Blimey, this is getting like being back school now – I never thought that my spare time would be taken up with a book review or two (there’s another one on the way!) but here I am, not feeling especially literary but willing to give it a go nonetheless.
After listening to and enjoying Mike’s recent Yes And Also Yes album, it was a complete no-brainer to then go and buy his memoir. Not just to get a little bit further under the surface of the record in question, but also because the avuncular self-deprecation and happy/sad way that he expressed his songs warranted further investigation.
Almost before the book even begins, the stall is well set-out with a few important pointers. Firstly, a statement that although some names have been changed, this is as clear a recollection of events that Mike has and that other people’s views of the same scenarios may well be different or at least have a different resonance. Next, a couple of post-it notes from 1999 left to himself act as a warning to the reader that – no matter how strangely detached and almost cheery his words are when relating his darkest period at times – this was a really mad time for him. And finally, on page 2 the important mention that “I can’t renounce drugs. I love drugs” as an acceptance as them being part of the path that has brought him this far. It’s not written to be inspirational or as part of a program to guide others. It’s seemingly written to close a chapter, to get a load off the author’s mind, maybe just to make sense of it all for his own benefit.
If indeed The Book Of Drugs is intended to close a chapter, it does so by not including any. This works well in the framework of the story that Doughty is telling: conversational, relaxed, occasionally interrupting himself with asides whenever the mood takes or the story dictates. He races through the early part of his life as if to say that this formative bit is something that has to be in all autobiographical works because everyone else does it, without wanting to place much importance on it. The story seems to really start when he begins work (somewhat by accident) at the Knitting Factory, where his musical career and drug consumption started to take off. It’s all done very matter-of-factly with the odd exception (when 55 people turned up to an early Soul Coughing show it’s impossible to disguise his pride and excitement at this), with the only pointer to future issues coming from a curious reluctance to name any of the other members in his band – which is something that continues all the way through this tome.
Quite possibly the strangest thing that comes out of The Book Of Drugs is that for a newcomer like myself to Mike Doughty’s music, I am left with absolutely no desire whatsoever to check out Soul Coughing’s music. Every time the band or its members get mentioned (but never named, with them usually referring in term to him by his last name only), it’s usually in relation to a belittling, isolating incident. There may well be another side to the band’s story and there must have been times when the mundanities of getting along, making records and touring would have made for at the very least some sort of ceasefire, but from this account I wouldn’t want to go anywhere near any of their records because it’s impossible to separate whatever art is there from the personalities portrayed.
Another strange thing that happens in this book is that while the detailing of his addictions (even at their very worst, and despite the evidence of the introductory post-its) remains lucid in hindsight, it’s the comedown and recovery that becomes slightly disjointed in its relating. Maybe it’s because he was more concerned at this point in feeling suddenly and irrationally connected with things around him other than drugs (the number 27, for example) than feeling the need to rationally document it, but it certainly makes for an interesting read when one is sharing in these odd little personal joys.
The Book Of Drugs is a fascinating read, because of the honesty of the words contained. Not everyone who reads it will necessarily have ever been an addict but this is not a precursor to understanding how this feels to Mike, such is the way that he communicates every part of his story. He doesn’t demonize the excesses and nor does he especially eulogize the abstinence except in terms of his own dealings with it: his is a story of things just being as they were because that’s how they were, and it’s as entertaining as it is moving and illuminating.