50 Best Albums, by Brendan O’Malley, #3. Mike Doughty, Skittish

My talented brother Brendan O’Malley is an amazing writer and actor. He’s wonderful in the recent You & Me, directed by Alexander Baack. (I interviewed Baack about the film here.) His most recent gig was story editor/writer on the hit series Survivor’s Remorse. Brendan hasn’t blogged in years, but the “content” (dreaded word) is so good I asked if I could import some of it to my blog. He did series on books he loved, and albums he loved. I thought it would be fun to put up some of the stuff here. So we’ll start with his list of 50 Best Albums. I’ll put up one every Monday.

Brendan’s list of 50 Best Albums is part music-critique and part memoir and part cultural snapshot.

I have always loved these essays, because I love to hear my brother talk. I am happy to share them with you!

50 Best Albums, by Brendan O’Malley

3. Mike Doughty – Skittish

Once again I was driving the streets of southern Rhode Island late at night. These streets are the geography of my soul, the areas I travel regardless of where I actually live. In this case I was physically in Rhode Island but in a larger sense I will ALWAYS be driving the streets of southern Rhode Island late at night.

I was listening to WRIU, the radio station at the University of Rhode Island. This is the station that I first heard The Replacements on, the station that was the soundtrack to my high school punk misadventures, the station that was like a small dark portal to the outside world the entire time I went to college which feels like it lasted 25 years.

Cut to a post 9/11 me. I am a raw nerve. I am struggling mightily to handle the aftermath of a painful divorce, balancing that with the joys of a new relationship, the difficulty of adjusting to a new model of parenthood, one that necessarily must include time spent away from my son. Throw in a little hint of drug/alcohol addiction and major financial stress and what you have is a walking powder keg. 9/11 has left me incapable of dealing with any of this in a healthy way. I’d probably been losing that fight before those motherfuckers blew up my city.

I am back home for a summer stretch. Somewhere in some little dusty studio some college DJ plays a song. It shoots out into the ether. What are the odds that I would be one of the few to hear it? The station can’t have a very large audience, especially in the summer, and this was a late night show. If there were a thousand people tuning in I would be flabbergasted.

The song was an acoustic doozy and it contained the refrain, “Thank you, Lord, for sending out the F train to me”. It also referenced Park Slope, my neighborhood, and basically seemed like someone had read the secret diary of my heart and put it to music.

I had to pull over. I cried. I had a cathartic response. I don’t think I had my cellphone on me so I had to wait til I got back to my parent’s house to call in to find out what it was. As usual the DJ didn’t say anything about it when he recapped his play list. I listened and listened hoping that he would say, ‘And that song was…’ but he didn’t.

There was no answer at the station. The next day I called again and spoke with someone who told me who the DJ was and that they didn’t keep logs of what they played. So I’d have to call again when his show was on. In the meantime I feverishly searched for the song on the Internet using key words…”F train”. “Park Slope”. The show had been categorized as an emo music hour. None of these combinations came up with anything on Google.

The unnamed song haunted me. I asked music aficionados if they’d ever heard anything like it. No one knew what I was talking about. I didn’t have the artist name or the song name. All I knew was that it was a song about the F train.

Finally I hit upon the right mixture of words and something came up. Mike Doughty. He’d been the lead singer of a band called Soul Coughing that had had some success in the 1990’s. One song I knew called “Circle”.

I liked it but it was nothing compared to the stripped-down clarity and emotional wallop I’d experienced.

The song was indeed called “Thank You Lord For Sending Me The F Train”. The album was only available through Doughty’s website. I quickly ordered a copy and prepared myself to be underwhelmed by everything else on the album.

My fears were unfounded as “Thank You” is merely one of many transcendent songs. There is a burning quality to this album, something perfectly realized yet totally out of control. I have heard other Doughty songs and albums and while I can appreciate them – this is one for the desert island.

I’d take you through the songs and try to describe the perfection inherent in each. But that would be like trying to print the echo of the map I have of the streets of southern Rhode Island into your brain. You have your own maps to navigate. I just got lucky enough to hear someone sing about a street I was living on.

And Mike Doughty, if you’re out there, I need to let you know that you somehow built a bridge from Park Slope right to those Rhode Island streets, you clued me in that I had a new home, that I’d put down roots, that my homeland had been attacked and that my response to that was about as appropriate as could be. Thank you Lord indeed.

— Brendan O’Malley

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