How Soul Coughing's Mike Doughty Shaped and Saved My Life

Mike Doughty is amazing.

Mike Doughty is amazing.

Mike Doughty | Dakota Jazz Club | Saturday, November 22
Soul Coughing were the first band that made me feel dumb. During the mid- to late-'90s, the weird, jazz and hip-hop-infused band from Brooklyn sat in a unique space. If you listened to them at a long clip, they sounded like a thousand things you've heard before, crashing into each other at angles you've never thought of. It was constructed in a way that if another band tried it, they'd only be ripping Soul Coughing off whole cloth.

I didn't "get" them right away. I don't remember when or where I was the first time I heard "Down to This" from their 1994 debut, Ruby Vroom. The music kept me interested enough to keep trying. Eventually I got what they were doing, and that action -- the keep trying action -- would help me, though much later in life.


I know I sort of liked Soul Coughing. At some point I liked them enough to buy their first album and learn enough about the band to have a semi-intelligent conversation in my freshman art classes.

There were odd arrangements fusing both horns and samples of what sounded like old movies. Mike (then just M.) Doughty's stream-of-consciousness rapping/singing/yelling was a take-it-or-leave-it affair to be sure, but for those who took it, the effect was mind-blowing. To some it seemed like simplistic nonsense, but others saw layer upon layer of carefully constructed experimentation designed to look like pop music -- something akin to discovering magic is actually real. 

Two years later, Irresistible Bliss came along. You couldn't escape "Super Bon Bon," no matter how hard you tried. Despite the rambling, overall in-your-face loudness of that particular track, Bliss was a much quieter album than its predecessor, much of it more in step with its other hit, "Soundtrack to Mary," than anything else. I remember listening to this album during small gatherings often in college. A friend and another friend's girlfriend (now his wife) would insist on it, until the party got going to a fair roar, then our tiny coup would be quashed in favor of Deftones or Pantera.

I didn't mind that all the time, but sometimes I hated it with every fiber of my being. I wanted nothing more than to feel smart when I was in college, and Soul Coughing did that every time. I felt like I shared a secret with the people who liked them, a secret that was so secret that even if I explained it, it wouldn't be understood to those who didn't just get it.

They peaked with their swan song, El Oso, an album I love so much I have difficulty picking a favorite song, though I'm mildly sure it's "St. Louise Is Listening." I realized while this album was out that, unlike most bands I had come into contact with up to that point, I had fallen slowly in love with Soul Coughing. Most often, I listened to them in a way I listened to every other band I liked at the time: alone. If I heard them at a party or something, fine, but if I was going to really listen to them, it was in my car or when my roommates weren't home.

I quite possibly had developed an unhealthy relationship with them. I dug for other meanings in songs, deeper meanings in lyrics. What did it mean when the chorus of "White Girl" suddenly sounded like "Girl White" at the end of the song due to Doughty's delivery? And then, one day, just like that, they were gone.

Soul Coughing broke up in 2000, and they are less likely to get back together than the Beatles. They fought over publishing rights and money and why everyone in the band didn't have more than their share of both. But while they went their separate ways and kept working, Doughty soldiered on in the most interesting way, recording solo work that sounded like Soul Coughing -- but not really. I stayed intrigued, though I had dialed it back quite a bit.
For a long time I hated when bands broke up and the lead singer (or guitarist, or whomever) went solo and wanted me to buy their new work. To wit: I actually said, "Fuck Stephen Malkmus's solo shit" out loud once, proving true that old Twain adage about keeping your mouth shut.

In the fall of 2011, though, my life was being torn apart and restructured. I was leaving a monumentally bad marriage and the sky seemed to be falling at light speed. I didn't know what my life would be like or how I would continue without simply curling up on the side of the road and expiring.

I kept hearing Doughty's "Na Na Nothing," from the just-released Yes and Also Yes. Those lyrics helped me in ways that I'll forever be thankful for. I wasn't a perfect partner by any stretch of the imagination, but applying those lyrics to my situation helped immensely.

That song holds a spot inside me that causes both manic elation and profound sadness for just a few seconds when I visit it. But then I remember where I am now and I'm fine. Some people go talk their shit out with a therapist. I apparently just need Doughty's gravelly voice and some guitar riffs.

It also caused me to revisit Soul Coughing's discography and take a second look at Doughty's solo work. All of which is, at worst, solid; at best, undiagnosed genius.

Haughty Melodic (produced by Dan Wilson, a guy you may have heard about) might be one of the top five underrated albums of the 2000s and if you don't believe me, go listen to "Busting Up a Starbucks." Then listen to it again.

Doughty's made some missteps: The re-recording of Soul Coughing hits was a fantastically horrendous idea, and his book was by-the-numbers. But for a wide swath of the public, he's more or less exactly what people are looking for: It sounds familiar enough to be non-threatening and is weird enough that liking it makes you feel like you're in on something the others don't get. None of that is really true, of course, as Doughty is a gifted songwriter who likes to push everything just a little bit off to the left -- a view that makes everything more interesting but somehow more relatable to me.

He's comfortable in his own skin, but that doesn't mean he makes everyone else comfortable. It did, however, help me some 20-odd years ago when I decided, for the first time in my life, not to write something off the second I did not fully understand it.

The seemingly insignificant decision of "I'm going to listen to this again, I guess," in no small part started shaping who I would be as an adult. Mike Doughty emboldened me to take chances on what weren't sure things, and that is an invaluable lesson to learn as you move into adulthood.

Mike Doughty's World-Renowned, Award-Winning Question Jar Show (featuring Andrew "Scrap" Livingston). $25, 7 p.m. and 9 p.m., Saturday, November 22 at Dakota Jazz Club. Tickets.


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