Last week, Mike Doughty of Soul Coughing launched a crowd-funding campaign for his next two solo albums. Yesterday, as part of “Closing Time: Stories of Shuttered New York City Venues” at the Downtown Literary Festival, the Lower East Sider turned Brooklynite took the stage at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe, just around the corner from where he once worked the door at the original Knitting Factory, and spoke about his career, the folly of nostalgia, and the extreme changes he’s seen during his 25 years in NYC. Here’s what he said.
I’ve, by happenstance, fallen into a small number of legendary scenes in my life, with no intention of being in any of them. One of them was in London in 1996 or ’95-ish: the Blue Note in Hoxton Square, which was the center of drum and bass in the universe.
There was sort of a drum and bass mafia. So to get gigs, your dubplates, which were test pressings of the recordings you made, had to go to DJs at the Sunday night (which was like 6 p.m. to midnight, or some super weird time for a dance situation) party or you wouldn’t get gigs. So essentially the genre was being born at that club every Sunday night. I also had the only extent E connection [in Britain] at that time, because I was followed around incessantly in London by people who wanted to know where I got my pills.
I remember I was wasted out of my mind, sitting next to this girl who did a dance that I called the “Hackney Girl” because I found out she was from Hackney… And I ended up talking to her and she said, “I want to go to the South Bronx, I want to go to a party in the South Bronx but I hear they kill you for being white.” And I said, “They don’t, they don’t – but also, it’s 1995 and you are presumably thinking of the club in Krush Groove and it’s not there anymore.” She wouldn’t hear it. She wanted to go to the South Bronx, it was her dream. This is a moment where I can pinpoint somebody in a legendary club at a particular time that people are extremely nostalgic for wishing they were in another legendary club from a different time that people are extremely nostalgic for. My point being that this disease is omnipresent.
I arrived in New York in 1989, 18 years old. I have probably never met a New Yorker who did not say, “You just got here after it got good” to the next generation. “Oh, my god.” Or really more likely thought that they had arrived just when things had gotten shitty. It’s like, “Oh, it was so great and now it’s gone.”
My dream was to play at CBGB. It was my dream. And they had a thing where on Monday night if they booked you there they would give you a slot, on Monday night, and you would play and they would count how many of your friends showed up. And if they showed up and they bought drinks they would give you a gig. They wouldn’t give me a gig. They gave me a gig next door at a place called the 313 Gallery. I always called it 313, I thought it was a hipper thing than calling it The Gallery but most people call it The Gallery.
CBs had formed this little strip mall. To its left there was The Gallery and to its right there was a pizza parlor/record store. It was their strip mall. The Gallery was their place where they shunted quieter acts. I was a solo guy, sang, played electric guitar, just me initially. I had no place in the [current music scene at] CBGBs, to be sure. My first gig there I wrote very meticulously the set list, worked on it for hours, hauled my Peavey amp. I lived on Elizabeth and Spring – it was shitty then. I was incredibly skinny, it took forever for me to get my amp there. I had meticulously worked out the setlist. I started playing, there was nobody there but three people at the bar. One of them left. Another one left. The other one came back, another one left.
At the end of this there was no one there but me and the bartender, and I continued to play. Because I did not know what else to do. And the bartender walked out into the middle of the empty house and said, “I’m – I’m going to close,” and thus ended my show. (That was Liz Penta, who later was the manager of Medeski Martin & Wood, who were a huge jam band in the ’90s. And she hates it when I tell this story.)
So you would see, like, Marc Ribot had a band called Shrek that was amazing that I can’t believe anybody doesn’t remember; I saw Cibo Matto there for the first time. All the time I felt like it was a side bar, like we weren’t good enough for CBGB. But it was great.
Inexplicably, my band attracted the attention of the music business. And this was in 1993 when there was a tremendous amount of money in the music business and no one really understood what was happening in music. Because it was directly after Nirvana; no one at a record company understood Nirvana, they just know that Nirvana signed wherever Sonic Youth signed, and they thought, “If we go out and find a weird band that we don’t understand, they will attract the next Nirvana.” So they were on us like spots on a dice.
There was a night when there were like 15 A&R people from major labels, and they were all just looking at each other. None of them had any opinion about us; they were all looking at each other trying to figure out what each other thought. And this went on for a period of about two months.
We obtained this high-powered lawyer. We were sort of shunted to the upper reaches of the music business as these penniless malcontents on the Bowery. And the lawyer called and gave us this huge list of music industry people that were coming to the show: publishing people, broadcasting people, all kinds of people. And we said, “Admission is $4 — it’s four dollars. We’re not going to have a guest list. I have a couple of very broke friends but presumably most of these people have $4.” And our lawyer was very, very angry. What he said was that these people need to feel important. And he was right.
We eventually did get a record deal with Warner Bros. (once all these people had gone away, because they did not have $4) because the A&R guy tried to get into a Jon Spencer Blues Explosion show at CBGB, it was too crowded, he was hot, he was tired, he was sick of it so he came next door while we were playing and sat down and was like, “I think I’m going to sign this band.” And week after week he paid $4.
I guess I just want to say that I try to resolutely resist the impulse to say, “It used to be better.” It is getting harder. Perhaps that is my age. I do not think Times Square ever really looked like that sequence in Taxi Driver or that sequence in Midnight Cowboy that everyone thinks about when they think about Times Square. I think you can go look at the shittiest porn site – the crudiest, corniest porn site – and imagine that filling the street. And get the retro out of it – now porn from the ’70s looks like, “Oh, it’s so louche and crazy.” But it was just really, really depressing at the time. So I do not believe in the old Times Square. And I’m really impatient with people my age who’ve started talking about how the kids just don’t understand. And it’s like come on, people said the same thing to you, they’re going to say something… come on.
This being said, I used to live on Elizabeth and Spring at a time when it had no identity. It was not Nolita. Me and my roommate had this theory that everybody walking into the neighborhood thought they were in a different neighborhood: there was an Italian guy who thought he was in Little Italy, there was an artist who thought he was in Soho, there was a dope fiend that thought he was on the Lower East Side, there was a Chinese guy that thought he was in Chinatown. Everybody was in it. We called the neighborhood Laundry Town because there were these laundromats that were probably, well, money laundering places, because they were empty and they always had stacks of laundry – stacks that never moved and they were never anybody’s laundry. I miss all of that, it turns out – even as I abhor [doing so].
You hear people say, “Oh my god, man, I wish I was here in the ’80s, wish I was here in the early ’90s, wish I was here in the ’70s, it was so great.” And I generally say, “You know, there’s plenty of Bushwick, you got Brownsville, you got East New York, you got the entire Bronx, you got Ridgewood, there’s all kinds of New York City left. The people you’re talking about moved to a neighborhood that was cheap and highly undesirable and dangerous and made it, they made something happen.” So when somebody’s like, “Oh man, I wish I was on Chrystie Street and it was 1990,” I go, “Well, you could move out to Bushwick.” They go, “Psh, I don’t want to do that.” So, you know, if you don’t want to do that, you’re not going to get it.
Theme: create your own scenes, it’s possible.
The other part of this is, this is no longer the land of my people — this area. It is extremely no longer the land of my people. There was a point where I was like, ah, you know, some rich people moved in, there are condos, whatever, things change. As the years go by more and more, I walk around and I’m like, I don’t belong here. Like I wonder if my clothes are out of season, I feel like I should walk up to somebody and be like, “Well, actually, I make quite a bit of money. I’m not as poor as you think I am,” just like weird ego shit just intrudes. And that’s my shit – it’s ego shit. But it is haunting…
If you’re young and you’re here, there’s plenty of New York left and you can make something out of it. And one day, you can be the version of the Hackney girl from the Blue Note in London talking about something 30 years ago that no longer exists. That is what I wish for you.
Correction: The original version of this post was revised to correct the spelling of dubplates and other transcription errors.