Tuesday, November 13, 2012

On Transcendental Youth

The new Mountain Goats record blares alive on its first track with fantastic advice: “do every stupid thing that makes you feel alive”. This leads to the most joyful, hopeful chorus John Darnielle has produced since The Sunset Tree. It’s an incredibly moving song, the first great pop songs on an album full of great pop songs. Transcendental Youth is the best tMG album in years. Be excited.

By the next track Danielle sounds like he’s standing on a corner throwing gang signs at passing cars.  He yelps like  a gangster “lakeside view for my whole crew”. TY is an album about dangerous people, although to be fair they’re mostly only harmful to themselves.
 It’s an album about the broken and beaten; the eternally fucked, but by some miracle not dead. It’s packed to the gills with mental illness and bad decisions.  Darnielle has written about these kinds of people before, but never before has he written an entire album about them. In many ways TY is a spiritual sequel to The Sunset Tree. A lot of these songs are about hurt people trying to heal.

Another really exciting thing about this album is that we can finally hear the Amy Grant influence. Maybe I was the only one waiting for that to creep into Darnielle’s songs, but nonetheless, it’s here. Darnielle has been talking about Amy Grant since at least 2007. In a recent interview with Stereogum ( Darnielle called her his “favorite living pop artist,” claiming to have 836 MB of her music on his hard drive.

This man is serious about his pop music. TY is the purest pop music the Mountain Goats have ever produced. For that reason the album has its detractors, but those people are full of shit. Art doesn’t always have to be hard. Pop music at its best is the closest to perfection music can ever get. When it’s combined with hopeful messages that don’t sound generic, and choruses that throw every kind of caution to the wind, it’s exhilarating. These are songs with simple structures, and catchy melodies, although at times a quite a bit darker than your standard top 40.  This is music that is going to save more than a few lives.

The sixth song on the record “Until I Am Whole”, is the closest the Mountain Goats have ever gotten to gospel. The song’s narrator sings about losing hope amid beautiful landscapes before launching into a simple chorus: “I think I’ll stay here/until I feel whole again”. It’s an odd bit of faith, a dream of things better. It’s pretty typical of the album’s subject matter, but the song is enchantingly beautiful in its simplicity. If this were a mainstream track it would probably be drowning in strings, but the song works well  propelled by a simple slow acoustic guitar with occasional piano flourishes. It also has an easy to miss drum beat. It’s played with understated skill.
The album also has its share of crowd pleasers: songs seemingly built to excite live crowds. “Cops and robbers” yelps Darnielle at the beginning of “The Diaz Brothers”, “strictly bargain lines”.  It’s impossible to know exactly what the hell Darnielle is singing about (other than that it’s a reference to Scarface) but the song is so propulsive and exciting it doesn’t matter. The song is full of jangly guitars, speedy pianos, and joy. It’s a highlight.

The music does occasionally veer close to adult contemporary territory. The lyrics manage to fix this by typically having enough bite to make the songs anything but boring. Granted, John Darnielle’s music misses almost as much as it hits these days (see the last album, All Eternals Deck, for an example)  but as long as he can produce something as good as Transcendental Youth every five years or so, his fan base will be around as long as he is.  Darnielle isn’t the same songwriter he was twenty, or even ten years ago, but when he’s on he’s as good as he’s ever been.

By Jeffrey Whitelaw. Mr. Whitelaw lives, works, and attends school in Seattle, Washington.  His new collection of poetry, Putting Cigarettes Out in My Sleep, is being release shortly by Gray Sky Micro Press. His other music writing can be found at and He is currently thinking of six ways to prove to you that you're wrong, but can be contacted at He can be reached and observed on Twitter here: @fever_

Monday, June 25, 2012

On the Mountain Goats + Anonymous 4’s Transcendental Youth, 03-29-2012: Where We’ve Been

“Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater man
Restore us, and regain the blissful seat, Sing Heav’nly Muse”

-John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book I

From the start, it was clear that this would not be a typical rock show, or even a typical indie rock show. Of course, the audience was seated, and the theater was too upscale to really be a rock venue. But the fact that this would be different was really cemented when the first act walked onstage.

Four dignified women, who appeared to be in their fifties, and were dressed in dark clothing, quietly lined up around a microphone. There was the slightest sound of one of them singing a note to ensure that they were in tune, and then they began to sing.

These women (Ruth Cunningham, Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellaur, and Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek) are Anonymous 4, named for an unknown author of a medieval treatise on music. It’s a fitting name, not only because the women sing medieval and renaissance music, much of it drawn from Latin masses, but also because these women seem to lose any individual identity when they sing. They sing not as four, separate women, but are somehow joined in one collective voice that sings in impossible polyphony.

They began with “Lection: Apocalypse 21:1-5,” which draws its text from the Apocalypse of Saint John the Apostle. The text speaks of the second coming, looking hopefully to “a new heaven and a new earth.” It’s a hope for some miraculous salvation to come, to replace the current existence. In an evening of songs centered around mental illness, beginning with this yearning was a powerful and apt decision.

Later in Anonymous 4’s performance came what was, for me, their most moving number. Entitled “The Scientist,” the song consists of a single line, repeated in chant-like form, taken (perhaps apocryphally) from Galileo. The story goes that Galileo, having just been excommunicated from the church for claiming that the Earth revolves around the Sun, murmured his rebuttal: “Eppur si muove!” (And yet it moves!) The tenor of this almost begrudging protest is crucial to its power, beyond the simple beauty of the song’s melodies and harmonies. It speaks of a man who knows that he is right in his convictions, but for the foreseeable future, is resigned to the judgment that has been handed down to him by a vastly more powerful entity.

“The weird sisters hand in hand,
Posters of the sea and land,
Thus do go about, about,
Thrice to thine, and thrice to mine,
And thrice again to make up nine.
Peace! The charm’s wound up.”

-William Shakespeare, Macbeth, I.3.30-5

Following Anonymous 4’s enrapturing performance, there was a brief intermission, and when the audience returned, John Darnielle proceeded onto the stage as the Mountain Goats. He began by commenting on Anonymous 4’s performance, saying, “Did I tell you they were awesome? They’re so awesome.” He’s right—their performance inspired a truly reverential awe in the audience, which also set the tenor for Darnielle’s own performance.

The first nine songs of the evening’s seventeen were performed solo by Darnielle, with Owen Pallett joining him on violin for “1 John 4:16.” Partially because of the songs Darnielle chose for the evening, but also because of the precedent set by Anonymous 4, Darnielle’s performance seemed subdued to me—almost suspiciously so, as if he were hiding the bulk of his forces away, to lie in wait for a coming ambush.

The material in the songs is as visceral as ever, but Darnielle’s playing style felt more controlled than usual, save for the one line in “Slow West Vultures”—“Get in the God-damned car!”—where he allowed himself to yell. But by following Anonymous 4 with only one man singing, most of the set’s first half sounded very quiet. This only further served to illustrate the power of the group’s performance, which called to mind the witches in Macbeth—their presence was eerie; they were notable not for their malevolence but for their power.

The first song Darnielle performed, “Tribe of the Horned Heart,” begins with the line “You knew that they were out there by the signs they left behind,” which feels like a thought that could occur to any of Darnielle’s characters. These characters seem like they are striking out toward reality from a dark room and not hitting anything, but still certain that there must be something there.

Similarly, the second song, “Bride,” is notable for its chorus: “We belong dead.” But I don’t believe the characters in this song, Frankenstein’s monster and his wife. After all, in Mary Shelley’s book, Frankenstein’s monster resists death at every turn, violently if he has to, and instead of dying flees society altogether. This is a more believable fate for Darnielle’s characters: they may not belong dead, but they certainly don’t belong here.

And yet despite the apparent inability of most of these characters to connect meaningfully to other people, there was a palpable connection between Darnielle and the audience, which longtime Mountain Goats fans will note has always been one of the band’s appeals. At one point, while Darnielle was playing “Your Belgian Things,” I realized that the low, whispering murmur I heard in the room was the audience quietly singing, with utter fervor. This audience was never as many indie audiences are pilloried for being—postured, jaded, and aloof. This audience was present and wanted, more than anything, to connect.

After concluding with a relatively upbeat performance of “Enoch 18:14,” Darnielle approached the microphone with clear excitement on his face. He welcomed Anonymous 4 back onto the stage, and the most memorable aspect of the evening began.

“I returned, and saw that the garden
Had not moved from me but that some illness
Of the garden carried it away
From me regardless.”

-Cyrus Console, The Odicy

The collaborative performance between the Mountain Goats and Anonymous 4 was good, I’ll say by way of understatement, and Owen Pallett did a heroic job of arranging the pieces for the group. Without trying to be exceptionalist, or to hold my presence at this concert over others, it may be important to note that I later listened to NPR’s stream of the concert, and while it captured the performances well, it utterly failed to record the breathless awe of the room. And, with some fleeting shame, I’ll also admit to thinking that having heard these songs performed in this way, I’m now wary of hearing them on the eventual record, knowing that Anonymous 4 is not a part of those versions.

One of the reasons that this concert was so good is that so many of its moments surprised me, in the best way, even if the surprise filled me with dread. Halfway through “In Memory of Satan,” the piano key changes and descends, and the feeling of loss that pervades the song suddenly becomes all-encompassing. For me, the biggest surprise of all was in “Night Light,” when Darnielle ended the first verse by singing: “Jenny calls from Montana, she’s only passing through / Probably never see her again in this life I guess, not sure what I’m going to do.” I was shocked to recognize Jenny now on some unspecified but clearly foreboding pilgrimage.

Jenny, the titular character of a song from All Hail West Texas, is one of the more recognizable and beloved Mountain Goats characters. She’s also one of the few with a distinct name. Finding her again here brought the realization that these characters, like real people, have continued living outside of the moments in which we’re focused on them.

I felt that something had happened to this character with whom I had spent a lot of time, and I felt the mixture of shame and fear that comes with having missed it. That, in turn, made me wonder about other characters I knew from Darnielle’s songs. Where are Jeff and Cyrus now? What happened to the Alpha husband after his wife finally left him? Or to the Alpha wife? We can never be sure exactly what’s been lost; we only know that something was.

Of course, there were pleasant surprises to the evening as well, and I’ll say with all sincerity that perhaps the most important of these was this: that the concert was good. Choral groups like Anonymous 4 are at the high end—the very high end—of the a cappella spectrum. The other end is well known, and tends to be more vocal in society: TV series like Fox’s Glee show how easy it is for a cappella renditions of songs to fall into the realm of irritating kitsch, replete with garish performances that are frequently overly sentimentalized. Certainly, in this concert, there was a healthy dose of sentimentality. But the performance was never over-the-top, and never made a misstep. It is admirable that a one-off (or two-off; the performance also took place in London on April 2) show centered around an unconventional structure could be presented with such grace.

In fact, one of the more notable aspects of the performance for me was the unifying effect it had on the audience. We were all rapt in a Dionysian trance, swept up into the experience of the moment. When the songs ended, I remember a palpable gap, a genuine tension, in the moments before the applause began. It was as if we had forgotten what to do, or how to be people in society. But even after we had remembered, and began to applaud, we still felt a degree of lingering uncertainty that would take a while to fully leave behind.

By Carl Schlachte. Mr. Schlachte is a teacher and a poet living in New York City.

Monday, April 9, 2012

On Objects without Subjects (or John Darnielle as "a way more emo Robbe-Grillet")

In an interview during the promotional cycle for The Life of the World to Come, John Darnielle is asked about the literary influences on his writing. He's reluctant to find any direct resemblances between himself and any of the totemic figures he cites elsewhere – Joan Didion, Faulkner, Aeschylus – but makes one telling comparison. He likens his work to 'a way more emo Robbe-Grillet.'

Alain Robbe-Grillet was a French novelist and film-maker who came to prominence in the nouveau roman movement of the 1950s and 60s. One of the most notable features of his novels is a singularly flat style that privileges objects over plot and character psychology. In place of examination of people's motives or their subjective emotional responses to the world, Robbe-Grillet's texts present us with objects in their essence – their geometric dimensions, their hard edges, their irreducible thereness, indifferent to human life.

He's also known for his repetitive, cyclical narratives – scenes are replayed endlessly, from multiple angles, on multiple levels of reality, until there's no way of recapturing what really happened in what order; until such questions are entirely meaningless. It's a world of mechanical patterns broken only by startling violence: The Voyeur follows a watch-salesman on his circular trip around an isolated island. He works out methodically how long it will take him to get from house to house on his bicycle. How long it will take to make each sale. He sets up a suitcase on a table to display the models on offer. And he thinks about the body of a young girl, sexually assaulted and thrown to her death from the top of a cliff. This is a typical passage from Richard Howard's translation:

'At low tide the remains of these crabs strewed the naked mud in front of the quay. Among the flat stones with their manes of rotting seaweed, on the barely slanting blackish surface, in which sparkled here and there a tin can that still had not rusted, a bit of crockery painted with little flowers, a blue enamel skimmer almost intact, their arched, spiny shells could be distinguished next to the longer, smoother shells of ordinary crabs.'

These objects are placed before our eyes without commentary, without inherent emotional resonance – their existence is a kind of challenge; they possess what Darnielle in 'Baboon' refers to as 'pure power, stripped of meaning'. And the songs of the Mountain Goats are full of such descriptive passages; of objects that stack up, surrounding Darnielle's characters, without asking their permission, or ours. Take the opening lines of 'Broom People', for example:

‘36 Hudson in the garage
All sorts of junk in the unattached spare room
Dishes in the kitchen sink
Used straw for the old broom'

Or these, from 'Letter From Belgium':

'Susan and her notebook
Freehand drawings of Lon Chaney
Blueprints for geodesic domes
Recipes for cake'

Or these, from 'All Rooms Cable A/C Free Coffee', on the Extra Glenns' 'Martial Arts Weekend':

'Thunder, lightning, hot rain
Sweet smell of rotten grain
Holy basil, wolf's bane
Crows tapping on the windowpane'

I'm not suggesting that all, or even most Mountain Goats songs are made in this mould, but it's a common enough feature to bear some scrutiny. What's striking about these lists of noun phrases in each case is how disconnected they are – they're free of articles, definite or indefinite, or deictic pronouns to mark them as 'the', or 'a', or 'some', or 'these', or 'those'. Part of what gives Darnielle's songs their feeling of concision is this elision – the intense, distilled quality any attentive listener will be familiar with is generated by what the lyrics don't express, even on the fundamental level of grammar. A common, banal thought experiment will serve to illustrate what the Mountain Goats don't do:

'Susan and her notebook
[In which there were]
Freehand drawings of Lon Chaney
[Along with]
Blueprints for geodesic domes
Recipes for cake'

Which isn't to say that John Darnielle doesn't encourage you to join the dots, to make the connections. That's the whole game of narrative, after all – a fact of which Darnielle, who in another interview declares himself the author of 'not one, but two theses' on the human need for narrative in every aspect of life is only too aware.

This is one big point of divergence from Robbe-Grillet – without going into specifics, a large part of what the French author's writing does is obfuscate the details to the point of obliterating the idea of chronological narrative development; everything's happens at once, like a cubist painting (not my own description, it must be said), and it's the reader’s task to process the work on hand as it creates itself, rather than to search for a pre-existing narrative structure that we can recreate like detectives. Indeed, to do so is a disservice to the text before us.

For John Darnielle, however, it's impossible to stop investing the things around us with meaning, even as they possess none in and of themselves, and it's impossible to separate the events that life, or writing, presents us with without engaging in the furious search for narrative order. Or in other words, 'there's a monkey in the basement – how did the monkey get there?'

Maybe this is where the 'way more emo' part comes in. It's hard to think of Darnielle as a cold-eyed photographer of objects, because his songs are also full of humans – tense, broken people, with their lust and their obsessions and their fury. A Mountain Goats song can never simply be about 'Carpenter ants in the dresser/Flies in the screen', because there's always someone at the middle of it, afraid it will be 'too late by the time we learn/What these cryptic symbols mean' ('Palmcorder Yajna'). Ants and flies don't mean anything, of course, other than that your house isn't particularly clean; though it's interesting to note that Robbe-Grillet returns obsessively to insects and crustaceans, small insignificant creatures who hover on the edges of human scenes until a boot stamps down. But what's more important is the doomed and inescapable desire for sense-making, a speaking person's need to situate events and objects in their proper order.

Which isn't to say that Darnielle creates detailed characters, either. Character, as well as plot, is suppressed in Robbe-Grillet's work, and here Darnielle also uses the technique of elision. Yes, his songs are full of 'I's and 'you's – but look at the verbs. Time and again, Darnielle conjugates his verbs without a subject. We assume, in most cases rightly, that the person singing is the one performing the action, but take this verse from 'How to Embrace A Swamp Creature':

'Meet up with you in the kitchen
Where the air is hot and dry
Open up all the faucets
Be fruitful and multiply'

The first line is obviously the narrator's action – [I, or I will] meet up with you in the kitchen. But does he also, alone, 'open up all the faucets'? Or do they do it together – 'we open up all the faucets'? Or is it an imperative, from the speaker to his addressee, that segues into the next line of Biblical command? And who's that addressed to – her, himself, or us all?

A verse from 'Genesis 3:23' seems simpler in its grammar, but its literary function is similar:

'Touch nothing move nothing stand still
Keep my ears open for cars
See how the people here live now
Hope they’re better at it than I was'

The first line has that same inclusive, imperative presence – it puts us in the room with the dispossessed narrator, facing us with the same decision he has to make about his actions. The rest simply elides the subject, foregrounding not who is speaking, but what he is speaking about and doing – his actions. Actions come first, and narrative comes later; as well as keeping the song snappy and familiar, the lack of the first person pronoun creates a kind of universality, or to be pessimistic, perhaps an even greater dispossession. Like the elision of articles elsewhere, it gives us the actions in their raw form. But for the listener, this absence plunges us directly inside them, making the pull-back of the chorus even sharper – 'I used to live here'. We are so close to the verbs, we might be forgiven for briefly thinking that they only applied to us.

The above are just observations, and the can of worms they open up is hard to contain within a brief essay; but if we want to find literary forebears for John Darnielle, he himself gives us the clue to start the search in an unexpected place. When Darnielle declares 'this song is for the stick pins and the cottons/I left in the top drawer', it might be an avant-garde French novelist of the 1950s who we should be thanking for the dedication. After all, someone's got to keep your pretty things from danger.

By Richard O'Brien. Mr. O'Brien is 21 and comes from some damned English city. He almost has a degree in English and French and writes reviews at

Saturday, February 11, 2012

On Sweden and its Orphans

“So there you are in your room and you’re not by yourself, though you feel as though you are. And the same thing is going on in your intended’s mind, but nobody’s saying anything about it. Because a lot of people, including the people in this song, think, ‘Y’know, if I just don’t say anything then magic will happen and everything will change.’

Nothing will change. Only thing that’s gonna happen is they’re gonna fall back into an old behavior pattern and for somewhere between 20 minutes and three hours, depending on how much they’ve had to drink, it’s going to feel really, really intense, but then afterwards it’s a bad situation. This is called ‘I’ve Got the Sex.’”

-John Darnielle

“It stoned me to my soul, stoned me just like Jelly Roll.”

-Van Morrison

There was a time when Sweden was my favorite album. I remember declaring it the only album anyone would ever need. Not since discovering The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan at 16 had my young ears heard an album that inspired such evangelizing. Sweden even had the advantage of being obscure to the general population which lent my mission a previously unknown sense of necessity.

Where I had simply been the latest in a long line of mop-headed, bookworm Dylan disciples, the Mountain Goats remained a non-factor in most versions of the pop canon. Even 15 years after its release, when The Sunset Tree and Tallahassee have brought the world an unexpected appreciation for John Darnielle’s literary bleat, Sweden remains a cold, dense, mystery rarely suggested as an entry point or highlight of the discography.

I discovered the album at an age when bitter romance and heartbreak held greater appeal than happiness; at an age when music was not meant for the background. I listened to it closely and often. I studied its lyrics and its liner notes, even the stories John told about the songs before playing them live. Sweden rewarded me with the comfort and companionship that only a cold, dense, mystery of an album can give. Each listen reopened time-sutured memories and revealed new angles from which to interpret the seemingly simple songs and impossibly complex lyrics.

By the time I discovered the cult of Mountain Goats fans and got to discussing the album’s merits with those who knew it best, my mind was hungry for the theories of time travel, Gods, violence and true-to-life confessions that fellow devotees would throw at me. Alone together, we listened, discussed and drank. These days it’s hard for me to listen all the way through Sweden, but not because of an emotional toll or unwanted remembrances. I don’t shiver when the first chords of “The Recognition Scene” ring out. I don’t hurt alongside the narrator of “Snow Crush Killing Song” and I don’t yearn for the returning past in “Downtown Seoul” (though I’ll never stop smiling at the gentle scolding that opens “Some Swedish Trees”). The album is old to my ears.

It is far from crossing into the territory of embarrassing former obsessions, but it has fallen from the front of the list of albums I throw at every passing stranger. I’m a happier person these days. I live a life of my own choosing. I admire people who are looking to improve the world rather than those attempting to destroy themselves and their surroundings. It’s easier to fall asleep and it doesn’t hurt when I wake up. On especially good days I can admit my own ambitions to myself. When Sweden made sense to me, ambition didn’t.

According to Darnielle, there were two songs left off Sweden. “I’ve Got the Sex” was the album’s original opener. The tape was left at home when he went to the studio to master the album. As a self-identified Mountain Goats fanatic, this story always bugged me. It does not come close to explaining why the song was actually left out. Leaving a tape at home is far from an insurmountable problem, but I’ve yet to hear a more detailed or alternate explanation. Needless to say, this perceived misdirection only fueled speculation that the song was somehow more important than any committed to wax.

“I’ve Got the Sex” seems to be a thesis along the lines of “The Recognition Scene,” though one performed with more intensity than the album for which it was written. It’s a furious storm before the agonizingly slow descent into destruction that follows. Despite the song’s power, it would have, perhaps, been repetitive on the album and, perhaps, slightly out of place with the rest of its mood. Relatively rare live performances maintain its impact and help fuel the band’s devoted fans.

“Duke Ellington,” the other song left off Sweden, is the one that will truly never lose its place in my heart. It doesn’t have a back story and is performed live even less than “I’ve Got the Sex.” The plot is almost non-existent: Our narrator watches a musical performance and is affected by it. That’s it. There are brief mentions of Sweden and an undefined “you,” but nothing even as coherent as the unspoken center of “Neon Orange Glimmer Song” and certainly nowhere near the detailed storytelling found in late-era Mountain Goats songs.

This song is, thus, a relic of an older time in Mountain Goats history. We’re given fragmented thoughts and images without context and left to piece together the mess ourselves. Here, the narrator seems to be going through the same process himself (it’s a man singing and there are no other clues, so, for the purposes of this paragraph, “him” it is). The performance breaks him up, it causes him to reevaluate the memories he’s accumulated. His conclusion -- “I’d had just about enough of losing things” -- represents a reversal of “The Recognition Scene’s” acceptance, and even romanticizing of loss (“I’m gonna miss you when you’re gone”). The pain may not be over, but its resolution is finally, at least, a goal.

And then John pressed the STOP button and sent the tape to a different label for a compilation.


Sunday, February 5, 2012

On "Emerging" (or the entirety of Moon Colony Bloodbath)

The doctor walks into the room, and sits down into the chair. Glances are exchanged. We size each other up without trying to make it obvious. But it is. Very obvious. He is thinking, "What is this one's angle? Where are we going to go to today?" while I think, "Can I trust him?"

"Can I smoke?"

I am sitting in an armchair. Much to my surprise, there isn't a cliché leather couch in which to recline.

"Unfortunately, I can't let you smoke in here, given the State's laws about smoking indoors."

I let my eyes glide to the man's desk, with an ashtray in plain view. I focus on it, squint to make it clear.

"I'd be a lot more comfortable. This would work a lot better if. . ."

He nods, slowly; gestures towards a window. I stand, pull out a pack of Winston Lights from my suit pocket.

Out of the corner of my mouth, while lighting a cigarette, I ask if he knows who I am.

He fidgets, momentarily, as if thinking of how to answer that question. I find that strange; a man of his position not being ready for anything, let alone a simple question like that.

"I've heard your name. I've heard where you've been."

I guess confidentiality can only go so far. We can only hide so much from the general public, let alone someone with connections. My pulse is already thumping like a kettle drum, and it's resonating against every wall in the office. I start to sweat.

"What do you know?"

It comes out much harsher than I had anticipated. Baited. Waiting. I feel like I've already blown my cover. I glance at him, he seems nonplussed, but I know there is no way that tone goes unpunished.

"Well. . . you've been to space. You've conquered a level of freedom that not many people get to experience. You've been to the great beyond."
It takes every fabric of my being not to lunge. I have to physically brace myself not to lean into his face and call his bluff.

He notices.

This isn't going to work.

Why isn't this easier? He hasn't seen what I've seen. He doesn't know what I know.

He hasn't done what I've done.


"There are many people out there who would kill to go where you have . . .,” emphasizing the word kill.

Before he can finish the sentence, I find myself leaping across the room like a wolfhound. I'm leaning into his face, my breath nearly scalding his face as I cry, "You have no fucking idea what I've done!"

All of my predispositions about this are now over. My grandiose dreams of hemming and hawing over "patient/doctor confidentiality" and thinking that this man was trust-worthy; thinking that I would get out of this alive. I was stupid to come here, and now I feel like a caged animal, baited into a trap.

This will end badly.

I don't feel as though I'm insane, but my ramblings weave between "mildly unnerved" to "completely unhinged" as I break down and give the entire story. At first, I'm screaming, as I'm trying to prove a point, but with each gory detail, I know I lose him more and more. I let loose with all of it, start to finish, as I pace back and forth. The smoke stagnates in the office, to the point where he begins to cough constantly. Each sentence, each word makes the doctor more and more uncomfortable. He cringes, and his eyes open wider and wider as I tell my story. One pupil gives an aura of confused sympathy while the other only poses fear and a wild requirement of self-defense. His nails are digging deep into his chair as I relay exactly where I have been for the past six months.

They told me therapy would make me feel better, and at some point it did. Nearly an hour into my grisly tirade, I start to feel more at home in my own body. More than I have in years. I continue my reiteration of my days, and the doctor does not cease to be any less intimidated or visibly afraid of me, but with each word out of my mouth, I start to feel calmer and calmer. Is this therapy? Is there a way out of this? I collect myself enough to sit back down in the chair and look him straight in the eye as I tell him that I, in blunt terminology, am a cannibal. Now he is the one who is sweating. Profusely. If he had a panic button, as bank tellers do, I have no question in my mind that he would be stamping on it with both hands and feet and demanding someone come save him from this brutal . . .


I'm feeling better but the weight of that word plummets my train of thought into the bottom of my stomach well he can't tell anyone i mean that's illegal he needs to not leave the room with the knowledge of what i've done and then give it off send it around to anyone who will listen i keep talking but for some reason i'm feeling calmer and calmer despite the rage that i feel i'm NOT i'm NOT A MURDERER but i'm still feeling calm and the doctor's eyes start to glaze over I'M NOT A MURDERER i want to scream it into his face and grip it and jam it into that stupid mouth of his punch him in his face to get rid of that empty gaze why is he reacting so calmly now why can't i fucking move
.. ..

A gloved hand slams against a paneled wall, followed by a head, slumped against it.

"We could never trust him, could we?"

The captain merely shakes his head and stares at the floor.

"We can't let them out. We can't let them . . . there's no way for them to be free again, is there?"

He shakes his head again.

"In this line of work, you have to accept that those in the frontline are going to take the most damage. Those willing to take the risk are, more than likely, going to get burned. Every experiment requires losses for each of its accomplishments. Unfortunately, we've identified that those who go up there . . .”
The Captain looks upwards.

“. . . might not make it back down. Shut it down."

The Lieutenant looks around, nervously.


"I said: Shut. It. Down."

By Chris Jamieson. Mr. Jamieson lives in New Jersey, and spends the wide majority of his time surrounded by machines. His music can be found here:

Friday, February 3, 2012

On "Sir Arne's Treasure"

Keith Richards once said, every night there's a different world's greatest band in a different greatest venue. I agree. I don't know about tonight at the Fillmore, or next week at Webster Hall, or some night next month at the Whiskey. But on Tuesday night, that band was the Mountain Goats. On Tuesday night, the venue was the Castro Theatre.

** **

The night was special from the start, a showing of the 1919 Swedish silent movie Sir Arne's Theater, with the Mountain Goats providing the soundtrack. The San Francisco Film Society does this thing every year. One year it was Black Francis. Last year, it was Stephen Merritt from Magnetic Fields. I went to that one. It was interesting, I guess. A good anecdote. Tuesday night with the Mountain Goats, though. Tuesday night is historical.

Being the Castro and all, the show starts with the sounds of an ancient organ. A Mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ. We might as well be in 1958, the rolling, strolling melodic organ music filling the aged hall. A few minutes after eight, some guy from the San Francisco Film Society stands up front and speaks a few words about the series, and the film. Best print in the world. Sub-titles. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I'm here for the main event. I am here for the music.

Soon enough, the lights lower and the show starts quietly. John Darnielle sneaks into the pit and behind the piano, barely moving, slipping through the shadows. The film starts to roll and Mr. Darnielle watches with us, waiting for a cue. His fingers touch the ivory and a quiet tune begins, slowly, almost silently. Mr. Darnielle begins to sing, slowly, almost silently. The night begins. The set then moves between solo piano and solo guitar, between songs from the seminal Mountain Goats album, Sweden, and the great, infamous, never released Hail & Farewell Gothenburg. Some of the words sound familiar, some of the melodies do, too. And somehow they are completely new to me. Songs I've heard one hundred times are completely new to me.

The movie is a good one, I suppose, some romp through the Scottish countryside. Trees and snow. A betrayed woman. A cranky old lady. The print is crystal clear. The landscapes are rolling and wonderful. It means almost nothing to me, though. I am here for the music. And the music is good. The music is special.

Maybe half way through, the shadows of three men slither into the front row. Another minute passes and the three shadows creep into the pit, and gather up their instruments. An electric guitar. An upright bass. A small drum kit. The solo performance morphs into a quartet. The music starts quietly, slowly begins to grow. The name of the song is The Recognition Scene, a classic from the Sweden album. It rocks in a way I have never heard a band rock. It grows bigger and bigger, louder and louder. It is bigger than the venue. It is bigger than the whole goddamn city. I'd continue down this line, but I don't want to start getting into hyperbole.

The guys on the stage are having a great time, maybe a better time than me. John Vanderslice with his axe slung over his shoulder, churning out chords and notes, grinding them out. The skins are covered by Jason Slota, he is hitting them hard when the clouds are dumping rain on the screen; he barely scratches them as our heroine cries, slowly dies. The beat is kept, too, by Jamie Riotto, on stand-up bass. He is furious and subtle, pounding and poetic. The venue is buzzing. The night will last forever. The night is over in fifteen minutes. It is over before it began.

Truth be told, the set lasts about an hour twenty. It might as well have been five minutes. It was that seamless. There is no encore, but there are no encores in movie theaters. I walk out into the cold San Francisco air. The lights of the sign above me are bright, Castro above me. I feel the cold air on my skin. I look east. I look west. I collect my thoughts. I know what I have just seen, but it has not quite registered.

** **

People will surely look back years from now, listening to digitized versions of the show, dissecting and dicing every word, every note, trying in vain to touch the evening. I already found a copy on the web. It is going to be one of those recordings. The myth will become bigger than the music. The legend will grow larger than the night. Still, looking back just twenty-four hours later, I don't see how it could be. That's why, for last night at least, the Mountain Goats had their night, at the Castro Theatre, as the "world's greatest band." Keith sure knows what he is talking about.

By P. William Grimm. Mr. Grimm makes his home in San Francisco’s Mission District. A collection of his short stories, Valencia Street, available at, was published in 2011. 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.

Photograph, Corey Denis © 2010.