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“Kurt Cobain and Soul Coughing’s Mike Doughty: Drawing Comparisons”

The first time I heard of Soul Coughing, I was watching a brilliant series that used to be on MTV in the late ’90’s, called Austin Stories. Set in Austin, the show featured three main characters, one of whom was a deadbeat who couch-surfed and took advantage of auspicious luck — both with women and with extraordinary mooching ability. The other two were both music geeks, one a record store clerk and one a female office worker. In one of the episodes, the record store worker asks the mooching guy, “Did you listen to my Soul Coughing CD?”, to which the mooching guy responds, “Ugh! It was awful! I could barely get three dollars for it down at (whatever record store)!”, and a jawing match ensues. Priceless stuff.
Anyway, for a while I thought their name was “Soul Coffin,” until my sister turned me on to them a year or two later. She had this discreet way of doing things that would end up changing my life. At first I heard her say their name and had the typical blue-collar-town-jock reaction of rolling my eyes and assuming they were probably a bunch of wimps.
But some things just beat sense into you, by providence or by brute musical force, and if anything was going to do that to me at that age, it was this band. A second ago I was sifting for a good way to open this post and decided to give another listen to “Blue-Eyed Devil” from the band’s debut Ruby Vroom. This is probably the most universally likable song by the band. It breaks my heart to hear it, though, because lead singer Mike Doughty’s voice is swathed in effects, eschewing the stark, riveting bareness that would define his solo work, which would come on the heels of recovery from heroin addiction.
Kurt Cobain had a great voice for mainstream music, always seeming to err on the side of lunchpail honesty and integrity, but Mike Doughty’s voice is one I could see being considered a little annoying. It’s relatively nasal and snotty, making him sound like a know-it-all, not that the listener would have any substantial evidence to support this claim, and it has the habit of ending vocal phrases with a gratuitous, inordinate “uh” sound.
If he makes up for this, which he does, by leaps and bounds, it’s by doing these mind-boggling, unbelievable “scat” segments, typically well-placed, at the end of songs or after choruses. My favorite of these is the one he does in a song that appears later on Ruby Vroom, “Supra Genius.” It’s tumultuously ingenuous, intimidating stuff, especially coming after scathing, great lyrics within the song: “Will you shoot the blue Earth down / In the space station polishing your ray gun? / You say correlation is not causation”.
“Supra Genius” is the middle track in one of the most mind-expanding three-song portions on any ’90’s rock album. It’s preceded by “Moon Sammy,” a light, bouncy funk-ride that typifies the band’s jazzy penchant while foreshadowing “Genius” with the characteristically snide quip: “Obsess yourself with causality / The information you hear is a loophole technicality.” Adding to its brilliance is the fact that it’s a song about “Moon Sammy wash(ing) in the sink… / The drain goes straight into the sea.” Somehow a feeling is created of absolute mortality, even for this apparently cosmic figure named “Moon Sammy,” towering and overly cerebral. Following “Supra Genius” is a song as haunting as the album’s cover itself, “City of Motors” — a song I won’t even attempt to describe; it simply must be heard. If “City of Motors” has failed to revolutionize rock and roll, the reason is simple: subsequent bands lack Soul Coughing’s effortless, spellbinding musical chops and command for the studio.
And I’m not one for saying Kurt Cobain “sucked at guitar,” either, and it’s true that you don’t have to be a Juilliard grad to be a great radio star, but one feather I’ll put in Nirvana’s cap is that their music united people well, whereas it seems that Soul Coughing, talented to the point of verging on the alienating, are best enjoyed alone. For best evidence of this, listen to Nirvana’s glorious Live at Reading, and then cop a Soul Coughing bootleg. The latter was never able to improve live on the perfectly balanced production of Ruby Vroom, magnifying the emotion and bookish sensitivity in Doughty’s voice while infusing the guitar and percussion sounds with a vibrant personality of their own, fully potentiated. Without causing your ear drums to bleed, Soul Coughing, on their debut, were, in my opinion, the real “sound garden.”
They never won an MTV VMA (the trophy for which Cobain would end up setting next to his toilet, for, you know the drill), but they did achieve a high level of fame, particularly on their last album as a collective — the spotty El Oso. “Circles” from this last LP was included on an episode of The Real World, and, I’m pretty sure, has been used in at least one commercial. It’s also a staple of Whole Foods Radio. As it turns out, the wake of this swan song was contemporaneous with Doughty’s nadir of heroin usage, but unlike Cobain, he kicked, in the ensuing months, and quit the band. Cobain never went solo. Call it courage or surreptitious bounce of the proverbial ball; Doughty survived the mess he was in, and went on to make some pretty compelling solo stuff. A few choice fruits are “All the Dirt” from his first do-it-yourself project Skittish, and “American Car” from the later Haughty Melodic.
Both Cobain and Doughty had younger siblings growing up. As I said, my older sister is the person who got me into Doughty’s work. In each of these men’s music, there is a keen sense of burdened reassurance, an assuaging of all the listener’s pain and doubt, all with a systematic, structured, rocking path into authentic revelation. I think one was more caught up in, and victimized by, the capitalistic system of the music industry, and the other was fortunate enough to have tempered the extent to which he became one with this product-driven game. For the ubiquitous, undeniable Kurt Cobain, there’s the enigmatic, stubbornly individual Mike Doughty, whose music is best grasped by the immensely jaded, those surrounded by a repugnant set of values, and who, maybe, can’t afford, or find a way, to join in.

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