Slugs with legs: Simon Kendall on Doug and the Slugs’ Douglessness and not getting killed by Harold Snepsts

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      When Simon Kendall, keyboard player for Doug and the Slugs, meets the Straight for coffee in the West End, there’s an itch we’re dying to scratch. Back in the 1980s, when the writer of this article was a teenaged prisoner of the suburbs, he’d heard tell of a Steppenwolf cover that sounded hilarious: under the direction of sharp-witted frontman Doug Bennett, “Born to be Wild” became “Born to Be Mild,” with an alternate set of lyrics. Instead of “I like smoke and lightnin’,” for instance, Bennett would sing, “I like mashed potatoes.”

      By the time I finally got to see Doug and the Slugs—once in the late 1990s in Port Moody, and once around 2002 in Maple Ridge, Kendall was no longer in the band, and “Born to Be Mild” had been dropped from the setlist. But can Kendall confirm the song existed in the first place? “Oh yeah,” he says, a grin spreading on his face, then quotes the lyrics: ‘Get your Moped running/Head out on the by-way… head down to the library: born to be mild.’ I can’t remember. Doug would just make up lyrics, any evening, y’know, and we called that the true Canadian anthem. I mean, come on, ‘Born to Be Wild’, sure, but the real Canadian anthem is ‘Born to Be Mild’.”

      It puts Kendall in mind of the early days of the band, circa 1977. “The guys would rent a hall and put on a theme dance, and then they would spoof whatever cover tunes. There’d be ‘Secret Agent Man’, and they’d do Doug and the Slugs’ Secret Agent Dance, and everybody would dress up. It was in the very first years the band was together, which included [guitarist] John Burton and Doug Bennett, but was not the lineup that went on to make the records. It was kind of a proto-Doug and the Slugs. And the theme dance thing was Doug’s marketing genius, combined with ‘Hey, let’s make this fun: let’s rent a hall, charge people three bucks,’ or whatever… because no club would hire the band; the band could not get a gig.”

      Kendall sips his cappuccino. “So they would do these spoofs: ‘We’ll do ‘Beach Blanket Bungle’, and we’ll have Annette Funicello lookalikes admitted free,’ and they would do surf tunes; or then it would be, ‘Doug and the Slugs Sell Out,’ and they’d dress up in platform shoes and they’d do Kiss. So that instinct was always there. And then when we released our own material and had a following, we still kept that kind of spoof element going.”

      Some covers would be more faithful to the original than others, like the band’s straight take on the Stones’ “Satisfaction”, a song that amply suited Bennett’s gravelly croon. Digitized vintage recordings on Youtube—check the Rohan’s tape, the Savoy one, or dig around for the complete 1981 Misty Moon set from Halifax—have the band doing both reverent and irreverent takes on “The Wanderer” by Dion and the Belmonts, one version of which has a completely new set of lyrics, having Doug boasting about his success with the ladies despite his being, as he says, “short” and “fat”. There are also different takes on “Pretty Woman”; Kendall notes that they’d sometimes do that as “Pretty Man”, but the surviving variant on YouTube is, I kid you not, called “Pretty Slug”. 

      But the author’s favourite of Doug’s playful piss-takes on classic tunes came that night in 2002 in Maple Ridge, when the band did a cover of Van Morrison and Them’s classic “Gloria”, rendering it as “Viagra”.

      Kendall, who was not at that show, chuckles to hear of it; it wasn’t a song they would ever play during the band’s heyday, since, he observes, “Viagra didn’t exist,” but it’s perfectly of a piece with Bennett’s self-deprecating sense of humour (and if you haven’t seen the video for the similarly impotence-themed “Makin’ It Work”, pause a minute to do so). The version of the band I saw can, I believe, be seen on YouTube doing an unreleased original, “Cinderella (Try Not to Scream)”. By then, a couple of years before Bennett’s untimely death in 2004, only Doug Bennett remained of the classic lineup.

      The attrition had started with 1992’s Tales from Terminal City, Kendall explains.

      “Essentially, the original six guys were together, and made all the records,” he tells the Straight. “By the time Terminal City was happening, [guitarists] John [Burton] and Wally [a.k.a. John Watson] had started families. We’d been on the road for about 12 years, and they were kind of fed up with touring. And it was just a gradual process, where a couple of guys would say they wanted to sub out of a tour, and then we’d find somebody to replace them.”

      Then a few members of the band dropped out to join the house band at the Roxy, Dr. Strangelove. “This was a gig that paid, it was steady work, and they could stay home. I recruited Pat Steward to play drums; I’d met him through Al Rogers, who had a studio in North Van which is where we recorded Terminal City. We had John Ellis as a guitar player, so we started touring with a different lineup. Basically, Doug and Steve [Bosley, bass] and I were there, and sometimes the original guys would come in and out, but in 1994, I was trying to juggle a career as a music director/film composer, different kinds of work, and I had young kids, and I was going, ‘I’m really tired of touring.’ I had studio work and stuff happening in town; I got a gig doing music directing Forever Plaid down here at the Starlight Theatre”—he gestures vaguely towards Denman Street and a venue that no longer exists. “That was my chance to make a break, and say, okay, I can stay home and get a paycheque, and still have time for the studio, which was always getting interrupted by going out on the road.”

      At that point, in the mid-1990s, Kendall recalls that the band was still pretty good, made up of “A-list subs” and members like Darryl Havers, whom Kendall had chosen to replace him. “Eventually it was down to Doug and Steve, who were the only original guys in the band, and then Steve left…”

      By the late 1990s, Doug was “not doing well”, as Kendall puts it. It has ceased to be a secret that Bennett had a problem with alcohol, which was taking its toll on his health. Even though Bennett was “incredibly functional” when he was drinking, it’s clear that Kendall doesn’t think the late-stage versions of Doug and the Slugs were up to the standard set by the classic band. “He’d recruited four different guys to go out on the road with him, but they had no history with us, they weren’t old friends, they were just guys who could tour. I wasn’t resentful, but I knew the vibe wasn’t really there. And I kind of felt, I wish Doug would just…”  He trails off, and I finish the sentence for him: “Stop?”

      Kendall assents. “I felt bad about it at the time. I thought—‘Well, shit, he’s gotta make a living, he’s got bills to pay.’ He and I carried on after I left the Slugs—I was working on different projects with him, we did country music together, we were friends, our families were friends, our kids went to school together; it wasn’t, like, a falling out, but I had this uneasy feeling about [the later versions of the band] and I wished he wouldn’t do it. When you saw Doug and the Slugs at the Viper Room, I don’t know who would have been in the band, but it was not a happy situation as far as I was concerned, or any people I talked to at the time. They said, ‘Uhh, y’know, it’s really not the same.’ And I went, ‘Yeah, I know.’”

      So do I. I’d attempted to see Doug and the Slugs a few years prior to that show, at a bar in Port Moody, but left after a few songs, shocked and depressed to see Bennett in decline; I’d had no idea. His voice was still strong, and he still had a sharp sense of wit, but he was far from the dapper, composed figure you see in videos, or on the lyric sheet for Wrap It!, and there was an unhappy edge to his stage patter. At both the Port Moody and Maple Ridge gigs, he quipped about how “half my act is me joking about how fat I am now.” At the Viper Room, he griped between songs about the state of his finances, telling the audience that when “Too Bad” became the theme song for The Norm Show, he figured he “would never have to play pissholes like these again,” only to see the show get cancelled after two seasons.

      “Well, he would have said that at any stage,” Kendall observes. “Like, that in itself… But it’s all about circumstance. You can say that, and it’s funny, but when you are actually in dire straits—and he was—then it’s bitter.”

      It wasn’t all downhill, mind you. “We got together with Doug and the original guys for our 25th anniversary in 2003 at the Commodore, and that was amazing. We sold out two nights. Bass player Steve initiated it—‘Y’know, it’s our 25th anniversary, what the feck, let’s get together!’ So we got together, and that was memorable, because at that time I was touring with Colin James Band and the Cowboy Junkies and other things that had come along, but there was something special about going back to the Commodore and going out and knowing that these people were there to see us. Because I was one of the guys, I wasn’t a hired gun, y’know? And I think Doug was pleasantly surprised at how much fun he had with the original guys, because, you know, after 12 years, there’s some sand in your craw, and you rub each other the wrong way, and you’ve gone to the wall for somebody and then they let you down… there’s all that history, and I think he was frankly pretty resentful; he probably felt abandoned in some way. And then we got together to rehearse for that show, and the magic was still there, we laughed at each other’s jokes, we made musical jokes that only we knew.”

      There was also a chance to revisit songs that no one had heard for decades. “I would say there’s probably an album’s worth of material that we never recorded” (some of which you can hear live on the Rohan’s tape, above). “And we’re sitting there in rehearsal in 2003, going ‘hey,’ and someone would start a lick, and we’d go, ‘oh, shit! Cool!’ And we’d all just sorta fumble our way back into a song, and Doug would go ‘oh shit, it’s been 20 years [since we did that],’ you know? It was fun! So that was the only time since 1992 or 1993 that the original guys did a show together. Doug was clearly not in good health, but he rose to the occasion, and there was the whole nostalgia thing, and it was great. And I’m so glad we did it, because it was a few months later that the guys in the band”—that is, the other Slugs that Doug was back on the road with at that time—“called me and said, ‘Simon, we’re really worried about Doug, things are not going well, and you’re his friend, and we’re not, we’re just guys in the band, so we think you should know.’ And they were right. He was really—he wasn’t doing well.’”

      Enough is out there about Doug Bennett’s final days; he played a show the night before he went into hospital, and died, after a week in a coma, in Calgary in October of 2004. He had struggled to quit drinking in the year prior, but had told Kendall that summer that he’d fallen off the wagon; he likely never got back on. “It’s really sad,” Kendall observes—and that’s all that needs to be said.

      Doug and the Slugs in the old days.

      That probably would have been the end of the story, and was for five years, until, in 2009, Kendall got a phone call from John Burton. “He said he’d seen a guy at the Fairview in an R&B group, Nick Danger, and  he said, ‘the guy, he’s like a young Doug Bennett. He looks great, he sings great, he’s got a kind of snarky attitude. What do you think?’ Because people—I can’t even remember who, but media called me within weeks of Doug dying, to say, ‘Are you guys gonna find a new singer? Because now’s the time!’ And I went…” Kendall makes a horrified, disgusted grimace to demonstrate his reaction. “I just said, ‘Really?’ It might have been a promoter from Toronto, I can’t remember who, but I was so shocked, and I said, ‘This is not the time or the place. I can’t see it ever happening,’ you know? And now five years have gone by, and John calls, and I say, ‘Well, look, if all five original, surviving guys are into it, and we can find a guy who sings the material well, and the audience loves it, and Doug’s family are onside, then I’ll consider it. Those are my parameters’—because it was kind of beyond my impression of what was possible. I said, y’know, ‘Doug’s irreplaceable, and it was his band, and it’s his material.’”

      Skeptical or not, the band explored a few options at that point. “We tried a couple of guys. The first guy looked the part, and he had the snark, and he was a good singer, but he was not singing with Doug’s style at all. He was singing it like a generic rock singer, and I just went, ‘this is so wrong! Ahh!’ And the next guy was also a good singer, a good musician, but not the vocal vibe we needed. And then Ted came in, and by that time, we were very skeptical, and he started singing, and I was getting shivers. I just went, ‘Close your eyes: Doug could be in the room, just from the vocals. He’s channeling the vocal styling. It was amazing. And at that point, I still said to the agent, ‘We may only do one gig,’ because I had no idea how an audience was going to respond to this, but in fact, like, three minutes into the first gig, I just went, ‘This is great.’ It feels right on, the audience is loving it. Oh my goodness.’”

      Not surprisingly, the band still has what Kendall calls trolls, out there, saying, “’It’s not Doug and the Slugs, Doug is dead, blah-blah-blah,’ but we talked to his family and we talked to people who came up to us, and who still come up to us, and say they saw the band when you saw the band”—meaning me, and that Viper Room gig I’d told him about—“and they thank us. Because they’d seen us in the '80s, and they have these fond memories of the gig, wherever it was; and then they’d seen Doug in the late '90s, and it was not pretty, and then they’ve gone out on a limb to come and see the band again, and they go, ‘Thank you, you’ve restored our faith, we love you guys—that was painful, this was fun.’ And Doug’s family, the same thing. It’s been really hard for them, obviously; like, they’ll come to a show, and it’s gotta be weird, to have another guy up there singing this material. But they appreciate it.’”

      One problem there’s no getting around: the complete absence of anyone named Doug in the band. However good Okos may be, “Ted and the Slugs” just doesn’t  have the same ring to it. “We’ve wrestled with that, and believe me, we still wrestle with it. Should we be the Slugs Without a Doug? Should we be ‘the Dougless Slugs?’ That’s kind of witty, but… then Richard just said, ‘Look, we always, in all of our promos, we’re Doug and the Slugs. If we’re clear that this is the surviving original members, with a new singer, and not pretend…’” Kendall gives a little shrug.

      The absence of trickery is an important point. Okos may sound like Bennett, but he’s not some ringer lookalike chosen to put one over on the crowd. “He’s a big man—on the phone, he’s said he looks like ‘a cross between Benny Hill and Meat Loaf.’” But he’s not faking anything. Nor does he attempt to duplicate Bennett’s act, which would often see Bennett out on the floor, poking fun at audience members, playing with them, riling them up. “Doug lived on that! I don’t know how often Ted saw the band, but he’s heard live tapes, and he kinda knows the shenanigans Doug would get up to, and Ted doesn’t try to do that at all.”

      Even still, as different as Okos and Bennett may be, and as up-front as the band has been about what people are seeing, they’ll still sometimes get fans who come up who have tickets to a show, and “they didn’t know that Doug had died. And they come and they go, ‘I didn’t know Doug wasn’t here, but this is great.’ ‘Okay, that’s a good testimonial!’”

      Kendall actually seems relieved that Okos is a bit less provocative than vintage Doug Bennett could be. “He sings the stuff incredibly well, and he’s a good performer, but one of Doug’s attributes as a performer was his ability to be spontaneous and read a room and a crowd and stir it up. And I’ve missed that in lots of other bands I’ve been in, when you’re in an awkward situation with consummate musicians and performers, but they kinda go into a shell, because the audience is not meeting them halfway. And that’s my instinct, when I’m onstage, also: if the audience doesn’t give you a break, I kinda turtle up a little bit. With Doug, it was kinda like a red flag to a bull; if the audience wasn’t giving back, he’d go attack ‘em,” Kendall says, grinning. “And mostly, he would bring them around!”

      Bennett’s chattiness was something he and Kendall would “butt heads about” occasionally Kendall admits. “Like, I would say, ‘Doug, you’ve written a lot of really great songs, but you’re talking for about 45 minutes out of an hour and fifteen minute show. Really, we’re not playing a lot of music, and, uhh…’ We’d be sitting there like bumps on a log for seven or eight minutes, vamping, while he goes through an old lady’s purse and humiliates her—it’s not really what I’d signed up for!  And sometimes he was really funny, sometimes he was really crude, sometimes he was offensive. I think any comic rides that line, but I thought he was always at his best when we played soft-seat theatres with an all-ages audience, because then he had to control his obscenity level, and it made him work harder. He would have to be cleverer for an all-ages audience with his comedy. If you’re in a bar, it was no-holds barred, he would just swear at people, and, y’know, it could be funny, but it could also be kinda tedious and gross!”

      We witnessed some of that at those suburban gigs, with Bennett teasing women about their presumed falsies and observing that men in the bar with hats were doubtlessly bald underneath, routines that Kendall describes as Bennett’s “defaults.” It was funny, but also a bit uncomfortable, and it was easy to imagine such barbs going south, if Bennett had picked the wrong target. Still, Kendall has to admit, “To his credit, he was pretty much fearless. That’s something at the time I didn’t appreciate fully—he and I had different opinions about what was funny or not funny—but he had the ability to break that ice in a million different situations. And there were things when it was, ‘Oh my God, he’s gone too far now, he’s gonna get himself killed!’”

      Like what?

      Kendall sits back, smiling. “We were playing the Boo Pub, North Road in Coquitlam, in, I think, 1982. The Canucks had gone to the Stanley Cup final against the Islanders that year. And Doug wades out into the room—the place is packed—and he meets Harold Snepsts out in the audience. And he goes, ‘Ah jeez, it’s Harold Snepsts! Why the fuck did you give Bossy the puck, you moron?” (Bennett was referring to a notorious first game error by which Islander Mike Bossy intercepted a pass by Snepsts). “And we’re on stage and we can’t see what’s going on because of the packed dance floor, and we’re going, ‘This is where Doug gets killed by Harold Snepsts! Finally!’”

      By this time, people at adjoining tables are glancing over at me, a bit concerned, since I look like I might pee myself laughing, but Kendall continues, unfazed. “Doug comes back to the stage, and we finish the song, we take a break, and Harold Snespts comes back to the dressing room and goes, ‘I love you guys! I’ve got all your cassettes! I travel with you all the time, it’s so great to see you!’ He’d thought it was funny!”

      There was lots else in the conversation with Kendall, including mention of songs that the band will be working up for Saturday’s Commodore show, like “When the Heat Takes My Faith”, a Doug Bennett original which never got a proper studio recording back in the day. While I do understand why some people have a bad reaction to the idea of a Doug and the Slugs without Doug, by the end of the conversation, I feel really glad that I’ll have a chance to see Doug and the Slugs as a full band (minus one key member), to balance out the experience of seeing them with that one key member, but no one else from their heyday.

      Kendall is also looking forward to the gig. “Of course, at age 26 or whatever, I did not expect, 40 years down the road, to still have anything to do with this, but whether I like it or not, I’ll always be that guy from Doug and the Slugs, no matter what else I accomplish, so I don’t really need to fight it. I embrace it. And to me, the material still really stands up, it’s still getting airplay, and last year at the Commodore, when we did the 40th anniversary show, I went, ‘Hey great, we sold out the Commodore, how cool is that?’ But I frankly was overwhelmed by the vibe coming from the audience at that show. People love this band, they love this material, they’re so supportive… People flew in from all over the country to come to that show. There was this father and son who flew in from North Carolina, because they’d seen us from Detroit. Who knew? So I went, ‘Wow, this thing has legs.’ And as long as we’re able to deliver a good show, and bring the music to people in a live situation, which is what we do best, I’m thrilled that we can still do it.”

      The Leap Year Slugfest happens Saturday (February 29) at the Commodore Ballroom. More information here. (P.S., someone show this to Harold Snepsts, okay?)