On “The Book of Drugs”

gawain
3 min readAug 19, 2023

Years ago, I made the mistake of reading Carrie Brownstein’s memoir about growing up and being in Sleater-Kinney, and it mostly cured me of wanting to read autobiographies of artists and creators who I like. I recently read Danny Trejo’s memoir, co-written with a college buddy, Donal Logue, and it was… not great. So I come to think that artists and creators maybe aren’t good at memoirs. Some of them don’t seem that interesting when they come to talk about themselves and their art. Don’t expect to learn the thing you want to know. You might learn about drug use, troubles with girlfriends, how they struggled with fame. But you won’t learn what made them who they are and delivered the art you love. Maybe they don’t know.

But, I keep coming back to Mike Doughty’s music. I really like it. So I decided to read his memoir, The Book of Drugs.

Doughty is probably best known as the singer for Soul Coughing — a middling ’90s arty-band. They were in the spoken-word-poetry-over-jazz-samples vein of things. They had a few songs which got airplay, but they were never very big, although a certain crowd really liked them. A very hip woman I dated in the ’90s introduced me to them and I will always associate them with feeling not-quite-cool enough to be dating her.

I liked a few songs — Circles and Sugar Free Jazz.

But, then Doughty dumped Soul Coughing and, apparently, got dumped by music labels and just headed out on his own. He started making his own music — more acoustic guitar, strumming bangers. A lot of lust and bravado and lyrical amusement with strong baselines and hooks. Sing-along music and I loved it. He sold CDs out of the trunk of his car and toured by himself. I mail ordered it — I think I heard some on KEXP or somewhere.

And I’ve been listening ever since. I follow him on instagram where he plays and sings. It has a strong DIY feel to it, and he has a kind of humble bravado mixed with a sympathetic obsessive romanticism. I can’t really describe it. I think it’s guy music, mostly. A lot of his songs are about girls. Haughty Melodic is just good start to finish.

Anyway, his memoir is an easy read. He’s a conversational writer, unpretentious and smart. Much of the book is consumed with his time with Soul Coughing which, from his telling, was terrible. The band hated each other — or maybe the rest of the band mainly hated him and tried to undermine and diminish him at every turn. And the other main topic is drug abuse and flopping around.

Doughty solved those problems at the same time — got clean and started going to AA meetings. And dumped Soul Coughing. And that’s the book. That happened in 2000 or so. The book was written in 2012, so there’s a lot missing, including most of the music I like. So I guess I have to read his follow on.

Most of the events are happening in the ’90s when music, the music industry, and American culture were all different. It has a bit of period-piece quality. Since I’m roughly the same age and lived through the same time, it resonates and it’s fun to hear how he saw things going on at the same time. A bit similar for to reading Lauren Hough as she traveled in the same neighborhoods at the same time, but with a very different experience.

ENDS//

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gawain

I'm a human person, working in policy & advocacy in international development, gender rights, economic justice.