Agony Shorthand

Thursday, July 21, 2005

by Dinosaur Mahaffey

The late great Texas singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt offers the best ever classification of music: “There’s two kinds of music. There’s the blues and then everything else which is just zip-ah-dee-do-dah.” Townes, although unhelpfully micro-classified as a country accented folksinger, played the blues. John Darnielle, aka The Mountain Goats, is a gross purveyor of zip-ah-dee-do-dah, although far too many fans as well as so-called rock critics mistake his self-indulgent mewlings and his Pop-Goes-the-Weasel cookie cutter lo-fi “music” for the blues, as classified by Van Zandt.

Here’s a typical, recent gush from Dusted Magazine about The Goats’ latest offering, The Sunset Tree: “Darnielle has always written with a greater attention to descriptive detail, narrative perspective, semantic coherence and similar critical concerns than any other underground artist, or any of the folk songwriters of previous eras.” Wow. “Greater” than Guthrie. Joni Mitchell. Dylan. Townes Van Zandt. That’s just off the top of my head.

Well the proof for such a bold, sweeping, profuckingfound claim is in the songs and I have a handy comparison. I’ve just listened to The Sunset Tree (ostensibly a quasi-concept record about Darnielle’s alleged abuse at the hands of his step-father, more about this later) where I was confronted with this “descriptive detail . . .narrative perspective… semantic coherence”:

Now you see it
Now you don’t
Now you say you love me
Pretty soon you won’t

And right now I’m listening to Dylan singing “Tangled Up in Blue”:

She lit a burner on the stove and offered me a pipe
“I thought you’d never say hello,” she said
“You look like the silent type.”
Then she opened up a book of poems
And handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet
From the thirteenth century.
And every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burnin’ coal
Pourin’ off of every page
Like it was written in my soul from me to you,
Tangled up in blue.

Now , I—or you—could fake a comparison like this, by cherrypicking the worst of Darnielle and the best of Dylan, but my comparison is as close to random as it could be. Jump into any song on The Sunset Tree (I hope to never listen to it again) and Blood on the Tracks (though I’m actually listening to a boot called Outtracks, I think) and the results would be exactly the same. If folksingers had an army, Dylan would be the Supreme Commander and John Darnielle would be the hapless buck private who, in basic training, shoots himself in his dick with his own rifle.

Darnielle’s hagiographers will counter about how “prolific” the guy is and they’d be right. Over 400 “songs” in 15 years. But there’s a missing middle here: Prolific does not mean good. In Darnielle’s case, it doesn’t even mean something you should have the slightest of passing interest in.

Perhaps a more apt lyrical comparison for Darnielle is Jim Croce who in “Bad Bad Leroy Brown” offers:

“Bad Bad Leroy Brown
The baddest cat in the whole damn town”

While Darnielle counters:

“It took all the coke in town
To bring down Dennis Brown”

That last Mountain Goatish gem is from The Sunset Tree’s “Song for Dennis Brown” which I mention because I see no relation between the reggae singer and Darnielle’s alleged abuse, the supposed focus of the record. I guess if you listen carefully and extrapolate and suffer the endless spew of The Sunset Tree’s self-indulgent, juvenile rhyme & tired cliché—“I will mend my ways/And walk the straight path to the end of my days”, “Put the pedal to the floor/listened to the engine roar”, “I was 17 years young”, “I am young and I am good”, “ . . .rise above my station”, “The full light of the moon/The magpie comes at noon”, “I don’t want to die alone”, “When there was something left to see”, “The tears roll down my face”, “The lion roars…the King of the Jungle”, “ . . .lighter than air . . .”, “There’s gonna come a day when you feel better”, “ . . .fighting trim . . .” only a relatively small sampling of the fetid wordstew which constitutes the record— there are a few hazy, muddy references to the ogre-like stepdad. But my theory is that everyone’s jumping on board the abuse bandwagon because—as is his wont—Darnielle told them that this was a record that catalogs his abuse and if the adoring crits forgot that, well The Goat reminds them in the liner notes. Twice.

Made possible by my stepfather Mike Noonan (1940-2004): may the peace which eluded you in life be yours now.

And this fuckin’ Oprah-like jewel:

Dedicated to any young men and women anywhere who live with people who abuse them, with the following good news: you are going to make it out of there alive

you will live to tell your story

never lose hope

The former is a semi-clever passive-aggressive, somewhat imperious, cheap shot against a dead guy who can’t defend himself (or sue for libel) and serves only to actually chastise and run a public guilt trip on those other survivors of Noonan who, at least in Darnielle’s dull-witted perception, enabled the guy.

The “heartening” message to kids who are suffering that follows is maybe the single stupidest thing ever written about a parent’s physical abuse of a child because if a boy or girl who’s getting batted around doesn’t step up and take action to improve his/her situation, then s/he’s going to die, no matter how many units The Sunset Tree moves.

But okay I’ll buy that the odious Sunset Tree is a Goat-opus, the be-all and end-all artistic insight re. child abuse. Here then, to my mind, is the record’s key passage, the climax of a scene (song) where the villainous Noonan has cornered the young wretch John:

The scene ends badly as you might imagine
In a cavalcade of anger and fear

So, in the new century’s unquestionably finest depiction of the tragedy of child abuse the post modern Charles Dickens, the man who, more than any other folksong writer ever in recorded history, has mastered the concepts of narrative perspective, semantic coherence and descriptive detail has chosen to tell you what happened rather than show you.

If you want a quick object lesson in the show/tell difference, and the failings of the latter artless method, just give me a second while I pick up this nearby book of verse by gutter poet Charles Bukowski (R.I.P.) and open it at random. Ah yes, here we are, showing (via rhythm, image, dare I say semantic coherence . . .)

my father, never a good man
at best, beat my mother
when it rained
as I threw myself
between them,
the legs, the knees, the
until they

“I’ll kill you,” I screamed
at him. “You hit her again
and I’ll kill you.”

. . .

all the households were under
siege but I believe that ours
held more terror than the

By the way, Bukowski didn’t wait around for things to get better. When he turned 16 he sucker punched his old man and the abuse ended.

In lieu of a vivid scene like Bukowski’s (one of thousands rendered by the old shitheel over the years), The Goat meanwhile offers:

Some things you do for money
Some things you do for fun
But the things you do for love
Will come back to you one by one

Okay, so I’m not being entirely fair. Darnielle does endeavor to get deep during The Sunset Tree. Here’s a couple of trenchant examples:

We scaled the hidden hills beneath the surface

We raised a tower to broadcast our dark dreams

Our mother has been absent ever since we founded Rome
But there’s gonna be a party when the wolf comes home

In the long tresses of your hair I am a babbling brook

Ahem. Hmm. Wait! Now I think I know what this clueless reviewer was striving for when she drooled, “There has always been something about John Darnielle’s lyrics; even when you’re not exactly sure what he’s talking about . . .”

And now briefly to The Sunset Tree’s “music.” That hapless Dusted guy informs us that it’s “good” which it is if your idea of “good” is finding yourself on the quad of any major land grant midwestern university where the hackysack people are taking a break from the “ring” and jamming out on some skewed Dave Matthews arrangements. Apparently there are famous Chicago underground session men playing on the record, one sawing on a cello, another farting into a pan flute and so on? Maybe they can start their own band. I even have a name for it. Toto Junior.

My title here comes from Lester Bangs’ infamous 1971 tirade, “James Taylor Marked for Death” where he pitted the twee singer-songwriter (“My spleen is reserved for . . .James Taylor, all the glory boys of I-Rock. I call it I-Rock even though I just made up the name, because most of it is so relentlessly, involutedly egocentric that you finally actually stop hating the punk and just want to take the poor bastard out and get him a drink, and then kick his ass, preferably off a high cliff into the nearest ocean) against the magnificence of lout-punks The Troggs (“If you take ‘Wild Thing’ to heart and somehow attain its at least Kilimanjaroan level of godawful beauty, you will have so much sheer sheen-gleam of pure fuckin KLASS that your brain will explode . . .”). Guess what? Compared to Darnielle, James Taylor is The Troggs.

Dead Lester—and you—should know that I-Rock has never gone away and instead has metastasized into something—hey I can make up words too—I’ll call The Cult of Underground Nullity. Darnielle and his slackjawed acolytes and followers are but one of many gaggles that exemplify this disturbing trend. Bangs went on in his piece to claim that he wanted to stab Taylor w/ a broken Ripple ( . . .”twisting it into James Taylor’s guts”. . .) bottle. Regarding Mr. John Darnielle and his adoring quasi-masses, I’m not that far along. Yet.