The Book Pile is the increasingly mountainous heap that lives underneath – and increasingly alongside – my bedroom mirror. It is more likely to be supplemented with new purchases and loaners from friends than conquered in my lifetime.
This is a cheat’s edition of The Book Pile because, although his starkly-titled memoir The Book of Drugs has just been published on these shores it precedes the release of fourth solo album Yes And Also Yes. Tunes! As I said at the start of this series I often feel uncomfortable with reviewing books, but sit me down in front of the cute animated video for “Na Na Nothing” that tops this post I could ramble all day.
It is the unfortunate effect of an incredible book that more often than not it leaves me speechless, and The Book of Drugs was no exception. Given the nature of his lyrics I shouldn’t really have been surprised that Mike Doughty would pen a memoir as blunt, honest and incredibly funny as he has done, and this close to my completion of Infinite Jest the all-consuming world it created was enough of an abstinence programme that every high school should take note of it.
Although, it’s not just the drugs. The book is also the story of the slow, dramatic dissolution of perhaps the most dysfunctional band of the 1990s, Soul Coughing. While I was predisposed to take Doughty’s side – I’d heard a couple of Soul Coughing songs on the various X-Files soundtracks, but it was his bruised and brutal solo writing that grabbed me first – perhaps due to its position on a mix CD carefully compiled to so grab. As an explanation of why you’ll never hear the old favourites live at a Doughty show, it’s certainly thorough.
And Doughty was just as candid in response to my questions around the book and new album, so rather than embarrass myself further with these ramblings I’ll let him sell you on a book I can only say comes very highly recommended.
Writing things other than songs is hardly new – you’ve penned plenty of blogs and journalism over the years – but what was the biggest challenge about sitting down to write a book?
Actually sitting down and starting every day. Once I got going, I was cruising, 1,000 or 1,500 words a day, but it took me hours just to start–a combo of sloth and terror.
Did you find it was hard to be so honest? I’ve always gotten the impression that, even in the most autobiographical songs, it’s easy to hide the most painful truths behind metaphor and a line that scans well.
Really, you don’t have to be faithful to the facts in a song–you have to write a song. It’s closer to fiction–with, by nature, more heart and pain in it. It wasn’t hard to be honest–I’ve told these stories to other people over coffee, or dinner, for years.
What has the reaction been like from family and friends, even with names changed to protect the guilty?
Slowly, the ghosts are coming back. There’s been comedy, sadness, and surreality in the interactions with people who are in the book. Perspective is such a weird thing it’s almost psychedelic–one ex-girlfriend I sat down to tell about the book didn’t remember anything I put in the book, but remembered five other stories that I didn’t recall.
The Book of Drugs is a very stark title – it does exactly what it says. Do you feel that the drugs took over that entire period of your life? If you were to write a second volume of your autobiography, what would you call it?
Everything has involved drugs, or been shadowed by them–either their presence, or absence. People keep asking if I’ll do another book, and I just don’t know; friends who write fiction are, like, Fiction Jedis. They’ve been doing it since they were teenagers, like I’ve been writing songs. If I went with memoir, at this point, it’d be something like the Book of Mellow, or the Book of Going to Weird Places, or the Book of Jesus Fucking Christ When Will I Find a Decent Woman? (Answer: December 2011–maybe that’ll be the Book of Wow You’re Amazing but What Exactly Took Me So Long to Find You? What the Fuck I Don’t Know What the Hell I Was Doing This Whole Time)
Your love of travel is a recurring theme in the book. Money, practicalities and visas no object – if you could go anywhere next, where would it be?
I mean, the obvious answer to this question is: the moon.
I was going places alone for years–Ethiopia, Laos, Cambodia, Buenos Aires, Shanghai, Eritrea–and just being absorbed in wherever I was, for a bunch of years after I got clean. It was a mission. Now, I get lonely. Going with somebody else is gonna be a whole different scene. Figuring out a place we both want to go to–having a mutual experience. Should be fascinating.
I recently heard “Super Bon Bon” on one of my favourite TV shows and was a bit taken aback (while I do like Soul Coughing I got into them through your solo stuff, rather than the other way around) – how do you feel when you unexpectedly hear one of those songs?
I always hear the Soul Coughing songs unexpectedly, because I tell my manager to just get the most money he possibly can, and not tell me about it until the check comes. If it airs before I get the money, I usually get some stray tweets about it.
The solo stuff I’m informed about when they come asking. The exception is what they call a “news usage”–they don’t have to ask, they don’t have to pay. And news usages can be, like, a cooking segment on a talk show. I was used on the Super Bowl once, which was infuriating–it is literally the most expensive ad time in American television–outrageously so–and they don’t have to pay me for a snippet of music.
Have you had any contact with your former bandmates since the split? What would you say if you did?
I do absolutely everything I can to stay aloof from those guys. I have no idea what I’d say. I think I’m an utterly different person than I was–so different that it’s kind of surreal.
I notice you’ve been embracing Twitter as a communication tool, and recently Tumblr too. Do you think it is useful for connecting to fans, or does its annoyances – making it easier to see attacks from people, for example, given some of your mental health issues – outweigh its benefits? Has this come at the expense of longer form blogging, and do you have any plans to go back to it?
I get some people hell-bent on ruining somebody’s day, but, mostly, people are funny, and interesting. It is true that I’m the kind of crazy person that will hear 50 compliments and one insult, and the insult will dominate my consciousness. So there’s that level of treachery. I have learned the maxim DON’T FEED THE TROLLS. Block ’em, don’t answer.
What inspires you – to write, and to write music?
It’s just a general burn. I’d be doing this if it wasn’t my job. I don’t, like, have eureka moments that turn into songs–I’m always trying to put them together, collecting fragments–both musical and verbal–in the world. It’s like being an obsessive watchmaker.
What plans do you have to promote the book and the new album?
Tour like fuck. I’m doing shows where I’m playing songs and reading excerpts, and they’ve been pretty damned alright. Hoping I’ll get to the UK. Love it there. Swoon, swoon, sigh.
And what are you listening to at the moment?
A muffled sound, coming from headphones, of one of the ultra-obscure MCs that my girlfriend is constantly looking at on YouTube. She knows a zillion of them, they’re mostly incredible, and it’s both embarrassing that I lack the knowledge, and greatly cheering that there’s still human genius out in the world, waiting to be discovered.
BUY: The Book of Drugs [Amazon]
PREORDER: Yes and Also Yes [Amazon]
READ: an excerpt from The Book of Drugs over at my new gig The Arts Desk
Next up: A Life Too Short: the tragedy of Robert Enke by Ronald Reng