Now Here We Are Thirty Years Later: A Memoir in Mountain Goats Songs

By Richard O'Brien

An experimental music memoir inspired by cult band The Mountain Goats.

‘Are you going to Jack In The Box?’, the Lyft driver asked me as we pulled into the otherwise unremarkable stretch of businesses lining a section of Holt Boulevard in Pomona, California. I didn’t know what else to tell him, so I said yes and got out of the car, reflecting as I did that this must have seemed an odd destination for a fifteen-minute drive. The fast-food chain would have had locations closer to where the trip had started, north of here in suburban Claremont, and as a vegetarian, I soon realised once I’d stepped inside (it would have felt even more suspicious not to) there was almost nothing on the menu I could actually eat. As I stood there, in a parking lot at the intersection with Garey Avenue, eating my sad bag of stuffed jalapeños and squinting at the few darkened blocks to the west before Holt met White, I thought about the real reason for my journey which I’d withheld from the driver, primarily out of fear that he might ask me the same question I now had no choice but to ask myself: what the fuck are you doing here?

I’d come to Holt Boulevard (or rather, as the street signs on this strip actually read, East Holt Avenue) in 2018, on a day trip from L.A., where I’d flown from Birmingham, England to participate in a seminar at an international Shakespeare conference held in a hotel I could not afford. I’d given myself a few days before the main event to explore the area – the city itself, but also a handful of locations further off the beaten track, some thirty miles east, which were accessible enough in a single visit to the Inland Empire. These were places whose names I knew from Mountain Goats songs, which by this point I’d been listening to increasingly intently for over a decade of my life: Mills Avenue and Harvey Mudd felt a long way from the English Midlands, where I was born and raised, and they’d been rattling around in my head for long enough that it felt only logical to make a kind of pilgrimage, to see for myself what they actually looked like.

And yet on another level, there was nothing logical about this. On Mills Avenue, I could see how as you headed north the road widened out and, with it, possibility, in a way that corresponded closely with the image in my mind when I listened to ‘This Year’ – admittedly after I’d already walked down it for half an hour in the wrong direction. But Holt Boulevard, between Garey and White, was an ordinary location where somebody who’d written a lot of songs I liked knew you could go to buy drugs in the mid-1980s. I wasn’t here because I was interested in the drugs themselves, or even in Darnielle’s own experience of taking them, which couldn’t, in any meaningful sense, be accessed by me standing on Holt in person, drinking a teeth-rattlingly cold strawberry lemonade and worrying about the train times. I wasn’t waiting for my man, or for anything in particular; I had no business here.

What had brought me to this Pomona parking lot was the vague idea that this was where something significant had happened – something that was important enough to my favourite songwriter that it had become, in turn, indelibly inscribed on my own brain – and that seeing the place might enhance my understanding of the art it inspired. After all, what I’m trying to convey in this project is something about the way this music reverberates across my brain, across my life, giving the landscape I navigate at least some portion of its contours. If I’m honest, going to Pomona – in my first full year in a precarious profession, at the tail end of a long relationship – might have had more to do with understanding myself than understanding the Mountain Goats, and if I didn’t know that at the time, it’s hardly surprising that the experience felt like something of a failure.

Because of course, the important thing wasn’t anything that happened on Holt itself: it was the memory of it, the making of meaning out of it, many years later, through an act of profound recuperation and transfiguration. Because the mention of this address in ‘Palmcorder Yajna’ – the first of his songs committed to record which explicitly addressed this aspect of his background – wasn’t the first time John Darnielle had blurted it out. In a 2009 San Francisco appearance, the singer describes waking up handcuffed to an ICU bed at around the age of seventeen, with police demanding where he’d got the supply of heroin that put him there. He remembered, and tried out, a suggestion from his dealer: ‘Just tell ‘em Holt Boulevard and they can’t do anything to you. You just tell ‘em you bought it on Holt because there’s a lot of dealers on Holt.’

Messing around with a couple of simple downstroked chords in the early 2000s, after fifteen or so years in recovery and with a couple of halfway-hidden autobiographical numbers in his recent notebooks, Darnielle started thinking to himself: ‘This is going to be one of those songs where you’re hiding what you’re actually writing about.’ In search of an opening lyric, he ‘barked out’ an ad-lib that felt like a private joke, ‘mythologizing this nothing area’ – ‘Holt Boulevard!’ – and something in that Pomona Valley Hospital interview from the distant past seemed to make its animating energy felt in the present, taking the form not of re-enacted trauma, but of irrepressible creative joy: ‘When I yelled that… I just stopped and laughed my ass off.’ Darnielle described in a Dutch radio session the liberating sense that he had ‘cheated [his] normal process,’ letting ‘a couple details go in that were strictly autobiographical’: finding himself so strongly drawn to this ‘transgressive’ experience, he reasoned ‘well, maybe that’s the next thing for you to try.’

The results would mark a significant shift in Darnielle’s approach to his art: a turning towards the private life that for the previous decade or so he’d insisted shouldn’t be read into his music. The album which ‘Palmcorder Yajna’ trailed when first released as a single in 2003, We Shall All Be Healed, sprang in part from the artist’s desire to address ‘a real disconnect’ between ‘how I think of myself and how other people imagine me,’ as he commented to Seattle’s KEXP. This disconnect was doubtless exacerbated as his profile began to rise with the previous year’s release of Tallahassee, the Mountain Goats’ first full studio album: ‘people had, have this image of me as … a very innocent professorial guy, and as an ex-junkie, that really annoyed me, that people would think “you know, squeaky-clean John.” And I would think – yeah, no, no. I mean, I’m glad … on the one hand, that I look like that. On the other hand, that’s really not who I am.’

Writing about his experiences with addiction certainly constituted, for Darnielle, a conscious re-engagement with a person he once used to be, but from a perspective that this person ‘no longer has anything to do with me… It was me dredging up a me that I managed to kill many years ago.’ As such, as he told Tobias Wolfe, its approach is far from straightforwardly confessional: ‘every time I’d get close to the fire, I’d back away and start making up stories.’ Indeed, in a live introduction to Healed-era outtake ‘Rescue Breathing,’ Darnielle comments that the most intensely autobiographical lyrics in his working notebook were the ones he decided to leave off the album. We Shall All Be Healed as an album therefore operates somewhere in the space between fiction and disclosure, as its author commented in only the second show he’d ever played in Portland since the nine traumatic months he spent there, ‘just rolling,’ in 1985/6: ‘I set the whole next album in Pomona, California, but just between you and me, most of the people, or a fair number of them, are actually people I knew in Portland up around 13th and Taylor.’

The song takes place in a Travelodge, a chain whose Pomona outlet seems to have closed down at some point in the last few years. If it didn’t even occur to me to seek out that specific building, I think it’s because I’d always known the room ‘Palmcorder Yajna’ mentions was really only Darnielle’s stand-in for a range of locations to which the song gives a single unified shape: ‘I went to this motel in Los Angeles and I went to it in Pomona and I went to it in Portland,’ he told a 2015 audience in New York, ‘and it wasn’t a chain. They were all independently owned. And yet miraculously, they were all the same motel.’ Its origins may be in a specific building in Portland, relocated to Holt Boulevard – but with its ‘beds that smelled funky, stale in a particular type of stale that’s yet ever new, and cigarette burns that miraculously reappear if you replace the sheets with fresh ones,’ the Travelodge can take on the dimensions of something larger and stranger: an in-between place, representing all such places where such things might happen; a literary locus terribilis to hold and encapsulate a particular kind of dark and driving energy.

It feels like this to me most powerfully in a 2004 live version, much-beloved by fans online, which revels in especially garish, grand guignol comparisons. The holes in the characters’ shoes are no longer merely ‘big’ but ‘gaping’; the bridge requests that somebody be sent out for Ativan, a prescription benzodiazepine, rather than simple ‘soda,’ and the screen in the first verse is now inhabited by ‘huge black flies’ which buzz with their own unassimilable threat. These moments of live theatre are so electrifying, in part, because they demonstrate Darnielle’s imagination in action: the instinctual rush of reframing reality, on the fly, as something richer and more mysterious, and affirming in the process: this is my story, and I will decide how it gets told.

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