I can understand how you may come to the conclusion, after reading my blog, that perhaps I have a “thing” for the Mountain Goats. “Oh, she’s just a huge Mountain Goats fan.” “She’s a fangirl.” Stop right there, though. I’m talking about the Goats’ 2012 living classic Transcendental Youth this week on MY blog, but not because I’m trying to force-feed the Kool-Aid through the only funnel I have, or because the fan forums just couldn’t handle posts of this length. I’m not impervious to the flaws of the Goats, and I’m a reasonable and mature human being who sees things in with some fair amount of nuance and grace, but the purpose of my week of gushing over what is probably the best Mountain Goats album (drawing a line between “the best” and “my favorite”) is not about spilling gospel about the godliness of the Goats, but more for me to practice music writing and interpretation and close listening and attention to craft. This album inspired a lot of thought in me and it was better for me to get it out and kind of put a period on my emotions about this album. This album came to me at just the right time, and it’s not really forming an emotional connection the same way that All Hail West Texas (2002) did, but it’s certainly speaking to me. It means a lot to me to share this emotionalism with the readers I get here and I appreciate your patience in all this.
That said, let’s get on to the songs for today.
Backstory: Frankie Lymon was the young star of the 50s rock band The Teenagers. The band broke up while on tour in Europe, Lymon went solo, and he was not successful. Compounding with that, Lymon was living irresponsibly (heroin addictx). He got married, had a kid (who died when aged two days!?), got divorced, and remarried (allegedly), et cetera. This went on for a handful of years. He was still unsuccessful career-wise, but he was really trying super hard, then in 1965 he recorded some live shows in Harlem and those became sort of popularish. BUT then he was drafted into the military. Ever the fuck-up (<3), Lymon went AWOL in ’67 and moved to New York with his (new, probably third) wife who he met while living on a military base in Georgia. In Feb. 1968 he recorded two songs in a recording session at Roulette Records in Harlem, “I’m Sorry” and “Seabreeze”. To celebrate the successful recording session of these songs that felt like hits, he went out that night to do some heroin (as you do) and he overdosed and died. He was 25.
So that’s mostly what this song is about. JD is (rightfully) obsessed with people whose lives are devastated by childhood fame, though I’d chance to say that JD is obsessed with any sort of life devastation, though clearly not in a rubbernecking sadistic sick entertainment sort of way, and it’s not really the “my life could be worse, at least it’s not that guy’s life” thing, because that’s a sick and fucked up way to think about other people if you really think about it and JD probably isn’t like that. Personally, my interest comes from an addiction to the cosmic anguish of watching someone suffer and the resulting empathy and love that wash over me like the rising tide. Especially if you’re a particularly empathetic person, watching someone suffer can inspire an intense feeling of love for them, and when you’re a depressed person also, you can sit rapt in awe before a holocaust documentary and feel this overwhelming desire to jump in there and hug everyone (even the prison guards??). When everything feels numb and fuzzy it can be SO NICE to feel something that big and powerful. Sometimes this can stand alone as the only beautiful thing you feel in a given period of time, and no matter what you feel day-to-day you can always count on it to be there. Sometimes it’s less about others and more about yourself, like, it’s nice to channel all the pain you feel through something that feels legitimate. Because in your brain, crying at a Khmer Rouge documentary = legitimate, but crying out of sympathy for yourself because you’re depressed or life is hard or sad or you have trauma or society tells you things about yourself that you don’t like = illegitimate. Other times you just want some darkness to be shrouded in as a weird sort of confirmation bias. Like, you want darkness to confront you so you can take your darkness out and say “me too”, and just let your darkness reign free before you stuff it back into your self-shaped repression sac. But other times—and this, I think, is where the song is coming from—you hear the stories of people whose lives are devastated by their own self-destruction and pain et cetera, and you feel so proud to be alive and you say “I’m STAYING ALIVE one more day, just for you, Frankie Lymon, because you don’t have the chance anymore,” and before you know it you’re finding tons of dead fucked up people to live for and you’ve made it through to the other side of your life and you’re ready to leave this place as an old person who lived a life with a heart full of respect for the people who have lived and suffered and whose lives you honored by doing every stupid thing that makes you feel alive instead of torturing yourself like those people did. Everyone who suffers deserves respect, but of course all of us are silently suffering over something and not telling anyone else and we think everyone else is fine but so few people are fine, maybe not even anyone, and that’s okay and beautiful. I have a lot of feelings about the concept of “deserving,” but I think everyone can agree that whether someone is suffering from self-hatred or emotional abuse or health issues or from physical torture, they most likely don’t deserve it at all.
I wish I had a good fart joke on hand to bring that paragraph out of the deep, dark pit that it ran away into, but alas. While we’re down here, let’s all sit and contemplate this lyric from the song: “the loneliest people in the whole wide world are the ones you’re never going to see again.”
This song acts as a sort of buffer between the intensely polar emotions of “Cry For Judas” and “Until I Am Whole”. The soft piano, the swelling horns, the tense, tired drum rhythms at the end. The mantras, the mantras, the mantras! “I will be made a new creature / one bright day”. “You can’t tell me what my spirit tells me isn’t true / can you?”. “My spirit sings loud and clear / even in here”. “I’ll be reborn someday, someday / if I wait long enough”. “I don’t have to be afraid / I don’t wanna be afraid”. This is the kind of song that you once in a while need to put on repeat and lay on the floor and cry while the horns wash over you and lift you up and make you float with the power of romance and sentimentality.
There’s so much futility here, so much hopelessness. As far as I can tell, this song is about accepting the permanence of one’s condition, especially if you have a mental illness that causes you to be dysfunctional in some way (“woke up in lockdown one more time / my visions won’t ever learn”), and coming to terms with the fact that you’re always going to live with that burden (but at least you’re living!). Personally this song kind of addresses my deep fear of falling into schizophrenia, or any paranoid-delusional disorder that would cause my brain to test the consistency of reality and come back reading errors and there’s not much I can do to get better. That’s the power of life and agency stripped from you, and when you get treatment you get your agency back, but then you relapse, because with mental illness you always relapse, and it’s like having your power stripped away anew, again and again, your whole life long. I can’t even imagine what the narrator of this song has had to go through to accept that #thestruggle is never going to change for them. I guess that’s a feeling you get with depression also: the feeling that you’re always going to feel this way. That’s what drives people to suicide, is that they believe there is no hope for them to ever stop suffering like they are suffering in that moment, and why would they want to go on living in agony? It can be exhausting everyday to go about your life when you’ve got a mental illness. Like utterly exhausting.
And I think that’s what this song is getting at. It’s about telling yourself: “okay, this is it, this is how it’s always going to be, this thing in my head is going to be a lifelong thing,” then making a decision: whether it’s no longer worth it to go on, or if you can forge some armor in the old fire and find every single thing that you can control about your situation and clutch onto that control for literal dear life. If you change the things you have power to change, then the things you don’t have control over don’t seem so big—and you know what? There is always something you have control over, bottom line. And that’s really the secret if there ever were a secret.
Let’s say a quick collective serenity prayer in honor of that last paragraph, eh?
UNTIL I AM WHOLE
This is the first song that places us in the region where this album is apparently supposed to be “set” (a notion shared by fans but which I don’t wholly “buy”): Snohomish, WA, a small town situated about 40 minutes north of Seattle (or, as “Harlem Roulette” put it, “4 hours north of Portland” which is accurate to the minute). This song isn’t about Snohomish, though. JD told Marc Maron on WTFpod in March 2013: “it’s about the yoga of self-mutilation.” He told Time.com in September 2012: “It’s about a person you know who is struggling with the sort of depression that prevents you from taking care of yourself.” Both of those sentiments are expressed in the song. Take this dark section from the first verse: “hold my hopes underwater / stand there and watch them drown / fishing out their bodies / from the bathroom sink / leave them in a bucket / ‘til they start to stink”. I mean…yikes. Just take a minute to let that sink in. That’s a pretty powerful image that kind of hits you in the stomach and makes you wince and groan. JD is so good at punchy, specific imagery like this.
I’m not going to lie, when I first heard this song I really didn’t like it at all. The chorus bit is weirdly Ziggy Stardust, the word “Snohomish” just gives me creeps, and I thought the lyrics bordered on insubstantial. All those things are valid criticisms for the most part (though I’ve come to revel the chill that I get when I hear “Snohomish”), and this song is definitely one that grows on you after a while, that is if you can get past the vocals (which in general, are kind of all over the place on this album—and as a side note, I love and totally jive w/ the way Eve Tushnet described JD’s vocals in an article from The American Conservative: “the light shuddery little voice that he sings with, the aural equivalent of too much shakycam.”). But this song has gone from being the one song I skip on the record to one I anticipate and let wash over me as I breathe it in and breathe it out.
I’m not even sure I can place what I like about this song so much. I think this song speaks to me and my personal struggle a bit. It’s hard for me to ask for help (it’s hard for anyone to ask for help), and like so many others who have experienced depression, I just keep denying my illness and its scope and telling myself to sack up, SACK UP!, and smile and go to school and do your work and for fuck’s sake sack up. That’s much easier said than done, and denying your mental illness is like denying a tumor growing on your face. In the chorus of this song (“I think I’ll stay here / ‘til I feel whole again / I don’t know when”), JD is kind of saying “hey, you need to get right and be okay and STAY ALIVE, so you go do that and fuck the haters (which is mostly yourself—you are your own biggest hater—so I mean this in the most loving way possible but go fuck yourself, but also really get down deep and jive w/ your hate and make it your buddy because it’s a part of you too) and take as long as you need until you’re better.” I recall sitting in my car once, listening to this song at a stoplight, when the chorus really hit me. I started crying and slobbering snot all over and I felt like this rushing relief, like someone was telling me it was okay to be sick and to need time/space to just be with my sickness for a bit and expunge it (whatever that means???). The pressure to be OK is just so intense, and I’m not always OK, and it’s so hard to pretend that I am when I don’t want to, obviously. But there’s this fear of judgement, and this fear of being looked at delicately, or of being a topic of concern. Too often, fear is the winner in that battle.
Anyway, at the risk of this post turning into “Obsessive and Possibly Bipolar-Upswing-Fueled Mountain Goats Ranting,” this song is valuable to me because it gives me a big warm hug and then lets me go, which is something I love to get from a song.
Thanks for reading, sound off in the comments section, tip your waiters, feed your gators (??).
Part 1 – “Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1”, “Lakeside View Apartments Suite”, “Cry For Judas”
Part 2 – “Harlem Roulette”, “White Cedar”, “Until I Am Whole”
Part 3 – “Night Light”, “The Diaz Brothers”, “Counterfeit Florida Plates”
Part 4 – “In Memory of Satan”
Part 5 – “Spent Gladiator 2”, “Transcendental Youth”