In the fall of 2003, for my birthday, a friend made me a mix cd, titled something like “A Birthday Just Isn’t a Birthday Without a Crappy Mix CD”. It was my first year at college, and along with the depression, extreme acne, and longing to play shows in basements rather than study physics in the library, I was also discovering the music that would lead to me to writing my own songs less than a year later. My friend’s mix quickly joined my daily rotation, spinning me deeper and deeper into a dark, warm closet, wrapped in blankets and protected from the uncertainty of everything.
The song on that mix that immediately struck me was one called “No Children” by a band (or was it just a man?) called The Mountain Goats. The song’s protagonist, or maybe antagonist (remind me to look up the meaning of that word, or if you don’t mind, you can just look it up yourself), spends the few minutes of this tune extolling to his ex-lover and probably ex-beloved how he is really, really happy about how their entire relationship went down in flames and about how absolutely nothing is going to be ok and how fucking awesome that is. I had never known love (I don’t think I have still, honestly), and I definitely hadn’t known hatred. Not like this. Awe-inspiring, destructive, fuck everything maelstrom-style hatred. I guess it’s that raw emotion that makes this probably the most popular song, featured on the album Tallahassee, ever released by The Mountain Goats, which really started as a man, John Darnielle (I love you, John), and has since evolved into an honest-to-god band, maybe starting in earnest with this album. But this is all just an intro for me to talk about a different album made by the Mountain Goats, one on which he is the only musician, and one which is 100% perfect.
The album is called All Hail West Texas. Amazingly, this was released the same year as Tallahassee, just 9 months prior, on February 19th, 2002. I was halfway through my junior year of high school then. Two years after the album first came out, I was in ZZZ Records in Des Moines, Iowa with the friend who’d gifted me the mix cd, and I was intent on buying something, anything by The Mountain Goats. What they had was this cd, this All Hail West Texas, with a cover that simply states the artist name, the album title, and the text “fourteen songs about seven people, two houses, a motorcycle, and a locked treatment facility for adolescent boys”.
It only took a few hours for my life to be flipped, turned upside down (I just had to make that reference, no apologies). It only took that long for me to listen to the CD 4 times in a row in my headphones in my dorm room on my Sony DiscMan (purchased for $80 at the end of 8th grade in 1999, one of my finest purchases ever and the beginning of me not being able to express myself to my parents or anyone else for that matter, due to the much more comfortable reality it offered).
In retrospect, I think there’s some connection between that DiscMan in 8th grade, the widening gap separating self-love and self-hate that was cracking open within me by 10th grade and which grew for many years (I like to think that now it’s expansion has ceased, and I simply stand with legs wide apart, straddling the chasm with a grin, blood dripping from my face), the loathing of my own religion (which I was quickly running away from in that freshman year of college) and everything around me that was that “normal”, and my love of the music of The Mountain Goats, and in particular, this album.
Start with the very first song, “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton”. A couple of guys who’d been friends since grade-school. They dreamed of being rock and roll gods. People thought they were sick. The world killed their dreams. So then they killed everybody. I was in a band. It was the only thing that mattered to me then. And even though I was never diagnosed as being mentally ill, this song helped me realize why the word “fag” was regularly yelled at me from the windows of passing cars, why the condensation of my car’s windshield was often marred with words of what someone, who knows who, thought of me and my shit music, and even why, once while I worked my regular shift at Breadeaux Pizza in Grimes, Iowa (oh gracious filler of pores, who but you could provide so much pepperoni-grease laden air for my skin to soak in?), that same car was “burrito-ed”. That’s where a bunch of burritos are thrown all over your car, a waste if you ask me, but it’s worth it for the sake of the story now.
Now track two. “Fall of the Star High School Running Back”. The story of a promising young athlete whose entire life falls apart after an in-game injury, leading him to isolation, dealing drugs, selling acid (a bad idea, but selling it to a cop is a worse one), and getting federal time for his crime. All that in 1 minute 49 seconds. That’s how long it took for me to remember the hatred I had for the same star running backs I went to school with at Dallas Center-Grimes High School, Home of the Mustangs (and of course, The Fillies, many of whom I fell in love with, while always being sure to stare straight ahead and pretend I was an island). Now I would be appalled if any of those Stangs suffered an injury, especially one that dashed their dreams and turned their life to ruin, but a year and a half after high school, feeling more alone than ever, I loved it.
From there the album treks through failed relationships with lovers (see “The Mess Inside” and “Balance”), which I couldn’t honestly resonate with, but it felt good to pretend, past escapist fantasy (“Jenny”), which I thrived on plenty without the help of song but even more with, and coming to stop at the cliff’s edge with pontification of the eternal (so brilliantly in “Blues in Dallas”). This song in particular stuck with me, it’s religious imagery allowing a secular excursion into thinking about life’s end, and some perspective on what really matters (you, me, right now, duh).
I wouldn’t realize until later that this album was recorded in Iowa, that The Mountain Goats had lived and made music in the state I grew up in. Holy shit, what a revelation. The pieces fall into place. John Darnielle lived in and recorded this album in Ames, Iowa, the city I was living in while I attended my first couple years of college! He’d made it all alone in his bedroom just a few years before I was all alone in my dorm room, in the same town. Seriously.
All that is why this is absolutely one of my favorite records of all time, and probably the one that holds the most personal meaning to me. I’ve gone on to see The Mountain Goats perform live 8 times. When we started our record label in 2011 (named Maximum Ames Records and based in the city the album was made), it took me less than a year to naively email The Mountain Goats’ manager inquiring about the possibility of reissuing the album on vinyl, to which they amazing responded with a “thank you for the interest but there are currently no plans to re-release this album” (thankfully, Merge Records more recently re-issued this, read Pitchfork’s Best New Reissue Review here: http://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/18288-the-mountain-goats-all-hail-west-texas/), and I even got to open for John when he played the first ever Maximum Ames Music Festival. For that show, I oversaw the creation of a letter-pressed poster, which read “All Hail The Mountain Goats!”. I remember John watched our set from the side of the stage. I hadn’t been nervous on stage in years, but I was that night. John told me how good my horn section was, that I should hold on to them. Sorry, John, they’re gone now, but I’m still here.
And I’ll still be here, hopefully for a while, because each February 19th marks another year that the world gets to be lucky enough to have this piece of art in its presence.
All Hail The Mountain Goats.
-by Christopher Ford
P.S. I express myself to my parents just fine now. Well, kinda.
Christopher Ford makes music as Christopher the Conquered. He likes to help Maximum Ames Records put out music every once in a while, too.