The Mountain Goats in New York: Sensitive, A Little Bit God-Like

Kind of a fascinating ongoing discussion underway at the Mountain Goats forums about the new New York feature about John Darnielle, entitled "God & Worshipper: A Rock-and-Roll Love Story, of Sorts: The complex bond between the Mountain Goats' John Darnielle and his sensitive fans." The pitfalls here are obvious: most successful musicians have obsessive fans, most of whom are not exactly representative of anyone besides the rest of the front-row jockeys; plus, ascribing much agency to Darnielle for how his fans behave or think of him is a pretty tenuous leap. Still, the writer, Stephen Rodrick, gives it a shot.

To wit: "a cross section of earnest young poet boys, geeky music-philes, and self-styled off-the-grid types carrying messenger bags" have a special relationship to Darnielle, "a stocky middle-aged white man wearing a goofy smile and a blazer festooned with death-metal patches." The big pitch:

    Mountain Goats fans tend to have an air of sadness about them, and because Darnielle sings so openly and candidly about his own difficulties, he connects with his audience on a level that few artists are able to reach (the band is called the Mountain Goats, plural, but the group--and the fuss over them--is entirely about Darnielle). Darnielle sings about what his fans feel but can't articulate. He's their hero, but he's also their soulmate, the one person in the world who understands them.

Now this is tough to bring off. Darnielle in fact has spent most of his career not being particularly candid about his own difficulties, with the exception of a couple of overtly autobiographical records. Which Rodrick does acknowledge:

    As Darnielle's songs became more personal, his relationship with fans became more complex. Darnielle already had a non-band blog called Last Plane To Jakarta, but after he signed with 4AD he created Mountain-Goats.com. Fans began posting feverishly, especially when they realized Darnielle was an active participant and often responded to their messages. People began writing to Darnielle directly, asking for everything from free tickets to the next show to how to handle personal problems. Darnielle's followers didn't seem to want to get high with him or have sex with him so much as just talk with him. They wanted a confidant. And they were insatiable. "You started to notice that for John to just go from backstage to take a piss became an ordeal," says Peter Hughes, the band's bassist and longtime Darnielle friend. "He was being stopped by twenty people when all he wants to do is go to the bathroom and get ready for the show. He's a good guy, but he's not Mother Teresa."

Most of the piece is not in fact about the Mountain Goats but about a young guy named Stephen Wesley, who's in there as a kind of surrogate, everyman Darnielle-obsessive. As it turns out, Wesley was not the only one profiled, as he writes on the Mountain Goats forum:

    I agree there definitely isn't a prototypical tMG fan, or if there is it certainly isn't me. To the four other people who were interviewed for this piece, let me just say that I was chosen (and this is how it was put to me) because I was a) young (because the meeting one's hero story is more endearing if it isn't a forty year old meeting another one) and b) because I had never seen the goats before but still qualified as a pretty into-it fan. But I am certainly not the end-all-be-all of tMG fans, and certainly not even the biggest. I just worked as a familiar story, as this was written to (as the reporter put it to me) the NY Mag reader base, anyone from a real tMG fan to "somebody's grandmother in Long Island.

Fair enough--although that does leave me curious about who else Rodrick talked to and in what ways they didn't quite fit the intended drift of the piece. Darnielle also weighed in:

    Man you guys can't even imagine how nervous I've been to read this thing - when somebody writes a big article, you never know what they're going to say. I think for me to get super-involved in a discussion about it would be kinda crass...but I have to say a couple of things

    1) Rodrick is an excellent writer & I'm honored to be profiled by him - he did a Riddick Bowe story that's just <3 <3 <3

    2) that said, I wonder how many times I'm gonna have to tell people my stepfather wasn't an alcoholic before it sinks in - alcohol was a problem in my mom-and-dad house, not in my mom-and-stepdad house

    3) I hope there's no confusion about this, but I worry: the article seems to imply that I'm especially crushed by Mountain Goats fans. This is a partial truth: I am crushed by human company in general & avoid it wherever possible. It takes an act of Congress to get me to visit friends. So, if I'm uncomfortable around you guys, that's not anything about you; it's that, over the years, I have rather become the neurotic hermit everybody used to think I was, and feel very nervous talking to people, and, after I talk to them, am consumed by self-contempt over how I must seem like the most awful person. This weekend, the only other human being I saw was my wife, which is kinda how I like it. So, anyway, that's how that is.

I.e., there's a sort of firm but polite consensus from those involved, which you can also sort of detect in the article, that while the piece is fair and even pretty fascinating in spots, there are exaggerations here and there to fit a thesis. Not the worst crime in the world by anyone's standards.

But, while admitting in advance that this next bit is very much informed by the exact kind of stannery Rodrick describes in the piece, isn't this a pretty inadequate response to the phenomenon described in the piece? I don't think someone would go about explaining the mass appeal of Jonathan Lethem's Fortress of Solitude, say--to name another artist/work of art that has its own disproportionate share of adoration--by profiling its fans. Especially its college-aged superfans.

Which is to say another way to explain to New York's audience what matters about the Mountain Goats might be to explain to New York's audience what matters about the Mountain Goats. I mean, Mountain Goats fans aren't Juggalos, and Darnielle is certainly no Insane Clown Posse. If this was a piece about a whole group of people's obsessive relation to a body of music, then isn't the really interesting thing here not the obsessives but what they're obsessed with?


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