Warts and All: Mike Doughty’s ‘The Book of Drugs’

“Each city is its own life.

In each, the other the dream.

He is awake only on airplanes.

He hurdles weeks

through the calendar

in each city,

longing for the other.”

— Mike Doughty, “Bicoastal” from Slanky

The Book of Drugs knows exactly what it wants to be, which is what no one expects it to be.

Mike Doughty has been one of America’s most gloriously enigmatic songwriters, not afraid to put his smoky voice front and center as he unleashes beatnik poetry, honest paeans of love, and sometimes absurdly daring cover songs. He used to be the frontman for the beloved alternative group Soul Coughing (who are probably best remembered for the songs “Super Bon Bon” and “Circles“), before branching out on a delightfully quirky solo career, which has culminated with the release of last year’s Yes & Also Yes, far and away his best solo disc since Skittish.

His songs are regular staples in TV shows and movies, and for those who follow his Twitter feed, some have noticed the discussions he gets into with fans regarding how he’s just really not that interested in playing old Soul Coughing stuff. Some wondered as to why, while others simply waited for this book right here, hoping it’d be chock full of answers.

Yet The Book of Drugs is not what one expects. Many fans may climb in expecting a music industry tell-all, going into the dirt about what happened in the band and various run-ins with rock stars — and that’s exactly what The Book of Drugs delivers, warts and all. Others, meanwhile, may hear of this book which discusses a man who was addicted to virtually every purchasable illegal drug there was at the height of his fame, wanting vivid details as to each experience and deal and yes, The Book of Drugs provides that, as well.

However, The Book of Drugs has loftier goals in mind. There, printed directly on the cover, is the word “Memoir”, which explains how The Book of Drugs can simultaneously be a rock ‘n’ roll tell-all, harrowing drug account, and a uniquely personal tale all in one, without ever feeling like it’s playing any of those angles deliberately.

The reason why The Book of Drugs works is because it’s absolutely unflinching. Doughty details everything: growing up on various army camps, thinking for a brief while that he was bisexual, his numerous encounters with drugs and the bits of chaos that they caused in his life (Doughty describes how, when he was a music columnist for the New York Press, he’d sometimes sit at the laptop, promising to reward himself with a finished article by getting high upon completion — yet every single time, he simply got high, thinking he could write through it, and wound up finishing said article some nine hours later). Doughty describes cheap drugs, fancy drugs, and placating himself with drugs just to ignore some of the harder things he was dealing with at the time, some of his dealers even taking a shine to the fact that they were dealing to rock stars. Doughty even describes watching documentaries about doped up members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and recalls how at the time, he was unashamedly jealous of them.

While Doughty does do some name-dropping here and there (he did, in fact, take a class with Ani DiFranco many moons ago, and was friends with the late Jeff Buckley), he winds up spending a lot of time giving anonymity when it’s really not needed, particularly in regards to the members of Soul Coughing. A simple Wikipedia search shows exactly who he’s referring to when he says “the bass player” and “the drummer”, but perhaps this made it easier for Doughty to write, because for him, Soul Coughing was a miserable experience. He discusses how he wrote the songs — the melodies, the chord changes, the lyrics — but when it came to establishing the songwriting credits, the drummer — who Doughty repeatedly mentions could not (or perhaps would not) play the exact same thing twice — said that “well I wrote that drum beat” and suddenly the group, in a meeting, decides to split the songwriting four ways.

During subsequent tours, Doughty describes himself getting high on the back of the bus, ignoring everyone, sometimes showing up to radio sessions so depressed and miserable that the label guys would have to placate the DJs with lame jokes about the moody frontman. When you hear Doughty describe how ashamed he is about the cover art to the band’s second album, Irresistible Bliss, a quick glance shows that Doughty knows of what he speaks.

Part of what makes this memoir so bracing is the pace: there are no chapters or sections to speak of: just paragraphs. Miniature sections of prose. Sometimes they are two lines in length, at other times they are four pages. It’s a format that, curiously, makes for a highly entertaining read.

Part of the fun — aside from the numerous rock star stories that tend to fill books such as these (like when a younger Doughty tried to smuggle drugs past the TSA, keeping them in his sock just under the arch of the foot, which, thankfully, is the one place they didn’t actually search) — lies in Doughty’s rampant self-deprecation. As much as he feels like he lost a lot of creative control of the band, sometimes feeling like he was sharing the stage with people that genuinely hated him, he doesn’t shy away from taking fault for his own failings, often ending with him pacifying himself with drugs, or (later) booze. On the other side of that coin, he paints a great story of his own sobriety, including the first time he walked down a street and was simply amazed at how the buildings he stared up at contrasted with a pink evening sky, his own moment of being “high on life”, which he admits is corny, but is exactly the kind of moment he needed on his path to recovery.

Yet, as compelling as The Book of Drugs is, its humor, honesty, and poignancy come full stop once you reach page 195. That’s the portion of the book we can kindly refer to as “the Soul Coughing rant”. After regaling us with stories of the past century of pages that effectively laid out why he’s not really interested in revisiting his past work anytime soon, his four-and-a-half-page rant smells of bitterness, anger, and resentment. Although Doughty doesn’t apologize for such a stretch (nor should he), it’s intensely off-putting, and written in an entirely different voice from what we heard previously (Excerpt: “If somebody says they love Soul Coughing, I hear fuck you.”)

He shortly follows this with a lengthy travelogue of his first sober trip to south Asia, which is filled with stories but no revelations, no progression — just a litany of tales. It’s fine, but somewhat bloated. For a book that is as funny and personal as this one is, it’s a shame to see Doughty rest on his laurels a bit in his final act, his experiences starting to sound more and more like padding, or, worse, filler (save, of course, for the concluding story at the end of the book, about helping a young girl on a college campus with her first ever sobriety meeting, which is genuinely touching and meaningful).

All in all, The Book of Drugs is an outstanding book. It’s a litany of stories filled to the brim with personality, wit, and humor. There’s no grander meaning to it except for the one that you extract from it, although his musings are often moving in their own way (particularly the awakening of his spiritual side, which is fascinating, given his own lack of a belief in god). It’s a shame the book’s final act is a let down, because otherwise The Book of Drugs could have very easily reached that same echelon of great rock memoirs that the likes of Mark Oliver Everett’s Things The Grandchildren Should Know lives in. As it stands, however, The Book of Drugs is still one of the best books you’ll read this year.

RATING 8 / 10