I was telling Bec Norton yesterday that my trajectory into rock listening is, um, a little different from most kids my age. Because I didn’t come into it until I was fifteen or sixteen, because I was a weird kid, and because I was black and oriented toward hip-hop, R&B, and jazz (like I said, I was a weird kid), my entrée was into the more alternative/avant-garde end of things. Because I was part of the Lollapalooza generation, and odd rock was mainstreaming in the 1990s, I heard Hüsker Dü before I heard Led Zeppelin, Surfer Rosa and Slanted and Enchanted before Sticky Fingers or Sgt. Pepper’s, and I played closer attention to the bands Kurt Cobain claimed to love than I did to Kurt Cobain’s actual band. There were, of course, artists I couldn’t avoid—U2, Pearl Jam, Guns ‘N’ Roses, the Beatles I heard on Mom’s oldies station, the aforementioned Nirvana—but CBGB’s meant more to me than Madison Square Garden. At the two Lollapalooza shows I attended, I was way more excited to hear sets by the Breeders, Stereolab, and the Pharcyde than I was to hear the headliners. There are classic-rock staples that, even now, I don’t know the lyrics to or, in a few cases, have never heard.
(None of this, by the way, is intended to indicate my hipster cred. I wasn’t hip, and I missed a lot of great music during those years. True story: I went to see Three Kings the week it came out with a friend, and it became one of my favorite movies—and still is—while I was watching it. When the end credits rolled, I said to my friend, “This song’s terrific! David O. Russell went with a left-field choice, even for the credits!” My friend said, “How is it that you’ve never heard ‘In God’s Country’ before?” “Oh cool,” I said, “so that’s the name of this band? I’ll have to look them up!” My friend sighed audibly. To this day, I still haven’t heard The Joshua Tree all the way through.)
Even as I was getting into rock, I found that I needed artists that bridged the gap between the beat-heavy, danceable sounds I loved (and still love) in pop and the more abrasive, noisier rock ‘n’ roll that was somehow calling to me. Talking Heads—which fused post-punk, disco, downtown new wave, and whatever weird half-rapping thing that David Byrne does—remain a beloved band of mine for this reason. (Tina Weymouth is one helluva bassist.) I gravitated to Beck’s “Loser” even when indie kids were worrying that it was too poppy. Red Hot Chili Peppers white-boy funk made me giddy—as Anthony Kiedis himself said, “Give It Away” would be called a rap song if it hadn’t been done by skate punks.
Again, though, I was a weird teenager who dreamed of haunting Manhattan’s streets, seeking out bohemian music. At bookstores, I shoplifted back issues of the New Yorker and the Village Voice instead of Playboys. (I bought those at 14 Records, on Greenville Avenue, from a store owner who obviously didn’t care that I wasn’t eighteen. Hi, Big Bucks Burnett!) And it was in the New Yorker that I first read about Soul Coughing. The writer said something like, “You should catch these guys live before they break up and become this generation’s Velvet Underground.”
I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, not exactly knowing what the Velvet Underground was, and Lord knows Doughty and company never became that influential or that popular. Then I read something in Rolling Stone that made Soul Coughing sound even more mysterious and intriguing. The group operated under a consciously jazz aesthetic, with thick-as-syrup acoustic bass and scratchy blues guitar. Sure, but those lyrics were as abstract as anything by De La Soul, or Bob Dylan at his oddest, and the guy singing said lyrics half-sang and half-spit ‘em out like some lost Beat poet. And Soul Coughing had samples, lots of them. And it had beats—huge meaty ones that were as delicious as P-Funk but as icy and angular as Blondie’s.
So, I bought Ruby Vroom on a whim, a $16 extravagance for a kid working on lawn-mowing money and a pitiful allowance. The record kicked my ass. It was exactly as boho, danceable, rocking, and bizarre as the reviews said it would be. The ominous, strangely funny lyrics—“The five percent nation of Milton Bradley!”; “Her words burn the air like the names of candy bars”; “A man drives a plane into the Chrysler Building”; “Sluggin’ down fruit juice, extra tall, extra wide”—were incoherent to me (but no more so than Nirvana’s at the time) but somehow made a kind of internal sense, like the white noise of TV channel changing that nonetheless creates a full, singular environment. Dan Couch and I pondered the lyrics, the sound, the aural aesthetic—because Soul Coughing seemed a world onto itself—of that album. Even the song titles seemed mysterious—“Is Chicago, Is Not Chicago”; “Bus to Beelzebub”; “Moon Sammy”; “Sugar Free Jazz.” We tried to interpret Ruby Vroom. We danced to it. We foisted it onto other friends.
And then, like so many things I clung to in my adolescence, Soul Coughing fell away from me as I got older. Dan carried the torch for a while, following the lead singer’s solo career as it veered into more earnest folk, but eventually he gave up, too. Last week, though, we exchanged emails about music, and he mentioned my introducing him to Soul Coughing by putting “Casiotone Nation” on a mixtape. I politely corrected him, though, because I knew that wasn’t quite right.
You see, for about three years, I was obsessed, in the way only teenagers can be about music, with Ruby Vroom’s fourth track, “Blue Eyed Devil.” I put it on every mixtape I made for my friends in high school, and I made a lot of mixtapes. I have no fucking idea what the song’s about, even now, but M. Doughty’s delivery is so cool that it does not matter. (His avant-garde rap is what Beck was trying to accomplish in Mellow Gold.) It helps that the song’s sound is so catchy and muscular in its beats that it defies any attempts to resist it. If I was getting ready for a Friday night out with friends, “Blue Eyed Devil” was my hype song, my go-to when I needed to feel cooler than I felt. (Which was always.) When Aaron Waldkoetter and I became our high school’s de facto party DJs—and, no, I don’t know how I earned that level of coolness, given my aforementioned limitations—I must have annoyed people by how often I played that track at a Saturday night dance. There were other Soul Coughing songs that I liked, and even loved. But “Blue Eyed Devil” was a pop song I adored.
Tonight, writing this, I’m hearing it almost anew, in that I haven’t heard the song in a decade. It’s bringing me back, emotionally, to a place in which I once lived but have outgrown, in a neighborhood that’s no longer quite familiar. “Blue Eyed Devil” recalls dance parties in the Dallas Independent School District’s administrative building, on Ross Avenue, sneaking smokes on its rooftops during a break in sets, away from teacher chaperones. It recalls the taste of bubblegum deodorant, shyness around girls, driver’s-license tests, and halitosis that I couldn’t quite shake, and wondering if I’d ever get laid or at least a hug from a girl. I was no blue-eyed devil, “born to be a god among salesmen,” equipped with a cocky walk and New York hipness. But the song made me feel like that hipness wasn’t just a distant dream but instead something I could touch, or at least glimpse.
Those are the memories, wispy and ephemeral and somehow sticking with me like an STD. What remains is the song, and I’m pleased to say my taste was pretty good. “Blue Eyed Devil” is now, as it was then, a kickass track off an underrated album, from a band that should’ve been bigger than it ever got to be. From its choppy guitar riff to its sampled saxophone to its killer live beats to Doughty’s inspired, ironic singing, the song propels, no matter how weird it ultimately is. (And there is irony in that song title, because it is a blues song, no matter how “downtown” it gets.) Maybe it wasn’t worthy of obsession but only because obsession is ultimately unhealthy for the obsessive. But it helped me along, and for that I thank Soul Coughing.