Mike Doughty’s new memoir, The Book of Drugs, has many of the staples we’ve come to expect from a rock n’ roll tell-all. There are stories about consuming ridiculous amounts of illegal narcotics, and having ridiculous amounts of raunchy sex with people you’ve just met, and hating your band mates for not respecting your awesomeness, and then kicking the drugs and meaningless sex and stupid band and realizing what’s important in life.At least by the rock memoir bullet points, Doughty’s life hasn’t been much different from Sammy Hagar’s. But The Book of Drugs manages to transcend its own cliches. For one thing, Doughty makes a convincing case against his former band, the 90s semi-underground jazzy/hip-hop-esque quartet Soul Coughing, particularly the infighting over songwriting credit. “If we went before a judge,” Doughty writes, “and the judge was told, ‘He wrote the melody, and the chords, and the rhythm, and the lyrics, but I wrote the hi-hat part,’ the judge wouldn’t split up the song even-steven.” As for the sex and drugs, if you’ve read any rock bio ever, there’s nothing in these pages that’ll shock you. But Doughty’s misadventures are weirdly relatable, even if you’ve never spent a small fortune on heroin or had sex with strangers in multiple time zones. These aren’t tales of sniggering self-destruction or romanticized excess. These are tales of a bespectacled and bone-thin alt-rock dude with crippling insecurity. When he does drugs, it’s just to momentarily muffle the self-loathing. And when he has sex, it’s not with Hollywood models. It’s with random girls in mall stairwells as nervous tourists walk past and try to avert their eyes, lest they notice that the narrator has his “entire hand shoved up her pussy.” Hands shoved up vaginas may sound like something from Hammer of the Gods, but Doughty makes it read like a punchline in a Woody Allen short story.
I called Doughty in New York City, where he was preparing for his upcoming book tour. We talked about whether our galaxy could collide with Andromeda in the foreseeable future (he has no idea) and why cellists make the most badass musical sidekicks (he knows from experience) before moving on to other subjects.
Eric Spitznagel: When you first emailed me about your memoir, you described it as “one of those terrible books where a dude does a bunch of drugs, then stops.” Was that just a joke, or were you worried that you might be embarrassingly late to the drug memoir party?
Mike Doughty: I wrote it to defend myself with self-deprecation and sarcasm, to make fun of myself before anybody else could. But no, I’m not really worried. I’m not the first guy to write about addiction, but all drug narratives are based on old stories. They’re all technically “boy meets girl, boy loses girl” except it’s “boy meets drug, boy is almost killed by drug, boy goes away from drug.” It’s like that Joseph Campbell theory that there’s just one story of the hero’s journey but with countless variations.
Your hero’s journey is the only one with a bass player who talks in cartoon animal voices.
Yes, oh my god. That’s something in the book that I really wish I’d been able to flesh out more. I couldn’t remember the things he used to say in that voice, but it was just so torturous. And he really thought, “People are into my impressions.”
Was he doing a specific character? Somebody we’d recognize?
No. I don’t think so, no.
So it was like a high-pitched amalgam of nonspecific cartoon adorableness? Something like (with a squeaky voice) “Sufferin’ succotash, you cwazy wascal?”
Yeah, something like that. In fact, you’re uncomfortably close to it with what you just did. And I have no problem with that. It’s fine if you’re Mel Blanc or Seth MacFarlane or somebody who does voices professionally because you’re super good at it. But for him, it was just really weird and random.
To be fair, your Soul Coughing persona was a little cartoony. You’d emphasize certain lyrics with these odd hand gestures, I don’t know what they were, I guess funky karate chops.
I know. (Sighs.) Boy oh boy, having seen videos of myself, I really wish I’d never done any of that stuff. I wish I’d just stood there and fucking sang.
It was goofy, but I remember really enjoying your stage moves.
Thank you. I respect your ability to enjoy it, but I’m not there yet. Maybe it’ll be like an 80s haircut. I just have to wait it out. You hate that mullet photo from your high school yearbook, but in twenty years it’s suddenly a badge of honor. Give it enough time and everyone thinks the photos they used to hate are funny and ironic.
After reading Book of Drugs, I can totally understand your not wanting to be in the band anymore. But I don’t understand disowning the music. Do you really look back at that creative period and think, “Meh?”
I don’t just think “meh,” I openly dislike it. I’ve been in bars when somebody will misguidedly put on a Soul Coughing CD and I will frantically run away with my skin crawling, in near physical pain. I just really dislike the music. Name a band you don’t like a lot.
There are so many. Let’s say… Foreigner.
Now try really hard to like them. Because a lot of people really, really want you to like them.
Yeah, but I never played in Foreigner. I never had any part in creating those songs. I hated them from the beginning.
I know it sounds fucked up, but that’s the way it is. I’ve stopped trying to find a rationale for it. That’s just how I feel. It may well be insanity, but it’s where I’m living.
I hate to ask this next question, but I’m contractually obligated. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being another god-forsaken Eagles reunion and 10 being a Beatles reunion with all four original members, how likely is a Soul Coughing reunion?
Here’s what would make it happen. Let’s say that somebody trying to get me to do a Soul Coughing reunion stabbed me in the eye.
Really hard. Like he blinded me.
Whoever this guy is, he’s a dick. There are better ways to ask.
I would do a Soul Coughing show just so he wouldn’t stab my other eye.
Ah, okay. So you’re unwilling to do a reunion up until the point when not doing so results in total blindness?
Exactly. One blinded eye I wouldn’t do it. But both eyes, okay, I’m in.
Have you entertained any non-eye-stabbing offers? Is there a dollar amount that could tempt you?
Not really. I can’t imagine the sum that would be worth it. It’s not like I’m hurting for money, in the sense that I’m paying rent and wearing clothes.
It’s weird to say this as a Soul Coughing fan, but I totally agree with you. I don’t want a Soul Coughing reunion either.
I’m not even saying that to suck up to you. There’s just something inherently depressing about it. It’d be like a Sex Pistols reunion. It can’t possibly be as satisfying as just staying home and watching The Filth and the Fury on YouTube.
Well, there are people that want to commune with the memory of their youth and sing the old songs. I understand the impulse. But I’ve never found that interesting as an audience member. I went to see the Rolling Stones in 1989 at Shea Stadium, for the Steel Wheels tour. And I was not into it. They were playing these songs that they didn’t seem to like anymore. I want to see an artist making art and being super engaged and connected with the fans.
I’ve seen them a few times, and I’m always surprised and upset that it’s not the Exile on Main Street tour.
Exactly, right. It’s not 1972 anymore. The moment of greatest disappointment for me was when they did “Gimme Shelter.” It got to that great moment, the Merry Clayton solo where she’s just shrieking ‘“Just a shot away…”
Still gives me goosebumps.
Absolutely, yeah! But in the Steel Wheels show, they just had some backup singer do it. And I was like, “Oh yeah, that Merry Clayton solo was a moment that happened on the planet that can’t happen again.”
The Soul Coughing version of a Steel Wheels tour could be especially terrible.
Oh, it would be. And I’m just not of that mindset. I can’t be involved in a totally cynical enterprise. I’ve talked to a couple of people in big arena bands, and they’re like, “It’s all about the energy. The energy is amazing coming off the audience when they hear these songs that’ve been a part of their lives for a long time.” But honestly, I think Mick Jagger just really loves money. Maybe I’m projecting, but I swear you can see it in his eyes. He knows he’s making a shit-ton of money. That is a form of loving his work.
Do you keep in contact with any of the Soul Coughing guys? Are you Facebook friends with them?
I was Facebook friends with the bass player for like a minute. He’d occasionally post things that were kind of mean and I’d just ignore him. But then somebody posted on his wall, “Is there ever going to be a Soul Coughing reunion?” And he wrote back, “Not unless one of us dies.”
Right? That’s where I was like, “Okay, I’m going to hit this block button. I’m out.”
Your former bandmates aren’t the only one who get spanked in your book. You also share less than flattering details about former lovers. That’s got to be tough for some of them to read.
When I sat down to write this thing, I was like, “I’ve got to do it for real. I want to be totally honest.” And part of that was remembering all the ways that I was an asshole. All of my manic episodes on the road, my jealousy of Jeff Buckley, whatever it was, I was like, “I’ve fucking got to put this in there.” But I’m sure it’s heart-breaking to hear someone’s perspective about a relationship you were in years later, and it’s so different from how you remember it. Nobody sees themselves objectively.
That may work to your advantage. That woman you mention in the book whose orgasm moan sounded like an oboe? Is she self-aware enough to know she comes like a reed instrument?
I don’t think she would. Oh wait a minute! Yeah, she’d totally be able to identify herself. Fuck. But with a detail like that, how am I going to skip it? I can’t leave something like that out.
After Christopher Hitchens died, I read this great Slate piece about how all the best authors are essentially booze hounds. And the evidence is pretty irrefutable. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner. I read that and thought, “I should probably be drinking more.” Does the same thing happen with musicians?
Do I think I should be drinking more?
Do you look at the legends in your field and think, “I’d be such a better songwriter if I just abused more drugs and alcohol?”
For me, and I’m sure for other people, I only took drugs because I had to not hate myself long enough to write a song. Drugs would sort of wipe out the self-hater function in my brain. And then later, of course, it just made it impossible to write. But I didn’t go to the drugs looking for an ability to be creative. I just needed them to have the courage to do anything at all. And I would say that’s probably what drives alcoholic and addicted writers and artists and musicians.
But not all musicians take drugs for the same reasons, right? There are people like Amy Winehouse who just wanted to self-medicate and disappear, and then somebody like Keith Richards who used drugs as creative fuel. Or is that just a myth?
I don’t know. When I read his autobiography, I remember thinking, I don’t know anybody, certainly nobody in my circle of close friends in recovery, who didn’t get into drugs because they were in pain. And with Keith, I really wish I saw some of the pain. He’s clearly very good at managing his drug use, but I can’t say what effect it’s had on his creativity. Drugs do not make music.
Not directly, no. But there have been compelling arguments that a lot of amazing music was created under the influence.
Yeah, but you’re not giving Jimi Hendrix a lot of credit if you’re like, “Oh, it’s just the drugs.” Charlie Parker? Really fucking good at what he did. John Lennon? Really fucking good. Hank Williams? Ditto. It was not just the booze and the drugs.
One criticism that’s been mentioned in several reviews of The Book of Drugs is that you don’t write much about music or the creative process. Was that a conscious choice?
I just think those stories are so boring.
Boring? Why boring?
Most of them would be like, “So I heard this Mary J. Blige song, and there was something I wanted to rip off from it. But I didn’t want to be too obvious about it, so I changed it a little bit. And then I thought about it and messed with it some more and then thought about it some more, and then I sang it to the bass player.” It’s that story over and over and over again.
I guess that’s just part of being a fan. You hear a song like “Blueeyed Devil” and you want to believe it’s based on a real traveling salesman-slash-heroin addict with mesmerizing blue eyes.
People really want there to be pure reality in art. And I have that impulse sometimes. But that’s just not the way it is. Martin Scorsese was not a gangster. And many, many rappers who make songs about dealing drugs have never been drug dealers. If they were, they probably never would’ve left. I’m sure drug dealing is way more profitable than rapping. If you’re all about making money, being a recording artist is not the right move.
Song origin stories always seem like a bad idea to me. I love “Super Bon Bon,” but I’m pretty sure I’d be disappointed if I found out what the fuck you were talking about.
You probably would be. It doesn’t help you as a listener to know this stuff. The magic of a song is what you find in it and what you project on it. That’s how you find universality in a love song. I’ve been thinking about this because I’m doing a thing for Minnesota public radio, where you talk for fifteen minutes about a song that you love. I’m thinking about doing “Answering Machine” by the Replacements.
Oh god, that’s such an achey song.
Such an achey song! For me, life can be divided between before hearing “Answering Machine” and after hearing it. I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard it for the first time. It was a fall day, a football day at West Point, everything was orange and white and I was sitting in a kitchen. I think about that now and I realize, none of it has anything to do with Paul Westerberg. When he sings “Answering Machine” or listens to it, he thinks about…. Nicollet Avenue or whatever. His connection to that song has absolutely nothing to do with my connection to it.
Before the Internet ruined it, my wife and I were convinced that “Super Bon Bon” was somehow tied into the lyric “baby bon bons” from “True Dreams Of Wichita.” We concocted this weirdly complex Soul Coughing universe in which Super Bon Bons mated, either with other Bon Bons or some kind of asexual reproduction, and gave birth to baby bon bons.
That is awesome. I love it.
But then we saw the lyrics and realized it was actually a “baby bomb bomb.” I’ll be honest with you, I was kind of devastated. Do you mind if we go on believing it’s actually “baby bon bon?”
Yes! I encourage it. I totally encourage it. I’ve had that same thing happen to me. There’s a song by DJ Rap, the unfortunately named DJ and singer/songwriter, called “Bad Girl.” The chorus is super distorted, and it’s put through a harmonizer so there are like a million different weird overtones in it. I thought she was saying “This love is a hole.” I was like, that is amazing! But then I find out the lyric is actually “This is not a love song.”
Not nearly as interesting.
It’s not, is it? Something is gone. It’s so much better if you just let a song have its way with your imagination. But it’s hard to convince people of that.
They want answers, dammit.
And they don’t need them. Whenever people ask me pointed questions about my songs, I want to tell them, “You have it so much better now. You do not want me to blow up your scene. Trust me, stick with what you’ve got. You’ll be so much happier.”
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on MTVHive.com.)