Rocker Mike Doughty recounts travails in memoir

By John Biggs

We needle our cultural heroes and then are delighted when they dissolve in front of us. It happens again and again, in Whitney Houston and in Michael Jackson and in Don Cornelius. They show us the way and when the way becomes treacherous we wish nothing more than to see them fall.

That is why so many "star" memoirs are so fraught. The star has a swift rise, a period of wandering, massive drug addiction, and reflection/renewal. Then the rest of their output sucks or they stop producing altogether.

Mike Doughty is, arguably, a rare exception. His recent memoir, The Book Of Drugs, tells the story of a young man - he was 22 when he founded Soul Coughing with a bassist, drummer, and keyboard player at New York's The Knitting Factory - who entered the music industry at its near-nadir. His band was arguably successful, especially in a decade of one-hit-wonders (remember "Sex and Candy?") and addled grunge rock, and he had a close relationship with the arguably more well-known Jeff Buckley. Doughty tells his story in the context of a decade that gave and took away the aforementioned Buckley, Nirvana front-man Kurt Cobain, and Blind Melon's Shannon Hoon. The music industry was always cruel to the ones it blighted with success. In the 1990s, with the rapid destruction of the industry as a whole and the rise of file sharing, it was particularly rancid.

Doughty grew up in West Point. His father was a distant Vietnam vet and his mother was a bundle of neuroses, calling out "Rots of ruck" when she heard him pounding around upstairs trying on rock star moves while lip syncing to Thin Lizzy. He was a self-described outsider who used big words with his friends and embraced communism in seventh grade after reading a comic about Mao Zedong. He was kind of a rocker, kind of an introvert, and kind of a nerd, and fell in love with weed and beer in college.

Soul Coughing (Doughty hates the name, in retrospect, and doesn't like to talk about that decade's produce at all) was formed out of the heyday of the Knitting Factory, the Tribeca club that catered to the established alternative scene in New York. There he met an upright bassist, a keyboard and sampler player, and an Israeli drummer who was able to recreate the skitter and scratch of techno on a physical drum kit. Doughty's original vision was something that wasn't very popular during the 1990s, namely an unknown singer-songwriter backed by a band. Instead the other, older members pulled rank and made Doughty feel inferior while offering up their own permutations of typical rock star dickwaddery. The resulting tension wound the young singer up to the breaking point, resulting in a crack-up that destroyed the band and allowed Doughty to come out of the 1990s a changed man.

The music industry packaged Soul Coughing like the mad offspring of Devo and They Might Be Giants. Impossible to pigeonhole, the band produced what some called trip hop while others called acid jazz. All Doughty wanted was to be a respected songwriter. The rest of the band wanted to make a lot of cash.

The Soul Coughing years were not kind to Doughty. He was addicted to heroin and a habitual pot smoker and he spent years just trying to get his fix. The first three-quarters of the book describes his junk-sick quest and subsequent addiction and illnesses.

The last quarter details his quest for sobriety. After kicking heroin and breaking up the band, he found himself addicted to booze. He slowly blew up on a steady diet of whiskey and beer. In an effort to maintain his career, he travelled US playing songs that he had never officially recorded and discovered that his fans had found them on Napster and were able to sing along to them at concerts. His audience, an audience he gained thanks to the machinery of the music industry, had not abandoned him. From then on, M. Doughty of Soul Coughing became Mike Doughty the songwriter and his rise into clarity is cataloged most poignantly in his subsequent work.

Sunken-eyed girl on the Ludlow Street
Junkieland once but they swept it up, so
Sing in my mind, singing you’re so sweet
I need a bundle of dope just to numb it out and I’m

Feeling so good that it hurts my skin
Feeling so good I could do myself in

You are the drinks I drink and keep drinking and
Wake up tremble
All of the blinks I blink and keep blinking and
Fall down stumble

While many would argue that a memoir by a minor rock star in the 1990s is little but a trifle - after all, Doughty was no Cobain or Buckley - it's easy to accept that Doughty's tale need to be told. For fans of Doughty in his various incarnations it's a fascinating look at a heretofore inscrutable character and for folks who know him in his new incarnation it's nice to see from whence all his brillance came. Non-fans may enjoy the story of redemption and the insider's look at a dying music industry (and, presumably, a seedier view of gentrified Ludlow Street).

I went to a Soul Coughing show as a young shoe-gazer in Pittsburgh and nodded along to "Sugar Free Jazz" and "Super Bon Bon" as if I had discovered some skinny but passable bridge out of the bloated sixties rock passed down to me from my father and into a new world of skittering electronics and poetic hip hop. Doughty was important to me then and he's a more fully-faceted person to me now.

To sum up the book, here's what you'll learn: Doughty's bandmates royally screwed him, then he screwed himself. Then he came back. The title itself seems to be a play on the Magnetic Fields song "Book of Love." We're reminded that, as well as being "long and boring," the book of love:

... has music in it
In fact, that's where music comes from
Some of it is just transcendental
Some of it is just really dumb

 

Some of Doughty's prose is transcendental - it's down to earth, raw, and real - and thankfully it's never really dumb. It helps us understand him and that understanding is the least we can offer to the men and women we raise up so high only to watch them fall.

Thumbnail photo: El Jiggity / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)


Bonus - A special Mike Doughty Musical Interlude featuring his Cymbalta Musical Shaker:

Published 5:55 am Thu, Mar 22, 2012

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About the Author

I live in Brooklyn, NY and write about technology, security, gadget, gear, wristwatches, and the Internet. After spending four years as an IT programmer, I switched gears and became a full-time journalist. My work has appeared in the New York Times, Laptop, PC Upgrade, Surge, Gizmodo, Men’s Health, Linux Journal, Popular Science, InSync, and I’ve written a book called Black Hat: Misfits, Criminals, and Scammers in the Internet Age.

I am currently East Coast Editor of TechCrunch and I supervise the BWL family of blogs, SlushPile.net and WristWatchReview.com.

You can reach me at john at bigwidelogic dot com or Tweet me at @johnbiggs. My latest book, Mytro, is available now.

24 Responses to “Rocker Mike Doughty recounts travails in memoir”

  1. beemoh says:

    “We needle our cultural heroes”

    Looking at the name of the book, I have a feeling they are more likely to needle themselves.

  2. i was only ever a casual listener to SC but I liked the book a lot. i’m not sure the rest of the band really deserves the bile Doughty pitches at them, i would love to hear their side of it. 

  3. Layne says:

    Just finished re-reading this after seeing him at an in-store signing. 
    I was a big fan of his SC work and his early solo stuff. Sad to read about the trajectory of the band and hear what colossal assholes his bandmates managed to be. It’s also a bummer that he recoils so strongly from their work. 

    As satisfied as he seems to be with his current projects, they don’t seem to have the satisfying experimental fusion of those band collaborations -lyrically or instrumentally. He had such a killer handle on weaving his lyrics together – barking them out in staccato bursts or droning them out in sing-song spoken word. I know his old band represents a bad time because of the drugs, mental abuse and squandered potential, but the argument could be made that all that anguish got channeled into some of the most influential underground music being done at the time.  Bands in turmoil DO tend to make powerful work – the Police, Stone Roses, Metallica, Clash, Beatles, etc. 

    That being said, his notes about his family life, addition recovery and the struggle to supplant drug abuse with truer life experiences are well written and touching.

  4. EggyToast says:

    I can understand how Mike would be upset with the band, as the music they produced on the first album was unique and interesting, and by the 3rd album they were just making bland tracks. You could still tell that the band had talent, but they were watering down the beats, the melodies, the structures, and more, and it was clear that Mike wasn’t into it because the lyrics and delivery had also gone off a cliff.

    If anything, his description makes it clear why Ruby Vroom was so great — 4 guys were trying something new and it came together in a great way. Based on that success, they tried to change it in order to foster more success, rather than just creating more good music.

    I don’t really like Mike’s switch into adult contemporary as another songwriter, simply from a music perspective, but I am happy that he’s able to do what he wants now. 

  5. scrappyred says:

    I found the book resonated with so much of my personal experience, as a creative person, a person from a really fucked up family, and someone who has used to blot out the pain. It clicked for me in a big way.

    and was deeply satisfying.

  6. Ilya says:

    “Doughty’s original vision was something that wasn’t very popular during the 1990s, namely an unknown singer-songwriter backed by a band. Instead the other, older members pulled rank and made Doughty feel inferior while offering up their own permutations of typical rock star dickwaddery.”

    I don’t understand how this could seem plausible to anyone who’s heard the music. Several of the other members (especially the bassist) were outright brilliant, and yet Doughty’s (great) vocals were still clearly front-and-center in every song. In live performances, he was up front while they hung back and focused on their instruments. Maybe he dreamt of having a submissive, bland backing band instead of star-quality collaborators, but if so, that dream doesn’t reflect very well on him. And since he was a blazingly charismatic junkie at the time, how much credence should we give his account of which side the “rock star dickwaddery” was coming from?

    Maybe the personal interactions behind the scenes were terrible. Given the amount of drugs involved, that wouldn’t be very surprising. But Soul Coughing was hypnotically amazing, seeming to come from some alternate musical dimension, while Doughty’s later work is unrepentantly self-absorbed and traffics in bafflingly shopworn themes. I don’t know if it was the drugs, or the creative conflict, but there was *something* going on in Soul Coughing that made it great, and it seems that an additional tragedy in Doughty’s life is that he’s had to convince himself otherwise to find happiness.

  7. As a friend (and band member with) SC’s bassist and a lead singer of a troubled band from the same era, I would add that there’s always more than meets the eye in a band dynamic. It’s easy to get caught up in a narrative of personal victimhood, and I still fight it daily. The brief flash of near-stardom will mess anyone’s head up, as will a life filled with high-intensity low-attachment relationships, constant free access to alcohol, and the rapid oscillation between public adoration and humiliation. The more I’ve looked at my band’s past and tried to get honest about what really happened, the more I’ve seen how much dickishness I brought in, and how the rest of the band’s dickishness was less a product of malevolence and more the inevitable off-gassing caused by the toxic environment we lived in. This isn’t to say Doughty doesn’t have legitimate gripes, but rather that almost nobody is innocent in such a high pressure situation. 

    • It’s nice to hear a perspective from somebody else involved in the scene. I feel like it’s really easy for a lot of us suffering from the same demons to prescribe to personal narrative of tragedy and persecution without acknowledging that all of these things take place within the context of interpersonal relations. Also I’m now very interested in checking out your work.

      • Ben Gott says:

        Start with “Dulcinea,” then go onto “Fear,” then buy all the rest.  You probably heard “All I Want” on the radio in the 1990s—Glen’s band was Toad the Wet Sprocket.

  8. Ryan Spilken says:

    His resentment towards what his bandmates brought musically to Soul Coughing makes his tastes very suspect, to me. I’d rather hear the experimental, far out rhythm section and twisted lyricism of his old days to the slick, Dave Mathews sounding dribble of today. It’s sad to hear that he resents the music that tweaked a lot of my perceptions when I was younger. 

  9. mindfu says:

    Here’s hoping that the rest of the band are being remembered with 20/40 bitterness, and that this is a stage of Doughty in reconciling with them. And that then, for my own selfish reasons, they can make some new records.

    They really made great music, unlike anyone else with an amazing sound. 

    Whatever the future holds, here’s to Doughty pulling himself out of his own death spiral and moving forward as a human being as well as an artist.

    • asterios9 says:

      It is somewhat sad, in the very least, that they may hate each other so much that they’ll never be able to embark on the victory lap for now-affluent fans that has enriched The Pixies.

  10. snagglepuss says:

    I haven’t read the book. I think that “Ruby Vroom” was unrepeatable lightning in a bottle even though “Irresistable Bliss” and “El Oso” had their moments, and I think that “Screenwriter’s Blues” is the best song that David Byrne never wrote. I saw them live once, and that show featured one of the truly weirdest concert experiences of my entire life, which I have never forgotten.

    That said, I don’t have much use for for Doughty’s solo stuff – Dave Matthews’s fingerprints are all over it, and I don’t care for Matthews -Although Doughty is coming to town at the end of the month and I’ll still give him a shot.

    I’m glad for him that he’s got his physical shit together. Now, if he can just find some musicians to challenge him, to add some whomp to his bland solo stuff, without pushing him back in a dangerous direction. I think the guy has talent, he just needs some friction – But not too much – to bring out the best in his songs.

  11. neil pettit says:

    Soul Coughing remains one of the bands I listen and re-listen to with no shame while many others of that time have sunk to the bottom of the 90s sea. I was able to see them before they broke up (at one of those college shows that also featured Everclear and a pre-Fergie Black Eyed Peas) and later saw Mike Doughty solo a number of times, once even calling out my favorite song from the SC-era – “Janine” which to my amazement and delight he actually played(!!!)

    He always came off as a pretty likable character when onstage but I have heard stories of backstage snobbery that jive with facts spilled on the pages of this book.  Co-workers of mine  (Borders Books, RIP) returned from the Newport Folk Fest with horror stories about how he refused to sign anything SC related and demanded they only sell his CD-Rs for Skittish.

    Like my own signed copy of Skittish, my interest in his “small rock” has been lost.  Too many slicked up re-workings of those rough diamonds for me to stand… That having been said, I’ll be pouring over the pages of this memior, embracing my inner 14 year old and remembering when.

  12. Max Baskin says:

    One thing I’ve noticed in the transformation from M. to Mike is that there’s a lot less darkness in his music. I don’t know if it was getting sober or breaking away from the negative relationship that SC became, but his solo stuff has just felt…happier.

  13. scrappyred says:

    It’s interesting to hear that everyone seems to dismiss his experience with his band mates.I lived in NYC during this period and had some knowledge of the bass player and drummer.AKA UVRay. No one is clean in this narrative and there’s plenty of dickishness to go around among all of them. but damn, the conflict created some amazing music.

    • asterios9 says:

      I don’t think people dismiss it entirely, but rather suspect that his bandmates were similarly aggrieved by the situation, and that what we are told is rather one-sided and somewhat out of perspective.  Some of the anecdotes do come off as rather petty.

      It reminded me of the time I played in a band that was fronted by a very talented but inexperienced amateur with a day job.   Just negotiating his compositions and turning them into something that we could perform together was sometimes a frustrating experience in which his feelings might get hurt, and the way he managed the project was chaotic and sometimes unprofessional.   After helping him build the band into something that he could record and gig with I moved on — at the time he thought I was sabotaging him by doing so and probably still thinks I was an asshole.

      So, it’s definitely too bad that Doughty hated the experience so much, and I can definitely see how it can happen.  Being in a band is like a four or five-way marriage and it’s pretty much impossible to keep everybody happy.   BUT, the problem is definitely partly Mike, and it’s a little unfair to expect us to read 200 pages of him claiming otherwise without expressing some skepticism.

  14. mkultra says:

    I really adored SC’s output, so it’s kind of distressing to hear (at least in retrospect) how miserable the experience was for MD. I kind of hate that he finds only pain and regret in those years. I hate even more that I know I’ll continue to enjoy the music just as much as if it didn’t cost him a chunk of his soul to make it.

    Not really keeping track of his story, I really noted the change in attitude when he moved into his early solo work.It maybe wasn’t the sparking and grinding brilliance of SC, but it was clear as day that he was in a better place. His newfound perspective and balance seeped from his words like honey and butter melting off of a hot biscuit and pooling on the stage before him.

    Because I’m human and not entirely evil, I would greatly prefer that he has a good life and makes the art he wants to make, even if it isn’t necessarily the art other people want him to make. He gave at the office.

    It’s a truism that art is immortal, but as Kafka said: “If I shall exist eternally, how shall I exist tomorrow?”

  15. Scott Hall says:

    I saw SC twice live, and M(ike) Doughty 3 times live.  I just saw him earlier this month on his book/album tour, and I’m really disappointed about how bitter he’s become.  He used to at least occasionally indulge fans who shouted out SC song titles when he asked for requests, now he’s just an asshole.  He went so far as to have a question box at the Merch table that you were supposed to ask your ‘gnarly’ SC questions so that he would answer them on stage.
    When that portion of the show came round, he flipped through them and then began a tirade about how all the questions weren’t ‘gnarly’ enough.  It was obvious he just wanted to answer questions that would lead him into ranting about ex-bandmates.

    He then opened up for requests, and continued to insult people who were requesting to hear SC songs.  This continued for a while, and then just got out of control as the same drunk people in the crowd kept egging him on.  Don’t ask for audience participation when you don’t want to participate, especially when the bar has been open for two hours before you hit the stage.

    Paraphrased quotes from the show:
    -“Ask me any question about the fucking band that made me famous, but that I now hate, so I can berate you for not asking a shitty enough question.”

    -“Me listening to Soul Coughing is like you listening to Nickleback.”

    -“I can tell that since the average age of the audience was 35 that the only reason you’re here is because you love Soul Coughing.  No, I’m not going to play any songs that you love, or that made you want to listen to my solo stuff in the first place.”

    -“I know that a third of you are shit faced right now, so I’m going to just open this up to audience participation.”

    -“I used to be Mike Doughty, but now they call me Mr. Bitterness”

    I still like his music, but I don’t know if I’d like to hang out with him now.

    • BeaverBeaver says:

      His views on music critics/him running his own message board, and his love of pop music had me thinking he was not so bitter… and I think in 2002ish maybe he wasn’t. I unfollowed him on twitter recently, though, because he was becoming loathesome.

  16. Something to keep in mind regarding Mike’s bitterness is that it may well be a personality twist leftover from being a junkie/alcoholic. The rage lives beneath the skin for most of us, even decades later. A alcoholic who has been sober since 1983, I still feel the Rage Beast Rise when the wrong thing confounds me, and yet I doubt you know many other 50 year old men who laugh as loud or as frequently as I do. I love M.’s AND Mike’s work and I am sad to hear that he seems to be more embittered now than then. Dude, you need to get some counseling, some meditation, some Primal Scream, whatever, and learn to embrace the painful past. It has shaped who you are today, and as an artist, your bitterness will drive away what’s left of your paying audience. 

  17. chaircrusher says:

    No one else seems to have mentioned it, but Mike is on a book tour right now, so you can see him in real life — check out http://www.mikedoughty.com/shows

    Of special note, Doughty will be taking part in the Mission Creek Festival in Iowa City. He’s reading at 5 PM at the Motley Cow Cafe, and performing music at a 9PM show the same day at the Mill (along with Caroline and the Goodnight Sleeps and Death Ships, both worth seeing in their own right).

  18. xzzy says:

    I don’t care what the dude says or feels about his past, everything he puts on a record seems to fill a niche, so as far as I’m concerned he can keep on trucking like he has been. Haughty Melodic is one of my favorite albums to come out in the last ten years, and Ruby Vroom was one of the best discs of the 90’s regardless of how he looks back on it.

    He seems to be doing the music he wants to do and it turns out it’s pretty good music too. While he does talk an awful lot about subjects he claims he doesn’t want to talk about, I make sure to catch him every time he comes through town because it’s a guaranteed good show.

  19. Adam Cahan says:

    Quote from review: 
    “While many would argue that a memoir by a minor rock star in the 1990s is little but a trifle….” Straw-man!!