This post was inevitable. It is a sort of tribute to Ruby Vroom (even if it begins with a song from another album), one of my favorite albums of the 90s. I know some of you are fans, but if you’re not familiar with the band, here are the facts: Soul Coughing came about in the early 90s because Mike Doughty, then using M. Doughty as his stage name, a folk singer and doorman at The Knitting Factory in New York, who had some famous (Ani DiFranco) and influential (the folks who ran The Knitting Factory) music friends, wanted a band. Doughty met a composer, Mark Degli Antoni, and together they came up with a sound, and the basis for several songs, built largely on Antoni’s compositions and some mixes the two put together while playing around. They recruited an upright bass player, Sebastian Steinberg, and jazz and hip hop drummer, Yuval Gabay, and Doughty had a band. Through Doughty’s connections they got a regular gig at CBGB’s, where they played as M. Doughty’s Soul Coughing. The regular gig got them a contract with Warner Bros., and in no time they had recorded a spectacular album, Ruby Vroom.
Vroom was released in late 1994, to little fanfare, and sold basically nothing. In 1995, Soul Coughing went on tour, and here is where Soul Coughing enters my life. On a hot and humid evening in June, when I was 19, back home from college for the summer, I was sitting at one of the outside tables at Bongo Java, later to become famous for the Mother Theresa danish, hanging out with some friends with plans to do absolutely nothing for as long as possible. After we’d been hanging out for a couple hours, another group of friends popped up. One of them, my good friend Keith, told me he had an extra ticket to a show at the Exit/In, with a band called “Soul Talking” (seriously, that’s what he called them), and wanted to know if I was interested. I said sure, we hopped in Keith’s car, and off we went.
We got to the club right as Soul Coughing was taking the stage. Trying to find a place to stand (the club wasn’t packed, but it was lively), I ran into some friends from high school, and our group was now about a dozen. Soul Coughing went on, and fucking blew the house down. They were incredible. Doughty’s ability to work a crowd was, at that time, the best I’d ever seen. He had everyone in that room in his back pocket, and after the first couple of songs, he knew it. They played pretty much everything on Vroom, though I’d never heard it before, along with a couple cover songs, with Doughty joking with the audience in between. We were dancing, screaming, and having a blast.
Oh, and the music was like nothing any of us had ever heard. What was this? Jazz? Hip hop? Beat poetry? I think every single one of us bought the album on the way out.
I didn’t get home until about 4 in the morning, and slept pretty much all day, but when I woke up I put the album on and listened to it over and over, with it sucking me in deeper with each listen. It’s smart, groovy, experimental, bizarre, filled with allusions to other music, such as this playfully referenced in this clever nonsense:
Along with hip hop jazziness:
And on top of it all, three songs of such intensity that, even now, almost 20 years later, hearing them sends shivers down my spine. First, “City of Motors,” with Steinberg’s bass and Gabay’s drum driving the song forward as Antoni’s eerie samples frequently highlight Doughty’s haunting lines, such as “Stuck in the hinge is a sliver of a fingernail,” “Flips an ash like a wild, loose comma,” and “Witness said he saw the car jump,” in a story that the music tells you can’t end well:
Second, “True Dreams of Witchita,” (the f-word right at the beginning, so beware):
Also featuring Steinberg and Gabay, but this is all about Doughty’s lyrics. No one will ever accuse Doughty of being a great singer, but his almost-out-of-key half-singing here only serves to heighten the tension of his lyrics of… of what, lost connections? Disillusionment?
Brooklyn like a sea in the asphalt stalks,
Push out dead air from a parking garage,
Where you stand with the keys and your cool hat of silence,
Where you grip her love like a driver’s license
And most importantly, “Screenwriter’s Blues,” perhaps my favorite song of the 90s:
It begins with horns mixed by Antoni, upon which enters Doughty, with a line that has no business in 90s popular music:
Exits to freeways twisted like knots on the fingers;
Jewels cleaving skin between
Then Steinberg and Gabay again, slowly rising to a moment that Doughty himself is suggesting will never come. An ode to the dangerous allure of Los Angeles? Or just to the city itself:
It is 5 AM,
And the sun has charred the other side of the world
And come back to us,
And painted the smoke over our heads an imperial violet.
It is 5 AM, and you are listening
To Los Angeles.
I’m going to put it here again, so that you can listen without scrolling back. I know I’m listening again:
Needless to say, in less than 24 hours, I was a huge fan.
In 1995 and 1996, I saw Soul Coughing live two more times. They were awesome in both shows. In the summer (or thereabouts) of ’96, the band announced that they would be releasing their second album, Irresistible Bliss. A friend of mine was a DJ at the time, and she got an advanced copy. We got a bunch of beer, lit some candles, laid out on the couch and listened to it the night before their official album release party in Minneapolis, where they had an unusually large fan base (they’d sold 75,000 copies of Vroom, and something like a third of those had sold in Minnesota). I remember that night very well, because both my friend and I were lying there trying to love the album, finding moments that we did love, but both becoming more and more disappointed as we went through it several times in a row.
The thing is, Ruby Vroom was as much the product of producer Tchad_Blake’s experimentalism as it was Doughty’s songwriting and the band’s composition, but Blake was unavailable for their second album because of a death in his family. Doughty, instead of waiting, and against the wishes of threst of the band, hired David Kahne to produce, and the result was a much straighter, less quirky, and in the end less interesting mix of songs. There were, as I said, moments of brilliance, particularly “Disseminated,” at the top of this post, and the only song that came close to matching the intensity of the big three on Vroom, “Sleepless”:
This marked the beginning of the end of Soul Coughing. During the mixing process, the band very nearly dissolved, as Steinberg quit over very real creative differences, and Doughty had to bring Blake back in to appease everyone.
It wouldn’t be clear for a few years, but Bliss is Soul Coughing as, in essence, Doughty’s backing band. The songs are very much like what Doughty’s solo work would be: more folk, with a little rock, less jazz, and a lot less hip hop. Even the most jazzy and hip hop tracks on the album are overwhelmingly solo Douhgty-esque:
Don’t get me wrong, this is not a bad album. It’s quite good, in fact. It’s just not Vroom. It’s entirely possible that no band has more than one Ruby Vroom in them, and Soul Coughing certainly didn’t. It was impossible for those of us who had come to Soul Coughing through Vroom not to be disappointed.
I saw Soul Coughing live a fourth time after the release of Bliss, and in hindsight the tension in the band was evident. They had been so fun and full of energy touring for Vroom, but now they were tight, the playing was rote, and there was significantly less energy. The crowd, filled with die hard Soul Coughing fans, still had fun, but the music wasn’t the same, even when they played the songs from Vroom.
By 1998, when they released their third album, El Oso, Soul Coughing had achieved a modicum of fame with Bliss singles like “Soundtrack to Mary”:
El Oso was, then, basically a straight pop album, with a popular single in “Circles”:
Which I hate. I mean, hate. I didn’t even listen to that, so if the sound sucks, I apologize, but I can’t hear that song. It was hard for me to hear the album without hearing what it wasn’t, and that song represented all that it wasn’t.
El Oso did have its moments, particularly “$300”:
And “So Far I Haven’t Found the Science”:
But even more than Bliss, this was not a Soul Coughing ablum, it was a Doughty album. I saw them live another time (my sixth total) in the summer of 1999, here in Austin, and it was the worst I’d ever seen them. They looked tired, bored, and over each other, and the crowd did as well, at least until they played “Circles.” Ugh. A few months later, Soul Coughing were no more.
In the years since their breakup we’ve learned just how dysfunctional the band was. Doughty, it turns out, was an addict, and high pretty much all of the time. And he didn’t get along with the band at all, particularly Steinberg and Gabay. When he got sober, as I imagine he was trying to figure out who he was without drugs, he was a first class jerk. Their parting was not done on the best of terms.
Doughty, now going by Mike, not M., has recorded several solo albums, some of which are pretty good, and which often sound a lot like late Soul Coughing:
Though not always:
I’ve seen Doughty live by himself almost as many times as I saw him with Soul Coughing. I admit to being a fan, even after he wrote a book about his time in Soul Coughing in which he basically drove a car over the rest of the band, then stopped, put it in reverse, and drove over them again. He’s even gone so far as to rerecord several Soul Coughing songs, because he wasn’t satisfied with what they sounded like when other people had input:
It’s basically a cover… of himself. Sometimes not even a very good one:
He’s better when he’s not trying to recapture something that wasn’t just him:
He also seems to have mellowed now, and to be an OK guy. And I recommend his shows, and solo albums, if you’re into quirky folk rock. But it ain’t Soul Coughing.
Any post on Soul Coughing has to end with this song: