Review: The Book of Drugs by Mike Doughty
De Capo Press, January 2012
By Peter Milne Greiner
Heroin addiction and rock 'n' roll celebrate wide appeal in terms of their respective and overlapping readerships, and just as there are major rock acts and major addicts, so too are there minor ones. Must we presume, though, that underlying the grand narrative of addiction as it is experienced in the context of a successful band, let's say in the 90s, there is a unifying consilience? A story and message to be told and delivered regardless of the prominence of the carrier-band; one that is common, hazarding trope status? You've heard of Nirvana, correct? We all know that story. How about Soul Coughing?
That's what I thought. Not all roads lead to Addis Ababa, and if you get a chance to pick up Mike Doughty's The Book of Drugs, you'll learn my meaning. I came to this memoir as a fearful superfan; fearful that Doughty's yarn, or call it a cable, would yield its revelations only to one who, like me, has uncannily followed the strange and meandering career of a musician who, for all his later efforts to gain a wider audience, is ostensibly a cult-followed misfit.
So imagine for a second that the idea of a memoir recounting the addiction days of the lead singer of Soul Coughing did not make you feel alienated or lost. Imagine--as someone who has never heard their music but is maybe generally interested in the 90s, rock music, or recovery--there is, nevertheless, something meaningful to extrapolate from such a text. It's a tough one to parse, too, coming from the opposite angle. But here's what I think.
The Book of Drugs is full of succulent period errata, much like Patti Smith's Just Kids and Eileen Myles' Inferno. We go to legendary places and meet legendary people along the way. Places like CBGB's and people like Jeff Buckley, a friend of Doughty's. Like Smith and Myles, Doughty recreates downtown Manhattan in his formative moment with adroit and insouciant deftness. One comes to see and know as he has. It is a deeply enchanting backdrop for a deeply disenchanting behind-the-scenes.
The onset of Doughty's addiction as he tells it was slow and insidious, with an origin story oddly, if partly, set in the small town in Massachusetts where I grew up. For him, that was the end of the 80's, and it would take the chokehold a full ten years to mature, threaten certain death, and finally surrender to Doughty's entreaty for mercy. That decade takes us to bleak tour stops in Middle America, London, Cambodia, through far-flung romances, through creative promised lands and waste-scapes, and the manias of ecstasy and heroin, marijuana and Jack Daniels.
Throughout its patent darkness and struggle, though, Doughty maintains a clownish and invective sense of humor about his journey. After all, he did author the New York Post's "Dirty Sanchez" column, not to mention all those weird Soul Coughing songs--whose bizarre felicity is present on every page of The Book of Drugs. It's also possessed of a candor, a very real and often stunning directness that is completely disarming coming from the man who wrote the line "Normalize the signal when you're banging on Freon/Paleolithic eon/put the fake goatee on"--particularly when discussing addiction's interface with sexuality.
It might be that the book as a whole can only be fully understood by its various initiate niche audiences, but hilarity, heartbreak, and scandal are central tenets of any story. Add dope, electric guitar, sampler-playing henchmen, mysterious European ingénues, and a dash of Southeast Asian travelogue--and you have a good one. It helps, too, to be utterly fearless.