I wake up way too early again, filled with a vague dread that hovers over my soul like an iron weight. I get up in the dark, find my way into the living room and sit and listen to the Mountain Goats while I read a recap of last night’s hockey game. I’m staying within my dread while grasping to escape it. It’s so weird how there’s this music that comforts me at the same time it feeds my 3am monsters.
I was a little late to the Mountain Goats but when I found them I clung to them fiercely, afraid if I let go the music would dissipate like the remnants of a fever dream, something I conjured up that couldn’t possibly be real. I listened to everything they made, I listened day and night and became singularly fixated on the John Darnielle’s world and his place in mine.
So this is what the volume knob’s for.
Dance Music was the first song I heard. Someone mentioned it on some social media site so I listened thinking I would need an open mind to like it because what’s a Mountain Goat? I’ve never heard of them before.
And it struck me. It struck me hard, a fist laid square on my heart almost taking the wind out of me.
So this is what the volume knob’s for.
The song was so simple but so rife with complications. And John’s voice, the almost conversational lilt in his voice. This was storytelling. Storytelling with music. And this story let me know there others, probably deeper and sadder stories. It was like opening a compilation of tales and turning to the middle of the book, picking a random story. I had to read the stories before it and the stories after it. I wanted to know John and everything he had to tell me and all the music that goes with it.
I listened to the rest of the Sunset Tree. I adopted Lion’s Teeth as a metaphor for the story of my life. I played This Year three times then sang along, my gritty determination to get through 2011 either dead or unscathed echoed in the shakiness of my voice. I cried at Dennis Brown’s demise and sang Broom People’s “I am a babbling brook” with such emotion my voice cracked and I sighed my way through Love, Love, Love.
People starting recommending specific songs to me and I went to iTunes and bought what I could and yes, I admit it, I stole what I couldn’t buy because there was an urgency, a driving need to hear everything Mountain Goats (and later went to the Mountain Goats store and bought what I could because I wanted to throw all my money at them, all of it, just take it, take my money and make me more music please). It wasn’t so much a completion of the discography I needed but a completion of the stories thus far. Had I become obsessed with the Mountain Goats or with John Darnielle’s life? Was there a difference?
You get to a point in your life when you think you’ve outgrown the whole concept of a songwriter speaking for you or to you. That’s for kids, right? Adults don’t say “He really knows what I’m feeling” or “that song really speaks to me on a deep level,” right? Oh, that’s such bullshit. Because any adult that is no longer moved by music has pretty much stopped living life fully. Angst? It’s not just for teenagers, kids. And maybe the righteous anger of the punk rock of my youth no longer moves me like it did but this? The Mountain Goats? I was being moved, damn it. I was crying. I was sighing. I was bursting with empathy and at times filled with such emotion I had to turn the music off and recompose.
Sometimes when you listen to music you make it all about it. You forget there’s a person behind the voice, other people behind the instruments, emotions that are not yours attached to the words and music. You selfishly take a song and wear it like it’s your own clothes, tailored just for you. But I only do that part way with the Mountain Goats. I wear the songs like borrowed clothes, knowing I’m trying them on, I’ll wear them for a bit but I have to return them when I’m done. When I feel it at the most base level, like John (can I just call him John, doesn’t he feel like he’s your friend?) is talking to me about my depression and anxiety, like he’s helping me dive into my childhood to figure out why I’m the way I am now, like he’s completely understanding why I am the way I am now, I always remember he’s telling me his stories, they are not my stories. I project for the length of the song but then I take off those borrowed clothes and hang them back on the peg that says John Darnielle’s Life Story.
I need the Mountain Goats the way some people need that morning Advil, the way some people need to still sleep with a teddy bear even when they are seemingly too old for teddy bears. I need the music and the poetry within to comfort me, to tell me it’s going to be all right. I need John Darnielle’s voice coming out of the speakers or the headphones, a voice that feels friendly and soothing but admonishing when need be:
Do every stupid thing that makes you feel alive
Do every stupid thing to try to drive the dark away
Let people call you crazy for the choices that you make
Climb limits past the limits
Jump in front of trains all day
And stay alive
Just stay alive
Because in the darkest parts of the night, in the midst of a 3am existential crisis, through anxiety and depression and insomnia and self doubt, through bouts of writer’s block and again through the surety that I’m gonna make it through this year if it kills me, John Darnielle and the Mountain Goats are my friend, the kind of friend who hands you a warm coat to borrow when you’re cold and doesn’t care if you ever give it back.
When I was in high school, I wrote a short story for my creative writing class called Ascension. In it, the Pope dies, giving way for the undercover anti-Christ to take over the reigns. Obviously, I was inspired by Nostradamus. In my story, good does not triumph over evil. In fact, the world ends with the anti-Christ in charge, which was a blow to the contingents of religious people who were trying desperately to right the wrong before the universe imploded, so we would at least all die without the taint of the devil on our souls. No such luck.
Suffice it to say that, this being a Catholic school, my work of fiction did not go over well. Although my creative writing teacher was a lay person, he still thought I should hand in something else to avoid conflict with the head of the department; a nun whose name I forget but whom I shall refer to fondly as Sister Mary Elephant. I demurred, giving an impassioned plea as to how he should judge my work on its merits and not on moral grounds and not in a way that made me think he was frightened of a nun who stood 4’8” to his 6’2”. Honestly, I just had nothing else to turn in and my story was already a day late. And a good ending short, apparently.
So Mr. A. reluctantly accepted Ascension and lo and behold, Sister Mary Elephant did happen to gaze her eyes upon my work. I was called into her office, where she said that she concurred with Mr. A. that the story did deserve a good grade, based on the writing. Then she winked at me - a mocking, evil sort of wink, if you can imagine a nun with that sort of thing - and told me Ascension was comedy gold. But…it was a horror story. Touché, Sister Mary Elephant. I got my A, and Sister got her point across that I was a blasphemous heathen.
I thought of this story today because I thought of Nostradamus when some evil birds were shrieking outside my bedroom window. The great fortune teller did warn us about birds and the choosing of a new Pope:
Unusual birds shall cry in the sky before the coming of the antichrist.
Ok, he didn’t mention the Pope but I did in Ascension and I’m probably every bit the soothsayer that Nostradamus was. Which is to say, I’m pulling this shit out of my ass as I go along.
So when I looked out the window and saw the evil shrieking birds making their strange noises, I could only conclude that the anti-Christ is nigh and we are all doomed.
Unless. There’s always an unless.
See, when the Papal people go to their underground cabal and use the Ouija board to divine the prophecy that will declare the new Pope, they are falling into the trap the ant-Christ and his minions set up a long time ago. Inevitably, given all the portents going on (wacky weather! asteroids! meteors! the harlem shake!) this will all lead to the new Pope being the bringer of death, evil and the end of mankind.
(As told in Ascension, that brilliant short story written by a teenage girl back in 1979)
In order to avoid this catastrophe, the Papal committee must change horses midstream. They have to scrap whatever they were planning on doing in that dank cellar and come up with a new plan to bring in a new Pope that doesn’t have ties to the underworld.
If I wasn’t so virulently anti-Catholic church, I would run for Pope myself. After all, a few years ago I came up with a list of things that would have churches all across the world packed to the rafters every Sunday, not just on Christmas and Easter. Yea, I know. People don’t run for Pope. They’re chosen. And something about having experience and a halo over your head and the secret code to get into the Vatican anteroom. None of which I have. But I do have ideas! And if they ever put the Pope vote to the people and if any one of you who are more pious (and more Catholic) than I should ever decide to run for the position, feel free to use my suggestions.
Yea, I know. The Catholic doctrine is pretty much etched in stone, carved in said stone by the albino clerks who live in the Vatican basement. How do I know that? I read it. In this story called Ascension.
So, anyway. Beware the new Pope, whoever he may be. And keep an eye on the birds.