with the dichotomies of truth and identity, the utter obliteration of what is real and what isn’t, looping back to the same spot again and again, revealing that what you just watched didn’t actually happen [or did it]. It blew me away when I first saw it, and is so much more than the gruesome cover artwork of an icepick-wielding Mima spattered with blood. Yes, there is murder. Yes, there is a rape [or rather, the filming of a rape scene for a movie, a moment which totally freaked a friend out when she saw it for the first time]. But it is a skillfully plotted thriller worth multiple viewings, and a knockout win for a first-time director. Kon joined the Miyazakis and Watanabes on my list of anime makers I would always keep up on, names that would always get me to stop and look at the box.

Kon passed away this week from pancreatic cancer, in the middle of his most recent project. My first thought was that I was a fool for not seeing his most recent work, 2006’s Paprika. But I think now it’s a good thing. It means I’ll have two more hours where I can be wowed by the man’s genius, two more hours to press STOP on the remote and say, ‘What the hell was that?’ in the best possible way. Seeing as it’s based in dreams, knowing Kon, it’ll probably make at least 2/3 of Inception look like a student film. I can’t wait to rent it.

And just because I always thought it was so brilliantly unsettling, I’m throwing in the opening credits to Paranoia Agent, the show I bought years ago, about people who fall into utter despair, only to be smacked in the face with a baseball bat by a boy in golden rollerblades.

Just keep laughing, even as the world ends around you. Primetime viewing in Japan, that.

We lost a good one this time, and at 46, way too young.

The Day I Won the Internet

You may have heard that yesterday the geniuses over at Old Spice, on the heels of debuting another miracle of commercial marketing starring Isaiah Mustafa [aka ‘The Man Your Man Could Smell Like’] started posting Mustafa’s personalized replies to comments, tweets and Facebook wall posts on YouTube.  They started going up around noon EST and got posted steadily for the next eight hours, totalling about 130[EDIT: They seem to be at it again today, though whether these are leftovers from last night remains to be seen].

And of the thousands of people who tossed comments out, my lame one gets picked. It’s funny how the oddest things can snap you out of a funk brought on by professional setbacks.  Well, that and a well timed Carrol Chaning impression. But we’ll discuss that another time.  Peep the vid below.

Words I Manifest

The Ownerz.

I knew it was coming. We all did. Couple months back when Guru, the MC half of legendary hip-hop duo Gang Starr, slipped into a coma, we all held our breath. And despite the lack of news in recent weeks, I don’t know if it surprised anyone to learn that he passed last night, finally succumbing to the cancer that had left him hospitalized for a month. Still didn’t make it any easier to read when I woke up this morning.

Gang Starr was there early for me, a chubby 12-year-old in a Raiders cap and jogging pants. This is like, ’88 or ’89, when it really felt like hip-hop had crossed the tipping point. Even that young, I could tell: the videos started showing up more and more on Muchmusic. The network started running Rap City five days a week, 5.30 I think it was, after school, hosted by Michael Williams. And they played everything . So Gang Starr got sandwiched in between groups like Brand Nubian, Poor Righteous Teacher, Pete Rock and CL Smooth and other Five Percenter types, who had banging music even if I had no clue about the iconography featured in the videos. I remember not feeling them all that much as a pre-teen. I remember falling into an amazing sleep while ‘Ex Girl to Next Girl‘ played on the TV in the background, but that shrill horn in ‘Who’s Gonna Take the Weight‘ wasn’t made for a child’s ear, so I tossed them aside and went back to listening to De La and Digital Underground. Until ‘Mass Appeal‘.
‘Mass Appeal’ was the first Gang Starr record I loved, adored, obsessed over, even if it was just eight little keyboard blips looped for three and a half minutes. That was around the point I understood there was a ‘Primo sound’, and further exploration of his production work shot him to the top of my favourite producers.
None of this is to diminish Guru’s contribution. His voice, the melodic monotone, was the soothing comfort to Premier’s hard boom-bap. No one makes drums slap harder than Preem, and Guru’s baritone delivery soften the abrasiveness of the drums, making the pair another example of a perfect hip-hop duo the likes of which we never see anymore [to hip-hop’s detriment, I think]. By the time ‘Moment of Truth’ hit in ’97, on the strength of singles like ‘You Know My Steez’ and ‘Royalty‘, I was hooked, and scooped up the greatest hits compilation a couple of years later, which has been a staple of my iPod ever since.
So it’s with a heavy heart to know that Guru and Primo won’t be working together again, a heavier one knowing Premier lost his brother and favourite collaborator, and heaviest to think of all the suspect dealings surrounding Guru’s current DJ, both before and after his death. But we don’t need to talk about that.
All we need to talk about is the contributions the man made to the music we love, and how sick and tired I am of writing tributes for musicians I respect.
I think I owe it to the man to go look at some of the Jazzmatazz work.