Autobiographical tales of sex, drugs and rock & roll bearing the names of musicians—from Keith Richards to Lemmy to the members of Mötley Crüe—are nothing new. What sets apart the memoir by former Soul Coughing frontman Mike Doughty, simply and succinctly called The Book of Drugs, is that Doughty didn’t seem to have as much fun while on such escapades.
Perhaps that’s an exaggeration, but the book reads as straightforward as the title, striking in its chillingly honest, matter-of-fact tone that still makes for an intensely readable tale. And it’s not that Doughty hates drugs. In fact, within the first few pages, he declares, “I love drugs. I’d never trade the part of my life when the drugs worked, though the bulk of the time I spent getting high, they weren’t doing shit for me. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t do drugs first.” But unlike many drug memoirs, the stories here are devoid of the hint of self-congratulatory pride of having a crazy story to tell—and having survived to tell it. In fact, there aren’t so many wild tales; Doughty primarily used drugs as a crutch for the other two tenets of the rock lifestyle: sex and making music.
Doughty isn’t trying to elicit envy with cool rock star stories, or even pity with the sad tales. In fact, sometimes he’s downright unlikeable. It’s the clear-eyed self-awareness that makes this book so compelling and keeps you turning the page even if you’re disgusted, surprised or disappointed. Doughty includes items that most of us would leave out of our own autobiographies: admissions about failed relationships, the lows of drinking himself to sleep (bed wetting) and drug usage (taking several hours to walk a few blocks to the ATM for drug money), as well as fleeting jealousy towards the late Jeff Buckley, with whom he played and toured. “The cutest girl in the room always beelined to him. I hated him for that. We did a gig together; I shorted him his cut of the door money,” he recalls.
While Doughty is associated with Soul Coughing, he’s also known probably just as much for not wanting to have anything to do with his former band. The band’s mix of upright bass, samples and Doughty’s spoken-word raps didn’t quite fit into any mold. But when everyone was giddy about the impending new millennium and yearning for something that sounded like the future, Soul Coughing fit the bill. In The Book of Drugs, however, Doughty’s misery and outsider status in his own band is palpable as he describes most things Soul Coughing–related. Tellingly (or perhaps for legal reasons) none of his bandmates is mentioned by name; they’re the sampler player, the drummer and the bassist. Still, the pages aren’t all full of gloom and doom, but peppered with funny and happy moments from life on the road as well.
The memoir isn’t told in a completely linear fashion, so even though it’s not unexpected, given the title, it’s somewhat jarring when Doughty turns from a daily pot smoker to having a trashcan overflowing with heroin bags or from having his first drink in years to getting the shakes. Then you realize that the drugs or at least the possibility for addiction was omnipresent in Doughty’s life. And when he convinces himself he doesn’t have a problem, the reader is convinced as well.
Anyone who reads the book jacket knows the ending: our protagonist doesn’t die, but gets sober and goes on to have a career as a singer-songwriter. Though from the very beginning Doughty says readers might think that “the cleaned up guy is intolerably corny,” such corniness is minimal and there’s no self-righteous pontificating once he enters the 12-step program. The Book of Drugs is an intimate and compelling tale of one musician’s drug abuse and recovery, refreshingly devoid of hyperbole and self-congratulatory platitudes.