Extract: The Book of Drugs by Mike Doughty | reviews, news & interviews
Extract: The Book of Drugs by Mike Doughty
Extract: The Book of Drugs by Mike Doughty
Former Soul Coughing singer’s vivid, brutally honest memoir of life as a drug addict and cult rock star
I have been an admirer of Mike Doughty as a singer and songwriter since picking up Soul Coughing’s first two CDs at a car boot sale for 50p each. I was drawn by the sinister, Lynchian art work and dryly witty song titles such as "Sugar Free Jazz” and “White Girl”. You can’t always judge a CD by its cover or its song titles, but in this instance I hit gold. Here’s the opening line of "Is Chicago, Is Not Chicago", the first song on their debut Ruby Vroom: “A man drives a plane/ Into the/ Chrysler Building”. I was hearing this post 9/11, but it was recorded in 1994. Soul Coughing, rather belatedly, became my favourite American band of the Nineties but, as The Book of Drugs reveals, they were Doughty’s least favourite band of the Nineties. Or any other decade, for that matter.
The Book of Drugs is both the story of the most dysfunctional band in the history of rock and the story of one man’s hell of drug addiction. Yes, both these stories have been told many times before - by many different fucked up and fucked off musicians - but rarely with such taught lucid prose and self-lacerating honesty. For example, in the extract below, Doughty tells us of his sexual exploits at the height of Soul Coughing’s success. Each woman, encapsulated in a brutally compact sentence or two, is reduced to the prose equivalent of a photo-fit picture by her physical type, her nationality, or a soundbite of dialogue. Not in order to belittle them as human beings, but to convey Doughty’s own tragic disconnection from his own feelings at the time.
The biggest compliment I can give The Book of Drugs is that - unlike so much writing in the often seedy sub-genre of the rock memoir - you don’t have to already be a fan of the band or of the author to find it a moving and transportive read. The fired-up New York prose and incisively relayed anecdotes populating every page will keep you absorbed. As the man’s simultaneously released solo CD Yes and Also Yes further demonstrates, Doughty is more than just a survivor. He is a writer who is only just finding out who he really is and what he’s capable of. However, be warned. The extracts below plunge you straight into Doughty’s sex, drugs and rock'n'roll hell. No punches are pulled. Howard Male
Watch "Is Chicago, Is Not Chicago" performed live by Mike Doughty's least favourite band
My lungs weakened. I had so little breath that I would routinely have a panicked, choking fight for air just by standing up from a chair too quickly. I like to leap up and pace whenever I get a good idea. So creativity was hazardous.
I couldn’t stand all the way upright; I shuffled, half bent. It took me ten minutes to cross my tiny apartment, piss, and return to bed. It took half an hour to go down the stairs of my building - I walked backwards, gripping the rail, as if I were descending an Alp.
I never connected this with the $300 worth of dope I was sniffing daily. I was twenty-nine, and I thought, Well, twenty-nine, you know, getting older, the body starts shutting down.
Seriously, I thought this.
I smoked three packs a day. A morning pack, an evening pack, and then another pack rationed through the intervening hours
There was a Jennifer Lopez video that was on all the time - synopsis: Jennifer Lopez, a carefree girl from the Bronx, goes and picks up her paycheck at the beauty parlor, then gets on the train and heads out on the town with her friends, laughing. The video bewildered me. I knew, just from passive pop-culture consumption, that she was one year older than me. How’s she able to do this? To function?
It was about four blocks to the bank machine. Every day I beeped Greg, and then headed for the stairs. Thirty minutes down. Then one block down Ludlow Street, which was transitioning from a discount market - Hasidic Jewish guys in their black hats and quasi-nineteenth-century garb selling knockoff leather goods - to a groovy-people playground. I felt invisible on the street. Maybe life was moving around me so much faster than I was that I was invisible.
Most likely, though, people were just averting their gaze from this guy who was clearly dying. I didn’t look like a dope fiend, more like a cancer patient.
It took me three lights to cross Delancey, a wide street leading to the Williamsburg Bridge, looming grey in the distance. One Walk and I started across the westbound lanes. When I was halfway across, Don’t Walk started flashing. Drivers would wait, rolling their eyes - gruff white commuters, thuggy dudes in decked-out Mazdas, delivery vans, Jersey-plated cars filled with girls in sequined outfits, en route to parties - as I finally got to the traffic island. Some time spent wheezing on the traffic island, my heart racing. Then I started crossing the eastbound lanes. It took me ninety minutes, sometimes two hours, to the ATM and back.
The sampler player drove the van sometimes. He’d get particularly stoned for this. Nobody paid any thought to it, because we all assumed that you drove better high. People still believe this. I have friends in their late thirties who believe, genuinely, that weed makes you more perceptive at the wheel. I read about some study on some blog the other day presenting data that, at the very least, it was just as safe as driving not stoned.
OK. So. I remember this one time doing bong hits with a girl.
It was during the first Gulf War. The media were jazzed about there being a war - first real one in twenty years, right? - so they had cancelled all the shows and had three anchors talking about the same unchanging information, sans commercials, until two in the morning. Eventually we tired of it; we turned the sound off and listened to CDs, loving the moments when the lips of the anchor synched, almost-kind-of, to the music.
I lit a cigarette. (I smoked three packs a day. A morning pack, an evening pack, and then another pack rationed through the intervening hours; I had ashtrays placed at five-foot intervals in my house.) I put it in the ashtray, then got down on the floor to pick out a CD. Flipping through the rack, I decided I wanted to smoke; lit a cigarette; put it in an ashtray on a speaker as I got out my copy of Sign o’ the Times. The girl I was getting high with asked if I still had those Pringles from before. Sure, I said. I walked to the kitchen, lighting a cigarette on the way. When I got to the kitchen, I put the cigarette in an ashtray by the sink and opened the fridge. Blinked at the fridge’s innards for a second. I got out a grape soda and walked back towards the couch.
Want some grape soda? I asked the girl.
“The Pringles?” she asked.
Oh, right, right. I went back to the kitchen, got the Pringles, came back, handed the canister to the girl, sat down, then decided I wanted to smoke, lit a cigarette, and, upon ashing, discovered the first of the four cigarettes I’d lit in the past three and a half minutes still burning in the ashtray on the end table.
There are a number of people in the world who believe that in this state I could drive better.
FIRST REHEARSAL AND GIG
I started cadging off-nights, Mondays or Tuesdays, from my boss at the Knit and playing gigs as “M Doughty’s Soul Coughing” with different guys I heard at the club. The saxophonist Tim Berne played once. I called him up cold, and he had no idea who I was. A friend asked what he was doing that week, and he apparently said, “Monday night I’m playing with this African cat - Emdodi.”
I booked the 11pm slot on a Tuesday night five days after my twenty-second birthday. A month before the show, I had no band.
I was worrying about it, talking to a bass player who worked a day job as a sound-effects guy on a soap opera. “Don’t worry, Doughty,” he said. “We’ll find you a band.”
I called him up two weeks before the show. He had forgotten.
He couldn’t do it, because that week there was a fictitious hurricane in the soap opera’s fictitious town, so he had to work overtime.
There was this one amazing drummer around, an Israeli guy who could sound like a hip-hop record. There were drummers who could play those beats, but nobody who could sound like that.
My only interaction with him was that he’d once walked into the Knit’s office and asked me to send a fax for him. I told him that I didn’t work in the office and didn’t know how the fax machine worked. He stayed silent for a minute and then asked me again if I’d send a fax for him.
I had nothing to lose, why not call up this amazing player at random, for the hell of it? He had nothing to do on a Tuesday night at 11pm. Who would? He said yes. I was astonished.
I wanted an upright bass player; the record I wanted to emulate was A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory, powered by upright bass lines, some sampled, some played live by the master Ron Carter. There was this one upright player who was unsettlingly corny: he had long hair, wore pointy Night Ranger at the Grammys boots, and was often seen in the sort of pajama-like sultan pants associated with MC Hammer. But the drummer said he was good.
I got his number from somebody; he, too, had nothing booked on a Tuesday at eleven. I learned later that he had no idea who I was; he showed up for the rehearsal, and thought, The door guy?
There was a sampler player who had done both the all-sampler and all-vocalist Cobras - he was brought on to the latter along with some other non-vocalists because he knew the piece. He was less intimidating than the other sampler players; they tended to be mavericks, but this guy was timid and high-strung. He was constantly wide-eyed, like the proverbial animal in headlights. He said yes, too.
I felt like a vice-presidential candidate. I walked the rings of the stadium, slapping hands with fans here or there who recognized me
Rehearsal studios in New York went by the hour. It was something like $12 per; insanely expensive for me. It was my gig, so the assumption was that I was hiring them, that it was my deal. They were, in fact, so busy that this was the single rehearsal I could grab them for.
Half an hour late, the bass player and the drummer arrived with bagels and coffee. I stood there with my guitar plugged in, gawking at them, as they joked and ate their breakfasts.
Can we play? My money’s running out, I said.
They laughed at me. A half hour later, they had finished their bagels.
“Yo, G,” said the drummer, who spoke a thickly Hebrew accented, broken Brooklynish, “it is time to pump. It is time that we must pump now.”
I was floored from the jump. I had tried to explain to other rhythm sections how to do the grooves I wanted. With these two, it was just there. That huge sound.
I started one tune by explaining I wanted the rhythm to be something like James Brown’s “Funky Drummer”.
“Yo, G,” said the drummer, “nobody want to play that there beat. Everybody done that beat already.”
We blasted through a bunch of songs in an hour. I was half elated, half panicked. Suddenly the sampler player walked in.
Where’s your sampler? I said.
“I brought this,” he said. He held up a video camera. “I’m going to record audio and practice to it later.”
To promote a gig, I’d call 200 people; basically, everybody I’d ever met in New York. I sat down at 3pm, with a notebook with names and numbers anarchically scribbled in it, and made calls until 11.
Every third person asked to be on the guest list.
Seventeen people came. One rehearsal wasn’t enough to really know the tunes, so transitions were sketchy, but I was dumbstruck. The bass player and the drummer seemed not to give a fuck that I was standing there, but they filled the room with an extraordinary rumble.
The sampler player didn’t start playing until about the last verse of each tune; it took him that long to load his hard drive. He clearly hadn’t listened to his videotape, but I loved his sounds.
Peals from space and spectral voices.
There wasn’t much, but I divided the money four ways.
“Yo, G,” said the drummer. “This is not right. This isn’t enough. You pay for my cab. That’s how it’s done, G.”
After paying for cabs, I had lost the precious (for me) sum of $25. But I was sold: if I could hold on to them, this was my band.
I flew to East Lansing for two weeks’ opening shows for Dave Matthews.
I put one of Alfonso’s pills on my amp during sound check at the Boston Garden. Halfway through the set, between songs, I stepped back to the amp and gulped. I wanted to be coming up as soon as the show was over.
We played to a crowd that had mostly not shown up yet. There were pockets of people in the chairs on the arena’s floor - people who paid big bucks for the good seats - who mostly drank their beer, looking bored. The people in the cheap sections were more likely to show up for the opening act: after the tunes, we’d hear a muted roar from the back of the hall.
I began to feel the glow. We clambered down the stairs and into the strange middle ground behind the stage, with big road cases gathered together like cattle, cables running from the stage to generators somewhere, Dave Matthews’s techs in states of distraction. By the monitors there was a tiny TV screen hooked up to a camera, currently showing an empty drummer’s stool. The guy’s kit was so huge, jungled with cymbals, chimes, tom-toms, that they needed the TV screen to communicate.
There was one lonely guy sitting at a computer. His job was to feed lyrics into the teleprompter. I thought: Who does this guy drink with when he gets on the tour bus at night?
Our dressing room was a visiting-team locker room. There were empty massage tables and stationary bikes; the lockers had been covered with white sheets. A guy from Warner Bros stood by the sandwich platter. He had horn-rimmed glasses and an awshucks, kid from the cul-de-sac, Encyclopaedia Brown demeanour.
The high ratcheted up and I started to think he realized I was oozing into another state of being. He seemed weirdly menacing. He engaged me in some good-show-excited-for-New-York-tomorrow? chat; my eyes must’ve been ping-pong balls.
I got more googly-eyed as he chatted; I hopped up on one of the stationary bikes and started pedalling. Idly, then furiously. I stopped pedalling, and the force of the exertion shot an intense blast of drugs - when you’re on E, and you move intensely, then stop, you feel like you’ve ignited. This is why E goes so perfectly with dancing. My body shook in pleasure and disorientation. Encyclopedia Brown was still talking. I dismounted and walked off mid-sentence.
Dave Matthews took the stage to grand hurrahs. I walked out of the barricades and into the crowd, looked up at the people in the stands, the spotlights tracing over them. The whole place seemed to be breathing in unison.
I was grabbed by a girl in a hippie dress and pulled into the seats. “Dance with us!”
Are you on E? I asked idiotically.
“No! We’re drunk!” she said. My bones were noodles.
I felt like a vice-presidential candidate. I walked the rings of the stadium, slapping hands with fans here or there who recognized me. I was by myself, on drugs, grinningly holding up the all-access pass on a lanyard around my neck to security as they stepped up to block my way. They parted resentfully. This is what I wanted to do with my life. Be outrageously high, be absolutely alone except for the random high fives and yelped You’re awesome’s.
"THE FUCK LIST"
I fucked somebody every time I got the chance. The sheer range of women I slept with on tour is striking to me, now: breathtaking women, and women that a desperate man on a lot of speed wouldn’t consider as the bar closed at 4am.
I fucked an acne-scarred Irish girl in a Nashville Radisson for two hours straight.
I fucked a Danish girl, so fantastically beautiful that I was dumbfounded to be with her, for two minutes.
I fucked a woman from Milwaukee who described her job as “homeopathic oncologist”.
I fucked a sandy-haired, pudgy woman who sold T-shirts for reunited classic rock bands; she cornered me at a club in New Orleans, fed me mushrooms, and we fucked, tripping; as I hotfooted out, she cried, “Don’t you want to go fuck in the City of the Dead?”
I fucked a hirsute, angular French woman whose enthralling moans sounded for all the world like an oboe.
I fucked a fat Canadian journalist with a pin-up’s face on her obese body.
I fucked another French woman who wore a rubber dress, had a full back-piece tattoo of The Scream, called me “zee byoo-tea-fall blond-uh angel”, and had a notebook of pencil sketches of the other guys from bands she’d invited home.
I fucked a woman in Boston who, to turn herself on, spoke Russian the entire time.
I fucked a stewardess in Seattle who wouldn’t take off her motorcycle boots.
I was usually too high to pick up girls. Every night that I spent alone, cotton-mouthed, in a hotel room, I loathed myself for loneliness itself
I fucked a black woman nearly half a foot taller than me - I’m six foot one - backstage at a hockey arena in Minnesota; when I complained I was blind wasted, she took me by the wrist and led me to the bathroom, where, kneeling across the toilet from each other, we stuck our fingers down our throats and puked together.
I fucked a gangly, dazzling woman whom I recognized from an episode of The X-Files. Though insanely gorgeous, she spoke with the nerdiest voice I’ve ever heard.
I fucked a girl in Pittsburgh, in the back of a bus, with a boyish seventeen-year-old’s body and a middle-aged senator’s jowls.
I fucked an Italian woman in Paris who was almost but not quite beautiful enough to be a model; she kept talking, brightly, pathetically, about her future on the runways, and later became the travelling concubine of one of the Backstreet Boys.
I fucked a strawberry-haired girl in a billowing hippie skirt with a Fargo accent who, afterwards, pushed upon me a cassette tape of her terrible sludge-rock band.
I fucked the hostess of a country-music video countdown show, whose shoes I complimented; thus, she thought I was a foot fetishist, and mailed me snapshots of her feet for months after - poolside, with “My Feet on Vacation” written in red marker on the back.
I fucked a publicist for hip-hop acts who wept as I went down on her.
I fucked a curvy Goth princess who made squeaking noises.
I fucked a gamine Iowan; I begged her to wear her greenframed glasses while she went down on me.
I fucked a radio programmer who could’ve dashed my career, but I never called her again, anyway.
I fucked a girl with a high-school-pep-rally sort of personality who ten years later was managing a band with the Number One record in America.
I fucked a serene Native American girl who smiled, noiselessly, as she rode me; she made me come, then she made herself a cup of tea and split.
I fucked a woman in a broom closet at the Paramount Theatre.
I fucked a girl who picked me up with a friend at an after-party in London; the three of us went back to my suite, drank shitty champagne, then each said, “Yawn, time to go to sleep,” then one went and feigned slumber on the couch, the other feigned sleep on the bed, and I had to choose which one to fake-wake-up and have sex with.
I fucked two girls in stairwells within a single week - one in a hotel, one in a mall. When I was with one of them, a pair of stoic tourists passed us as they headed down the stairs; I had my entire hand shoved up her pussy.
I fucked a woman in a limousine in Miami; we swigged tequila, mid-fuck, as the driver lectured us on the social history of Coco-nut Grove.
Mostly, though, I didn’t fuck anybody. The above litany is uninspired compared to that of the average singer of a band that had a video on MTV in the ’90s. I was usually too high to pick up girls.
Every night that I spent alone, cotton-mouthed, in a hotel room, I loathed myself for loneliness itself.
On the scarce occasions where there was sex without weed, my disappointment was such that I felt I wasn’t having sex at all.
In the last days of my drug life, I was unable to fuck, and uninterested besides. When I got clean, I started up again. Immediately, the stripe of women improved markedly. But I was itchingly dissatisfied, dogged by unfamiliar self-reproach. Flippant sex is a wasted man’s pastime. At least, I was unable to do it without a basic desire to want to talk to, hang out with, the woman I was with.
I got through it, unaccountably, without an STD, or a vengeful boyfriend wielding a lead pipe outside a motel room.
Watch the video for "Na Na Nothing" from Mike Doughty’s new album Yes and Also Yes
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