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.