The best death metal song ever written isn’t a death metal song. It’s a folk song, and it’s called “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton.” It was written by The Mountain Goats (aka John Darnielle), which since 1994 have produced a remarkably prolific–I think they have about 980 LPs out–body of music that is as smart as it moving.
The song’s about two teen friends who decide to start a death metal band, to be called either Satan’s Fingers or The Killers or The Hospital Bombers. This antisocial behavior leads to one of them being sent to a special school where he’s told he’ll “never be famous,” and the two friends devise an unspecified “plan to get even.” The song concludes with Darnielle singing, “When you punish a person for dreaming his dream/Don’t expect him to thank or forgive you/The best ever death metal band out of Denton/Will in time both outpace and outlive you/Hail Satan/Hail Satan, tonight/Hail Satan/Hail, hail.”
“The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton” is a rousing anthem and a cautionary tale and very touching all at once, and it’s the first thing I ever heard by the hyperactive Darnielle, who may just be the best lyricist out there. I first saw The Mountain Goats in the worst possible setting, namely in a giant impersonal room at the convention center at SXSW, right after a surreal collision with a guy in an animal suit with an electric guitar singing “We Built This City on Rock’n’Roll.” And I was blown away both by the high-strung, lanky, very normal-looking guy frantically strumming his guitar who couldn’t seem to get the words out fast enough, and by how great the words and music were.
Darnielle was the very first human with an acoustic guitar who didn’t make want to flee, or reach for my revolver. Instead he left me transfixed, mesmerized, and ready to buy every Mountain Goats album I could put my hands on. It worried me somewhat, seeing as how I hate acoustic music and would sooner attend the Nuremberg Rallies than a folk festival. Were these the birth pangs of a new folkie me? Would I buy a particolored Native American poncho and pick up the recorder? Start listening to Dave Van Ronk? Spontaneously sprout Birkenstocks and a Burl Ives beard? Turn into Joan (“I am not a saint. I am a noise.”) Baez?
Fortunately, Darnielle, who resides in Durham, North Carolina, has pulled a Dylan over the years and fleshed out his sound, going from the ultimate lo-fi guy with an acoustic guitar recording cassette tapes on a boombox to doing the full studio thing with all the rock trimmings, from a full band to horns, strings, choirs–even, great Gary Wright’s ghost, although Gary Wright is very much alive–a keytar. Boy was I relieved. No longer did I have to worry about turning into a wild-eyed folk purist like Pete “Newport Mad Dog” Seeger, trying to axe the electrical cables at rock shows.
I hesitate to call anyone a genius–it lessens my conviction that I’m the only genius around–but Darnielle is a real genius, and not a delusional fraud like yours truly. He wrote a volume in the 33 1/3 book series, in which rock crit types pen thin tomes about great albums. I attempted the volume on Led Zeppelin IV and turns out that bustle in the hedgerow was the author rooting around for a single coherent thought. He’d have been much better off quoting Slater from 1993’s Dazed and Confused (“Man, I ain’t belivin’ that shit about Bonham’s 1-hour drum solo…I mean, 1 hour on drums…you couldn’t handle that shit on strong acid, man”) and submitting that. It would have been a much better book. The album Darnielle chose was Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality. But instead of writing a doctoral thesis on Tommy Iommi’s momentous decision to downtune his guitar three semi-tones, Darnielle handed the surprised publishers a novella. And a great novella at that, the best I’ve ever read, no shit, aside from Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
Mountain Goats albums tend to be like novellas too, by which I mean there’s often a running story line involved. My favorite novella/abum is 2004’s We Shall All Be Healed–with 2002’s Tallahassee running a close second–whose story line involves methheads “slowly circling the drain” and in my unprofessional opinion (I’m like Elvis who said, “I don’t know anything about music–in my line you don’t have to”) is the best album ever recorded about addiction. Every song is great, the tone is bleak but funny and ultimately redemptive, and I can’t listen to it without thinking about all the crazy shit I got up to with my old drug buddies, all of whom I’m sorry to report have turned into productive members of society. We can all say, like Eric Burdon, “When I think of all the good times I’ve wasted having good times…”
I especially love We Shall All Be Healed’s “Against Pollution,” so bear with me because I’m going to quote its conclusion in its entirety: “A year or so ago I worked at a liquor store/And a guy came in/Tried to kill me so I shot him in the face/I would do it again/I would do it again/When the last days come/We shall see visions/More vivid than sunsets/Brighter than stars/We will recognize each other/And see ourselves for the first time/The way we really are.” Those are some of the most profound and moving lyrics I’ve ever heard in a rock song, and I will put them up against anything written by any songwriter anywhere, including the great Mark Eitzel, whose “Johnny Mathis’ Feet” is funnier but who wrote me a nasty note after I reviewed his Black Cat show a while back, so he’s on songwriting greatness probation.
And Darnielle’s written plenty, many dozens more in fact, like it. Take, for example, the great “No Children,” a hilarious and tragically moving diatribe addressed by an alcoholic husband to his alcoholic wife that begins, “I hope that our few remaining friends/Give up on trying to save us/I hope we come up with a failsafe plot/To piss off the dumb few that forgave us” and that ends, “I am drowning/There is no sign of land/You are coming down with me/Hand in unlovable hand/And I hope you die/I hope we both die.”
Then there are the sad and wonderful “Game Shows Save Our Lives,” the frantic “See America Right,” the rocking “Palmcorder Yajna,” the very cool “Goddamn These Vampires,” and “Up the Wolves,” and “Oceanographer’s Choice,” with its unforgettable beginning, “Well, a guy in a skeleton costume/Comes up to the guy in the Superman suit/Runs through him with a broadsword.” Then there’s the beautiful “Quito,” which includes the lines, “When I get off the wheel I’m going to stop/And make amends to everyone I’ve wounded/And when I wave my magic wand/Those few who’ve slipped the surly bonds/Will rise like salmon at the spawning.”
I could quote The Mountain Goats all day, because I love them and want you to love them as much I do. I’m reminded of a story in Steven Blush’s American Hardcore, in which the Dallas cops–who had a rep for brutality–showed up to hassle some hardcore kids. But instead of kicking ass the cops called over their loudspeaker, “Hey, you kids shouldn’t be listening to music like that. You should be listening to music like this,” then cranked up George Jones and howled with laughter as they squealed away. Well, I’m like those Dallas cops–you shouldn’t be listening to music like that; you should be listening to The Mountain Goats.
Darnielle is not a protest singer, thank God. Well maybe he is, but he doesn’t protest the big boring issues like water pollution that nobody really cares about but the stray whining manatee, or toxic chemicals in our vegetables which if you ask me if you eat vegetables you get exactly what you deserve. No, he reserves his outrage for the quotidian indignities and atrocities we humans heap upon one another without giving it a second thought. He’s a sensitive guy, and saves his spleen for the kinds of gross abuses of the human spirit he sings about in “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton.” What’s more, he seems to have an abiding, almost religious belief in ultimate redemption, as in these lyrics from “White Cedar” off Transcendental Youth: “Like a star come down to walk the Earth in radiant array/I saw the light of my spirit descend the other day/I was standing at the bus stop on North East 33rd/When I got the word/I will be made a new creature/One bright day.”
The Mountain Goats are roaming the country in their original configuration of Darnielle on guitar and vocals and Peter Hughes on bass on what they’re calling their TUTTLINGEN WARRIORS TOUR 2013. They made a stop at the 9:30 Club on Monday ,June 3 with openers The Baptist Generals, whom I missed because I fell asleep before the show after accidentally drinking two bottles of Robitussin DM. I mistook them for Coke Zero and thought they tasted weird and then I was robotripping around the living room to “Hot Potatoes” by King Curtis and the Rimshots and then I passed out and I would have missed The Mountain Goats too if I hadn’t been rudely awakened by a horrible nightmare in which I was a member of Donnie and Marie, and I was Marie, and Donnie was putting the moves on me. Anyway, I was the guy at the show putting on the robotic dance show to “Dance Music.”
One thing you need to know about John Darnielle is that he may just be the longest-winded and funniest between-song yakker in show biz. He told numerous seriously long anecdotes, including one where the Mountain Goats played to absolutely nobody in a giant banquet hall in the Black Forest in Germany, retreated to their dressing room in shame, and then had to suffer the indignity of the hall’s owner showing up to tell them they were expected to play an encore. So they did.
He also did fine with the shorter banter. Before he played “Alpha Chum Gatherer” he said, “People are going to want to take photos of this. You have my express permission to throw their cameras to the ground and step on them.” And before he played “Furniture Store,” a hilarious cover of a song by Claremont, CA’s Wckr Spgt—a great but obscure lo-fi band that I intend to make my favorite hipper-than-thou band of 2013–he said, “I’ve been reading a lot of medieval literature. And seemeth me…” And the cool thing was The Mountain Goats had an interpreter for the deaf, although I didn’t relish his job of trying to keep up with Darnielle’s speed patter.
As for the show, I thought there were too many obscurities and too many lesser songs and too little of his stronger material. For instance, The Mountain Goats opened with 1994’s “Pure Gold,” a slow song that I liked only for the lines “Hey, don’t touch the door/Because the door will surely kill you.” Then there were the little-heard “Song for Mark and John” off 1993’s Beautiful Rat Sunset, “Alpha Chum Gatherer,” and “Cobscook Bay.” Finally, there were the rather dull “Cheshire County” and “It Froze Me.” The Mountain Goats also saw fit to do a few lugubrious and very slow snooze-fests. For instance, they performed the very very soporific “1 Samuel 15:23’” and the equally sleep-inducing “Ezekial 7 and the Permanent Efficacy of Grace.” The title cut of “Tallahassee” was also torturously slow, and probably my least favorite cut off that brilliant LP. “Tianchi Lake,” which I don’t care for much either, followed.
Fortunately, The Mountain Goats leavened their selection of obscurities with a fair number of crowd favorites, including the mid-tempo “Woke Up New,” the very fast “Cry for Judas” (“Speed up to the precipice/And then slam on the brakes/Some people crash two or three times/And then learn from their mistakes/But we are the ones who don’t slow down at all/And there’s nobody there to catch us when we fall”), the pro wrestler takes monstrous revenge song “Ox Baker Triumphant” (“Click your heels/Count to 3/I’ll bet you never expected me”), and the much-faster-than-on-record “Jenny.” The Mountain Goats also performed the wonderfully uptempo “The Diaz Brothers” and “Alpha Rats Nest” off Tallahassee (“Sing for the flames that will rip through here/And the smoke that will carry us away/Yeah sing for the damage we’ve done/And the worse things that we’ll do.”)
Lucky for us all the end of the set brought out the real hits, starting with “Dance Music,” a perky little ditty about child and spousal abuse that had Darnielle singing at his most hyperactively frenetic (“I’m in the living room/Watching the Watergate hearings/While my stepfather yells at my mother/Launches a glass across the room/Straight at her head/And I dash upstairs to take cover/Lean in close to my little record player on the floor/So this is what the volume knob’s for/I listen to dance music/Dance music.”) Then there was set ender “No Children,” perhaps the most poisonous song about marriage ever written (“I hope it stays dark forever/I hope the worst isn’t over/And I hope you blink before I do/And I hope I never get sober), which had the entire crowd singing along happily. Finally, The Mountain Goats closed the show with “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton,” which also had the crowd singing along and Darnielle spitting out the words with a vengeance.
Look, I’ll admit it; it wasn’t my favorite Mountain Goats show. They didn’t do a single song off We Shall All Be Healed, which I take as a personal affront. Or “Oceanographer’s Choice,” or “Game Shows Touch Our Lives,” or “See America Right,” or “Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod,” or “Estate Sale Sign,” or “Cubs in 5,” (“And Bill Gates will singlehandedly spearhead the Heaven 17 revival”) or “Beautiful Gas Mask,” or—you get the idea. I could go on. I could go on and crush you all to death with sheer poor-me boredom. But that’s the way it works; sometimes you gets what you wants, and sometimes you doesn’t. No use whining about it, although I always do. Honestly, I’d have been happy just to hear “Palmcorder Yajna” and “Against Pollution.”
As for John Darnielle, he’s one of my heroes, and not just for his brave and beautiful music. He was quite frank at the show about having been abused as a child. Anyone who has listened to his music would have intuited as much. That he has survived, and lived to tell the tale in his miraculous songs, should give us all strength. It’s no wonder he relates so much to those two star-struck teens, Cyrus and Jeff, in “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton.” He too has been betrayed by the ones he trusted to protect him, and he too has both outpaced and outlived them. To which I can only say, “Hail Satan, hail Satan tonight, hail hail.”