ESSAYS AND WRITINGS ON THE WORDS AND MUSIC OF THE MOUNTAIN GOATS

Monday, September 12, 2011

On We Shall All Be Healed.

SLOW WEST VULTURES - we are ready to die, so let's do a lot of drugs.

PALMCORDER YAJNA - i dreamt we were dying because we did a lot of drugs.

LINDA BLAIR WAS BORN INNOCENT - ready to drown? let's float downtown. hop in my boat. it's the onein the moat. the one with the sails tied down, isn't she magnificent? the "linda blair was born innocent."

LETTER FROM BELGIUM -the days we chewed our tongue off were just normal days.

THE YOUNG THOUSANDS - here they come, thousands of headstones climbing up the hill.

YOUR BELGIAN THINGS - locking tigers in the east bedroom is not a good idea.

MOLE - a mole: "did you tell them it was me that shot you in the face?" you up there in intensive care: "is our stuff still in your desk?"

HOME AGAIN, GARDEN GROVE -a practical man of the world recalls his glory days by returning to from whence he came.

All UP THE SEETHING COAST - fact: everyone does what they want to do regardless of anything.

QUITO - a toast for ghosts, and hope springs eternal.

COTTON - this song is for me.

AGAINST POLLUTION - my dark past threatens to overtake me, but i prevail by shooting him in the face.

PIGS THAT RAN STRAIGHTAWAY INTO WATER, TRIUMPH OF - pigs don't deserve to have demons cast into them and drowned. regardless, in the end, we shall all be healed.

the end.

By mike5998. Mr. 5998 was simply mike and then evolved into mike3000 and will soon be mike10k until 2021. [ed. note -- if you don't know, i still can't explain.]

On "You're in Maya"

"Hey man, the fucking machine doesn't work."

** **

I am losing my shit. This fucking machine. My feet are sweating in my dirty white Chuck Jones high tops. This shirt is too small for me. I feel like tearing at my skin. My head aches, my whole face even. Fuck.

I pull hard at the pinball lever. I could pull forever. I could rip that fucking thing right the hell out of its socket. I could break its glass into a thousand pieces, into a million pieces. I could tear the clouds out of the sky. I blink twice and clear my throat.

** **

Most of all, I blame my mother. I don't want to, but there you go.

** **

"Excuse me, son?"

"I said the fucking machine doesn't work." I draw out the word "said" in a manner that is intentionally annoying, gnawing by design. Like, "I saaiiiiid the fuckingmachine doesn't work." I almost bite off my bottom lip as I make the "f" sound in "fucking." Fuckingmachine is one word. As the sentence leaves my lips, it grates even on me.

My face is all red and scrunched up. I must be a sight. Between my fourteenth and fifteenth years, a vein started to form on my forehead, from the bottom of my hair line down to the top of my nose, between my eyebrows. Now in my sixteenth year, it seems to be a permanent fixture. At least, it sure shows up every time I get upset. And lately, I seem to be upset all the time. Today is no different.

** **

Why didn't she help?

** **
"The fucking machine doesn't work," the guy repeats dully, through dead eyes.

That just kills me. No wonder this guy works in a fucking game room. He is dumber than a bag of nails. He is denser than Yosemite. He is thicker than a brick. I feel the urge surging through me: go for the throat; go for the throat; go for the throat.

"Yeah," I repeat between gritted teeth. "The fucking machine doesn't work. I put my mother-fucking quarter in, and no fucking ball came out." I declare this angrily, jabbing an accusing finger at the pinball machine.

The dumb guy points to the machine. I see for the first time the red letters on the machine by the coin slots:

"Fifty cents." "Ya need two quarters for this fucking machine. Other than that, the fucking machine works perfectly." He speaks so dully, the sarcasm drips from his lips, thick like honey.

"Shit," I think to myself. "Shit, shit, shit." Out loud, I say the only thing I can think to say.

"Well, why the fuck is it fifty cents, anyways. It's not that fucking cool."

The dumb guy just shrugs. "Machine works," he mutters and walks away. I flip the bird to his back, the kind of bird where your hand is balled into a fist other than the middle finger; not the all fingers half extended kind of bird.

** **

I pull a second quarter from my pocket and drop it in the slot. The machine wakes up. The machine comes alive. Centaur by Bally. It is all black and white. It is white skull. It looms over me like a curse, staring me down like a school yard bully. I’m not backing down. The thing that hits me next is the soundtrack, a steady boom boom boom and then high pitched zings of distorted noise, wings of a straining angel. The first ball drops and I am ready to go.

Bam, I am on the flippers and I am hitting them hard. Bam, bam, bam. Its deep robotic voice is mocking me, taunting me. “Fuck you, mother-fucker,” I swear in my head, so loudly that I worry the guy at the next machine might hear the curse. I do not linger long on the thought. I am all focus on the game. Centaur, you are mine.

** **

She just sat there. I needed her and she just sat there.

** **

Three balls are down and I am grunting like a madman. Bam, top left flipper smacks one ball; bam bottom right flipper slams another. The third ball is up on top, spiraling between the two bumper and the O post. “Destroy Centaur” the robotic beast dares me. “Yes, I fucking will,” I say out loud. I am not sure how loud it is, and I do not want to lose eye contact with any of my three balls, so I do not look up to see if the guy is watching me. Fuck it. Arrows are lighting. Green and white. Flipp-er hit. Flipper hit. Lights are blinking on and off. The soundtrack is blaring. I feel it pulsing through my muscles. I feel it in my hands. I feel it in my feet.

Hit the R. Hit the O. Hit the B. Hit the S. Fucking aye, I am rocking. The flush of four letters down distracts me, and I take my eye of the ball on the top level. It sneaks past my right flippers and it disappears. “Shit,” I mutter. Or maybe I yelp it. I am not sure. I do not look up. Fuck it. “Destroy Centaur.” Yeah, you are goddamn right I will. Or is it “you are goddamn right I will.” I don’t know. I do not give up. I am hitting the flippers hard. The machine is a part of me. We are dancing together, like some juvenile geek tango.

** **

The dirty dishes were being thrown, and soon they were on the floor, broken and in a hundred pieces all over me, pouring down on me like burning embers and shrapnel. She didn’t say a word. What was I supposed to do?

** **

I lose another ball. I am getting distracted. I have to focus. The lights are shining and glimmering in my eyes, like stars above Alaska. I smile despite myself. There is a chill going up and down my spine. Minutes pass. More balls get thrown into the mix. More balls get past my flippers. I feel like I am flying. I feel like I have wings. I thought I would never smile again. I no longer notice the ache under my left eye.

Minutes turn into an hour, and that hour turns into another, maybe two. I lose track of the time. I lose track of my thoughts. Two quarters then four quarters to six quarters, then eight. It is always the same, me against Centaur. “Destroy Centaur,” he booms. Yes, I mouth silently. I shall destroy you, Centaur. Here it is only me and Centaur. There is no Twenty-Fourth Street. Here, there is no home. My grin creeps up and my face starts to squint.

The sound. The lights. The noise of the game room.

I cannot say how much time has passed in the dark game room. It is like Reykjavik in the winter, just dark and dark and dark in here. It could be anytime at all. There is no clock on the wall and I have no watch. I do not really care. It could be two hours. It could be two lifetimes. I play and play and play, until there are no more quarters in my pocket. I play until I can no longer pay.

I pull the bottle from the lining of my coat. I drink the rest of what is inside. It burns my throat and nose. I force back a cough. I throw the empty bottle into a green garbage can next to a Q-Bert machine. A fat kid with a Chunks shirt walks by me. You know, Chunks from Goonies. The fat kid looks at me, but I barely notice him at all.

** **
I walk outside, out of the darkness of the game room. It is still daylight outside. The rolling hills go on forever. I stop and look up, and then I close my eyes. I feel the heat of the sunlight on my face. Somewhere far away, music plays.

I open my eyes, looking left and right. How far to Cumberland Farms?


By P. William Grimm. Mr. Grimm makes his home in San Francisco’s Mission District. His novel The Seventh was published in 2009, and his writings have been published in multiple on-line literary journals such as Annalemma Magazine and Eclectica.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

On The Sunset Tree

YOU OR YOUR MEMORY - either it's you, along with the st. joseph's baby aspirin and the bartles & jaymes, or it's the state of your memory that is causing me to feel the way i'm feeling.

BROOM PEOPLE - superfluous things cannot distract me from being a lawyer in your arms, or a natural freshwater stream smaller than a river in your hair.

THIS YEAR- "if" is a conjunction that can introduce a conditional clause.

DILAUDID - hydromorphone, taken both orally and rectally by bonnie and clyde, causes poultry to fall from the sky.

DANCE MUSIC - listening to dance music will prevent you from dying alone.

DINU LIPATTI'S BONES - bones infiltrated by hodgkin's lymphoma are not good for building.

UP THE WOLVES - we will celebrate the return of wolfmother's original lineup by taking shit over and destroying all motherfuckers.

LION'S TEETH - if you grab a sleeping lion's tooth, you probably want to get clawed to shit.

HAST THOU CONSIDERED THE TETRAPOD - perhaps it's crossed your mind that the tetrapod is now the dominant part of the terrestrial fauna, representing all known larger land animals.

MAGPIE - the magpie is believed to be one of the most intelligent of all animals.

SONG FOR DENNIS BROWN - the day that dennis brown's lung collapsed was just a normal day.

LOVE LOVE LOVE - i don't know what this song is about.

PALE GREEN THINGS - missing rhymes with reminiscing.

the end.

By mike5998. Mr. 5998 was simply mike and then evolved into mike3000 and will soon be mike10k until 2021. [ed. note -- if you don't know, i can't explain.]

Monday, September 5, 2011

On All Eternals Deck

Sometimes I wish I were new to the Mountain Goats.

I don’t necessarily wish to erase all of the impact the music has had on me or how it has influenced my own work, but there are times when I again want to be the 12-year-old listening to 30-second Amazon samples of The Coroner’s Gambit while reading the lyrics and connecting to them in ways I hadn’t connected to much before. Or even, in a completely different reality, I wish I were just an indie fan who had a vague idea of the Mountain Goats and then found their new record, picked it up, and looked at the rather ominous script on the cover, read the mysterious three-word titles of the songs, bought it, and had it change my perception of music.

Naturally, my discovery of All Eternals Deck didn’t happen that way. As Antoine Roquentin says, there are no perfect moments, but learning about a new Mountain Goats record is a damn good one. Seeing the tracklisting, the cover, finally being able to preorder it was all very exciting and a great experience in itself. Learning that it would be accompanied by a cassette tape (!!!) alone got me very excited. I listened for a month or so, collecting my thoughts about it, until one Saturday morning when I took my record player to my room and listened with the intention of writing some semi-coherent thing about it. The semi-coherent thing is part of what you’re about to read.

Before I compare it to any other Mountain Goats record, I’ll say this: All Eternals Deck is an absolutely classic record. While it isn't like much else in John's oeuvre in many ways, it reminds me often of We Shall All Be Healed, which is an unbelievably brilliant work of art, as filtered through a more mature perspective. It's the perspective of one who can both separate the shit that has happened in his life from himself (both the song and John's explanation of "Birth of Serpents" indicate this) and can channel it in oblique and beautiful ways. One motif I’ve picked up from the album is the idea of being restored, a spiritual renewal more profound than on any other Mountain Goats records. In Darnielle’s previous work dealing with a unified theme (I hesitate to say “song cycle”), there is a sense of impending doom throughout, and doom always comes. Look throughout Darnielle’s work and every album with a unified theme ends with very little hope. AED, however, could be said to end on a more positive note; the second side of the album, while clearly pensive, is also very hopeful. Many artists would be direct about this and end an album with this theme with a song like “Never Quite Free.” But this is John Darnielle, of course, and he ends things more obliquely with a song about getting sick in Los Angeles, “Liza Forever Minelli.” But within this song I see the narrator as finding some sort of salvation, knowing that he’ll never escape but finding contentment in his fate.

The individual songs had to settle into my brain as Mountain Goats songs rather than these new things that John just so happens to have made. They are now deep in my consciousness where only my favorite writers and my own songs are. But the individual songs are fantastic and are the ones I show people when I’m in an argument about who is the best living songwriter: Darnielle, of course. In several ways, the songs are different from other Mountain Goats songs because they are almost all anthems. These songs are the most uplifting of John's career and also the most pertinent for the world today. They are inspiring in a way almost like spirituals, which is something we should be grateful John did on this album and not The Life of the World to Come, because the latter would be written off by some as happy pseudo-Contemporary Christian crap. But when was the last time John wrote anything as inspiring as the chorus of "High Hawk Season," or even that of "For Charles Bronson," which I sing to myself when I'm in a bad situation, despite my being an extreme proponent of gun control? “Liza Forever Minnelli” sounds like something you would sing to yourself without being really conscious of it when you’re in a really dire situation, but as I stated above, there’s a sort of optimism within it. It's the same with "Damn These Vampires," which, if my interpretation is correct, is just as poignant a song about addiction as any song John has written."Never Quite Free” is probably the best example. In the hands of a lesser songwriter, it could be completely saccharine and hackneyed, but it transforms to the point that I believe it will be revered in the way we revere "Pale Green Things" and "California Song," but somehow uplifting as well. And if there were any justice in the universe "High Hawk Season" would be regarded as the "The Times They Are a-Changin'" of my generation. These are incredibly well written songs, and I could be emo or whatever and talk about their personal significance to me, but rather I'll just mention that the line "see that young man/who dwells inside his body like an uninvited guest" means more to me than I can say.

Okay, so I will be emo or whatever. First, there’s the line I posted above, which still resonates with me tremendously, but the entirety of “Birth of Serpents” reminds me of something sort of ineffable that I’ve experienced many times but have never been able to articulate. The feeling of going somewhere and remembering what it meant to you, what it meant to a different you. When I hear the line “Permanent bruises on our knees/never forget what it felt like to live in rooms like these,” I think of the almost-cliché image of those rooms in motels that you pass and can feel all of the energy being sucked from you by whatever addict or other miserable being lives in it. I’m 15. There haven’t been many different “me”s. I haven’t lived in rooms like those. But I remember passing by those rooms when I was young and knowing instinctively that something was wrong, and I remember seeing people I love end up in those rooms. In that squalor. With permanent bruises on their knees.

“High Hawk Season” is another song to which I connected immediately. I was, like most Mountain Goats fans, probably a bit taken aback when I first heard it; these strange chants as backing vocals to what otherwise appears to be a fairly standard Mountain Goats tune. As surprising, odd and ultimately effective as they are, the backing vocals are immaterial. It is the rawest version that has the strongest impact: the version on All Survivors Pack. It sounds hushed and tense and filled with this incredible urgency that, as fantastic as it is, is somewhat diluted in the version on the album. The song exemplifies the idea I mentioned earlier of almost being uplifting. This is the feeling of being out far too late downtown and feeling like some incendiary force ready to explode and create and destroy and be a force in the universe. I have not seen The Warriors, but this seems to be the same sort of idea; that feeling that this is occurring at night, the feeling of tension within silence.

Musically, AED reminds me of Heretic Pride, only on the latter many ideas were neither as fully-formed nor as successful as they are here. There are small touches in a number of songs that elevate them completely. I love the harmony vocals of "Damn These Vampires," the synth sounds on "For Charles Bronson," the keyboard on "Liza Forever Minnelli," the unbelievably awesome harmony on "High Hawk Season," and most of all the pedal steel on "Never Quite Free." I hope John pursues this more; more density of sound, more instruments. I also love the production, in part because of how much it must mean to John to work with Erik Rutan. I was very curious as to how Rutan’s production would work; I still find the choice of songs on which John chose to use Rutan a bit odd. I assumed that, when working with a metal producer, John would choose to work on the more intense songs on the album, but none of the songs Rutan produced are particularly intense. Regardless, the production is great, and John’s ability to arrange music shines here more than on previous albums. It makes sense that this album has gotten more attention than prior albums; it's not more poppy, but it's denser, in line with the direction indie has been going lately.

Finally, I just have to talk about All Survivors Pack in greater detail. I almost feel guilty talking about it since I know so many people who wanted it as much as I but didn't get it. But hearing John's creative process is incredible. I read an interview in which John explains some of the songs on AED as coming from the rush of images and words he gets after he watches a movie. ASP is listening to John as he is still bursting with what inspired him; it is a more direct experience of what he must have felt after feeling this inspiration, to have this rush of ideas and to record it in whatever form you have it. It’s the immediacy of some of Darnielle’s early work, a direct channeling of the spark to create with no time for the inspiration to dull or fade. My question is this: what demonic forces kept "Catherine Antrim's Kid" off the record? Not only is it an incredible fucking song, but it's about Billy the Kid and mentions special shoes, ergo it should be cherished by anyone who calls him or herself a Mountain Goats fan.

Despite the fact that, half a year on, one can take AED in context a bit better, it always feels a bit tentative going this deeply into an album that is an artist’s most recent release. I must say, I am very anxious to see how Darnielle will follow it up. Taken as a series of albums, the most recent three records in the Mountain Goats canon are especially satisfying, and there is a feeling not necessarily of finality but certainly of a transformation on AED. This transformation, this healing that seems to have taken place, can only bode well for the future.


By Jamison Murphy. Mr. Murphy is an indie-folk singer-songwriter from Savannah, Georgia. He has released three albums and is working on a fourth. You can hear his music here.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

On Jack and Faye

Before I became a Mountain Goats fan, I did not know the term "noob." Really. It took me a while to figure it out, but sometime in early 2007, after having it repeatedly hurled at me as an epithet on a Mountain Goats computer forum, I finally had to look it up on urban dictionary.

I first heard the Mountain Goats back in 1999 or so, when, on a lark, I downloaded "Song for Dana Plato" illegally on Napster. Plato had just overdosed, and I was looking for an audio file of her interview with Howard Stern, and found this song, instead. But, sadly enough, I didn't really get into the band until I stumbled upon them again when the Sunset Tree was released. And that made me a noob. There was a galaxy of obscure and obtuse songs floating around me, dancing near me but too far away to hear. I could smell them, but I couldn't touch them. People on the forums bragged and worshipped them. They called out for them at shows and squealed when Mr. Darnielle complied.

Everytime I made a comment about "This Year" or "No Children," the stink of antipathy dripped through the screen and keyboard, up through my fingers and down my spine, or over my body at a show, like a stinky layer of concert sweat. There was a whole graveyard full of zombie tunes with names and words but no way for me to get to them. I was chastised if I even tried. "Song for Roger Maris." "Standard Bitter Love Song #1." "Shower."

Jack and Faye was my first entry into the world of Mountain Goats rarities. It wasn't particularly rare, as the band's official website actually includes a link to the digital-only four-track EP. But, it wasn't released by any record label and it certainly wasn't available on ITunes. So, to me, a noob, it was rare.

What's more, there was no apparent official artwork for the E.P. I had to find fan-made artwork instead, from a long-time fan that seemed to know more about the Mountain Goats than I knew about myself. And so it seemed rarer even still, taking two separate sources in order to get a full set. And even though the artwork wasn't sanctioned by the band, it was about as perfect a package as one could expect. A gem sought and found.

And it's okay to treat Jack and Faye with some levity. It is jaunty foursome of tunes, not getting quite as serious as other songs the band put out around the same time frame. This is no "Snow Crush Killing Song." This is a couple of musicians having fun, and playing hard and dirty.

The first song is "Raid on Entebbe." My mind finds no easy tie between the song and the Charles Bronson movie of the same name. I imagine it is about a family like mine, fighting in the living room, and in the front yard, a sister fighting with a mother and the narrator just trying to find peace. Maybe the movie is playing in the background as the fight spirals. Maybe it is a subtle analogy with the plot of the movie, where the government of Israel plans a daring mission to rescue hostages from a hijacked aircraft. Maybe the narrator is Israel, and he is saving his hostage sister from his terrorist mom. Or maybe it was just on the tube when Mr. Darnielle wrote the song. It doesnt much matter. The song is fast and loose and rhythmic, it passes by without seeming effort. The players are having a party -- the words complement the music as to how they sound as much as what they mean.

The next track is "Adair." The song starts off showing us one of the characters' scars, quite literally, running from her temple all the way down to her chin. Like a typical Darnielle creation, these people are wounded. But the wind is still in their hair and they are smiling. "I'm far away from where I used to be," and so the future is behind them. For now, there is no disappointment. "You are just where you said you would be." The song is all up and down me. Each time I hear it, I have to focus to avoid shivering.

The digital flip side starts with "An Inscription at Salonae," most notable perhaps for its unique cadence, not quite reggae, but certainly something other than folk. Mr. Darnielle and Ms. Ware sing in a harmony that manages to twist their voices into one, creating a tone that mirrors neither of those of the separate individuals. And the lyrics, a series of codes and unexplained phrases, still pop out line by line, creating quotes that ring in your head long after the song is over. "I loved you more than I loved my own life, I was falling to pieces." "Spring breaking out gradually." "Like a flower caught in the overgrowth, falling, falling to pieces."

Finally, there is "There Will Always Be An Ireland," which captures a moment of time separate from that sung about in the song. "Strange black birds." Every time I listen, I see them up above me. Every time I listen, I hear their wings flap hard against the wind, swooping to attack me. This song is a woman I knew, with gonzo bats tattooed up and down her rib cage. She visited me once for a weekend, and I somehow instantly felt like it was me and her against the world. But it only lasted a weekend. Birds swarmed over us like the minutes on a clock and she quickly dripped away. This song is the lonely drips of gonzo bat black that remain in her stead. "What we did, the things we said. Your hand resting on my head."

And as I listen to Jack and Faye over and over again on repeat, replaying particular verses and phrases and intonations over and over again, I find there is no levity left in me for these four real, genuine, passionate tracks. The sun is a highway flare. A Greek chorus of women dressed in purple, banging on tambourines and beating on cymbals. Hypnotic images of forgotten emotions, just boiling below the surface. It took time to notice, but this four-track is no rarity, no gem to be collected. It is as serious and as emotional a set of songs as any that Mr. Darnielle has written. He has described it as having grown melancholy over time, and it took me some time to understand this to be true. And it is true.

And so with Jack and Faye, my first tMG "rarity," not really a rarity at all, I learned my first tMG lesson. While vinyl may be fun to collect, and cassettes even more fun, music is no collectible. And music is no commodity.


By P. William Grimm. Mr. Grimm makes his home in San Francisco’s Mission District. His novel The Seventh was published in 2009, and his writings have been published in multiple on-line literary journals such as Annalemma Magazine and Eclectica.