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: