Mike Doughty recalls years distorted by addiction in The Book of Drugs
He asked for it: by calling his memoir The Book of Drugs, former Soul Coughing singer Mike Doughty has inevitably consigned it to that fascinatingly skanky subgenre known as the rock confessional. And were awards given for lowlife lit, he’d be out of luck: Keith Richards’s Life is unquestionably the book of the decade when it comes to sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll.
Still, there’s a fascinating story tucked away amid the one-night stands and near-overdoses detailed in Doughty’s unflinching examination of his wasted life—and it doesn’t necessarily have to do with scoring a lifetime supply of diazepam while holidaying in Cambodia. Instead, it details the way that the pursuit of fame can destroy the psyche, as it very nearly did for Doughty, now recovered from his major-label days and happily working as an indie musician.
For those on the outside, Soul Coughing was one of the most inventive bands to emerge during the 1990s. Inspired by rap and avant-garde jazz, Doughty and his bandmates—referred to only as the sampler player, the bass player, and the drummer—spiffed up the singer-songwriter sound with tough urban beats and woozy electronic atmospheres.
But for Doughty, who arguably should have been having the time of his life, the experience still rankles. Not only was his band burned by a seemingly endless parade of record-company weasels, but he eventually found himself an ostracized minority of one within the foursome he’d started.
“I was so very disappointed with the music,” he explains, reached at home in Brooklyn. “We certainly had the muscle to be a great band, but I think we were just kind of a self-consciously weird band. And part of it was that my bandmates made musical decisions on the basis of spite.
“It’s tragically disappointing, to me, to hear those records now,” he adds. “It just makes my skin crawl to hear them.”
If The Book of Drugs is to be believed, Doughty’s fellow musicians were so deluded, uncommunicative, and untrustworthy that they could have kept an army of psychiatrists employed for the duration of Soul Coughing’s seven-year career. Making those accusations plausible is that the author is even harder on himself.
“There was definitely a lot of yelling and a lot of resentment on my part,” Doughty admits. He also allows that on some subconscious level, he may have been trying to replicate the toxic environment that he grew up in, as the rebellious child of conservative parents. If that’s the case, he was so successful at it that he soon took to masking his pain with pot, heroin, alcohol, and anything else that offered temporary oblivion.
Eventually, however, Doughty found solace in “the ingenious secular breakdown of spirituality” offered by the 12-step model of sobriety, and companionship in “the rooms”.
“I’m an addict,” he says bluntly. “And basically what happened to me was I found a bunch of people that I identified with, and I wanted what they had, in terms of their being able to cultivate their artistic selves and their impeccably weird sides while staying clean.”
These days, the only drugs he takes are the pills that keep his bipolar disorder in check. On an emotional level, he’s still a work in progress, but he’s reconnected with his estranged family—his mom tracked him down on Facebook, apparently—and he continues to be as hard on himself as he is on others.
Unlike, he adds, his main competitor in the rock ’n’ roll confessional sweepstakes. Doughty and Soul Coughing never achieved the garish popularity accorded to Keith Richards and the Rolling Stones, but when it comes to self-analysis, he claims to have Keef beat.
“It’s an interesting book, but I don’t think he views himself very critically,” he says of Richards’s Life. “Given the bizarrely horrifying stories that I was telling about other people in my book, I felt like I had to be extremely scrupulous and meticulous about exposing my own weirdnesses and my own problematic behaviours. You know, Keith talks about bringing his kid on tour when he was a pretty deep dope fiend, sleeping with a gun under his pillow, and the function of his son on tour was to wake him up, because he was the only person Keith wouldn’t point a gun at for shaking him out of his slumbers.”
That’s bizarre, and could easily have been tragic. It’s not the action that Doughty takes umbrage at, however: it’s more the way in which Richards treats smack-addled lunacy as a charming quirk.
“That,” says Doughty, “lacks a bit of self-critical focus.” And it’s a mistake he doesn’t intend to make.
Mike Doughty sings, reads from The Book of Drugs, and answers audience questions at the Media Club on Thursday (April 5).