ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

'Screenwriter's Blues' Soul Coughing | 1994

"Screenwriter's Blues"

MIKE Doughty was studying at Eugene Lang College, a tiny liberal arts school in New York City, and living in the "supremely seedy, pre-Giuliani Union Square" when he dreamed up a poem about the decadent vortex of L.A. It was informed -- barely -- by a trip west the previous summer. "My mom won a free trip anywhere and she went to Huntington Beach to take care of her sister, and I went too. I had these dreams of seeing L.A. -- I kept thinking of that Arlo Guthrie singing 'coming into Los Ang-uh-leez . . .' But I didn't see anything of the real L.A."

Still, his poem would become one of the signature L.A. songs of the 1990s, a spoken-word barrage with an eerie, industrial-pulse backdrop that was by turns mechanical and shimmering. If the music was like a spooky revisiting of the Who's "Eminence Front," the lyrics were a delirious weave of L.A. lives, not unlike "Short Cuts" and "Magnolia," L.A. films of the same decade.

Exits to freeways twisted like knots on the fingers

Jewels cleaving skin between breasts

Your Cadillac breathes four hundred horses over blue lines

You are going to Reseda to make love to a model from Ohio

Whose real name you don't know

Doughty had never been to Reseda -- he had plucked it from the map because his poetry teacher, Sekou Sundiata, had preached that geographic names could be instantly evocative. ( Ani DiFranco, by the way, was a classmate.) "It was utter L.A. fantasy." Doughty, a sometime slam-poet and a doorman at the Knitting Factory in New York, revisited the poem after he hooked up with some bandmates to create some "deep slacker jazz" under the name Soul Coughing.

The group released three albums in the 1990s, but "Screenwriter's" became a symbol of their frustrating success. "People thought we were from L.A. -- we were very, very much of the New York scene." A blizzard of reviews also came with labels like "Beat-poet rock," which riled Doughty no end. "It's like calling Mötley Crüe a blues band. It's dogged me for years."

Doughty now says he feels "no connection to the song" or that young singer who performed it with arch affectation. "I don't have any interest in that voice now."

But he does understand the song's appeal. "It has this mysterious riff and the brass is piercing and bright . . . and after spending time in L.A., I found I pretty much got it right."

Gone savage for teenagers with automatic weapons

And boundless love

Gone savage for teenagers who are

aesthetically pleasing, in other words, fly

Los Angeles beckons the teenagers to come to her on buses

Los Angeles loves love.

geoff.boucher@latimes.com

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