Satchel is gone. Specifically, he’s left for three months in Nepal. Less specifically, he’s left forever, in the way that 18-year-olds will do.
I dropped him off and drove home. I’m not much of a crier, but I cried and cried and the song basically came out between sobs. It sounds cheesy but this one is from the heart. I recorded it last night, late, sorta drunk.
And the award for Rock Musician Least Likely to Become a Nostalgia Act goes to…Mike Doughty. The former Soul Coughing frontman doesn’t play Soul Coughing songs. Ever. His new memoir, “The Book of Drugs,” is a literary middle finger to the artist’s salad days. It puts the mental in unsentimental. It screams goodbye to all that — the band, the junk, the tunes, the willful inscrutability. To that last point, Doughty spent 2009 answering audience members’ off-the-wall questions between songs, and has just released a double-live album of recordings from the tour called “The Question Jar Show.” Doughty, 41, answered yet more questions via email.
Q: What’s the relationship between drugs and art as it has played out in your life?
A: I bought the spiel about the romantic connection between drugs and art, for sure. In practice, though, I used drugs to shut down self-loathing, so I could finish songs.
Q: What happened to your songwriting when you got clean?
A: I’m better than I was. The songs have more depth, there’s more of my heart truly in them. I’m able to access a darker part of myself — ironically. I’m working for the music, not trying to justify an inflated, grandiose sense of self — which was fundamentally just trying to feel OK about my existence.
Q: You’ve said that when you were unable to write songs you wrote prayers. Are you a man of faith or were you desperate?
A: People roll their eyes at the spiritual-not-religious spiel, but it’s very true. I was indeed desperate. But I did have a real fire to connect with something larger and deeper, to get out of my self-centeredness. The tragedy of Narcissus wasn’t that he was so into his own looks — it was that he was unable to stop looking at his reflection, and missed out on everything in the universe. I heard a cardinal say, “To have faith is to have crises of faith.” Which is incredible to hear from a guy whose entire life has been about his faith.
I hear that life is short. But compared to what? Everything that comes before and after? Some truisms aren’t true at all. Life isn’t short, not by any measurable standard. That’s just how it feels when you figure out you’re going to die, and you’re going to die without doing a lot of things you thought you might like to do, and if there’s something juicy on your list you’d best jump on it nowish.
Last week I was talking with Liz Frame, a singer-songwriter who stopped singing and songwriting. She spent a bunch of years devoting herself to family. She taught grade school. She was happy and then she wasn’t. The marriage ended. Her mother died. Frame had the epiphany.
“I realized life is way too short to not be doing what it is you love to do,” she said. So in 2007 Frame started going to open mikes. She formed a band. Made an EP. Started playing the club circuit. Made an album. Started playing better rooms. Here‘s a calendar. Frame is 51 now, at once exuberant and clear-eyed.
“I really believe in the record,” she says, “but it can be discouraging. I sent some stuff to somebody at ASCAP in Nashville and he basically said they just don’t hear anything here. And I’m thinking, ‘You don’t?’ So what’s the truth? For anybody pursuing an art endeavor, the truth is your truth. And whoever likes it, it becomes their truth. And that’s what allows artists to keep moving forward, even if it’s on a very small scale. If you’re OK with that then things have a tendency to fall into place on their own. The right people come into your life. Things happen and you’re ready for those things. You pay attention, and before you know it you wake up and you are exactly where you hoped you’d be.”
I had lunch last week with a friend of mine who’s in the music business. He’s a passionate guy, around my age, with an impressive resume. I like talking to him. We debated the fine points of the Black Keys’ rise, the difference between real and cultivated authenticity, and whether people know or care about it. Then the conversation turned to taste and I asked my friend about his criteria for working with a band. Must he love the music? Does he have to believe they’ll be big? What matters? One thing that matters, my friend told me, a little bit quietly, after he told me about some other things that matter, is cool. He wants his music choices to make him look cool. “More than I should,” he said.
The next day I had a phone conversation with another friend, who was describing a business venture that required him to either face off with or extend a hand to a competitor. My friend wanted to make nice. He told me that he’s no longer attracted to exclusivity and the sort of mystique it confers. ”As I’ve gotten older I care less about cool than I once did,” he said. “I’ve defined it for myself as not wasting a lot of time lying. It’s become tedious.”
The day after that (it was one of those weeks) I had a long talk with my dad. We spoke for maybe the 300th time about the importance of relying on your own internal guidance system instead of external cues for direction and meaning, and about how hard that is to do — even if you know it’s the way you want to live, even if you’re the mindful type, even if it will without a doubt make you happier. My dad thinks it’s because from the get-go we’re taught to seek approval from other people. We’re ingrained with the belief that we’re only as good or smart or valuable as our parents and teachers and friends think we are, and it’s tough to unlearn those early lessons. My dad is a wise man, a font of short-form allegories, and he trotted out one of my favorites. It goes like this: imagine yourself standing on a stage, preparing to give a performance. You gaze out at the audience and discover that the theater is empty. No one is watching. But the show goes on.
I swear, these conversations never get old. Much as I’d like to evict the imaginary chorus heralding the imaginary spectators whose imaginary cheers and jeers inspire too many performances, they’re determined squatters. So it’s war. It’s me versus a hallucination. Me versus a misguided notion of value and power. Some days I win. On those days I know that the cool kids are muddled like me, not at all as sure as they seem to be about what’s good and what’s smart and what matters. Some days, consumed with self-doubt and comparitis, I lose. I wonder why I even bother. So it’s one step forward and one step back. Actually it’s more like this:
Here’s a conundrum: what do you do when the thing you love makes you sick? Juliana Hatfield has been trying to answer that question for a long time. In 2008 she put out a hopefully-titled album, How To Walk Away.At 44, she’s finally making her move. We met for tea recently at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, where Hatfield is enrolled in an intensive studio art program, to talk about closing the book on performing and starting a new chapter as a painter.
Q: How’s school going?
A: It’s going great. I’m not really ready to show my stuff to people. I feel like I’m just here at school trying to develop my skills and ideas. One of the faculty used the premature birth analogy. He said, “Don’t push your work out prematurely.” I don’t want to do that.
Q: How long is the program?
A: Just a year. It’s a post-baccalaureate certificate program. But a lot of people see it as pre-MFA training.
Q: Are you looking at it that way?
A: Well, I wasn’t. I really just wanted to learn and have a more intensive art school experience and just develop, but I think I’m going to apply to a couple of MFA programs, although I don’t know if that would be practical for me.
Q: That brings up the question of plans.
A: If I could afford to, I would just paint for the foreseeable future. It’s the way I saw music before. I only wanted to do that. Now I want to paint. That is probably going to sound so pretentious coming from someone who’s been a musician. It’s weird, no one even knows I’m doing this school. None of my quote unquote fans knows that I’m in school. I haven’t really told anyone.
Q: Why not?
A: I’m doing it for me. I always felt that I had potential but I put it on the back burner when I started doing music full-time. Now I’m trying to see if I can develop the skills that I have.