This post is in the theme “Constructing an identity through media”. Read the first.
October 6, Flying from New York to San Francisco: John Darnielle and the Mountain Goats have been with me for a while. Jed introduced me to Nine Black Poppies in college, specifically to “Cubs in Five” which was just the most clever little ditty I’d ever heard. (“The Chicago Cubs will beat every team in the league / And the Tampa Bay Bucs will take it all the way to January / And I will love you again…”) Darnielle’s song were raw of emotion and of production— they were stripped down to the barest elements of guitar and voice and the lyricism shone right through. He’s a fantastic story-teller and the tales in those songs were angry and sweet and sad and loving sometimes all at the same time.
I think there are three distinct periods of the Mountain Goats. The third and most familiar is everything that’s come after Tallahassee, in which Darnielle is joined by a band and the songs are well-recorded and sometimes the whole albums tell stories. The first period was all cassette releases— the Ur-Mountain Goats. And the second, in the middle, was where I found them. In which all the collected material of Darnielle’s prodigous output was collected in digital formats. I bought every CD, re-released or compiled or EP or LP I could find for the next five years and there were plenty to find.
Jed and I both remained enormous fans of John Darnielle. We went to see him every time he came to town. We knew all the words to All Hail West Texas and The Coroner’s Gambit. Jed, a sometimes musician with the most incredible Soul voice (god, could he belt “Bernadette” at karaoke) would write songs in the Darnielle style, and record them as such, too. See, most of the discography we were consuming sounded like it was taped in a bedroom on a four track. We once heard a legend that one Mountain Goats cassette had been recorded on a floor display four track in a Wal-Mart. Many of the songs sounded that way, the wheels of the mechanism turning audibly behind the music.
Once Jed and I went on a roadtrip and we called it a tour and we emailed Darnielle to ask him where to play in Denton, Texas (which we only knew from “The Best Death Metal Band Out of Denton”). Remarkably, he emailed us back and he said the Rubber Gloves. Jed played an open mic there and we both left with t-shirts. Later, when Jed got cancer and moved back to Indiana I went to a Mountain Goats show and John Darnielle was kind enough to write “Hey Jed, Fuck Cancer, Love John” on a cocktail napkin for me.
Jed came back after beating cancer and I had compiled the most incredible collection of Mountain Goats CDs. Every time I’d go to Amoeba on Sunset Blvd I’d check the rack and one in five times there would be a used CD I’d never seen before. I’d always buy it no matter how broke I was. Ghana, Bitter Melon Farm, Beautiful Rat Sunset, there ere so many.
For years I listened to these albums, let them wear themselves into grooves in my memory, packed with forgotten and lost emotions. Yesterday, listening to “Alphonse Mambo”, I was moved to tears on the streets of New York. Some long-forgotten emotion rose up from some long-forgotten sad episode in which I must have listened to this song and its line “…waiting for the other shoe to drop in Tampa Bay” on repeat for hours.
John Darnielle is an incredible songwriter. Nearly all of his songs are stitched together with this remarkable vulnerability, a vulnerability I can’t help but opening myself up to now when I listen to them. I am unsurprised he wrote a book and that it’s been edited by the fantastic Sean McDonald at FSG. I can’t wait to read it when this year is completed.