Retconning A Legacy
Somewhere inside the second measure of the fuzzy upright bass sample that sounds like something off a Roni Size record, it hits me that Mike Doughty seems to be changing–or, trying to change–what these songs mean. I am conflicted on this: my normal love for an extra-dimensional take on one’s own art (like a demo version, or an acoustic cover) is fighting tooth-and-nail against my love for the original incarnations of these particular songs–songs that played no small part in defining me as a music fan between the years of 1994 and, oh let’s say 2001-ish.
I have a weird relationship with Soul Coughing. Which is to say, I have a relationship with their body of work, and the mere fact that I even see myself as having that relationship is kind of weird to me, because I don’t know anyone else who has more than a passing knowledge of this group. And this is despite me trying to engender such a knowledge in many people in my sphere of influence over the years. I was a huge fan of theirs, inasmuch as a kid who grew up in East Central KS can be considered to be a huge fan of any nu-jazz/electonica/spoken word ensemble based in (physically and metaphysically) NYC. So, I didn’t (couldn’t) go see their shows or be on their “street team” or anything that would really signify “huge fan”-dom, but I had all their albums and I had a vivid notion of who these people were and how they made their music–or I thought I did, and that’s what I mean when I say “relationship”. They never seemed to be an act that really gave themselves to having a rabid following, that certainly didn’t happen in my neck of the woods. But I loved these albums–I loved the urbane philosophizing, loved the beat poetry feel, loved the jazz-trio sound and the nods to turntablism, loved that I was the only person I knew who really loved them.
Back in 2013, former frontman of the group Mike Doughty took a break from his solo work and other esoteric side projects to release an album full of songs he’d originally written and performed with SC–I’d share the title, but I really think the title of the album is just all the names of the songs, let’s call it CirclesSuperBonBon for brevity’s sake–in versions that were more “pure”, unmarred by the strife of collaborating with the band; versions that were, in theory, the intended forms of each work. The songs are essentially every bit as good, and they are definitely welcomed re-visits for these ears that have been starved for any new Soul Coughing music since the release of El Oso over a decade ago.
So, let’s get this part out of the way: I like this record. I like it a lot. It sounds really good, even when he takes random left turns with the music. It’s like I have these songs in my head already, roadmaps whose landmarks I know and love, and he’s veering off course and making all new paths with them. It is not at all unwelcome, as a sensation or as an experience. I like the new splashy hi-hats and the drum programming flourishes, I counterintuitively like the almost-total absence of any dirge-y bass riffs,I like the new emphasis on the vocal recordings. It’s all good.
What I find myself conflicted over is the idea that these are not re-interpretations. The notion that these new versions–because that is what they are, new–are somehow more “correct” or more “true” really rubs me the wrong way as a longtime appreciator and fan. My contention is that it is perfectly OK and within any artist’s right to exert ownership over his/her intellectual property–bearing that in mind, whatever s/he says is the “real” version, is the “real” version. Fine. But in this act of retroactive continuity, I am forced, as the audience, to wonder if the versions I loved so much were, in fact, “fake” (by extension of the idea that these new versions are “real”). I am troubled by that because I loved these songs, still love these songs–if the artist is now telling me I was somehow deluded in loving his earlier work, however stained it was by horrible relationships and drugs, it kind of makes me uncomfortable. Yes, it is your right to say which version best fits your vision, but how is your audience supposed to know that the rug could be pulled out from under them at any time in the future? It feels like rule-changing to suit your emotional needs, and it feels a little cheap.
In fiction, this idea is known as a retcon - "when a piece of new information imposes a different interpretation on previously described events" (pulled from Google search definition), and it's often used to cover up for inconsistencies that would otherwise throw off the trajectory of the narrative, or to explain something that has now become different in the world of the story (like different actors playing same character in successive seasons). (Example: in the new JJ Abrams Star Trek movies, the differences in the crew and their new adventures are explained via an alternate timeline that began before they ever came together. In this way, fans of the original can view the new versions of the people and the new story arcs without having to reconcile why James T. Kirk no longer speaks in halting sentences and does spoken word albums on the side.)
Within the realm of music and its increasingly razor-thin line of demarcation between creators and fans, I would argue that this methodology is a bit more dangerous. It can force a re-evaluation that may be at best unnecessary and at worst downright hurtful. It may not be a good thing to tell people that they were sold a bill of goods; if not handled in just the right way, it arguably opens a pretty sizable credibility gap for the artist.
Let's face it, this doesn't happen all the time in music. TBH, I can't actually think of another attempt at retconning, though I'm sure a few exist. And I would argue that Soul Coughing's history is probably just about as balls-crazy as it would need to be to justify the effort of such an attempt to sugarcoat.
At the end of the day I am mature enough to know that these qualms are things that I could have been blissfully unaware of, were it not for my need to know the why’s and wherefore’s of this work’s existence. I also know that it is totally within my control to shrug this off like any other good consumer and simply be happy with the fact that I do like this record. So I am manufacturing my own problems here and I'm going to have to move past it. Time to leave well enough alone. Or, to put it another way, “I don’t need to walk around in circles…”
(Post-Script: This piece was originally written in 2014, I have modified it a little for posting here. While written years ago, in a way it is a spiritual sequel to something I wrote in mid-2017 over at Control Forever - I invite you to check it out if you're interested in more of a band profile on Soul Coughing. Cheers!)