INTERVIEW: Mike Doughty, Author of The Book of Drugs
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by Julia Jackson
Mike Doughty is known to a lot of people as a lot of things: The leader of Soul Coughing, a New York City staple, a poet, a sober drug addict, a successful singer-songwriter. Now, he’s also a memoirist — his Book of Drugs came out earlier this year, and it’s a pretty damn good read. Doughty tells the story of Soul Coughing, with all the gristly details of their break-up included, and then goes on to write about his subsequent solo career. And, of course, there’s a lot of drugs involved.
But it’s more than a rock memoir, or an addiction memoir. Throughout, Doughty’s wry, honest writing seeks to find some kind of clarity, some kind of truth. The result is a fun and funny — but brutal — trip in and around life, the world, and the music industry.
I met up with Doughty a few weeks ago at House of Small Wonder in Williamsburg to talk to him about his process, identity, spirituality, medication, and — duh — drugs.
Julia Jackson: When did it become clear to you that you needed to write a book?
Mike Doughty: It never did. I would always sort of talk about it, until somebody was like, “Here’s money,” and then my bluff was actually called, and I had to write a book. I get asked that a lot and I just don’t know. [Laughs.] If I may speak cornily, then grace put me in the book path, all of a sudden.
JJ: Yeah, because it seems like the lyrics that you write tend to be on the more poetic side of things than a lot of bands and I know that you do a lot of blogging.
MD: But prose, like long form prose, I’ve never done, and it’s so daunting. Every day it was so hard to get started. I did alright — I could do some thousand-word days — but some days, I’d say to myself, Okay, I’m going to start writing at ten. And then it’d be like, magazines, and then guitar playing, and then it’d be two PM, and I’d be like, Alright. But so much fear came with just starting it.
JJ: I remember in the book you were talking about how you had “book paralysis.” So how’d you get over that?
MD: I went story by story. So whatever I was specifically thinking about was what I would write about, and this was a good trick. And then I just tried not to think about the fact that I’m not, you know, Nabokov. I do love Haruki Murakami, but I think he is such a bad writer. [Laughs.] I mean, he’s really colloquial, and I read somewhere that in Japan his books read like books that have been translated from English. But in English, it’s all clichés, and there’s no style to it. So I thought: If I can love that guy, and he doesn’t have style, then there’s hope.
JJ: Obviously you were writing a drug narrative, as well as a band memoir, and so what did you want to avoid and what did you like in these types of books?
MD: Well, I haven’t read a whole lot of either — I did read Drinking: A Love Story. But it’s a new boiler plate for a story: The Addiction Narrative. There’s Boy Meets Girl, you’ve got Man Challenges the Gods, you’ve got Rags to Riches — there’s the nine stories, whatever that screenwriter guru says, but this is a new one.
JJ: Or you could say it’s Boy Meets Girl, and then Girl Fucks Over Boy…
MD: Totally. But it’s its own kind of variation. And another thing — it’s a hoary form, and whorey — but it’s distinguished by the voice and the individual details. That’s why a zillion people can write blues songs and they’re all like “snowflakes,” because whatever that specific human quality is of the writer imbues it. I also think the story of a band as an abusive marriage is newish, and people haven’t really been writing about that. Which is surprising to me — and I felt like I had something in that. I felt like I had my claws in something that was a little bit new.
JJ: In the beginning of the book, you talk about how memory is an act of imagination. It made me think about the act of presentation of one’s self as an art. Do you think that multiple memories and multiple selves are all true?
MD: A good analogy for it is… I’ve been doing a lot of sampling lately — writing pieces around different vocal samples — and I’ll see movies and think, That, I’m going to sample that. But then I go back five years, seven years, whatever, later — and the way I have it in my head, the phrasing of it — I’ll go back to the movie and it’s totally different. And obviously it was what it was the first time I heard it, but in my mind, it’s changed just a little, and a little, and a little, and a little, until you’re totally surprised by the phrasing. So I guess it’s like that. And the more you think about it, the less you know.
But I’ve also had the experience of talking to ex-girlfriends and having them be like, “That’s not what happened.” So they’ll tell me what they thought happened, and I’ll be like, “That did not happen.” For instance, the woman identified as Mumlow in the book — genius lady, totally pulsating mind of light — I went back and said, “I’m writing this book, and all this weird shit happened,” and she was like, “I hope you treat me fairly when you write about this.” And I was like, “I don’t remember that. But I did write about this.” And she said, “I don’t remember that.” So it’s ten times more like Rashomon than I thought. It’s really weird. Psychedelic.
JJ: Yeah, and I feel like the truth is always somewhere in the middle of all of this.
MD: Exactly. Or if there is a truth. But I guess it doesn’t really matter.
JJ: Right. Because it’s your story.
In the book, you had written about how your friend Chris had chosen a “piteous, destructive stasis over what could be a fascinating life.” [Referring to a friend who had traveled the world touring and neglected to really experience the places he’d been because he was too busy shooting up in hotel rooms instead.] And you said that you felt kind of envious of him at the time, until you began doing similar things yourself. It seems like that, as a drug user, there gets to be a point where habitual drug use becomes boring. But it also makes life more difficult and therefore more interesting. So where is that point?
MD: It just didn’t occur to me that life could be good at all without drugs — that you could be an artist without it. I remember listening to Beck and thinking, Well, he must smoke a lot of weed. But someone told me he didn’t smoke weed at all. I thought, What are you talking about? You can’t write ridiculousness without being stoned. But now I know you can. You can be surreal — that Salvador Dali quote, “I don’t do drugs because I am drugs.” Surreality is not exclusively the product of being high.
JJ: Toward the end of your book, you talk about how you now take a “cocktail of pills for bipolar disorder.” I was wondering if you’ve had any trouble integrating “Your” identity with your “Sober” identity with your “Bipolar” identity and your “Artist” identity.
MD: It took a long time to accept that I needed pills. Looking at those pills in my hand in the morning can be a real motherfucker. I really struggled to not have to medicate it, in the literal sense. But finally I went to see the doctor about it. But seeing my mom’s behavior [helped me to reconcile this] — and my brother has it in the extreme. He’s delusional. I had a really good conversation with him about a year ago. I was sort of the only person who had taken him seriously. I said, “Of all the million reasons why that particular car might be parked in front of your house, I guess the mafia being after you could be one.” But then he called me the next day and said, “I know you’re one of them.”
JJ: So do you think the medicated you is your true self?
MD: I don’t think active pain is necessarily useful. I don’t know what it’d be like if I was drawing from a [laughs] happy childhood, but I don’t feel like a false self. The first time I’d started taking drugs for depression — I didn’t know I was bipolar yet; this was before I’d gotten sober — my sexuality shut down. And I was like, this is the first time I’ve felt human in my life! So I’m just going to let it go. It’s [sexuality] a huge part of your identity — but I think I was my authentic self at the time. I mean, was I my authentic self at the time when I took a shitton of E? That weird fake affection stuff?
JJ: Your book ends with you saying “Good luck” to this girl who’s brand new to getting sober as you part ways, and you reflect back on it and say there’s no luck involved in getting clean. But I was thinking that there almost has to be luck, or something else stupid and illogical, because it doesn’t really make sense who gets sober and who doesn’t.
MD: Right. But happenstance versus luck — I think the word “luck” in this context is ill-fitting. It cheapens it in a way. There’s certain things like: I’m in New York City, so there’s amazing meetings, with amazingly smart people, and I can find other borderline atheists who are dark in their spiritual conversations with themselves. It’s tiny moves that put us in these places. For instance, the reason I left Soul Coughing, like the moment, was our manager called us up to fire us. We were on the phone, and I said, “I hate this, I hate this, I’m done with this” — which I’d said a million times to a million people — but he was like, “Okay. That’s a good idea.” So I hung up the phone and called everybody and broke up the band. If he’d been like, “No, it’s not a good idea” and let it linger — I don’t know. It’s moments like that.
JJ: Yeah, I feel like we use words like “luck” not because they’re accurate but because it’s like, how else are you going to explain the unexplainable?
MD: I like words like “grace.” Or “The universe wanted me to.” But the question is, is it just a mindset, or is the universe really talking to me? I read an interview with a cardinal in his seventies who said, “To have faith is to have crises of faith.” I’m so into that. He’s spent fifty years [pursing faith] and he’s admitting to having crises of faith. I think even these evangelical motherfuckers — they wouldn’t talk about it, but at night, they are sitting there thinking, “Oh my god, what if it’s not there? What am I doing?”
JJ: I feel like it’s in human nature to doubt and replay and rehash.
MD: Right. But the other thing is, I find the scientists a little bit frustrating. Stephen Hawking did this interview where he said, “What caused the Big Bang was this, that, and the other thing, and so it doesn’t need a god to start it.” But his idea of god is this guy who strikes a match, he sees it as this dude. Yet string theory says that there is a multiple universe situation, and every single possibility is another universe — meaning an infinite number of universes. Quantum theory is that if you look at a particle, it behaves differently. There’s this immensely bizarre, complicated view of the universe that keeps changing, yet his conception of a belief in a higher power, or creator of the universe, or whatever you want to call it, is so simplistic.
JJ: In the book, you say that there are six or seven Soul Coughing songs you actually like. I was wondering what they were.
MD: [Laughs.] Separating the song from the recording, I think “True Dreams of Wichita” is a really good song, but I hate the recording. I think “Janine” is really great, but that’s fundamentally not a Soul Coughing song; I put it together and it has the bass player on it, but before the band existed as a band. I think “Is Chicago, Is Not Chicago” could have been a really good song. That’s one of those things where I hear it years later and think, “That could have been a single,” but in its state it really wasn’t. I like the “The Idiot Kings,” and “Soundtrack to Mary,” — I think “Sleepless” would have been a really great song if I didn’t have that drummer, that template of a drummer, who can’t ever play the same beat twice. Same with “How Many Cans?” I like “So Far I Have Not Found the Science” as a song, and it’s the only one on that album that was significantly written by — collaborated on — with the sampler player.
JJ: Are there any books that had a significant impact on you, in the way that you write, or want to write, or just on your life?
MD: I loved Grapes of Wrath, but I just went back and re-read it and was like, Wow, this is borderline racist. I guess it’s mostly poets and playwrights. Alan Dugan I fuckin’ love. Sylvia Plath — much slept upon for being the teenage girls’ favorite — she’s so awesome. e. e. cummings — another one in that category. “nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands” — everyone’s like, oh what a corny cliche — but if it wasn’t a cliche, you’d love it. David Mamet — huge for me. When you become a grown-up, you have to give up on Mamet. It’s like, That’s cool, dude. Do your weird, man, woman-loathing thing. But just the rhythm of the dialogue. He’s got a play called The Duck Variations — it’s devoid of all the gender stuff — it’s two old guys on the edge of a lake talking about ducks, and it’s so beautiful and rhythmic. It’s got all the Jedi Mamet dialogue stuff without the horrific content.
JJ: Are there any recent things you’ve fallen in love with?
MD: There always is. I really love that Gotye song. He’s got one of the key lessons in songwriting, which is that a detail kills it. When he goes, “Have your friends collect your records and then change your number” — it’s so specific. Jay-Z throws them out occasionally — I’m trying to remember the song — but he goes, “Three cuts in your eyebrows tryin’ to wild out” — that specificity is giving me chills just thinking about it.
I’ve been obsessed with Bessie Smith lately. But I’m like a repeated song guy, never been an album guy, which is why I’ve yet to buy a turntable.
–Mike Doughty is a singer/songwriter, but hates that term. He’s written a memoir, a book of poetry, nine one-acts for The 24 Hour Plays, and an Aquaman story for DC comics. He released three albums in the past eight months. He resides.
–Julia Jackson is the editor of Electric Dish. Find her on the internet here.