My Five Favorite Mountain Goats Characters
Since 1991, John Darnielle, the principal – and sometimes only – persona behind the Mountain Goats, has been documenting the lives of the broken, the hopeful, the messed-up and the malcontent in a series of inspired, meticulously-drawn songs. His knack for narrative is, among his immediate peers, without any clear equal. He writes characters who are nuanced, rounded and believable, instilling them with a humanity and identity that makes each of his compositions feel like a compact short story.
Asking any songwriter to name their “favorite moments” is an unfair enterprise, but John was game to identify five songs he felt particularly proud of. His explanations are as rousing – and raise as much gooseflesh – as the songs themselves.
This is kind of an unlikely candidate for a character song, but that is kind of why it has always held a special place for me. You come into the story already lacking pretty much any information that might be helpful in understanding what’s going on, and a short while later you’ll leave the song in more or less the same condition. That’s because the speaker is either a little crazy or is so deeply into his own trip that he can’t imagine everybody else doesn’t already know the basics. And, actually, we run into people like this all the time, right?
We work with them, run into them at bus stops, they’re pretty much the gold standard for your online random encounter. Sometimes you’ll get a voicemail from a stranger who dialed the wrong number – that’s the speaker in this song. He comes correct with plenty of physical detail, which would be useful in figuring out why he’s getting bad chills from the stuff that’s going on around him; if he’d only explain what his position in the whole thing is. He won’t, though. As close as he gets is the “chrome/home” rhyme interrupted by the “sun” off-rhyme, and then we get the sense that he’s been isolated for a little while. Why am I partial to this dude? Because sometimes I get the feeling that I am this dude.
Obviously – or I’d think obviously – the work I used to do in psych hospitals and residential treatment homes is what informs this song. People ask me sometimes if Jeff or Cyrus are based on anybody, and of course the answer’s “no,” but only because of course they’re dozens of guys. I knew a dude in high school whose girlfriend didn’t know he’d been locked up until he’d already been gone for half a day: by the time she found out, he was in Utah, not to emerge for, I think, a year or two.
To take somebody’s adolescence away is to deny that person some of the closest looks at God’s face that we ever get on this planet; I try not to hate the parents who, as misguided as confused, take young men and women away from their friends and their lives to send them away. But it’s hard. I try not to excuse the destructive things adolescents sometimes do to express their pain, but in my gut, when I write a song in which a couple of teenagers vow to take revenge on the grownups who’re fucking up their lives, well, I cast my lot with the teenagers. They may do wrong sometimes, but their hearts aren’t rotten yet, and the light is strong within them.
There are two people in this song – or three, if you count the highway, which I generally do. They look a lot like me and the woman who would later become my wife, driving from Chicago to northern Iowa on a summer day. Only I don’t think that ever happened. I know we never had any ’50s road movie conversations like the one that opens the song. We weren’t, at the point in time when this song would have had to’ve taken place for it to be true, using overnight bags. We had suitcases. And there wasn’t enough backstory between us for buildings to appear as “monument[s] of desperation.”
But the picture I get in my head, or got in my head when I was writing it in a Grinnell apartment circa 1996, was of my girlfriend and I heading a little ways west and digging in for a long life together. I think it’s almost a symbolic scene for me in that way. On one tour we opened the set with it quite a few times, and I enjoyed it more and more each night. The characters in this song aren’t keeping secrets from you; anything they don’t tell you just isn’t any of your business.
This is rather the best of the early divorce songs, written a good five or six years before I got married, drawn from – what? Some imagined hurt? A lonely Thursday night in December, maybe? Seems like it; I feel like I was having some sort of disagreement with somebody. The main thing I remember though is the riff, if you want to call it that. A fingered C chord that becomes an Am7 and then some kind of modified F whose name I don’t know that resolves finally at G, this circular droning looping process that suggested a guy who’s trying to break free from a pattern that’s never going to let him go, because that pattern is exactly who he is, down deep where all the ghosts and jackals live. He tries at the end to shift the focus, to call his love for somebody a habit, but it’s not that: it’s love. It’s always going to be love. So the song doesn’t really end, it just gets stuck. And then I strum a chord for a long time really energetically, because I used to always dig ending my songs like that.
I can tell, listening to this song now, years removed from the night I recorded it, that I was getting pretty into the story: not from the strength of the strumming, but from the way I get real quiet during the end of the vocal. To me, that’s the signal that I’m getting so involved with the plotline that I can’t really tell the difference between myself and the narrator any more. That is really the point at which I feel like I’ve succeeded in getting somewhere. Everybody else assumes the louder I sing, the more deeply I’m feeling the emotions, and I do try to oblige, but it’s the quiet moments where the shadows sort of start to flesh themselves out.
This is a big jump ahead. All the preceding songs are old ones. I prefer the newer songs to the older ones by a wide margin, and I suspect that most eMusic listeners would, too. With my early stuff, it’s wise to take advantage of those thirty-second song clips, because my early recording technology was more primitive than anybody’s. (I repeat, anybody’s. Nobody could touch my boombox flow.) But it’s always harder, much harder, to talk about newer songs. I feel like I don’t really know anything about a song until it’s five or six years old.
Here, however, the story is pretty clear, or I hope it is, and the song gave me a pretty good punch in the face as soon as we were done recording it, because I just lost my mind for about five minutes. Gone. Slumped over a piano a few feet from the microphone I’d been singing into, Erik Friedlander sitting in his chair where he’d been playing. (I did my vocal live with one of the cello parts, sitting facing Erik as he played.) I was thinking again about people who others talk down to: young mothers and fathers who have no prospects, no money, nothing going on.
The two kids here give birth in a cheap motel somewhere in San Bernardino, probably right off the freeway, and the young man tries to express his love for the girl who’s about to give birth. Which she does, and they feel at home in the world, even though the world isn’t giving them its best yet. I feel hope for them, because they love each other. I know that that is a corny thing to say, so for people who have corn allergies I apologize. But these two, they’re going to be the future, so it’d be awesome if we could give them enough leeway to become who they’re gonna become, and encourage them when we can. I have a fondness for them though I barely know them. Their feeling for one another inspires me, is what it is.