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Monday, 12 March 2012 09:00

Book review: Mike Doughty coughs up tales of the soul and rock 'n' roll in 'The Book of Drugs'

Book review: Mike Doughty coughs up tales of the soul and rock 'n' roll in 'The Book of Drugs'
Written by Erin Frank

Mike Doughty
"The Book of Drugs"
Da Capo Press

Like any self-respecting musician's autobiography, Mike Doughty's "The Book of Drugs" does not deprive the reader of sex, the titular drugs, or rock 'n' roll.

However, as music memoirs go, Doughty's humble voice and one foot forever in the indie underground makes this book more "Cash" by Johnny Cash than "Life" by Keith Richards.

In the foreword, Doughty acknowledges the curse of all memoir writers, which is the possibility that you might misremember your own past. Indeed, there are quantum hiccups in his story. While a basic chronological standard is followed, the minutiae of Doughty's past moves like mercury, periods of dope sickness and touring blurring around periods of cleanliness, productivity and the vagaries of romantic entanglements. It's not misleading or disingenuous; in fact, I prefer Doughty's method. He writes as memory occurs to everyone, and his tone is loose and familiar enough to feel like a conversation.

Doughty's far off past -- meaning his childhood, before the sex, drugs, or rock 'n' roll and their ways of making people forget -- seems the clearest version of events in his book. Now 41, Doughty writes about a sometimes difficult childhood with the matter-of-factness of someone who has come to terms with it. His parents were both severe and possibly insane, and this coupled with an upbringing amid the military structure of West Point bred the kind of kid who will escape at the earliest possible opportunity, either to some structureless hippie art school or a shithole apartment in New York. Doughty went to both.

It is in New York that Doughty becomes a musician, although it sounds like he still has trouble believing it. The years spent promoting attendance-challenged shows and schlepping a guitar are rendered as just something he did sometimes, rather than what onetime friend Jeff Buckley wrote in his journals was true ambition. This is where Doughty's life as a crisis of confidence blooms, and he spends the remainder of his pages wondering whether or not he is good enough. He practically seethes with a desperate envy at fellow musicians (including Buckley) who made it farther faster, which, as long as you know any musicians, is pretty much what happens to everyone who watches their friends get famous. Doughty is self-aware enough to know (or perhaps see in retrospect) what he's feeling, but this doesn't stop him from following his ambition all the way to found and slog through what may be some of the worst years of his life with Soul Coughing.

Outside of the drugs, "The Book of Drugs" is a bitter elegy to Soul Coughing, the experimental funk/soul/rock band from which Doughty acrimoniously split in 2000. Although much of the book reads like a list of grievances against Soul Coughing, it's more of Doughty's list of grievances against himself for putting up with it when no one else would have. His Soul Coughing bandmates are depicted as the mean girls in the cafeteria, viciously preying on a freshman's shaky confidence and working hard to discredit him even now, claiming that Doughty was never as addicted as he claims to have been. While it would be strange for anyone other than Keith Richards to claim addiction as a badge of honor, to the villains of the Soul Coughing story, not being an addict strips someone of their credibility. It may have really burned their asses when Doughty pursued a solo career that includes full length albums such as 2002's "Smofe + Smang: Live in Minneapolis," 2004's "Skittish / Rockity Roll," and 2011's "Yes and Also Yes," but at least they can still get their jabs in about what they think was a mere dalliance with heroin.

I don't doubt Doughty's version of events, but the heroin is where the reliability of his memory gets understandably slippery. The states of decrepitude brought on by a two bundle-a-day habit intertwine with international travel (the worst being a brief but horrible stint as the ugliest American in Cambodia) and a mutually-destructive relationship with another addict, the girl who inspired the songs "Unsingable Name" and "Madeline and Nine."

Doughty's overall tone is admittedly insecure and so he compulsively avoids pontification. His humor is wry and self-deprecating, his highs described with a shrug and his lows so plaintive that they bring to mind a literal imagining of the term "spilling his guts." Throughout the book, I get the sense that Doughty wants to be saved. He's waiting for a savior to swoop in and tell him it's okay to leave his band, quit drugs, and stop being the self he loathes. Ultimately, that savior is Molly Escalator, a former lover of Doughty's who stuck around after the breakup and spent years nudging him closer to sobriety.

As with most addicts, sobriety has brought Doughty his longest and most successful period of productivity, including consistent albums, tours, bandmates he actually likes, and a long-running blog. "The Book of Drugs" could probably not have been written so plainly by someone who was on drugs at the time of writing, so sobriety has given him his book, as well. Perhaps he has more confidence now, too, but if not, at least I hope he knows that he deserves it.

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