Wacky Bennett Created Beauty

After 27 years of playing music, 10 albums, and several radio hits, including "Too Bad", "Day by Day", and "Making It Work", Doug Bennett has left the building. The popular singer, bandleader, and video director was on the road near Medicine Hat, Alberta, with his band Doug and the Slugs on October 9 when he complained of feeling unwell. His symptoms worsened, and he was airlifted to Calgary's Foothills Hospital, where he lost consciousness, remaining in a coma until his death on October 16. The cause of death has not been announced but is linked to a long-standing illness; a memorial gathering is planned for the Commodore Ballroom on Monday (October 25).

As the circumstances of his passing indicate, the 52-year-old Bennett remained an active performer despite having suffered earlier episodes of ill health. But the small clubs and casinos that were the Slugs' latter-day haunts don't properly indicate the breadth of Bennett's legacy. His Ritdong label--purportedly named after the sound of an out-of-tune guitar--was unusually successful for a West Coast--based indie, and as a music-video director Bennett was among the first to bring motion-picture techniques to the then-nascent art form.

"He took on an indifferent or possibly hostile industry and wrestled it to come to his own terms, in many cases--and that's no small undertaking," says Simon Kendall, a long-time friend and former Doug and the Slugs keyboardist. "He was a driven and determined guy who made things happen. He was a bulldog. And he could be infuriating as a bulldog, or he could be charming. He turned things upside-down. As far as video is concerned, I think he was one of the first music-video directors to think in terms of story. He also gave all the members of the band a platform to express themselves, in humour, in music, and in wackiness."

A talented graphic artist, Bennett designed many of his band's posters and album covers; he also contributed cartoons and illustrations to the Georgia Straight during the early to mid-1970s, prior to his unlikely emergence as a rock star.

"We had a sort of mini-wake at my house last night, and [guitarist] John Burton, who was there from day one, was remembering how terrified he was on-stage," Kendall recalls. "Most of the first year John was the frontman and Doug was the singer, because John could talk to people and was a bit of a ham. And he said it was only when they got into [themed dances such as] the R & B Tribute and Secret Agent Man that Doug got into a suit and was able to create a persona that he started to be less terrified of the audience. It's pretty hard to believe, but as John put it last night, 'Once the cork was out of the bottle, there was no stopping him.' "

With his comfortable girth, ruddy complexion, and salesman's attire, Bennett was no one's idea of a sex symbol. But those who saw the band during its early-'80s heyday--during which it sold out the Commodore something like 30 times--remember him as a compulsively watchable performer. Kendall points out, however, that behind the on-stage clown was a serious and ambitious artist.

"The things that are precious to me about Doug are his poetic and unique lyrics," adds the keyboardist. "That kind of got lost in the buffoonery we were known for, but he wrote some beautiful songs."

Personally, I remember Bennett for his generosity. Not long after the 1980 single "Too Bad" sprung the Slugs out of Vancouver and into national prominence, he hired a band I was in to open for several B.C. dates. It was a bold choice: the Slugs played in an R & B-inflected pop-rock style, but my act was a caustic art-punk quintet fronted by a saxophone-squawking maniac. The fit wasn't always perfect--we got booed in Chilliwack and Victoria, I recall--but Bennett was always encouraging, like the gentleman he was.

He's survived by his wife and three daughters, and he will also be missed by his friends, bandmates past and present, and the thousands he entertained from coast to coast.