Having spent a healthy swathe of my summer out amidst the verdant byways and sandy beach lanes of Suffolk County, Long Island, I frequently found myself at something of a loss when it came to updating Flaming Pablum, given the thematic crux of this blog. After all, it’s somewhat hard to compose witheringly insightful ruminations about, say, the eroding character of Avenue A or the once-fabled community of book stores along Fourth Avenue when you’re upwards of two-hundred miles away from those locations. Put simply, I felt a bit cut off.
To combat this, when I wasn’t chasing after my kids or squabbling with my mother, I spent most of my time reading (witness my posts about David Bowie’s fleeting thrash fixation or how bloody-minded I was about Patti Smith, both inspired by books I’d been reading at the time).
As the summer went on, I was continually searching out new reading material (as weepily documented on this post). And, as was true with passages from Sean Egan’s “Bowie on Bowie” and Patti Smith’s “Just Kids,” I would continue to find bits of anecdotal information in these books that I felt were worth addressing here.
Below is one such an entry.
At one point this summer, my friend Ross — a music fan generally more inclined towards the whole post-Dead, jam-band scene — came up to me, expressing a newfound affinity for the music of Soul Coughing, correctly figuring that I’d have been a fan of theirs. Indeed I was. A versatile and eclectic ensemble as at ease opening for the Dave Matthews Band as they were co-headlining with the calamitous clamor of Cop Shoot Cop, Soul Coughing truly had a sound all their own, forging the potent mix of quirk, jazzy dissonance, surreal loquacity and funky beats. They only managed three proper albums before splitting acrimoniously, but each is well worth a listen.
Prompted by Ross’ newfound appreciation, I ,too, started to re-listen to my old Soul Coughing records. In doing so, I remembered hearing somewhere that lead singer M. Doughty had written a book about his time in the band. Not being able to track it down in any store, I found it on the man’s website and ordered it. It arrived a couple of days later.
I was already a fan of Doughty’s, as beyond his role as the mouthpiece of Soul Coughing, he also used to write a hilariously irreverent music column for New York Press under the scatologically profane nom-de-plume Dirty Sanchez (if you don’t know what it means, you’re invariably better off — don’t do a Google Image search). It was also he that pulled the now-fabled Lou Rawls gag on Lou Reed (as laboriously documented here and elsewhere on this blog). Put simply, he’s a very funny guy. As such, I was quite excited to read “The Book of Drugs: A Memoir.”
As the title might lead you to surmise, however, it ain’t all big laughs. Along the way of telling the story of his childhood, teen years, his days fronting the surprisingly argumentative and rarely harmonious Soul Coughing and his eventual solo career as an acoustic singer/songwriter, Doughty (now fully Mike, and not just “M”), recounts his struggles with habitual substance abuse and addiction. Just as the reader is eased into Doughty’s endearingly wry, conversational style, the details of his endeavors to clean up and get sober unspool in a manner that is truly disarming. It’s truly a great read.
As an extra bonus for jerks like me, however, “The Book of Drugs” is also steeped in details about Doughty’s doings around the downtown NYC of the 1990’s. As revealed back on this comparatively ancient post, Doughty was fleetingly an employee of the Knitting Factory when it was perched on the border between the East Village and SoHo on Houston Street. I was a huge fan of this incarnation of that club, having seen some memorable performances there by bands like Sonic Youth, the Meat Puppets and the Casper Brotzman Massacre.
Here’s a little except about the club that I thought was right up this blog’s street, so to speak. The action takes place, I believe, in the late 80’s or very early 90’s….
I was supposed to meet somebody at the Knitting Factory. She stood me up, but the bartender knew me and said they needed somebody to bartend that night. I said I didn’t know how to make any drinks. She said if I didn’t know, I should ask, “What’s in it?” As it happened, the bartenders at the Knitting Factory had the least professional aptitude of those at any bar I’ve ever been to.
The band that night was a trio: Joe Lovano, Bill Frisell, and Paul Motian. I strolled through the club in a trance, amazed by the music, though I didn’t know anything about jazz. The next night, Bob Mould played acoustically; he let the audience sit Indian-style around him on stage. The night after that the Lyres played, with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion opening — their first gig ever.
The sound guy got me high every night. Then he’d complain for hours about how he wanted to be a recording engineer and nobody appreciated him. There was a tiny recording booth upstairs from the stage that he’d go into, get baked and twiddle with the knobs while the band played, leaving the mixing board unmanned. Feedback howled every night.
The bartenders were mostly dope fiends, and the customers foreign tourists. Japanese jazz nerds would wander in, stunned that the legendary club was a dive, run by surly malcontents. Europeans would pretend they didn’t know they were supposed to tip in America; as they walked away, the bartenders hurled fistfuls of change at them, cursing.
The Knit was a magnet for a certain type of disaffected upper-class Japanese girl — there was a steady stream of them showing up at the club, having moved to New York seeking gritty adventure. One by one, they were scooped up by one of three guys — an avant-garde saxophone player, a drummer, and a guy who worked at record companies, doing some kind of job I couldn’t fathom. “Oh, she’s with D_____? I thought she was with T_____.”
They took me off the bar and made me the doorman. I did two nights a week, then five, then the freaked-out dope-fiend rockabilly guy who did weekends quit, and suddenly I was working seven nights a week. Naturally, I began to hate the job, but in my half-cocked military-bred mind I didn’t think it was my place to tell the owner he had to get somebody else for Monday and Tuesday. So I started stealing.
Nearly everybody in the place was stealing. The bartenders would put the dough for two beers in the register and the third in their tip jar. The beer was always running low before its time, but nobody got fired.The would-be recording-engineer sound guy would order Chinese food at the ticket desk and stare at me incredulously when I called him down to pay for it. He expected me to take the money from the till as a matter of course.
I seethed with frustration — when applying the hand stamp that audience members got in lieu of a ticket, I’d bang the stamper down on their wrists so hard they’d yelp in pain.
That’s just a taste, but if you enjoyed it, you can order your own copy of “The Book of Drugs: A Memoir” here. Tell’em Flaming Pablum sent’cha.
Today, Doughty is a prolific solo performer and world-traveler. The old Knitting Factory on East Houston is no more. It initially split into a bar downstairs called Botanica and a compact disc shop of no real distinction. Botanica is still around. The compact disc shop became a string of different restaurants, currently an Italian place called Estela.
The Knitting Factory itself relocated to TriBeCa for several years before decamping to Brooklyn.
Just for good measure, below is my very favorite Soul Coughing track — initially heard on the soundtrack to Paul Auster’s “Blue in the Face."
Amazing shot of the original Knitting Factory signage up top courtesy of the great Gregoire Alessandrini. Check his site at once.