Listen, I bought tickets off Craiglist for this show. This sounds like such a silly way to quantify it but I did, I bought tickets off Craigslist and met a sketchy guy and paid him forty-five American dollars in crumpled bills that smelled like cough-drops, at a bar a block away from the Vic. I just turned eighteen and now I can get into the venue, just barely, still seems like it’s a trick. It felt like such a frivolous, self-indulgent way to spend a Saturday. Still does, really, when I can get any distance away from the fact that I don’t know what the shape of my life is without this show in it. It felt like such a self-indulgent way to spend a Saturday and also, essential for my survival, two things which are not actually contradictory instincts. It was funny – the girl I went with, both of us fleeing campus, apologized for not having bought tickets before the show sold out. “I was doing fine a month ago,” she said. “I wasn’t falling apart. I didn’t think I’d need to see the Mountain Goats.” This is coy but it is the truth, I swear: it is possible that if you do not need to be told to survive that you will not start crying in the middle of “Heel Turn 2,” a refrain of I don’t wanna die in here!!! It is possible that if you are not deeply unhappy that it will not do as much for you, this show, this ugly unabashed complicated affirmation of how very much alive you are.
This is the theme, then, overwhelming in its exuberance, too much for me now more than 24 hours ago, sticking in my throat like when you need to get your tonsils taken out: I don’t want to die in here.
The Mountain Goats are touring to promote their new album Beat the Champ, which is both nominally and actually about professional wrestling. Functionally, because I know nothing about professional wrestling and refuse to apologize for it, this is an album about the extravagant, technicolor power of having heroes, an album about what it means to feel protected, an album about violence. “To survive is to leave a legacy of hope,” John Darnielle wrote on his blog one time, and God, what a silly thing to say in a live review of a band, but I can’t help it. I won’t talk about Beat the Champ too much because Aly has already said better things about it than I can but it is a revelation live: at turns devastatingly melancholy (“Southwestern Territory”) or deliciously ravenous (“Foreign Object”) or so much and so brave that my chest feels like its going to crack open, ooze with my insides (“The Legend of Chavo Guerrero”). It is filled with spite and hope and with heroes, larger than life, their knuckles covered in blood.
I am not going to say that watching John Darnielle makes him seem like the subjects of his new album, those larger-than-life wrestlers, but what I will say is this: this is the first time I’ve ever seen the Mountain Goats live, and I am shocked at the measure of devotion which they inspire, which John Darnielle inspires – in me, in the people standing around me, in all of us. I am religiously moved by this 48 year old with a guitar and a strange fashion sense. We sing along (fairly softly, fairly in tune) to the chorus of one of the new songs, adoring, transfixed: Some things you will remember. Some things stay sweet forever. He beams at us. “When you guys did that, that was the sweetest thing!” God, I mean – I didn’t think it was this important to me for John Darnielle to think we’re a good audience, but it is.
He tells a couple stories explaining the wrestling lingo on his album (bemusedly but only semi-apologetically) and makes a few snarky comments at the people yelling out for songs. Mostly he thanks us profusely and often. Every time there is this little cheer-giggle that goes through the crowd, ecstatic. Doesn’t he know that we’re so grateful he’s here? Almost every time he says anything its met by an ecstatic cheer. We want to be a good crowd.
Still. This is not entirely a show about raucous screaming, about happiness.
They play “Get Lonely” barely above a whisper, a song that goes
And I will go downtown
Stand in the shadows of the buildings
And button up my coat
Trying to stay strong, spirit willing
And I will come back home
Maybe call some friends
Maybe paint some pictures
It all depends
Chicago is cold and awful in the winter, I was cold and awful in the winter. Sometimes I still imagine the rot spiraling out from my ribcage, killing everything, Nothing ever grows. John Darnielle talks about “Get Lonely” and tells us all that those shadows are the shadows of Chicago downtown, says something about how finding yourself in the darkness underneath them sometimes takes away that last little degree of light that apparently was keeping you together. The crowd cheers, I cheer, we all scream at how purely true this is, what a gift we’ve been given. Sometimes I go downtown trying to escape from the sadness that coats the back of my throat when I’m on my college campus and it works but also, it doesn’t really work. I am a very small girl, skin and bones assembled out of paper-mache and Elmer’s glue, probably. “Get Lonely” is all I am when I am the worst of myself: “I will get lonely,” a very small voice, not loud enough to even break. I want you to know that during this song I started to cry very loudly and I couldn’t stop, was petrified someone was going to ask me I was alright. I will get lonely and gasp for air, and look up at high windows and see your face there. I know exactly whose face I was thinking of – that is the strange thing about the Mountain Goats, this ability to make it seem like liminal personal truth and universal truth are the same thing.
I am trying to explain what happened and I am falling very short. Other people have talked about this, this inexplicable honesty, something magic and alchemical constructed out of strange lyrics and quiet music and an instrumental bit of interior self-loathing on the listener’s part. Stir, add a room full of people and sweat dripping down my back and a need, a need to be told I am allowed to be a person sometimes. To say that’s all it takes would be an insult, to the musicianship at work here, to the work put into this album – it’s a very good album. I’m not, though, in the kind of place where I can pretend that I wasn’t shaking to pieces during this show, that I was paying objective attention, that I was thinking of things that this piece was going to talk about.
The band leaves and it’s just John Darnielle on the stage with a keyboard and a piano and everything is very very still. JD starts a song, pauses, says he doesn’t play it live much. Tells us he wants us to put our phone cameras away, because it’s kinda intimate, y’know? I love him, I love the Mountain Goats. I feel suddenly like I will tear out the throat of anyone who is rude and horrible at this show. He has very kind eyes and I have an immense amount of faith in him, would probably ride behind him into a strange kind of holy war, if he were the kind of man who wanted to fight a holy war with anybody. This is not a thing he seems to want to elicit and I’m not proud of it, not proud of the way that I can’t entirely untangle my fierce fibrous love for the music and for the person who writes it. I think some of that is implicit in trusting the Mountain Goats. You have to trust them and you have to trust John Darnielle. I don’t think anybody took video of that song and I hope nobody took video of that song, only half out of selfishness. I mean, he asked us not to.
If this solo portion at the center of the set is its quiet heart, the rest of the show goes about dismantling me from the inside out. All I do is scream along. I’m a compulsive overthinker; everything gets processed, everything is aesthetic. Sometimes I go to shows and I can’t stop thinking about whether or not I am dancing correctly long enough to dance at all, and then “Up the Wolves” happens and I am thinking about nothing but the spite inside of me, how I would like to spit it out at the whole world.
I’m going to get myself in fighting trim
Scope out every angle of unfair advantage
I’m going to bribe the officials, I’m going to kill all the judges
IT’S GOING TO TAKE YOU PEOPLE YEARS TO RECOVER FROM ALL OF THE DAMAGE
This is not a wholly sad show but it is all emotion, all catharsis, like coughing up blood in public, like freeing up the inside of your guts. “Foreign Object,” from the new Beat the Champ album, is an indescribable delight live – all brass and drums and a thousand people raucously screeching out “I PERSONALLY WILL STAB YOU IN THE EYE WITH A FOREIGN OBJECT”. You’re allowed to be mean, you are. It feels totally fair. You are allowed to want to hurt the people who hurt you (From the song a lot of people were hoping to hear that he didn’t sing in Chicago: I hope the people who did you wrong have trouble sleeping at night). “Amy AKA Spent Gladiator 1” forgives you for so many thing instantaneously:
Play with matches if you think you need to play with matches
Seek out the hidden places where the fire burns hot and bright
Find where the heat’s unbearable and stay there if you have to
Don’t hurt anybody on your way up to the light
And stay alive
God, what kind of permission that is, what a thing. Stay there if you have to. Don’t hurt anybody but stay there if you have to. Do whatever it is you need to do. There is something very self-indulgently cathartic about a Mountain Goats show. Song after song and you start to think (inevitably, if you’re like me) that your life cannot possibly be this important. You cannot possibly be told that you are alive, that you are supposed to stay alive, so many times in one night. I don’t deserve it. I am not supposed to have this. I would say that I’ve never felt as powerful as when I was snarling out it’s gonna take you people years to recover from all of the damage with a thousand other people but that would be lying, would be wiping away a thousand other things this show gave to me, so many other songs: speed up to the precipice / then slam on the brakes (“Cry For Judas”, raucous, joyful); the dull pain that you live with isn’t getting any duller (“The Young Thousands”, matter-of-fact); I don’t wanna die in here (“Heel Turn 2”, ecstatic.) It should feel trite but instead it doesn’t, just feels instinctive. What a thing, right, to make wanting to live instinctive. There is this howling thing inside of my chest that wants to be happy and even then it only sometimes wants to live. But if you say something over and over long enough it is instinctive, sinks down into your bones like it got carved there, a talisman. I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me. Stay alive. Land mines on the battlefield, find one safe way and stay alive. I don’t wanna die in here. That, then, the key line of two separate songs: I don’t wanna die in here. I feel like I’m crawling out of some damp cocoon of foggy loneliness and it’s awful and it hurts and it would be so much easier to go back to sleeping but probably I would eventually suffocate.
They played all the famous stuff and I wanted that, I’ll admit it. I’m such a baby fan (barely allowed into the venue), I wanted to hear “No Children,” I wanted to hear “This Year,” I wanted to hear “Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton.”
I was right to want those things, and I think I did want them for the right reasons; a thousand people singing “I HOPE YOU DIE, I HOPE WE BOTH DIE,” a thousand people singing “I AM GONNA MAKE IT THROUGH THIS YEAR IF IT KILLS ME,” a thousand people singing “HAIL SATAN.” JD kinda laughed about it, said there were two songs everyone wanted to hear when they came to these shows and he was going to play both of them, because we deserved it. This is the best way I know how to explain: every single second of this show felt like a gift, an earned gift, a gift given to me because I deserve it. I don’t think I deserve to be told over and over again to claw my way past the sludge filling up my insides towards some sort of light but I guess I do, apparently I do. He kept saying ‘thank you’ and I still haven’t figured out how to parse it, how to synthesize my immense gratefulness with being thanked. I want to see them again. I want to see them every weekend for a million years, probably, in exactly this way: barely get into the venue, sneak a beer, cry my eyes out. This seems, now, like the way of things.
They played all the famous stuff but what I remember best, I think, is still one of those new songs: “Animal Mask”. I am humming it now still but what’s darting around in my head is the muscle memory of singing along to it very softly, the way it felt like I was capable of anything, worth everything, glowing.
Some things you will remember. Some things stay sweet forever.
Stabbed to Death Outside San Juan
Cry for Judas
The Young Thousands
Heel Turn 2
Song for My Stepfather (unreleased)
Heel Turn 1 (unreleased)
Never Quite Free
Slow West Vultures
Up the Wolves
Game Shows Touch Our Lives
Amy AKA Spent Gladiator 1
The Legend of Chavo Guerrero
The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton
Spent Gladiator 2