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.