I grew up next door to larger-than-life Doug Bennett, lead singer of Doug and the Slugs
I didn’t realize how special Doug’s music was until decades later
In fall of 2017, I was finishing my first documentary, The Rankin File: Legacy of a Radical, about Vancouver socialist icon Harry Rankin. My partner and I had recently moved back to my childhood city of Vancouver and since money was tight, we crashed with my mother. She still lived in the house I'd grown up in.
I had been struggling to find the right music for the film and was searching for something scrappy and energetic that reflected the chaotic vibrancy of 1980s Vancouver.
One day I looked out the window of my home office at the big red house next door. Inspiration struck: Doug and the Slugs.
When I was growing up in the 1990s, the house belonged to Doug Bennett — co-founder, songwriter and lead singer of the legendary Vancouver party band Doug and the Slugs — and his family.
I knew the Slugs' major hits Too Bad, Making It Work and Day by Day but had never listened to any of their records from start to finish. I started with their 1980 debut album, Cognac and Bologna, and was shocked — the songs were much more sophisticated and dark than the ones I remembered from my childhood. The genre-busting album was unpredictable, the tracks blending new wave, reggae, rock, punk, boogie and soul.
Here was the soundtrack I was looking for and so much more.
My childhood with the Bennett family
My family moved into the house next door to the Bennetts in 1992. My earliest memories are of spending time with the three Bennett girls: Shea (middle), Della (oldest) and Devon (youngest). Shea was a rambunctious tomboy, and I was instantly drawn to her. We were inseparable for the next eight years.
The Bennetts' house felt like a different world. While my home was quiet and organized, Shea's was always full of people: her parents Doug and Nancy, their colourful social circle, the three daughters, plus whichever friends were visiting. It was loud with laughter, yelling, scolding, dogs barking, basketballs bouncing in the small court.
My memories of Doug are of a heavy-set, pierced and ponytailed dad with a booming voice — opinionated yet quick to laugh. He was the centre of every gathering, holding court at the head of the dining table, joking and debating with anyone who dared to engage him. He was a goof and once chased his daughters and me around the yard with a raw turkey on his head.
One memory of Doug stuck with me for years. Shea and I were about 12 and we'd just enjoyed an elaborate Thanksgiving feast prepared by Doug and were all tidying up. Doug had a glass of Jack Daniel's in one hand and was seated at the kitchen table when suddenly –
Well, where oh where could my baby be?
The Lord took her away from me.
He was singing the most devastating oldies tune, his voice cutting through the din. This struck me as I don't remember ever hearing Doug sing at the house before that. But this one time he did, I realized he had a true gift and that there was much more to him than I'd understood.
The end of a friendship — and an era
Something happened when Shea and I started high school. Our new school was massive, and suddenly I found my old social capital — a quirky sense of humour — less relevant in the new halls. Shea thrived and took up with the emerging cool-girl clique, while I drifted into the artsy theatre-nerd circle. By grade nine, I referred to her as my "ex-best friend."
Over time, I lost touch with the Bennett family. I failed to notice when Doug eventually moved out.
In 2004, my mom told me that Doug had died. I was in shock. The newspaper reports said it was due to a long-standing illness. I hadn't even known he was sick.
Doug's memorial at Vancouver's Commodore Ballroom was overwhelming. I was devastated as I watched a slide show of his home life, and realized I was mourning not only the loss of the individual, but also the end of that period of our lives. I scanned the crowd but did not spot Shea or her sisters. To be honest, I was relieved as I didn't know what to say.
Making a documentary about Doug and the Slugs
Fourteen years later, I finished The Rankin File. It was the opening night selection at DOXA Documentary Film Festival, and the film - and the soundtrack - received a great deal of positive press. Critics and audiences were overjoyed to hear the music of Doug and the Slugs once again.
The next step seemed obvious: I'd make a rock doc about the band. The Slugs had a great story; the music was fantastic; I had access to the band and their archive; and I even had a personal connection to the Bennett family. This should be easy.
What I thought was going to be a quick and dirty documentary evolved into an epic four-year journey. I started by interviewing the ever quirky and lovable Slugs — keyboardist Simon Kendall, guitarists John Burton and Richard Baker, bassist Steve Bosley and drummer Wally Watson. I began to get a picture not only of this talented group of musicians, but also of Doug as a songwriter and frontman and not just Shea's goofy dad. I was surprised to learn of the conflict between band members; they always seemed to be having so much fun onstage.
Next, I reached out to Doug's widow, and Shea's mom, Nancy. It had been decades since I'd seen her last, and she didn't recognize me when I walked into her downtown condo. Our hours-long conversation covered not just Doug and the band, but our shared history in East Vancouver as well. It felt like a homecoming of sorts.
I was amazed when Nancy told me that Doug had journaled almost every day for 10 years, and handed me a box of 39 coil-bound books, which Doug started writing in 1980, just as the band was getting off the ground. I began to hear Doug's story from Doug himself — the intimate reflections, the worries and self-doubt, the dizzying highs and devastating lows. I felt as if I was actually interviewing Doug, nearly two decades after he'd died.
A pivotal childhood scene captured on tape
Nancy also handed over a box full of Hi8 tapes. I popped them into a borrowed deck and watched the Bennett family in their '90s glory. There was Doug as I remembered him, hamming it up for the camera; Nancy in her über-hip clothes; the three rambunctious girls. And then I saw myself: a chubby ball of a child, rolling around amid the chaos in their yard.
I popped in another tape. This time, the family and I were at the local bowling alley. As Doug took a break from filming, he handed the camera to each kid, instructing them on its use. Eventually, it was my turn, and the image became shaky as I held a video camera for the first time, feeling out how to capture the action before me. As I watched the footage nearly 30 years later, it dawned on me that Doug was the first person to entrust me with a camera and to coach me on shooting a scene.
As the filming of my documentary progressed, it became clear that I could no longer separate myself from Doug's story — I was literally in the footage I was discovering. And yet I still hadn't worked up the courage to reach out to Shea. I realized I no longer had a choice and it was time to make the call.
After the film's world premiere in spring 2022, an interviewer asked me about my favourite Doug and the Slugs track. I was quick to answer: the fifth track from their second album, Wrap It! — the mid-tempo ballad Partly from Pressure:
Faith turns the cynics cold
and turns fanatics blind
I lost my only hold
and so I left the child behind
Partly from pressure
Don't follow me, you'll throw it all away
I still can't crack this riddle Doug wrote back in 1981, just as things were taking off. Is it acceptance, a lament or a warning? It sounds as if he's mourning the end of a relationship, but the melancholic melody feels tinged with hope. I think this song best represents Doug Bennett and his Slugs: bittersweet, complex and so much deeper than it appears at first.
I'm happy to say that while making this film, I've achieved a sense of closure in my own life that I never knew I needed. I think Doug would be pretty pleased to know how a documentary about Doug and the Slugs ultimately brought two East Van friends back together.
Teresa Alfeld is the director of the documentary Doug and the Slugs and Me.