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Songwriter’s Blues

Songwriter’s Blues

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- by Fish

Twitter user “rybla” started off innocently enough. Excited about having bought tickets to see musician Mike Doughty, he quoted “Screenwriter’s Blues”, a song from Doughty’s previous band, Soul Coughing, saying he was going to a venue to see Doughty’s name “five feet long and luminous”.

He probably wasn’t expecting Doughty to reply, or certainly not to reply with, “I hate that song.” And soon thereafter, a loud request: “Soul Coughing fans: please DROP IT. I am NOT THAT GUY ANYMORE. If you must cling to it, please DON’T BOTHER ME WITH SOUL COUGHING SHIT.”

It’s hard to blame rybla for his enthusiasm, and he was, after all, tweeting his enthusiasm for seeing Mike Doughty’s show, not carrying a torch for a vanished band. But equally, it’s hard to blame artists like Doughty if they’re touchy about living under the shadow of an artistic past.

Soul Coughing was a widely-acclaimed and popular alternative band from the mid-90s, their music an eclectic mix of rock, hip-hop, jazz, and avant-garde. They made a splash with songs like “Super Bon Bon”, and got a lot of modern-rock airplay, but split acrimoniously in 2000. Frontman Mike Doughty promptly took up his solo career, but his solo music shifted to a stripped-down, singer-songerwriter vein. The new material also found both critical and commercial success, and for good reason — but fans coming to his new songs and expecting “Soul Coughing 2.0” were often disappointed.

Doughty is far from the only artist, in whatever medium, to have his or her older, popular material loom large over the current work. When the Kinks played my hometown in 1989, they plowed through “You Really Got Me” at a hyperspeed tempo, seemingly eager to get that obligatory chestnut out of the way — and that was twenty years ago; one can only imagine Ray Davies’ opinion of the tune now. When a group like the Rolling Stones says, “Here’s a track off the new album,” it’s a signal to the crowd that they’re about to be bored for the next three and a half minutes. It makes one understand why J.D. Salinger retreated from the public eye and stopped publishing. In the Barenaked Ladies tune “Box Set”, the protagonist, a faded pop star, laments:

But now it seems all that people want
is what I used to be
and every time I try to do something new
all they want is 1973

For too many of Mike Doughty’s fans, all they want is 1996. Fans are drawn to an artist because of a certain style; when that style evolves, fans don’t always follow. The Byrds got famous for their folk-rock sound; when they veered country, the fans dropped away. U2 are one of the few bands whose audience has stayed strong despite changes in style, and even then, their electropop stylings on Zooropa and Pop led to weaker album sales; when someone describes “the U2 sound”, they mean the anthemic crackle of the Unforgettable Fire days, not “Beautiful Day”. Doughty’s current output is thoughtful and catchy, but the Soul Coughing material may well remain his “signature style” in the popular eye. Like it or not — and clearly he doesn’t — the Soul Coughing tunes loom five feet long and luminous.

Any artist with such a past has to come to terms with it, one way or another. For some, like the Kinks, it’s to bite one’s tongue and plow on. For others, like Cat Stevens, it’s a wholesale rejection. For many, it’s somewhere in between; even Doughty still plays a Soul Coughing tune or two nowadays. The recent Twitter exchange, however, shows that to wrestle with one’s body of creative work can be easier than it looks. While Doughty’s solo material has done well and he regularly plays midsize theaters and similar venues, his current work still doesn’t have the recognition and sales that his Soul Coughing material did; this undoubtedly contributes to his discomfort with his past. There may also be a deeper motive behind his lashing out; during his Soul Coughing days, Doughty was a drug addict, and that may color his opinion of his musical output during that time. Nowadays, hooked on nothing but coffee, he clearly doesn’t look upon the late 90s with happy memories.

Perhaps it was too much coffee that made him forget that the immediacy of the Internet doesn’t always work in one’s favor, and that it can be all too easy to click “Send”. Criticizing a fan is never smart, especially if that fan is lauding your older material and not saying it’s better than your current output. As of right now, “rybla” seems to have deleted or renamed his Twitter account, so we can only see Doughty’s half of the conclusion of their conversation: “I apologize”.

And the next day, remorse: “I have a most acute emotional hangover.”