Lives in Music #4: The Book of Drugs by Mike Doughty | New music reviews, news & interviews
Lives in Music #4: The Book of Drugs by Mike Doughty
Starkly titled work by the former Soul Coughing frontman is no ordinary addiction memoir
Such is the warts and all nature of the rock star biography that something as personal as the addiction memoir has become almost passé. Lucky then that Mike Doughty – one-time frontman of cult 90s alt-rockers Soul Coughing turned eclectic solo artist – didn't write an ordinary addiction memoir.
The Book of Drugs couldn't have been titled more starkly if Doughty had tried. It is blunt, honest and incredibly funny story of a life in which, in the words of the author, everything has either involved drugs - their presence, or absence - or been shadowed by them. At his lowest, Doughty was scraping out an existence using $300 worth of heroin a day, leaving his New York apartment only to pick up more money from the cash machine for his dealer.
It's that rare thing among rock biographies - a book that is an excellent read on its own terms
But it isn't just the drugs. The book is also the story of the slow, dramatic dissolution of one of the most dysfunctional bands of the 1990s. "M Doughty's Soul Coughing" started out as a revolving troupe of players the songwriter heard while working as a doorman at Brooklyn's famous Knitting Factory club, the band's eventual line-up recruited at short notice after Doughty found himself without anybody to play with for a show he had booked. The three musicians, although technically incredible, were all about a decade older than Doughty and did little to hide their disdain for his songwriting. Some years later, Doughty remains so embittered by the experience that he will walk out of a bar if he catches one of his old records playing.
By its very nature the book sells Doughty's side of the split, but at the same time it's hard not to come away feeling as if he was wronged. For one thing, years of passive aggression are documented in excruciating detail, but at the same time Doughty hardly paints himself as a saint in the relationship.
The lack of the ghostwriter's gloss is evident elsewhere in the book too, with one powerful segment listing women that the singer slept with in short, emotionless sentences reducing them to nationalities, features, quirks. Only Doughty comes off cheapened by the exchange. "The above litany is uninspired compared to that of the average singer of a band that had a video on MTV in the 90s," he writes. "I was usually too high to pick up girls."
Soul Coughing might have been the greatest band you've never heard of; Mike Doughty is, almost certainly, the greatest songwriter (unless you caught him on his recent tour opening for Suzanne Vega). Pragmatically, he is aware that had he made some different choices this situation could have been different – had he never walked out on a band on the cusp of fame and handed in a dramatically different solo record to Warner Brothers he might never have been dropped by the label. Regardless of whether you'd ever heard his name, however, this is that rare thing among rock biographies - a book that is an excellent read on its own terms. Pick it up, and you might just discover some fantastic music along the way.
Listen to Doughty's cover of John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads", from his forthcoming b-sides album The Flip is Another Honey
Subscribe to theartsdesk.com
Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 7,000 pieces, we're asking for £2.95 per month or £25 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.
To take an annual subscription now simply click here.
And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?
more New music
Punk perennials veer towards the moody with mixed results
Unspectacular third effort fails to stand out from the crowd
Bastille's breakthrough gig was a well-mannered affair without a trace of bad blood
Triumphant return of Neue Slowenische Kunst
The musical undead walk amongst us in this prog-rock evocation of dark London
Cinematic Arab vistas with a rock sensibility
The superstar diva from Houston, Texas, thunders into London in epic style
Southern rockers find their country soul again
Sublime pairing of virtuoso guitarists who bestride much of jazz and related genres
Musical recluse returns with a nearly decent album
Can Belgians resurrect a much-maligned British style?
The band's songwriter on their 12th album and more