I took this past week off from work and made what turned out to be sort of a pilgrimage, to Nashville, Asheville and Carrboro, NC to see 3 of the first 4 shows in the Mountain Goats' spring tour. (I missed the Savannah, Georgia show that was in between Asheville and Carrboro, but apparently a fistfight broke out there during "Steal Smoked Fish", so it might have been for the best.)
Back in 2012, I'd heard the Mountain Goats two most famous songs, "No Children" and "This Year" on mix CDs friends gave me, but I hadn't gotten hooked yet. When lindseykuper
, my co-worker at Mozilla at the time, made the trip on Caltrain from Mountain View to San Francisco to go see two of their shows on consecutive nights, I decided I should give them more of a listen. She recommended that I start with their albums The Sunset Tree
and We Shall All Be Healed
, so I did.
I am not a very good listener. It took me a few months to realize what The Sunset Tree
was about. But since I caught on, it's been my favorite album, by anybody. When it came out almost ten years ago it marked a shift from John Darnielle's previous writing (often abstract, often chronicling recurring fictional characters) into confessional, autobiographical songwriting. I hear there are purists who only like his old stuff (recorded on a cheap tape player), but I'm just glad I didn't
discover the Mountain Goats early enough to risk becoming one of those purists.
I was a teenager in the '90s, when young adult literature dealing with realistic problems the kids these days faced (or at least what adults thought kids faced) was in full bloom, and I read all of it. This was also a time when memoirs, largely by young women recounting experiences with abuse, trauma, addiction, and mental illness were popular, and there was a just-as-popular backlash against them (in retrospect, mostly a sexist one). None of that ever reached out and grabbed me. I got through my teens listening to the Indigo Girls and Shawn Colvin, and I enjoy them still, but they don't have enough to say to me anymore to keep me going now. Shawn Colvin's "Steady On" and the Indigo Girls' self-titled album helped me get through a few nights, but their lyrics don't have the specificity that I drank up later when I found it in the Mountain Goats.
The songs on The Sunset Tree
are about John Darnielle's childhood and adolescence dealing with an abusive stepfather who also abused his mother in front of him. I grew up with an abusive mother, who was single. As a teen, John turned to meth and heroin to deal with that which was too big to hold. I turned to a bad marriage and graduate school. But the thing about music like this is that it lets you believe, for a while, that the similarities between us are more important than the differences. I used the word "confessional", and The Sunset Tree
both is that and is more than that. "You Or Your Memory", the first song on the album, is about reconciling the pain and powerlessness you've experienced with the obligation to be an autonomous adult. "Love Love Love" and "Pale Green Things" are about the intricacies of the relationship between love and abuse. These songs coexist with more straight-up looks into what it's like to be a kid who couldn't trust the adults who were supposed to keep him safe. There's the revenge fantasies of "Up the Wolves" and "Lion's Teeth", which are, well, the easiest songs for me to directly relate to. There's "This Year", a joyous ode to flawed coping mechanisms. And there's "Dance Music" and "Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod", a pair of songs about staying in your room with the door closed and headphones on; in "Tetrapod", the narrator worries more about getting his stereo broken by the abuser than about getting his face broken.
The adult perspective with its moral complexity coexists here, made to seem no more or less true than the unfiltered rage and helplessness that I remember well from my own childhood. The album made me start to feel like I could finally grow up (at 31) while still keeping the promises I made to myself as a kid, on behalf of my future self -- that is, the ones to never forget how bad this was, to never do this to anybody else, and to never make excuses for any adult who was doing this to any other kid. The Sunset Tree
suggests how you might begin to understand without making excuses. That begins with showing compassion to your former self and honoring the things that self loved and hated, which is a necessary prerequisite for empathizing with anybody else. When taken together with much of the content of the albums that followed, it's a body of work that's about how you get from the life you're given to the life you make (to quote a Mary Chapin Carpenter song
). It's a hell of a 39 minutes.
I got a little carried away there, though, because I really wanted to tell you about the Mountain Goats' new album Beat the Champ
. When I heard their next album was going to be about pro wrestling, I was a little worried, because I was afraid it wouldn't be a Mountain Goats album
. What I know about wrestling could fit on a thumbtack, but it turns out it doesn't matter, because Beat the Champ
has a lot in common with The Sunset Tree
. It's about love and violence, friendship and hate. It's about identity and justice. And because I'm not that good a writer, I'm using those general terms when Beat the Champ
is extremely specific about all of them.
I put off listening to the songs from the album that were pre-released until the show in Nashville last Thursday; I wanted to hear them for the first time there. I'm glad I did, because live -- giving it my full attention while standing in the back and trying to see over the tall person in front of me -- "The Legend of Chavo Guerrero" reached out and grabbed me by the neck. Chavo Guerrero (who's still alive and apparently loves the song
) was John's favorite wrestler as a kid; he symbolized the clear lines between good and evil that didn't exist in John's life. The line that got me the first time I heard it and continues to make the hair on the back of my neck stand up every time I hear it since is this one:I need justice in my life. Here it comes.
But you can't just read that on the page, you have to hear it
. If you haven't heard the song, stop what you're doing and listen to it. Okay? It's the way the song switches in mid-verse from objective, school-report language ("He came from Texas seeking fortune and fame...") to the image of John watching TV in the floor in the dark, the TV light bringing hope and joy. It's the catch in his voice on the word "my" and the audible intake of breath before "Here it comes".
In contrast with the moral complexity of (some of) The Sunset Tree
, "The Legend of Chavo Guerrero" is three minutes of moral clarity. I love that ten years after The Sunset Tree
's meticulous exploration of love when it's entangled with violence, he can still
sing, in the last verse -- addressing his stepfather -- "He was my hero back when I was a kid / You let me down but Chavo never once did / You called him names to try to get beneath my skin / Now your ashes are scattered on the wind". I love the simplicity and directness of these words. And I love that the song gives the listener, too, permission to say to the person responsible for their trauma, "Yeah, you know, shit is complicated, but at the end of the day you're dead and I'm still here."
After that, it's a bit of a relief when the album follows up with the They-Might-Be-Giants-ish "Foreign Object", which is the most infectiously joyful song ever about stabbing somebody in the eye. It took me a couple of listens to get into the rest of the album, but now I'm really enjoying "Choked Out", "Werewolf Gimmick", and "Fire Editorial"; they go to some interesting places.
CDs have the advantage that you can play them repeatedly in your car, but there is nothing like a live Mountain Goats show, and of the three shows I saw this past week, each one was successively better than the last. On stage, John looks like there's nothing else in the world he'd rather be doing and
like he just discovered that now (25 years of performing notwithstanding). Shouting along to "Up the Wolves" with everybody else in the audience is group therapy and church.
While I want everybody else to love the Mountain Goats as much as I do, I also hope their shows never get too big for John to stay and sign CDs afterwards. At the Carrboro show I managed, somehow, to work up the nerve to tell him how powerful that line in "Chavo Guerrero" was for me. I am sure that that's what everybody else has been telling him too, but he thanked me as if nobody else had said so. So, John, if you're reading this, thank you.
And thanks for the hug.