I’d like to dream
My troubles all away
On a bed of California stars
Jump up from my starbed
Make another day
Underneath my California stars
They hang like grapes
On vines that shine
And warm the lovers’ glass
Like friendly wine
So I’d give this world
Just to dream a dream with you
On our bed of California stars
Everything in life, even the dumb random stuff and mistakes, should be part of the process of getting better, and not be about defeat.
I’m not a great photographer. I’m probably not even a good photographer. I was trained (in college) as a journalist and worked most of my career as an editor and writer. I was drawn back to music a few years ago, both as a fan and as a songwriter myself, and as someone who wanted to create a small record label, because I needed a change and always loved music. The recent vinyl revival just seemed too exciting to let it go by without exploring that space myself. It seemed like something really cool was about to happen, again, in music.
I’m also an oral historian and spent years traveling the world interviewing people about war and peace and their lives. Collecting stories. That’s something I’ve done since I was about ten years old, when I walked up and down my suburban street “visiting” with all the neighbors, asking them to tell me stories about when they were children, or about their jobs, or about why they or their families moved to the Pacific Northwest, about the wars they fought in (all citizen soldiers mostly drafted into World War II or Korea or Vietnam), or not. My most recent oral-history work dealt with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and took me into prisons, into “squats,” into small apartments and farm houses, places where young soldiers escaped, whole or broken, to find new lives. It was work that broke my heart.
Now, with my camera, at live shows like this one, in the darkness and the storms of light and sound, this time with the band Junip playing at Neumos (lead by the extraordinary guitar player José González), I want my pictures to be about the “story” of the show. I want to capture the movement of the musicians, their faces, their bodies in motion, as they sing their amazing lyrics, bring forth whole worlds from the instruments they play, the connection I feel to them simply by being in the room.
At this show, in early June at Neumos in Seattle, I had borrowed a friend’s Olympus camera. He’s an artist. When he uses this camera he finds things I could never find. That night, the camera slipped into a setting that I wasn’t trained to use, and couldn’t figure out how to set it back. As I look over my shots, more than a thousand of them, I can see where I wanted to go, but time after time I missed the shot because I didn’t how the camera worked.
But here’s the thing. I kept hammering away at it, slowly getting closer and closer to understanding the problem as the bands played on. I never fixed the setting back to what I knew, I just kept shooting until I got closer to something I could work with. That’s the coolest part of this portfolio, to me. I didn’t give up. I just kept going, kept searching for the story this band was trying to tell.
It’s why when I write my record reviews I throw in details about Shakespeare’s plays, or the poetry of John Keats and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I have friends who read my stuff and they tell me not to do that because no one will care, not in a music review. But for me, I can’t read some of Keats’ poems and not feel the stories still connecting. I can’t read some of his poems without crying, because of the connection I feel, his heart to mine, his humanity to mine, his music to the music inside me. It’s the story of a brilliant, sensitive young artist dying at the age of 26. It’s about a poet writing right up until the day of his death. It’s about a poet dying thinking he was a total failure as a poet. It’s all stories. Everything is connected. Behind every record, behind every live show, there’s a story unfolding there, too.
And I can’t get enough of them. The stories. I want them all because somehow, if I keep at it, if I keep them close, artists and poets and creatives, what I feel and what I write about will help me live a better life. I know how that sounds, but it’s true. I’m not some cool music critic. I’m still that kid walking from house to house in search of the stories of people’s lives. To feel I belong to it all, somehow. It’s my quest.
I’m not a photographer. I’m probably not much of a writer or reviewer. But I am a man in search of stories. And that’s all. That’s enough.
I’ve been thinking about what it feels like to be a fan of an artist who, far away from the world I live in, creates music that, when followed to its logical end, flows to places of great beauty and great detachment. I’m reminded of Hannah Arendt’s statement that “From beauty no road leads to reality.” When the music stops, it leaves me without a clear way back to reality.
Seeing Phil Elverum’s latest Mount Eerie band launch their spring tour juggernaut at The Business, the small independent record shop in Anacortes, Washington (which is also Phil’s home town), dropped me into the world of Elverum‘s own map. I say latest “tour band” because he selects different backing musicians for each tour, this time choosing Julia Chirka (from No Kids), Ashley Eriksson (from LAKE), and his partner, musician and visual artist Geneviève Castrée (from Ô Paon). The one and only consistent member of Mount Eerie being Phil.
Melody and song structure become lines on a map. Lyrics become ghosts. In Elverum’s world, lyrics walk like rootless wandering spirits through a landscape he alone sees and creates with his layers of big sound. Drums and bass crash and pulse and pump energy through his construction. A thin, tough thread of continuity defines itself as it follows the contours of the land Elverum creates.
Listening to Mount Eerie perform songs from the two latest records, “Clear Moon” (P.W. Elverum & Sun, 2012) and “Ocean Roar” (P.W. Elverum & Sun, 2012), his sometimes soft, sometimes crashing, sound enveloped me, these songs that poured out of Phil’s teeming mind in one intense, prolific year. I’m drawn into Phil’s shadowlands. I become lost in the wild. And then, the music stops.
The one-hour live set started out shaky as these four musicians began the process of spooling up their road energy, adjusting to their live energy together, getting the mixing board to balance them out, exploring their ability to navigate through the songs as a single living entity. There were naturally a few false starts to songs, one song interrupted and restarted, all part of learning to read each other through the song. I’ve come to believe that the most vital aspect to the success of any art form is the artist’s ability to accept vulnerability. As the band’s vulnerability opened up, it made me feel vulnerable, too. If the exchange between artist and listener/observer is right, I think we’re supposed feel what they feel.
I usually rely on song lyrics to serve as a map to where a songwriter is going, literally and figuratively, what the artist wants me to hear and see and feel. Mount Eerie’s songs all have something inside them, a worry or a fear that death may arrive unannounced before something essential can be experienced or finished. The symbols are cloudy, and meaning is just out of reach. All life is shorter than we think; time seems to move faster than we can cope with. Even in a song. Our lives, like Mount Eerie’s lyrics, are a little like ghost lives.
Lines from John Keats’ poem float into view: “When I have fears that I may cease to be” and “Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance….” Time is short. Mystery is long. Death may arrive unannounced before something essential can be experienced, or finished. No matter how many years remain, I know I’ll never finish all I start, there will never be time enough to experience the “high romance.” Elverum knows that, too.
Unmoored, what do I do next? When beauty leads me into a place where no road leads me back, what can we do? Hannah Arendt is so right. John Keats is so right. And Phil Elverum is so right. In the end, it’s pure desire, which is to say pure delusion, to think that we, as fans, can get someplace, to feel something ultimate, to possess something ethereal. We can see the symbols, but the mystery remains.
Driving home after seeing this amazing intimate performance in a small shop in a small seaport town on an island in Puget Sound, I felt absolutely no closer to understanding anything about the music of Mount Eerie. I even felt a little sad. A few days later, as I write this, I can feel the doubt in my breathing. I can feel the desire in my memory. In the words of John Keats, “Love and fame to nothingness do sink.” I may not be able to describe it, but I know what it is I love. It’s there in the shadows. Love into nothingness.
The final stanza from the Mountain Goats’ song “Heretic Pride” (from the 2008 record of the same name) goes like this: “I waited so long and now I taste jasmine on my tongue/And I feel so proud to be alive/And I feel so proud when the reckoning arrives.” A richly metaphoric song, when I first heard this record, when I first heard that song, I wondered if I had heard something new, something revealing, almost confessional, from an artist who sometimes uses words like a Romantic or religious poet from the early 19th century. What was John Darnielle saying, with this song, about his life and about his work? Could one song say more than hundreds of songs from such a prolific and expressive songwriter?
I recently reviewed the latest Mountain Goats record, “Transcendental Youth,” for Indie Street, and I just saw the final show of “The Nameless Dark Tour,” which concluded in Seattle at the Showbox at the Market. OK, I admit it, I went expecting a religious experience because of my accumulated reverence for this band. And by the time the evening was over, I got one, with all the trimmings. John Darnielle is a man who loves his night job. And this was a show that would, by the end of the evening, change my perception of Darnielle’s music and of his songwriting, although I didn’t know it when the show started. Tremendous value for the price of a ticket.
The Romantic poets were a group of 19th century mostly male writers (although there were a few notable women) spread out all over Europe, but with the six most famous writers living and working in England. Ground breakers all, because they wrote about their emotional landscapes as much as their physical surroundings. Theirs was a wholly physical world. The best of them (in my opinion), John Keats, stood apart because of his talent for writing about the human body, its sensations, its struggles and suffering, its joys.
If you take a moment to read the lyrics of many of John Darnielle’s songs (he alone is really The Mountain Goats in terms of being the visionary driving force behind the songwriting, although he has worked with a small group of gifted artists who support him in making his plentiful and singular records) you’ll see that his storytelling comes alive when the physical body is the center of the story. We can all relate and connect: the suffering and the joy that our bodies endure as they support our choices, good and bad. Darnielle expressively writes about these choices. He writes like a man who has had a lot happen to him in life, good and bad. Over and over there’s an intimacy that emerges from his songs.
So, back to the song. “And I feel so proud to be alive….” Staying alive is an achievement, meaning that some of the choices we make seriously threaten that goal. Seeing Darnielle, hearing versions of some of his most passionate songs (the selection of which must be a daunting task given that he has so much worthy material to choose from), hearing him talk about his work between songs, hearing that he once worked in an AIDS hospice, reveal a man who has witnessed the heartbreaking interplay between joy and suffering. He has followed his heart in crafting confessional songs that hide very little, even in a forest of metaphor. For the entire evening I thought about writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Keats, Thomas Moore, Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I thought about how writers explore the longing to put back the innocence of youth even as we’re tempted to new, risky experiences. I finally understood a little of what Darnielle means when he puts staying alive as the central achievement in life, of feeling proud even in the face of the “reckoning” (however he defines judgment). Living isn’t something we do by default just because we’re born. It’s something we have to earn.
I know what you’re thinking, you’re thinking “How can a contemporary songwriter compare to poets of stature from so long ago?” Easily. John Darnielle is a writer like all writers. His work comes from someplace deep, and he’s part of a lineage, a tradition. He’s written hundreds of songs spread out over 14 full-length releases and many more EPs. He obsessively uses language, sometimes sounding archaic to the modern ear, sometimes packing as many syllables as will fit the beat structure of the song if sung quickly, to describe the physical world, to explain the myths and monsters we create for ourselves to control others, the tender love we feel when we first fall in love, the heartbreak of falling out of love, and the inexplicable and confusing mystery that unfolds when a child is born.
Darnielle’s language is romantic, emotional, and richly descriptive of the physical world. As he noted between songs in Seattle, you can even find some of the hotels in his songs on Yelp. Who says a modern songwriter can’t walk the emotional paths of a John Keats or a Mary Shelley? I think Darnielle’s work would easily impress and slipstream nicely into that artistic world of John Keats.
As I mentioned earlier, this show changed my perception of Darnielle’s work. In particular, the importance of his voice. It isn’t so noticeable on his earliest records, such as “Zopilote Machine” (1994) or even “All Hail West Texas” (2002), but starting with “Tallahassee” (2002), his first record with the 4AD record label, you can feel his studio albums begin to get more polished, more sophisticated in their production values. In short, they’re beautiful and professional, and they culminate in what often happens to artists who make lots of records. As they develop, a richly nuanced blend of raw inspiration and the craft of professional recordings emerges. Now no detail is left out of a recording like “Transcendental Youth.”
But from the beginning, from “Zopilote Machine” all the way through to the stunning high-water mark record “Heretic Pride,” the risky Biblical explorations of “The Life of the World to Come” (2009), to the fictional Tarot card readings of “All Eternals Deck” (2011) (Darnielle’s first record with Merge), it’s the sound of his voice that anchors everything. His words are one thing, but his voice is so distinctive that it drives everything about his “sound.” In a live setting, his voice takes center stage rather than blending back into the studio production. His touring band, who contributed to “Transcendental Youth,” are certainly capable and professional in keeping with the spirit of the studio versions of the songs. But it’s Darnielle’s voice that drives and shapes the live sound. His energy and passion for performance is the engine that moves the evening along.
Stand out songs for me were “Amy AKA Spent Gladiator 1,” the stunning opening track on the “Transcendental Youth” LP, “Up the Wolves,” “The Diaz Brothers,” “Ezekiel 7 and the Permanent Efficacy of Grace,” and one of the concluding songs of the evening, “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton.” But the finest, lyrically speaking, of the evening was “San Bernardino” from “Heretic Pride.” The live version dramatically departed from the studio version, set up with just Darnielle’s voice and the bass guitar player. At times the sound system rumbled a little too loud, but always Darnielle’s voice floated back to the story of the song, lives starting over in San Bernardino, of drawing a hot bath and dropping flower petals in the water, and the stirrings of an infant son.
Always, Darnielle’s voice was the key sound for the evening, whether singing or speaking. I saw that night the powerful nature of a singer’s voice when crafted into the larger world of a long tour and the gathering together of so many songs and themes.
Earlier I mentioned that this was also a religious experience for me. Certainly, musically speaking, it was every bit that, experiencing and then connecting the dots to see where Darnielle’s songwriting fit with the wider world of touring and writing.
When the show was over and the crowd dispersed, I slowly made my way to the merchandise table to buy copies of the silk-screened tour posters. Darnielle is known for using talented graphic artists for his tour posters, people like Robert Wilson IV, Methane Studios, and Drew Millward. When I got to the table I was so focused on the process of buying the posters that I didn’t notice that Darnielle had made his way through the crowd, more or less unnoticed, and was standing next to me at the table. He very kindly signed my posters.
This is one of the coolest parts of the modern Indie music scene for me: you can sometimes get a signed LP or poster, talk to the artist for a moment, as I also did from Michael E. White, who contributed the horn arrangements to “Transcendental Youth” and who was the opening band that night. White has also just released a solo record, “Big Inner,” on his own label, Spacebomb Records.
After Darnielle signed my posters I had the presence of mind to say, “It was a religious experience.” And Darnielle said, “Thank you!” That was it, the full-meal deal with all the trimmings, and my last live show to review in 2012. A perfect ending to an interesting Indie year.
Oh, and if you have some time, do take a look the Romantics.