It’s hard not to feel doomed these days. Democracy, empathy, our general welfare: all of these things have been eroding away for the past few years. Longer, of course, but the erosion has ramped up lately like the rising waters of Lake Michigan eating away the shoreline.
Maybe it was inevitable. It’s probably irreversible.
This pandemic and the response to it might be the final nail in the coffin. Will our culture survive?
Our temples are record stores, independent book shops, and small restaurants. Our ceremonies are sweating with strangers in dark clubs with live music. Will any of that even exist in a couple years?
I hope so. We’ll see. Or maybe we won’t.
Do you think the fourth and fifth century pagans throughout the Roman Empire thought about stuff like that while the Christian mobs and Roman armies were systematically wiping them off the face of the earth?
On Songs for Pierre Chuvin, John Darnielle goes back in time to an era that’s hardly recognizable anymore: the 1990s. It was a time when dudes sat on the living room floor and recorded earnest songs about ancient esoterica into boomboxes. They dubbed copies of their cassettes and passed them around to their friends, who dubbed copies and passed them around to their friends, who picked out their favorite songs and compiled them onto mixtapes to impress pals and woo women. The world was physical and the exchange of these artifacts took place in dorm rooms and shitty apartments, face-to-face or delivered to mailboxes.
I first became aware of the Mountain Goats at the tail end of this era. All Hail West Texas was the last album that John Darnielle recorded on his Panasonic RX-FT500 portable cassette player. Since then Mountain Goats albums have gotten gradually more sophisticated, recording in professional studios, adding a bass player, then a drummer, eventually even a saxophone. Darnielle’s compositions have matured as well, as has his musicianship, and several recent recordings feature Darnielle on piano instead of guitar. 2017’s Goths features no guitar at all. It’s jazzy.
It’s always fun when the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle has a new project out because he goes out of his way to do interesting things to promote it. In this case his new novel, Universal Harvester, is out February 7 from publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and instead of just going out on a regular book tour (which he’s also doing, of course), he’s also reviewing rum for the Wall Street Journal and composing a ditty for the director of the new Star Wars movie.
The WSJ article (“One Very Strong Rum, Multiple Alternate Realities”) is classic JD, incorporating references to Joan Didion, James Beard, and one’s careless, younger self. My favorite quote is: “Add a tablespoon [of rum] to pretty much any standard cake recipe and you’ve got yourself the kind of grown-up dessert that’ll allow you to imagine yourself in a Fitzgerald novel, preferably closer to the beginning than the end.”
I sometimes forget that I became a fan of John Darnielle from his writing (for Michael Goldberg’s InsiderOne/Neumu and JD’s own Last Plane to Jakarta zine/blog) before I ever heard a note of his music. But once I heard his music I immediately became obsessed, scaring off most of my friends and family with my zealotry. I’ve cooled off since then but every once in a while I still geek out.
When I saw his tweets about a new song inspired by a jokey twitter conversation with Rian Johnson, I didn’t know who that was. As much as I love Star Wars I’ve tried (and apparently succeeded) in remaining spoiler-free when it comes to news about the upcoming movies. For anybody who doesn’t know: Johnson is the director of Episode 8: The Last Jedi.
I was saying how there’s an urgent need to speak out about the many deeds of the ultimate Jedi who wastes all the other Jedi and eats their bones. Rian agreed, and told me to get to work, that the story must be told! So I wrote the song and recorded it with a little help from my kids, who you’ll hear excitedly jumping in and out of the room while I work. Enjoy!
The Mountain Goats "The Legend of Chavo Guerrero" (Official Music Video)
Just like every middle school aged boy in the early 80s, I got into professional wrestling for a while. It probably started with seeing Hulk “Thunderlips” Hogan in Rocky III, but who knows? Wrestling was booming with Cyndi Lauper videos featuring Capt. Lou Albano and Hulkmania spreading everywhere. My pals and I would attempt figure-fours and piledrivers on each other in our basements. I can no longer remember who was a good guy and who was bad, but they were all impressive characters: Andre the Giant, Junkyard Dog, Rowdy Roddy Piper, the Iron Sheik, King Kong Bundy, Brutus Beefcake, Big John Studd, Sgt. Slaughter. Very exciting stuff when you’re a kid.
I’d never heard of Chavo Guerrero. As John Darnielle admits, Guerrero was “almost completely unknown outside of Texas and the west coast.” But I love him now because of this video. By now, we all know Darnielle’s back story as covered on 2005’s breakthrough album The Sunset Tree: his stepfather was abusive and cruel, but also intellectual and complex. “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero” rises above being just a tribute to a childhood hero in the verse where Darnielle directly addresses his stepfather:
He was my hero back when I was a kid
You let me down but Chavo never did
At this point in the video, JD has one hand on Chavo’s shoulder and points straight at the camera with his other hand. In the previous verse Darnielle admitted, “I hated Chavo’s enemies, I would pray nightly for their death,” and in recent interviews he has said that his stepfather always rooted for the heels. So the next lines are even more powerful:
You called him names just to get beneath my skin
Now your ashes are scattered in the wind
Chavo makes a “Whoa!” face in the video, sort of like “Dude, did you just say that? Did you just suggest that your prayers were answered? That your stepfather was my enemy and you prayed for his death and now he’s dead? Whoa, dude!”
It was the end of February and my mom was a week away from dying of cancer when I stopped by Laurie’s Planet of Sound on my way from work and picked up All Hail West Texas. I had moved from my hometown to Chicago that summer and my mom was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in November.
My wife and I had been driving back and forth between Michigan and Chicago all winter, watching helplessly as my mom’s body was ravaged by the disease and the treatment.
I was just a few months into a new job and while the people I worked with were very supportive, it puts you in a tough position to be constantly asking for time off that you hadn’t accrued…week after week. My wife was working on her masters degree in an intense program and it was really hard. My life sucked.
My mom had lived in the same small house all my life. She moved in with my dad when they got married. I was their only child. She was widowed at 33 when I was ten years old. From then on, it was just me and my mom. She never dated. She devoted her life to raising me.
And to Jesus, whom she had accepted as her personal lord and savior after my dad got sick. By the time he died, my mom was a full-blown born-again evangelical Christian with everything that came along with that in 1981. Pat Robertson encouraged her to get involved in politics and she became a precinct delegate for the Republican party with the intention of overturning Roe v. Wade.
Not too many years before that she had been pretty hip. A cool 70s chick with a little daisy tattoo (visible in Super 8 home movies from my waterbabies swim lessons where she wore a bikini, because hey, it was the 70s). She and my dad took motorcycle trips across the country. We had a boat on Lake Michigan and a Datsun 280Z. They’d drop me off at my grandma’s so they could have have week-long parties. My parents knew how to live.
Didn’t really know how to die though. Who does? My dad was sick for a few years but they never talked to me about the potential — the fact, really — that he was dying. Chemotherapy, radiation, a macrobiotic diet, they tried everything. When that all failed, they tried Jesus. That failed too obviously but my mom never saw it that way.
Her faith provided her with a peace that passeth understanding. I spent my adolescence in the church. Sunday school, bible study, church retreats, Christian rock concerts, overseas missions, building toilets in rural Bolivia, witnessing to unbelievers, planting seeds of faith, the whole bit. I was still enough of a fundie my freshman year of college that I gave an anti-abortion speech in my poli-sci class.
But as I got older I grew more skeptical. I tried to blend my beliefs into my own goofy brand of Zen Christian Humanism. Or something. This scared the shit out of my poor mom. She knew that if I turned my back on God, she would lose the opportunity to spend eternity with me in heaven. Our family would never be reunited.
I kept her prayer journals after she died so I know full-well the consternation I put her through. And that’s not even getting into the general dickishness of the 20-year-old know-it-all liberal undergrad asshole I had become.
* * *
Four months. That’s the prognosis the doctor gave us in November when my mom was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. Your first reaction to news like that is disbelief. But doctors know what they’re talking about, and my mom’s doctor was cruelly accurate.
Being who I am — or who I was then, anyway — I made her a mix disc. It contained a bunch of Johnny Cash gospel songs as well as some of Woody’s more spiritual lyrics from the Mermaid Avenue albums. I’m told the music comforted her, made her think that I hadn’t lost my faith, that she could die without worrying about where I’d spend eternity.
I wouldn’t have included anything off All Hail West Texas on the mix even if it had been released more than two weeks before she died. She had lightened up a bit over the years, shunning a lot of the hateful rhetoric of the Christian Right. Even so, I don’t think she’d ever be down with Jeff and Cyrus.
All Hail West Texas came out on February 19, 2002. I picked it up that Friday after reading Michael Goldberg’s review in Neumu. I was home alone that evening, doing laundry and getting stoned when I put on my new purchase. It blew my mind.
At the time I wrote, “After dealing with some seriously heavy shit lately, I was turned on to an album that lifted my spirits in a way that only truly great music can.” Before I looked up the release date just now I would’ve sworn I listened to this album the entire time my mom was sick. But she died just eight days after I got it. March 2. In my mind this album has become so wrapped up around this time in my life that the actual dates don’t even need to make sense.
I can’t remember if it was the night after she died or the night after the funeral, but I was at a bar with my friends and I kept going out to my car to play “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton” for them. Then “Fall of the Star High School Running Back.” They just stared at me with sympathetic red eyes, uncomfortable and unsure how to interpret what I was trying to communicate to them through these whirring, lo-fi boombox recordings.
I don’t really know either. But there is something in there that I need them to grasp. Something deep and heavy. I try “Source Decay.” Surely this bitter tale of receiving “torture devices from my old best friend” will convey the thing in my soul that I’m trying so hard to share. When I come up empty handed the feeling almost overwhelms me. We go back inside the bar and drink in silence.
* * *
And now it’s eleven and a half years later. That’s a lot of time. I’ve watched the Mountain Goats get signed by 4AD and release a bunch of professionally recorded albums that are widely acclaimed. They’ve recently signed to Merge who have reissued All Hail West Texas with seven bonus tracks. And it’s now even available on vinyl for the first time. I bought it and it sounds perfect.
When I listen to these songs I do not wallow in sadness. This music still lifts my spirits like it did the first time I heard it. I no longer think about my mom dying every time one of these songs comes up on shuffle.
That said, whenever I hear the line, “I want to go home. But I am home,” from “Riches and Wonders” I can conjure up the two opposing emotions that were tearing me apart at the time: Whenever I was in Chicago, I needed to go and be with my mom. And whenever I was at my mother’s deathbed in Michigan, I just wanted to escape back to Chicago.
I spent several years hating God for taking my mom. I’ve got a kid of my own now who will never get to know his paternal grandparents. Every once in a while he asks me if heaven is real. “Some people think so,” I tell him. I try hard not to lie to him. But he’s insistent. “But is it true?”
Looks like Merge Records gave the Mountain Goats a video budget! Peter Hughes plays the dad and he has two daughters, one with a bloody nose and one who worships Satan.
His wife apparently once cheated on him in the garage with Jon Wurster, the very same garage where Hughes now helps his Satanic daughter fix her bike. Ultimately, Hughes murders John Darnielle in the very same garage. Or perhaps the wife actually cheated with Darnielle, and the murder scene is a flashback. Who knows?
Regardless, the message is clear: we all do bad things. Wives cheat, husbands kill, daughters get knocked up, other daughters worship the devil and make spooky art. And yet the important thing is to survive. “I’m still here, but all is lost.”
The acting in this is remarkably good for a music video. Especially Peter Hughes and both daughters. Subtle but sublime. Of course, the rat steals the show, that little fucking ham.
In his characteristically verbose new album announcement, the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle revealed a pretty exciting bonus item for those who pre-order the album:
On this last tour that I just got home from, I went into Cloud City with Brandon and recorded four more songs by myself directly to 1/2″ tape without overdubs, and from those four, two will be cut directly from the tape to a 7″. The first pre-orders of the album will come with a copy of this 7″, whose songs will probably be available digitally before long; the actual vinyl single, though, will be the end-point of a truly live all-analog chain that was never converted at any point to ones and zeroes, which as one of Those Guys makes me ridiculously happy.
For the previous album, All Eternals Deck, pre-orders came with a cassette tape of acoustic demos. That was cool and very lo-fi. This new 7″ has the potential — if mastered properly — to be the highest fidelity recording the Mountain Goats have ever released. Which is kind of funny if you think about where they started (boombox recordings released on cassette). Anyway, this is the kind of thing that makes geeks like me super excited.
The new album, Transcendental Youth, is due October 2 on Merge Records, and pre-orders begin July 23.
1. Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1
2. Lakeside View Apartments Suite
3. Cry for Judas
4. Harlem Roulette
5. White Cedar
6. Until I Am Whole
7. Night Light
8. The Diaz Brothers
9. Counterfeit Florida Plates
10. In Memory of Satan
11. Spent Gladiator 2
12. Transcendental Youth
John Darnielle has been all over (Fallon, Fork.tv, NPR, YouTube) promoting the latest Mountain Goats album, Life of the World to Come. This time, they do “Isaiah 45:23” on IFC’s “Dinner with the Band,” a show who’s premise is completely indecipherable from these clips online. I see the band, but where’s the dinner? I guess that might be a dining room, but there’s no dining room table, just some hungry guests like the gal with the half-shirt and the haircut (she’s into it though!).
We wrote about this song when 4AD first gave away the MP3 back in July. It’s still my favorite song on the album, and this live version is pretty great. Interesting to see John Darnielle standing behind the keyboard with Perry Wright from the Prayers and Tears of Arthur Digby Sellers filling in on guitar. The rhythm section of Peter Hughes and Superchunk‘s Jon Wurster is as badass as ever. Fallon is a goof, but what can you do?
The chorus of this song could be lifted from any Contemporary Christian artist, and it’s the most literal take on the Bible-themed The Life of the World to Come, but it’s prevented from being a Sparrow Records outtake by its knowing sense that faith is blind and hope is audacious: “Won’t take the medication / But it’s good to have around / A kind and loving god won’t let my small ship run aground.” Plus, Jon Wurster is a badass drummer.
Last week, we posted NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert with the Mountain Goats where John Darnielle did a solo acoustic version of “Psalms 40:2”. Watch a full band version of the song after the jump, and bask in the glory of Peter Hughes’ bass tone…