Former Soul Coughing frontman Mike Doughty has made it excessively clear that he is sick of talking about his old band. An avid Internet user since the early days of message boards, Doughty has proclaimed on Twitter and Facebook, in online journals, and in interview after interview that he resents being recognized for his work in Soul Coughing. He says his solo output, which hews toward mainstream singer-songwriter pop, is a more accurate representation of his creativity.
"If somebody says they love Soul Coughing," Doughty writes in his scathing new memoir, The Book of Drugs (Da Capo Press), "I hear fuck you. Somebody yells out for a Soul Coughing song during a show, it means fuck you."
But Doughty can't erase the fact that, between 1992 and 2000, Soul Coughing blazed a fresh trail to a sonic space where arty experimentation, genetically modified jazz, fat jungle beats, and poetic sing-speak made sense jumbled together in a rock context. Eighteen years after the band's debut album, its idiosyncratic sound still draws people in — much to Doughty's chagrin.
"Dear Soul Coughing fans," Doughty memorably tweeted in early 2010, "please DROP IT. I am NOT THAT GUY ANYMORE. If you must cling to it, please DON'T BOTHER ME WITH SOUL COUGHING SHIT." And yet roughly half of The Book of Drugs is a rehashing of the Soul Coughing days. He is doing press rounds for the book, enduring in the process a fair amount of Soul Coughing questions. And he is touring — he performs solo songs, reads from the memoir and holds a Q&A session with the audience. This simultaneous book promotion and professed weariness about his former band essentially amounts to a passive-aggressive form of entrapment. Does Doughty really expect us all to pretend we're not interested in Soul Coughing immediately upon finishing his new book about Soul Coughing?
It's probably wise to think of that question as his problem and not ours, and sit back and enjoy the spectacle. Because even in the pantheon of lurid rock-and-roll tell-alls, readers will be hard-pressed to find a more sensational — or entertaining — glimpse into the world of dysfunctional band dynamics.
Thankfully, Doughty's prose reads nothing like the warped-poetry vocal approach he took in Soul Coughing or the plaintive crooning he has favored since. Using brisk, finely chiseled language, he achieves such an engrossing flow that the reader can easily devour half the book in one sitting. Doughty also does an admirable job of capturing the pathos wrought by the glare of fame, substance abuse, alienation and hollow (at times even horrifying) sex. Moreover, in spite of the bait he casts by putting the word "drugs" in the title, Doughty ably surpasses the typical tale of a celebrity's rise-fall-rise by taking unexpected, often poignant detours into family heartbreak, mental illness and, more delightfully, travel.
Still, Doughty undermines his credibility by using the codified self-help rhetoric of addiction recovery as a shield to claim innocence when it comes to The Book of Drugs' central conflict. Readers who weren't present have no basis for knowing how Soul Coughing's other members behaved toward him or vice versa. What we do know is that one-sided stories never tell the whole truth. Doughty professes "responsibility," but only so far as to say that he got himself into an "abusive" relationship — conveniently still placing blame on others.
"I've gone through my own process of owning my bullshit in that situation," former Soul Coughing bassist Sebastian Steinberg tells The Pitch over the phone, while on tour with Fiona Apple. "I don't miss being in a band with Mike, but I have a lot of compassion for him. I actually think that he's got a form of aphasia — a perceptive gap. He demonstrated that through the whole career of the band, and the way he talks and writes about it now seems to be there. He doesn't hear what the rest of us did as songs. It's like trying to tell a colorblind person what orange is. The synapse isn't there. And I don't mean that as belittling as it sounds. I genuinely sense his agony over this. I feel for him on the most human level. I'm sorry that he feels that way. I wish he could look at Soul Coughing and be proud that he's created a whole new thing. I love that Doughty's created a new book of songs. I love that he's persevered. He has every right to be as proud as he can be. I just wish he could see Soul Coughing for what it was, and not for what he always tried to get credit for it as being. That band never existed. He'll sleep better if he ever figures that out. I sure do."