My closest encounter with Doug Bennett was in the men's room of the Viper Room, a couple of years ago in Maple Ridge. (No, it's not that sort of encounter). I was waiting for a Doug and the Slugs concert to start. I was standing outside the stall, hoping to take a bowel movement before the show, but it was occupied. When the flush finally sounded and the door swung open, Doug Bennett came out. I made a little startled sound, and he glanced at me somewhat apprehensively, as if I would address him. I felt absurdly embarrassed, and hurried into the stall as he turned and left, me trying not to think of the nature of this particular encounter with celebrity as I sat ("why, just a few minutes before, his cheeks were pressed to this very porcelain ring.") So much of my concertgoing experiences have been forgotten over the years, it's bizarre to me that episodes like this stand out.
The whole night was a little strange by me, in fact. Having grown up a huge fan of Doug and the Slugs first two albums -- and I still maintain there are more than a few moments of brilliance on Cognac and Bologna, that it's as good a record as has been made in Canada -- I couldn't help but have mixed feelings about the show. Doug was clearly in decline. (I'd actually had to leave the venue the previous time I'd tried to see him play, in Port Moody -- it took me awhile to get used to the idea of someone who seemed so stylish and self-possessed at one point in his life -- I'm imagining the liner photos for the LP version of Wrap It! -- seeming so indifferently dressed, so cynical about what he was doing, so large). That night at the Viper Room, he abused his audience playfully, with considerable showman's skill (at least by the standards of a drinking establishment), but there were moments where it didn't seem entirely in jest -- he returned again and again to joking bitterly about his divorce, and talked about his hopes at various points in his career to "never have to play pissholes like these again," for instance. At one point he gave a pat answer to a heckler, "Shut up -- half our routine now is me talking about how fat I am." He made sure, whatever he was feeling, that his audience had fun -- doing his "Viagra" routine to the tune of "Gloria," engaging people in a singalong of the Rolling Stones "Satisfaction" (for which his voice was indeed perfect), and bringing audience members on stage for the "bum solo" at the end of the night - but I'm pretty sure he would have rather have been somewhere else. Or perhaps rather have been someone else. Someone who'd made money, who had been a bit better appreciated, whose success had meant more in dollars and cents. Perhaps someone who had albums still in print -- there isn't a single title of theirs currently available on CD, to my knowledge, and not even a file card on the shelves of local CD stores to mark their absence.
See, I don't blame Doug if he was cynical towards the end. I liked the guy a lot, even on that night -- he had humour and style and he did what he was being paid to do and did it very well -- but there was something heartbreaking about it all. Doug had a great voice, great lyrics, and wrote some very, very good songs in his day. Sure, they're not the ones you hear on the radio, now -- from Music for the Hard of Thinking on, the band grew considerably more compromised in their attempts to mine the top-40 and secure an income for themselves. It was never as bad as "Your Body is a Wonderland" or such crap, and when I'm in a waiting room somewhere being forced to endure some soft-rock station, it's a positive relief to have "Who Knows How to Make Love Stay" or any such lesser Slugs numbers come on, since they still retain just a little bit of the style and humour and intelligence of the Slugs at their peak. But those are the only stations that one still hears such tunes on, and that's not that much of a legacy -- not when meaningless meatheads like Bryan Adams are making millions of dollars churning out programmic pap. On the strength of that first disc alone, Doug SHOULD HAVE BEEN our Tony Bennett, our singin' Raymond Chandler, an icon, a man with secured fame and wealth. At age 50, he simply shouldn't have still been playing little clubs in the suburbs, entertaining bald men in baseball caps and women in tight jeans with 80's hairdos and tanlines on their exposed cleavage... Doug deserved better. We as Canadians failed him. The Province, this morning, hailed him as "legendary," but if this is what happens to our legends, we're in a sorry state indeed.
Anyhow, I'm sad he's gone. I'll spin Cognac and Bologna tonight and smile yet again at "Just Another Case" and shiver yet again at the mood evoked by "Tropical Rainstorm" and say some sort of goodbye. Maybe "Drifting Away" will take on a new meaning. I'll think about my own inevitable decline -- I'm just some shmuck ESL teacher, ultimately -- and wonder if I'll last any longer than he did. 52 is damned young. If we cared more about our artists, maybe he'd have had another 20 years to offer us...
Anyhow, now that he's dead, maybe some of Doug Bennett's discs will come back into print. It kinda sucks that nothing less would have moved us to acknowledge him, tho'.