It occurred to me after The Mountain Goats’ set at The Mayan that, this being something of a hometown show, John Darnielle might come out afterwards to talk to fans – that maybe I should stick around to say meet him. But then I considered what I’d say, and the only thing that came to mind was:
“Hi, excuse me, I’m sure you get this a lot, but I’m pretty sure you saved my life.”
The most incredible thing about that sentence is not how true it is, but how many people in the Mayan that night would have echoed it word for word. The Mountain Goats are not a band you just casually like. If you’re out on a Thursday screaming along to “No Children,” then you have a story with The Mountain Goats that almost certainly involves a fair amount of pain and gratitude.
A lot of people preface their love for TMG with this thing about how John Darnielle isn’t necessarily the best guitar player, how he recycles a chords and themes and turns of phrase, how his voice frequently ranges on grating — but…
As if any shortcomings John Darnielle might have as a musician are reasons why we shouldn’t like his music, when in reality those are the very things that connect us to him.
People who like The Mountain Goats are generally broken in one way or another. We’re not good at a lot of things. And when we see this endearingly dorky man with a voice that can most generously be described as “nasal,” who against all odds just refuses to be bad at making music – that gives us hope. Broken people tend to cling to hope as if our life depends on it, because it does.
Hope that maybe somewhere in our brokenness there’s something invisible that casts a beautiful shadow. That maybe all the broken pieces together, somehow, improbably, make something that someone someday will love enough to sing along to.
John Darnielle took the stage at The Mayan to gentle violin (Vivaldi, I think) wearing an elegant suit and no socks. He began with the driving “Rain In Soho” from TMG’s recently released Goths, and followed it up with several gems from the most recent decade of his band’s prolific catalogue.
For the middle section of the show, the band left John onstage alone for some obscure tracks from back when The Mountain Goats was just one man playing guitar into a tape recorder. He strummed an unreleased song for his abusive step-father which included the wrenching lines:
Now there’s only you and me
and the replica where my body used to be.
You can go ahead and hit him, he feels no pain at all.
You erase me.
One of the best things about being a Mountain Goats fan is that John Darnielle never sings for you, or even to you. There’s no sense that his being up there on stage is ever anything less than essential to his own survival. He sings because he has to sing; I listen because I have to listen. His voice is a Brillo pad scrubbing out an open wound until it’s red and raw and painful in a different and possibly worse way – but at least I know it’s clean. This is mutuality at its most pure and I’ve never felt anything else like it.
The end of the night, through a rare second encore, was dedicated to the portion of The Mountain Goats’ discography that came into my life as a deeply alone 13-year-old. In The Sunset Tree, John Darnielle let me see, for the first time, music as therapy, music as sanctuary, and, ultimately, music as pure love.
Looking back, the sheer magnitude of this gift sends chills through my body.
I screamed and cried along to “Up The Wolves” and “This Year” and I felt the years peeling away until I was small and unafraid.
Onstage, John was belting the last lines of “Spent Gladiator 2”
Maybe spit some blood at the camera.
Just stay alive.
Stay forever alive.