Drugs and rock & roll are old, tired bedfellows. They’ve stuck together for so long that the union has graduated from shocking to cliché. Singer-songwriter Mike Doughty, former frontman of inventively bizarro experimental/alt-rock outfit Soul Coughing, is well aware that stories of rockers indulging in narcotics are played out, so he uses his new memoir, The Book of Drugs, to poke fun at the archetype’s existence. On his book’s second page, Doughty half-jokingly classifies his story as “JADN: just another drug narrative,” right before launching into a look at his past addiction (the memoir features dalliances with weed, cocaine, heroin, ecstasy and speed, among other substances).
“I don’t know how to make a claim that [my drug narrative is] worth reading per se, but I do think what’s different about it is that it’s me as a person,” says Doughty, whose date this week at the Social involves a reading, concert and Q&A. “It’s the essence of the individual in the story that makes it different in any memoir.”
Acknowledging the potential triteness of its very premise isn’t the only thing that gives The Book of Drugs its personality. Doughty’s narrative is written with self-deprecating nakedness; it’s rich with amusingly awkward encounters (such as sex scenes that are never particularly sexy) and recaps of his personal turmoils and failures (such as unsuccessfully trying to become bisexual). The book also has no chapters (passages are broken up with hefty spaces) and was written in the order the stories came back to Doughty. The author aptly summarizes his book as “sad, comic and kind of haunting,” which speaks to how fucked up his life was while Soul Coughing did solid business in the 1990s. He freely lays everything bare, which is what makes it such a page-turner. “I’m not trying to say that I have any kind of wisdom or great perspective on what’s happened in my life,” he says, “but I definitely have a lot of stories that I’ve told people and they’ve laughed at.”
On the music side, The Book of Drugs features cameos from Jeff Buckley, Dave Matthews, Ani DiFranco, Redman and the Black Eyed Peas in between examinations of the strife that went into the “nightmare marriage” that was Soul Coughing.
Doughty doesn’t look back at those times fondly. He writes, “If somebody says they love Soul Coughing, I hear, ‘fuck you.’ Somebody yells out for a Soul Coughing song during a show, it means, ‘fuck you.’” But as he explains, this bitterness isn’t just born of personal circumstance. “It was a horrible, horrible bunch of years that I am so bitter about and regret so tremendously, but honestly, the music wasn’t what I needed it to be. Part of that was I was high and I was an unhealthy person, and maybe I could have made the music more what I wanted to be if I wasn’t, but that’s assuming that my bandmates wouldn’t have been as difficult as they were. But I thought we had the muscle to give the Beastie Boys a run for their money, [or] Beck a run for his money, but we just ended up this weird little cult band,” he says. “I can’t fault somebody for being a Soul Coughing fan. That’s absolutely fine. I’m just really not a Soul Coughing fan.”
Doughty’s voice as a songwriter today is far different from the guy responsible for Soul Coughing’s surreal, detached-but-tuned-in lyricism. His current songs have an inviting airiness to them, and while his authorial voice favors bluntness, his songwriter side is still open to frills and metaphors. When he talks about his fan base, he does so with an amiable, aw-shucks modesty that belies the cynic on display in Drugs. “[My current career] basically boils down to my gratitude that there are people listening to the songs I’ve been writing since I got out of Soul Coughing,” he says. “Whatever the broader industry is – I just don’t know. There was a time when I would pretend I knew more about that than I did, but really, I’m just very focused on what’s going on with me.”
Despite all the chaos he’s been through (and Drugs sure has a whole lot of that), he doesn’t blame rock & roll for his bad decisions, which, to a small degree, slyly skirts the cliché once again. “If I had became a cattle rancher, I’d have ended up a drug addict,” Doughty says. “I just think it was in me.”
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