Mike Doughty Writes Clean

Published January 11, 2012

Everyone is nostalgic for the ’90s. Yet Mike Doughty’s trip down memory lane, The Book of Drugs (Da Capo), is not all fine flannel and gorgeous grunge. The former lead singer of Soul Coughing writes a layered memoir, conversationally weaving his childhood on a military base and early run-ins with authority into tales of heroin addiction and New York caught in the throes of alt-rock ambition and rough downtown streets. Doughty writes of friends like the tragic, talented Jeff Buckley, encounters with Ani DiFranco, Redman, and groupies, jaunts to Jamaica, and playing to screaming fans.

Undercutting the seemingly limitless world of fame are Doughty’s dark and sometimes blackly funny takes on success and his own addiction. A musical person with a passion for prose, Doughty’s writing is self-deprecating and honest. We spoke with Doughty about being a weirdo at West Point, his own, drugged-up version of Groundhog Day, if fame is an addiction, and fans versus friends.

ROYAL YOUNG: How did growing up on a military base and a sense of order shape your later life?

MIKE DOUGHTY: I thought it was normal. But it was not normal, it was kind of trippy. They would literally bust you for going 26 in a 25 zone. There were like a zillion military police with nothing to do. It was a great relief when I discovered the world was not quite as restrictive.

YOUNG: Did you feel like there was a strict sense of order within your family as well?

DOUGHTY: Yeah, but my family was reasonably liberal. Some kids I grew up with, their parents forced them to join the military, and my parents never, ever even brought it up.

YOUNG: Why do you think your parents were different?

DOUGHTY: [laughs] Well, I imagine just looking at me, they were like “Not an army officer.”

YOUNG: [laughs] Did you rebel against that purposefully, or was that always a part of you?

DOUGHTY: I don’t think I did. I was incredibly different from everybody else. But really, I was just who I was. I was born that way.

YOUNG: The feeling of being an outsider and different, how did that change the way you related to people? Do you still feel like an outsider?

DOUGHTY: Yes, I guess I do. But one thing about hanging out with a bunch of clean drug addicts, everyone is just super similar to you. So that has been awesome. I’ve made a lot of friends who are coming from an extremely similar place, even if they seem externally very different. I know I am an outsider in a number of ways, but I don’t feel weird.

YOUNG: Was there a time in your life when you did?

DOUGHTY: Oh dude, yeah, when you’re at West Point, it’s weird. Super weird. Also, I had shit going on inside of me that I just thought nobody else felt.

YOUNG: How did you feel about drugs and when did your attitude change?

DOUGHTY: How did I feel about drugs? I loved them! I kind of still love them. If I could choose my own Groundhog Day, it would be the first day I did heroin. Absolutely, without a doubt, that was fucking awesome. It was the remaining decade after that that was fucking shitty. If drugs didn’t totally fuck up my life, I’d still be doing them.

YOUNG: I guess you’ll never stop loving them. That will never go away.

DOUGHTY: Yeah, it’s like somebody you dated when you were 20, who was awesome and now you’re like, “She is fucking crazy.” I’ll never go back there. My life is so much better than when all I had was drugs. I wouldn’t trade, but I’m not gonna act like I’m necessarily against it.YOUNG: Do you think fame is an addiction?

DOUGHTY: The people I know who are really famous tend to be very disappointed people. They went into it thinking that when they got famous, they would feel good all the time. But then they became famous and they’re still just themselves. It can be a real bitter discovery for a lot of people. I have the advantage of having such a minor taste of fame, that I kind of know what it’s like, but it doesn’t completely fuck with me. But people are so mean to famous people. I’m not saying I want to hang out with them, but people say the meanest shit about these famous people they don’t know.

YOUNG: What did you feel the celebrity atmosphere was like in the ’90s versus this insane overexposure that people can achieve now?

DOUGHTY: My own experience with that brief moment where I had videos on MTV was that nothing was ever good enough. When you hear people say, “I was unhappy the whole time,” that sounds ridiculous. But literally everything that happened to me was like, “This isn’t good enough, because so-and-so has something better.” I think this is a theme among people who seek fame, not just musicians. There are a lot of bitter, disappointed people.

YOUNG: Do you think it encourages addictive behavior?

DOUGHTY: Yeah, I think there’s a correlation. If you get into this kind of thing, you’re looking for approval and comfort and control and that’s also what you go to drugs for.

YOUNG: How did it feel for you to see rock-‘n-roll go from Jeff Buckley to the Backstreet Boys?

DOUGHTY: Jeff actually wasn’t really that successful. He’s a legend now and obviously an insanely talented person when he was around, but it’s not like he was selling a zillion records. When he died, he was being constantly hounded by Columbia Records to write different songs than what he’d been writing. They wanted a single. In terms of getting super successful, every once in a while, something very different gets successful and than everything that comes after is kind of like it, maybe. That’s what happened with Nirvana, which was so out there and changed everything, and then so much after became imitative of them.

YOUNG: Going back to an emptiness and this need, this craving to fill it, whether that’s with fame or drugs or Twitter. How do you gain peace, quiet and release?

DOUGHTY: The easy way to say it is friends. Have people that listen to you and that you listen to. Helping other people is an amazing means of getting out of yourself, being available to people who are in pain or need help, being connected.

YOUNG: And these are friends not fans? You can’t really find that same level of comfort and release from the adoring masses?

DOUGHTY: No. And it’s that interesting to talk about yourself for that long. In terms of looking for strangers to adore you, that shit does not work.

THE BOOK OF DRUGS IS OUT NOW.