The emotional centerpiece of Ruby Vroom, the 1994 album that introduced Soul Coughing and songwriter Mike Doughty to the world, is a song called “True Dreams of Wichita.” Over a bass line reminiscent of A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory and keyboards that haven’t slept in days, Doughty tells a stream-of-consciousness story about regret and the people you leave behind while searching for bright-lights, big-city glory. It’s a distillation of how, when they were on, that oddball assemblage of downtown New York players could combine a series of wildly disparate parts in to a collage of joyful confusion. Like everything else to do with his former band, Doughty can barely stand it.
“When I look at it, I’m like, ‘Wow, this is really good,'” Doughty says over dinner at the Lower East Side institution Katz’s. “I remember the moment I wrote it. It was before Soul Coughing existed. I remember the situation that it came out of. It was this really great summer—it was 1991, I think—and all this beautiful stuff happened and all this ugly stuff as well.
“And yet when I would play that song [at one of his early solo gigs] and somebody would go ‘Woo-hoo,’ I would just be like, ‘Fuck that guy.’ I’m insane. I’m insane about it.”
Regret, unfiltered anger, disappointment, hope, compassion, practical drug-coping information, dispiriting hookups, Jeff Buckley player-hating, Thanksgiving overdoses, Buzz Bin sausage making, unfiltered assholery, easy-to-decipher music-industry pseudonyms, 12-step knowledge, and a painfully honest look at how and why people turn to substance abuse all abound in Doughty’s new memoir, The Book of Drugs (Da Capo). It traces his development from an Army brat with a dysfunctional family (his brother went from being a “matchless student who eased virtuously through school” to living in a car; his mom was apparently only able to communicate through hysterical screaming; his dad was about as warm as you’d expect a West Point instructor in the early ’80s to be) to his early adventures in the New York of the late ’80s on through to the get-a-hit-single-or-die-trying alt-rock world of the ’90s and his reinvention last decade as hard-touring singer-songwriter known for his precisely whittled-down lyrical couplets and his chunky A-to-B-to-A-to-B riffs.
Being in a band is often compared to being in a marriage. If that comparison holds, then Drugs is the Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? of music memoirs. No petty slight is left unturned. Doughty recruited the members of Soul Coughing while working at the downtown avant-hub the Knitting Factory. They were all about a decade older than he was and did little to hide their disdain for his talent; the middle section of his memoir is compendium of fantastically passive-aggressive dick moves, hotel-bill chicanery, self-defeating power plays, and unhealthy coping mechanisms.
In person, Doughty is friendly and animated, often leaning back and forth in his chair while reacting to answers, and occasionally drawing out his vowels or slipping into his familiar sing-songy cadence. For a man who just published his memoir, though, he is clearly not at peace with his legacy. The complete disdain he shows for the often-groundbreaking work he recorded with Soul Coughing in Drugs is astounding. Dude will walk out a bar if he hears his shit. “I can’t pretend that it’s not absolutely bonkers to utterly deny a huge portion of my life, but that’s who I am, and that’s where I’m at.
“The thing about the band is, like, we had muscle, man. It’s so frustrating to hear of it as this cult band, because that shit could have been real. We could have given the Beasties a run for their money. We could have given Beck a run for his money. And instead, we were a weird little shambling thing,” Doughty says with a shake of his head. He could never persuade the other members to rein in their tremendous instrumental ability and play parts that would make the songs better. “I mean, that band refused to rehearse. It was such a weird world.”
Around the time the other members of Soul Coughing threw out the original, David Kahne–recorded (and in Doughty’s opinion, superior) version of their second album Irresistible Bliss (the band was miffed that the producer insisted on key changes and parts being recorded more than once) and the woofer-destroyer “Super Bon Bon” became a hit, Doughty gave up—first on the band, then on life.
“I got to a point where I said, ‘My dreams have turned to shit, so I’ll see how high I can get and still do shows.'” By the late ’90s, Doughty was a 135-pound heroin addict who could barely walk.
Doughty was one of the first musicians who blogged. He wrote for McSweeney’s and Might and was a regular at the New York Press for years, where he penned the scathing column Dirty Sanchez during a particularly loathing-filled time in his life. He mentions ruefully that he later apologized to noted music critic Ann Powers for an unwarranted lambasting of one of her books. “Looking back at whoever I was when I wrote that shit, it’s like: ‘You are a nightmare, pal. You are so scary to me,'” he says. His experience with the printed word shows. Drugs is a quickly paced, finely observed, and often mordantly funny read. (Let the part about the Night Ranger boots remain unspoiled.) It’s also about much more than the titular subject and Doughty’s emotionally abusive relationship with his band. Its main narrative concerns Doughty using everything he can to drown out his endless insecurity, then slowly learning how to let himself have uncontrolled feelings. “The thing you discover, if you’ve been managing your emotions with drugs forever, shit hurts. And shit that feels good hurts,” he says. “At some point when I was touring, I realized that after a really good show, I had to eat a shit ton of ice cream. This really great feeling, and I had to do something addictive to kill it. So it’s a very weird thing.”
After several years of releasing albums with Dave Matthews’s ATO label, Doughty set up his own record company, Snack Bar, to release last year’s stripped-down, relentlessly catchy Yes and Also Yes. Doughty writes honestly about how he never accrued many cool points or critical heat for his solo career, and one particularly heartbreaking scene in Drugs comes when She & Him troubadour M. Ward tells Doughty he wasn’t aware of his post–Soul Coughing output.
“It really bums me out that the KEXPs of the world have abandoned me,” Doughty says. “Suddenly, I became ungroovy. I mean, it suuuuuucks to be so engaged in what I’m doing and to make an album and be like, ‘That’s the best thing I’ve ever done,’ and then to have it not . . . whatever, you know. But I’m hoping that something happens where people go back and listen to those albums, because I feel like it was really good work, it’s work I’m extremely proud of, in a way that I’m not proud of the Soul Coughing stuff, and that is extremely frustrating.”
Forgiveness and making amends are two of the main touchstones for recovery (“You’ll be doing it for the rest of your life”), but Doughty has never felt the need to make peace with his former bandmates. The pain of that experience is still too much for him. But he takes responsibility for his mistakes as well. “I would have done drugs anyway,” Doughty says. “But then again, I would have found another abusive relationship anyway. If you’re that person and that fucked up, you would have found a fucked-up situation no matter what happens.”
Mike Doughty will play City Winery on March 3 and April 21.