Among the many ’90s frontmen charged with laying spiel atop electro-acoustic groove music played by frustrated jazzbos and one guy on samples, Soul Coughing singer/guitarist Mike Doughty really did (and does!) better than most. With his patterned weave of urban, international and pop references and observations, Doughty was a wild and smart random meme generator – “the People’s Republic of Lemony Fresh!” – long before the word “meme” meant much to us.
Doughty’s secret weapon was not the hip hop going down in his midst, the Grand Pubas and Q-Tips, but rather his fluency in the mad, Whitmanesque cataloguing of Allen Ginsberg and in the casual Surrealism of Frank O’Hara. Not just Beat poets, but the New York Beats: That’s Doughty’s tradition. What he added to it was what he stripped away from it: all the fluff and most of the grammar. Doughty’s spiel was a high-temperature, granulated postmodern reduction of Beatness, lines and images as compact and isolated as Ginsberg’s were expansive and connective. And his delivery was pure wiseass Burroughs.
The band? Not as much to speak of there, I am afraid. The music of Soul Coughing wanted for concise hooks; Doughty tried for “anthemic” on occasion, but his rhythm section didn’t provide him with much fertile ground for the growth of melody and song form. It’s a lot of I-IV over badass acoustic grooves, really, with jarring samples imported from other keys. As songwriters, they were no match for the kindred-but-more-organic Boston noir groove band Morphine; nor did their appropriations and juxtapositions begin to approach the vividness and cultural intuition of early Beck and the Dust Brothers.
Doughty and Beck make for a fascinating contrast, by the way: both smart, surreal pastiche artists, one as sunny and optimistic (Beck) as the other is portentous and nihilistic. Soul Coughing’s debut and definitive album, Ruby Vroom, is a really strong piece of work; but what stands out to me, all these years later, is how this hip and dark poet prophesied many of the most important terrorist acts that have transpired in the 20 years since its release.
Doughty’s incessantly rhymed and occasionally tuneful rap Skeltonics were the interesting thing about Soul Coughing, and their interest hasn’t waned much, five full-length CDs into a solo career that has also been marked by forays into poetry, journalism, memoir and photography. In all those media, this thorny cat has laid out a lot of unseemly facts about his personal ups and downs, and, as 2014’s Stellar Motel attests, he continues to produce really vital language and righteous grooves. And – Hipster’s Nightmare! – turns out that the hippies dig him, the hippies who float more performing careers than any other demographic. What tragic good fortune for an avant-garde-leaning, post-Beat city spiel poet from the New York of the ’90s.
Radio Woodstock presents Mike Doughty’s World-Renowned, Award-Winning Question Jar Show, Saturday, December 6, 9 p.m., $45/$35/$25, Bearsville Theater, 291 Tinker Street, Woodstock; www.bearsvilletheater.com.