Former Soul Coughing Front Man Talks About "The Book of Drugs"
Published: 02/01/2012 by Dirk Hanson
Over the phone, Mike Doughty doesn’t have much to say about his former band, Soul Coughing. When I mention it, he gives out a low growl as a warning. He said it all in The Book of Drugs, and it doesn’t sound like he had much fun. Although the avant-garde rock band created music that was spiky and sneaky and immensely popular, topped off by Doughty’s monotonic but strangely penetrating vocal delivery on such classics as “Super Bon Bon,” “True Dreams of Wichita,” and “Circles,” Doughty was drug-dependent and miserable. Musician pitted against musician, egos battered and bruised, credit taken and not taken—and Doughty busily running the gamut of addictions from Jack Daniels to heroin, with a ton of marijuana in the bargain.
But that was the 90s. Since then, Doughty has done two things of note—three, if you count teaching himself German. He has crafted an innovative solo career, and he has escaped from a cornucopia of addictions that had almost buried him alive.
It seems almost unfair that a talented singer/songwriter like Doughty should also turn out to be a good writer, but there you have it. The Book of Drugs is informative but not confessional, rock-snarky but tempered with a round of amends. It is also whip-smart and bitterly funny:
--“Lars would go out and get drunk every night, then stumble in, sounding for all the world like he was going around moving absolutely everything in the room a foot to the left.”
--“Currently, in the studio next door, guitar overdubs were being recorded for a Meatloaf record. Meatloaf was not in attendance.”
--“I smoked three packs a day. Ridiculous. It was like a job. I woke up, and began the work of the first pack. It was a repetitive, manly task, like getting up early every day to chop down pine trees.”
--“Weed addicts are along among drug users in that they think their shit is cute.”
--“The unsingable girl yelled at me, ‘You don’t get HIGH, you just get FUCKED UP!”
Told in an episodic, chapter-free style, the book lays the foundations for Doughty’s future by page 3. “My dad’s dad,” he writes, “was the town drunk in Tullos, Louisiana.” Doughty's father was an alcoholic as well. From the outside, the process is unfathomable: Doughty relates what is known as the parable of the jaywalker: “Guy’s really into jaywalking, his friends are all like, ha ha funny, then he gets hit, they figure he’s done, he does it again, this time gets both legs broke, the friends are like, whoa that’s weird, and then he does it again and they’re bewildered, and he does it again, and they abandon him, and he does it again, and he does it again.”
Here's what Doughty had to say last week in our interview:
--You got sober after embarking on your solo career. Did you hit bottom, in the classic AA sense?
The thing that really made me think was when I was actually addicted to alcohol, and I started waking up in the morning with the shakes, and I just had this very logical reaction, which was like, oh, I’m addicted, this is horrible, so I’ll just start drinking first thing in the morning. And that’s when it was like, holy shit, I’m an alcoholic, there’s alcoholism in my family, and it’s not just a "drug thing." It was kind of acceptable to be a heroin addict for me, but it was not acceptable for me to be a morning drunk.
--Was alcohol your drug of choice, or heroin?
Well, I went through about thirty-five different drugs. I was always good at finding drugs. My struggle was to manage it. If I had to call something my drug of choice, it would be heroin, in terms of the thing that killed the most pain effectively. Eventually, when it stopped working, I’d say, okay, well, I’ll just do it on the weekends, or detox for a couple of days, and I’ll smoke a lot of weed and I’ll drink and I’ll do some coke or ecstasy, and then I can be back on the heroin on weekends.”
--What’s your opinion of addiction as a biological disorder—the disease model approach to it?
I don’t really know any addicts that don’t have trauma in their backgrounds. I think, to activate this thing, there is generally pain that needs to be numbed, or trauma that needs to be gotten away from. One of the things about the disease model is that so many people of the non-alky variety are just so indignant about it. I think we should just give it up. It’s maybe not worth the fight over the semantics of it. It’s like, addicts are killing themselves, they’re unable to stop using drugs, I would think that would be more important than what to call it.
--Did you use any anti-craving drugs, or do any medication-assisted recovery?
I was on naltrexone for a while, but I was getting high on everything but opiates at the time, so it was just a way of not using opiates. I was shit-faced drunk, and stoned, so I don’t know what eliminating one specific drug—I don’t what the ultimate effect of that was, because for me, I would just go out and find something else.
--Did you do any formal detox or treatment before you went into the rooms, as AA is often called?
No. I had a couple of prescribing shrinks and they suggested treatment, because I had insurance, but I was like, fuck that, no way. It’s funny, they cover detoxes and rehabs but they don’t cover talk therapy. Most of my struggle to get into the path of non-self destruction was because of a shrink who just nailed me as an addict the moment I met her. Within probably twenty minutes she was like, "you know, there are AA meetings above St. Mark’s Place." And I was so angry, like, "what are you talking about?" So a lot of the struggle, of, you know, am I an addict, or do I just have a problem with a single drug, or are the rooms just a cult, it’s a religion—somehow she got me to keep showing up. I don’t know what kind of hook she put in me, but I was showing up, strung out, falling asleep in the chair, and she kept me coming back week after week. I don’t know what kind of Jedi mind trick she used.
--You’re one of the few performers who have been willing to admit that for a minority of people, marijuana is addictive and has its own characteristic set of withdrawal effects.
Yeah, my basic line is, if you know a thirty-six year-old wake-and-bake guy, that guy is probably a marijuana addict. I don’t know the science, I don’t know shit about withdrawal, the mentality of addiction, but I know plenty of people that were stoned all day. And they kept doing it. But I definitely believe weed should be legal. First of all, it doesn’t make any sense if alcohol is legal. Second, it’s such a dirty weapon in the drug war. And the drug war is a war on the poor.
-- You’re "co-morbid." You're an addict, and you’re diagnosed as bipolar.
I do know that there was a part of it that was relieved tremendously by meds—a very careful construction of a cocktail of meds by a super-smart prescribing shrink. Really being very cautious and gradual about it. But if I’m really messed up about something emotionally, talk therapy has the most immediate effect. Just being in touch with dudes from the rooms, a sponsor, friends, I’m on a gratitude list with a bunch of guys, we email each other every day—that stuff is a lot more effective in the short term.
--As a polydrug addict and an artist who has seen his way through to sobriety, what message what you like to send to people working in the treatment and recovery fields?
You know, advice is not my scene. I lucked into the right kind of treatment. Something I hear over and over again from people is that they end up with the wrong therapist. It’s like a relationship, essentially. I think it would be great if therapists were very upfront about saying, "If I’m not the right person, then let’s find you the right person.”
--“Don’t push against your own weight,” you sing in “Diane.” It got me thinking about how hard it is for addicts to lift themselves by their own bootstraps through sheer willpower.
If you let go, if you just get out of your own damn way, it will be so much easier. David Mamet wrote a book about the theater, and he has this thing about how directors overmanage plays when they direct them. And his metaphor was that when the airplane was being developed, they had this terrible problem with spinouts. All the time, the pilot would lose control of the plane; it would start spinning and spinning, and crash and hit the ground. So they invented the ejector seat, so if you’re having a spinout, you just hit the button and zoom out into the air with a parachute. And they discovered that pretty much immediately when the pilot was out of the plane, the airplane straightened out and righted itself. That’s how it is, you try to control too much shit, you’re more likely to fuck it up.
--So, things are good?
-- I’m stoked to be sober. I’ve got eleven years now. Things are really good, even when they’re bad, like a bad year financially or whatever, it’s like, oh my god, I’m doing really good. As long as I’m loving the work I’m making, and I have an audience, and I can make a living, those are pretty much the only things I really have any control over.