Mike Doughty: You can request a lot of songs, just don't ask for "Super Bon Bon"
It's true: once upon a time in the '90s, Mike Doughty was the leader of Soul Coughing, the New York-based art rock band that found MTV-ish success with its single, "Super Bon Bon." Since disbanding Soul Coughing more than a decade ago, Doughty has thrust himself head-on into a solo career, and recently penned The Book of Drugs, the autobiographical account of his various addictions, an eventual rehabilitation and his musical life that followed.
In advance of his concert, reading and Q&A session at the Fox Theatre on Sunday, April 1, Doughty talked with Westword about his addiction to just about every substance, what it took to get clean, how much he loves fans of his solo work, and why he will never, ever again play Soul Coughing's songs in public. Ever.
Westword: There are a lot of musicians who have told their stories of addiction in a very public way. Why did you want to write this book?
Mike Doughty: I didn't really set out with a mission. I've been telling these anecdotes for a lot of years to people. I thought they were funny -- I think I came into it wanting to tell an addiction story without any bad-assery. I think most addicts aren't like, you know, bloody-fisted, thrown-in-and-out-of-jail bad-asses. My story is kind of like, I'm Buster Keaton as a dope fiend.
The addiction story that comes to mind when you say "bad-assery" is like, Mötley Crüe's story (The Dirt: Confessions of the World's Most Notorious Rock Band). It's very, sensational and attractive -- like a, "that would be awesome if that was my addiction story!" kind of read.
Oh my god, yeah! The Dirt. The Dirt is incredible! The other thing I wanted to do was to sort of depict recovery -- going to meetings and show it for the weird world that it is. Not that PTA/Dr. Drew nature. A lot of hilariously cynical, dark, gleeful artistic people, that if you want, you can find those people in the universe of recovery.
So you went through a twelve-step program?
Oh yeah. Basically, I just found people that I dig. There's a guy I identify in the book as "The Rock Legend" -- he's the merry rock star from the '70s punk-rocker guy. He's extremely dry-humored and he was just so great and smart and creative and weird and I thought, "I want what that guy has."
At what point did you know or decide or realize that you needed to go to rehab?
I was a consistent weed addict. I gotta tell you - people will tell you there is no such thing as a weed addict. I am one. The 28-year-old wake n' bake guy or the super smart creative guy who can't get off the couch? They might be a weed addict.
Weed was sort of my baseline addiction for my entire using career. But there was a coke period, and an ecstasy period and a heroin period. All were degrading in different ways. But when I became a real drunk, waking up in the morning in my own piss, drinking before I got out of bed drunk, that's when I was like, this is not acceptable to me.
When you decided to make that step toward recovery, did you fear losing that "edge" as an artist?
Sure. But the end of the story is, I never felt so fiercely driven and engaged as an artist as I do now. I love the work I'm doing now. I feel like it's exactly what I want it to be. There was a time when my self-loathing was so thick that I had to be high to get past it to write a song. So there was a moment in my life where it was effective medicine.
But then after that, it just became this, like, barrier between me and the music I wanted to make. It became increasingly difficult to really make music. I definitely was afraid that I was going to lose my mojo as an artist when I got clean. And indeed, when I got clean, my receptors were charred. They were gone. It took me a while to really get into it again. When I finally got back into it, I was utterly engrossed in the work.
It is interesting that you took the time after starting recovery to really take a break before diving back in.
I tried to write songs, initially, but it was like, holy shit. These are terrible! But, you know, after a while, they came.
What can people expect when they come to your shows now?
It's just me. I'm playing songs on acoustic guitar, telling some stories, reading some stuff from the book. Then there's an advertised "Q & A" -- But Q & A is code for "I will tell you gnarly shit about Soul Coughing."
Is that what people usually ask about?
Yeah. Well, I put on "The Question Jar Show" which is all weird questions and it's super fun. But this is more like talking about how dark and abusive and strange and toxic the marriage that was Soul Coughing was, which I had never spoken about. For some reason, I thought people just knew about it. Like I was radiating it from my body psychically.
But I've been talking about it, and people are pretty shocked. I'm getting a lot of apologies from people, like, "Wow, I'm sorry I yelled 'Super Bon Bon' at you at that one show." People tend to be pretty shocked.
I'm sure that's frustrating -- having an audience so acutely aware of these major label records you put out in the '90s, but you've also got that massive body of work that you've recorded since then.
The Soul Coughing songs, I feel, are compromises. My opinion is, my bandmates were sociopathic. When I started the band, I was twenty-two and they were in their thirties. There was just such deep resentment of me for being a singer and a songwriter and, you know, having the drive to found a band. As the band went on, I swear to god, it seems like, decisions were made less out of a desire to make songs better and more out of spite. So I look at that work as really, kind of wasted. I dislike it.
It's kind of sad when people talk about being Soul Coughing fans. I'm like, that's very cool, but I am not a Soul Coughing fan. I am lucky in that I have found an audience that is listening to the solo material. Initially, when I split that band and became an acoustic guy, people were actually kind of pissed off that I abandoned the sound. From that moment on, I started building a crowd that wanted to hear these songs, and I am so grateful to them.
It's hard when you're evolving as an artist -- you can't make the same thing forever. Well, you can, and some people love that.
Some people get into that, playing "the hits" because people like "the hits." You know, I'm playing the quote-unquote "hits" from the last decade since I've been a solo dude. But yeah, personally, when I go to see an artist, I want to see artistry. I don't want to see the songs played over and over again. I guess it sucks if you're a soul Coughing fan and you want to hear "Screenwriter's Blues," but I'm not going to sit there and fucking hate playing it. (Laughs.) If I were in the crowd, even if I wanted to hear that song, I'd be kind of bummed out to be witnessing that.
You can't get in front of a crowd and say, "Here, I'm going to play this song and I hate it."
Well, as a matter of fact, what I've been doing for years is, when someone yells out "Super Bon Bon," I will address them directly and say, "No, I'm not playing 'Super Bon Bon,' and I'm not playing any Soul Coughing songs." Thankfully, it has lessened as the years have gone by. When you tell someone directly that you're not going to play it, they believe you.
I was so happy when, a few years ago, people started yelling out solo tunes that I wasn't going to play. (Laughs.) That was like, wow, I have no room to play "Grey Ghost," I'm sorry. But it was like, thank you! Literally, my reaction was, I will not play "Sunken-Eyed Girl" tonight, but thank you so much for yelling it.
Get the Arts and Theater Newsletter
Weekly information keeping you in the know when it comes to the art and theater scene. Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events.