Mike Doughty loves drugs. Now let's be clear: He doesn't do them anymore. Hasn't in years, and kicking his various habits was a long struggle — but he's the first to tell you he wouldn't trade a day of his past, winding through his stint with Soul Coughing to various new solo projects. His just-released memoir, "The Book of Drugs," pulls the curtain back on this enigmatic songwriting gem and reveals a Doughty many people may not recognize. It's an often uncomfortable though delightful read, in the sense of what you might expect from one’s detailing their own heavy drug use. Doughty is open about everything: his upbringing, his family, and his stinging accounts of his past and present hatred for Soul Coughing. “If somebody says they love Soul Coughing, I hear fuck you,” he writes. It's not a juicy, gossip-laden tell-all, but rather a simple account of one man's coming to terms with a perfectly imperfect life. That’s the Doughty way, as it stands now both in the book and accompanying live release, The Question Jar Show (in which Doughty answers fans questions dropped in a jar on stage): open, honest, comfortable and — perhaps the biggest change — content.
Mike Doughty (book reading and performance). $20-$23. 8 p.m. Sat., Feb 4. Eddie’s Attic, 515-B North McDonough St. 404-377-4976. www.eddiesattic.com.
So I guess the obvious question is, why now? Why was this the time to write “The Book of Drugs?”
MD: It wasn’t really pre-meditated. I was working with a manager who asked if I had ever thought about writing something, and it just kind of fell into place as it should.
Was there a particular story, or particular detail, that you found most challenging to write?
It was really hard writing about my parents and my younger brother, but it was something I couldn’t leave out. At some point, I had to decide ‘am I going to write this for real, or am I going to give it somewhat of a gloss?’ And what I’m best at is real. So that’s what I chose. It was super important to show myself as a flawed human being, because there’s so much stuff about other people that’s pretty harsh, so I felt this obligation to dig into my own things and take out the ugly ooze and put it on display.
Addiction is something that’s fucking you up that you can’t stop doing. There’s some hint of pleasure in it, or maybe there’s a great quantity of pleasure in it (laughs). You’re sitting there going ‘I don’t want to get high,’ and suddenly you’re high. ‘I don’t wanna waste $10,000 at the casino,’ and so on and so forth (laughs). I guess there is such a thing as physical addiction, as in anybody can do a shit ton of cocaine and have a physical addiction to cocaine, but what it is to be an addict to me is a very, very deep element of your identity, and it’s something you struggle with in almost every behavior in life.
What about “will power?”
I don’t know, man (laughs). All I know is that it wasn’t will power that got me clean. It was shutting up and listening to the people [whose lives] I found I really attractive. It’s much more efficient to let go, in almost all things.
Is fame an addiction? And do you think your drug use in any way tied to wanting more fame, even if you didn’t know it at the time?
I was a lot more insecure about who I was when I was more ‘famous,’ in the sense that I was insecure about the fame. Everyone would talk about all these great things that were happening for me as if people were gonna pat me on the back, but I don’t think I got enough fame to get addicted to that. I do know that the majority of people I know that are famous had a period where they were incredibly angry because they thought the fame would fix them and it didn’t. Some people get famous and live in that state for the rest of their lives and just stay angry, while some people adjust to it and realize they just have to be themselves. They still have their burdens, even if they’re famous.
Do you remember your first drug experiences?
I don’t remember the first time I smoked pot or the first time I got high on that. I do remember the first time I did heroin, and what an amazing experience that was. If I could choose Groundhog Day for me, it would be that day.
We hear a lot about the sort of traditional “moment of admission” for an addict, where they first realize what they’ve become or what they are becoming. Is that a real thing?
People speak of their “bottom,” and I think they’re speaking about a general state as opposed to one very specific, cinematically translatable moment where they realize it’s all gone wrong. For me, it was when I was a morning drinker. When I got to the point where I would wake up with the shakes and I had to drink to get through the day, that’s what I really thought ‘this is for the birds. I can’t do this.’
How did your songwriting change sober? And were those changes a product of a clearer head, a change of environment, perspective?
The short answer is that I like the music I’m writing now (laughs). Earlier stuff, I sort of half liked. Now I feel super alive when I’m writing, I finish everything. Since I’ve been sober, I can look back at every record and say ‘Yes, that’s exactly what I wanted to say. That’s exactly what I meant.’ Before that, I was spinning around and throwing darts trying to hit the target.
How did The Question Jar Show come about?
I started to think that maybe this stage banter thing is a bit more significant than I had previously given it credit for being. I wanted to do something speaking from the stage that wasn’t canned, that was unpredictable and tailored to whatever audience was there. It was the perfect solution. Early on, I felt like I had to answer every questions honestly. And then someone asked ‘How much money do you make?’ That was when I decided to be coy about certain subjects (laughs).
Was anything off limits?
Actually, no. Somebody asked for stories about shitting my pants (laughs), and I realized I had numerous stories about that from various points in my life. That was easier to talk about than Soul Coughing (laughs).
You say in the book: “On good days, living is about acceptance” and “I prefer where I’m at to where I was” - but at the same time you take great care to not necessarily shun the past, correct?
Every other month I will think ‘My God, if in 1994 I had just left [Soul Coughing] and made a record with The Dust Brothers,’ I would be in a very different place. But then again, ya know, if I was more successful, I really would have less of a shot at survival. A lot of the people I know who are famous and/or rich are the ones who really have trouble getting sober. Can you imagine, and I obviously have no idea what her life is like, but can you imagine Lindsay Lohan googling herself (laughs)? People feel a license to be extremely mean to famous people. I’ve googled myself when I was really sad. It’s a terrible idea.
So what was the weirdest thing you found when you googled yourself?
Oh my God. There was a thing that I wanted to put on a business card, actually. It said ‘Mike Doughty is clearly a pole smoker.’ And I swear to god, I wanted to have a business card that had “Mike Doughty” on the front in big text, and then right under that, “Clearly a pole smoker.”
I’m definitely googling myself when we’re done here.
Dude, don’t do it (laughs). For me, there can be 50 things that praise me to the ceiling and one thing that calls me an asshole, and it’s that one thing that will be dominant in my mind.
It seems a large part of drugs, of drug addiction, is a respite, a break, an alternate reality or a peace that using brings. So how does sober Mike Doughty find those things?
People. Friends. It’s all about having friends and finding the people you connect with. And the other thing is not thinking about yourself and thinking about somebody else. If you can help out another person, it’s a much more efficient way of finding relief from emotional pain than anything else. Whatever you think would “fix” you is less efficient than just listening to somebody else, really focusing on them and getting out of your own head.
You end the book by recounting the story of helping a young woman through her first meeting, and you say: “It astonishes me when I get one of the best feelings of my life from encountering a stranger suffering from the same thing I suffer.” Describe that feeling, how it’s carried you since and how you hope it continues to carry you in the future.
She apparently had found this meeting online but it had been canceled because of Labor Day. She, myself, and another lady who was traveling through town just ended up sitting in this empty classroom. The haunting quality of that story is ‘Did she stay or not? Did she get sober?' The fact is that most people don’t. It’s uncanny the way somebody’s life can improve so vastly but then you go out and drink. After two years, three years. You can’t tell somebody what to do. You just can’t. If somebody doesn’t want to get sober, no amount of shaking a finger in their face is going to help them.
You’ve been through a lot of interesting phases of the music industry. I wonder if you could look around the music industry today and take stock of what you see? What’s exciting, what’s broken, and can — more importantly, should — it be fixed?
Well into my career, suddenly I’ve figured out I’m a small business person. I’ve got my shop. I’ve got my audience, my records. I know that feeling very well, and I know there are good years and bad years. I’m very lucky to have started my career when labels were still doing the basic stuff like paying for a van and a sound guy and a room at the Super 8, which they just don’t do anymore. A slump can’t last forever. People are still listening to music and they still need it. I have no prediction or inkling of what the next thing will be, but it’s like physics. It’ll come around. Something’s gonna happen. The thing that I notice, though, is that I know a lot of people — young people — that are so talented but it’s very unlikely that they’ll have a career. It’s unlikely that they’ll get my life. I’m not a rich man, but I get to wake up in the morning and think about writing songs. And it’s very sad to me [that they may not have that].
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