Doug and the Slugs is one of those bands that I came to appreciate over time. That I gradually realized I really liked as it dawned on me that they had several great songs. And one song in particular that I would place in the “love” category: Day by Day. It doesn’t hurt that I’ve seen them twice in concert, both lively, energetic and enjoyable shows. Nor does it hurt that there’s a slight personal connection. I was going to write a meaningful personal connection but that couldn’t be further from the truth; it’s actually a ridiculous personal connection. I’ll get into that in a bit.
I’m thinking about Doug and the Slugs now (and listening to more of their music) because I just watched the documentary Doug and the Slugs and Me by Teresa Alfeld on CBC Gem. It’s really a fine doc on this quintessential Canadian band, expertly crafted and features many of the Slugs and other interesting personalities such as Bob Geldof and Bif Naked and Ron Sexsmith (I have a personal connection to Ron Sexsmith too; a couple, actually, one even more ridiculous and embarrassing than the Doug and the Slugs connection, the other much more respectable: more on those in a bit).
Here’s what I used to think about Doug and the Slugs. I liked their music. I liked their energy. I was intrigued by their front man Doug Bennett. I had heard that he was a businessman who’d decided to form his own band and I inferred that he possessed a unique combination of skills that allowed him to do so. He could write music and sing (sort of, well enough) and I guessed that his businessman acumen and experience conferred upon him the ability to organize a successful band and all that that entailed. I was under the mistaken impression (a lot of mistaken impressions, really) that he’d started the band late in life. Then I’d heard that he had become ill on a grueling touring schedule before finally collapsing and dying in his early fifties. I’d always figured it was a heart attack. And that the rigours of touring had been a major contributing factor. At least, I’d thought, he died doing what he loved.
That’s what I’d always thought.
What I knew for sure was that he made some great music and put on an entertaining show. And that he was a character. At one open air show that I saw in Toronto he made a crack about all the “young, female flesh” hanging off the walls, which painted him forever in my mind as a rather salacious character. At another show, this time at the now defunct Forum in Toronto during a summer afternoon, I sat in the bleachers enjoying the show in my usual quiet, understated fashion when he pointed from the stage in my direction. Gradually I realized that he might be pointing at me. So I pointed at me too, and he immediately nodded, yes, you, asshole! And then he mimed clapping. Cuz everyone around me was clapping. So I began clapping, and he nodded, and then we were good, and even though I kinda hate clapping at concerts I kept on clapping because I was now obligated. (That was the ridiculous personal connection.)
That’s the extent of what I knew and thought I knew about Doug and the Slugs.
Teresa Alfed’s doc set me straight on a number of points and educated me on many others. Doug Bennett had actually started the band as a much younger man that I’d thought. He was a charismatic dreamer of a leader, and effective in that sense, but not much of a businessman. He wrote more of the material than I’d realized. He was a family man, but that had gone south, though he seemed like a pretty fun father. There had been two versions of Doug and the Slugs. One with the original Slugs, which had been fun and reasonably successful but not all sunshine and lollipops, and then, a while after their heyday, another iteration with Doug and a bunch of other guys. And it hadn’t been a heart attack that had killed Doug; it had been alcoholism.
For the latter reason I found Teresa’s documentary quite tragic. It’s the story of a man with a dream who kind of attained that dream for a bit, and then lost it, after which his demons crept up and polished him off. I HATE when that happens. When reality bites us in the ass. When the absolute worst happens. I hate the knowledge that it CAN happen, and all too often does. I feel for Doug Bennett and I feel for his family.
I think those of us who dabble in the arts can relate to Doug. We craft our art, our books or our music or whatever, and we hope that we’ll be successful at it. It takes us a while to define that success. At first, it’s a vague notion of becoming famous for it and making a lot of money at it. That does happen for some. It doesn’t happen for most. And then there’s those who get close, or get to taste it for a while, only to lose it, and then spend their lives trying to get it back. Like a kind of addiction. I think astronaut Chris Hadfield’s line applies here: Don’t be too in love with your past self (and you don’t have to have been famous to need that advice; simply having been young once also qualifies). And then of course there’s those who don’t make it at all. Doug Bennett falls into the second camp. As it stands now, I fall into the third. And I’m okay with that.
I’m okay with that because I now define artistic success as crafting art successfully. Actually, even just trying qualifies. And here’s the other thing: regardless of how much money Doug Bennett and his Slugs made (or didn’t), or how world famous they became (or didn’t), their music lives on. It’s enjoyed by millions. And it means something to millions. Day by Day got me through at least one rough patch in my life. I clung to it like a life-line and appreciate it still. I wish that Doug Bennett had lived to become an elder statesman of Canadian rock & roll and made several more albums worth of music and ultimately got to appreciate just how successful an artist he actually was. He sure would have had a lot of fun with the Barenaked Ladies, I think. They absolutely would have performed together.
The Ron Sexsmith stories. Once, as a callow youth, I saw the Ron Sexsmith Trio perform at C’est What, a Toronto club. They played the Beatles Dig a Pony, a song I didn’t know at the time but really enjoyed. I misheard the title as Lucifer’s Pony, for some reason. I used to drink a bit too much in those days, my early twenties. By the time they finished their set I was pretty drunk. Oblivious to bar band protocol, I approached Ron and asked him if they could play the song Lucifer’s Pony again. They politely told me to f*** off and finished packing up their instruments. Fast forward about twenty years and I was the recording engineer for CBC Radio’s Q. We had Ron Sexsmith on one day (no longer a trio). I had the privilege of recording him live for the show. He was terrific. I never mentioned C’est What or Lucifer’s Pony.
In the documentary Doug and the Slugs and Me, Ron performs a moving acoustic rendition of Day by Day, a song that includes this intriguing snippet of lyrics that, although he was certainly a fun-loving guy, I suspect comes from not too deep in Doug Bennett’s heart, and that we can all relate to at one time or another:
Sometimes late at night I
I feel strangely blue
Sometimes late at night I
I need what I get from you
Day by day you show me a better way
Day by day you help me to find a place
Day by day you help me make it
Day by day by day by day by day
Doug & the Slugs 1979-01-12 Rohan’s, Vancouver, BC [CFOR FM Broadcast]
Wow… thanks Walter!
You are welcome!