Down to the End

It is one of those long Wednesdays that stretches on with no discernible end, and after a nine-hour work day, driving to the city seems more difficult than advertised. Traffic is slow, and my friends are jammed into a small coupe, their stomachs rumbling in protest against the spicy pork tacos I’d thoughtlessly fed them before trapping them in this hour-long descent into gastrointestinal hell.

We arrive at the club too early and stand like cattle for what feels like forever. Out in the street an SUV changes lanes and collides with a black sedan. Everyone is okay, but the blond man in the sedan chokes back his fury in observance of the expectant crowd. The SUV driver falls over herself apologizing, but you can tell the guy really wants to let her have it. This gives us something a little more peppery to talk about.

It has been an endless day, but I’m excited. Cattle or not, I am outside this unimposing club in Salt Lake City with my closest buddies waiting to see my hands-down favorite band ever. Ticket firmly in hand, I cheat out of the drizzle and try to conceal my childish hope to be the first to catch a glimpse of The Mountain Goats. I see instead a bunch of ordinary people who look just like my friends and me, and I gradually drop my guard and  slump into the resignation that I will not see anything interesting or move forward in line anytime soon.

The waiting fans snake around the building and down the street. This surprises me, and I don’t know why. The Mountain Goats have been a prominent face in the music scene for years, but I think it is both heartening and a little jarring to realize that so many people in our community are fans. I’d never run into someone–outside my close-knit, mildly snooty circle–who felt the desperate recognition of “No Children” or dreamed of fleeing proverbial Eden to build a new life. Yet here are hundreds of people, some of them bearing albums for the band to autograph after the show. Are they rehearsing some casually witty remark for the brilliant lead vocalist? If they are anything at all like me, they’re reaching for a genuine and classic compliment and hoping that when the moment comes, they don’t simply blurt, “You’re, like, so smart and great and poetic and I brought my panties for you to sign.” I mean, I got nervous talking to the guys from Air Supply, so I’m pretty dedicated to the idea that I’ll crash and burn before I even shake this interesting musician’s hand.

It is a mixed feeling to realize that so many people are familiar with a group that my friends and I have come to see as our own discovery, and against all logic this irks me. From a pitiful place in the back of my mind creeps this looming snob made astute by fourteen years of musical training. I cast a disappointed glare at those around me and whimper to myself, We might share a space beneath this dribbling awning, but I’ll bet you don’t have all the lo-fi stuff too.

I hate waiting in lines. I’m realizing that the pain creeping up my calves suggests a degree of thoughtlessness in having chosen strappy wedges for a standing-room-only event. Though, I don’t admit this to Neil, who loves to rib me for wearing my geisha shoes anywhere but the movies.

The line moves, and it feels good to walk. Finally inside, we meet the rush of relief that comes with progressing from A to B, the sense that things are in motion and soon the show will fill the hall with what we’d all been waiting for. Our optimism fades as twenty minutes pass, then thirty, forty. A few of us gather near the stage hoping that we can make the band appear on sheer enthusiasm alone. In the back stand scores of concertgoers, relaxing and having one drink, then another.

Ninety minutes delayed, the opening act enters the stage, a three-piece Beatles throwback with a chick drummer and a set of catchy, original songs that all sound more or less the same. By the time they’ve banged out their final chord, most of the crowd is thrashed and restless, sloshing beer onto the floor and packing tighter toward the stage.

We wait, fearful again of being left alone without the promise of a scheduled downbeat.  Suddenly, from a side door, the headlining band cuts through the crowd and jogs on stage. The fans up front stand awash in stage lights and watch with purpose as this three-man group fills the hall with an almost medicinal melody, and I forget about my throbbing feet. People in the back are still drinking and talking over the strains of the show’s opener. These are the people who’ve come out looking for something to break up the week, a Wednesday night with buds. They had called their friends encouraging them to come out to the club, adding, “I heard there’s supposed to be a live band or something.” I hated them.

The opening song comes from the new album–which I haven’t yet pegged as quintessentially Mountain Goat–and blends to a well-worn favorite that sends the crowd cheering. A familiar cadence fills in the spaces between each of the die-hard fans crowded up front and plows into the socialites talking loudly in the back. It’s my favorite song, “Old College Try.” On the album it’s performed with an organ and guitar and evokes the feel of a reverent chapel. It is small, this chapel, enveloped in dark after nightfall, and I like to imagine that the only thing lighting the worn room is a sparse candelabra perched near the pulpit.

My mind’s eye fills the room with uncertainty. A man waits shuffling slightly and thumbs a loose thread hanging from the sleeve of his borrowed blazer. A minister catches a discrete glance at his watch, the witness sighs, and the doors creak open, revealing a petite and ordinary woman, about thirty. She isn’t dressed for a wedding, but, then, neither is he. Just whatever they could find last minute. Suddenly the room feels full and complete, and as the man and woman join hands, they take their terrifying plunge together, sure now that this is the only way to set their world spinning again.

I elaborate, but the actual lyrics are decidedly Darnielle. There is a hopeless and doomed undertone to the couple’s story, but the veteran songwriter destroys all lingering doubt with a few well-chosen phrases. His poeticism colors a drab scene, and with a morbid simile–in what I consider the highlight of the song–he likens a trash can fire in a prison cell to familiar eyes that illuminate and elucidate everything around him. He injects a little hope into a deep, dark world, which really stands out if you’re the type of realist who has a clear picture of just what can go wrong in life.

In the end the song is not about perfection or, probably, not even a wedding as my art-should-be-pretty sentimentality has painted it. But what I see in the story are two people embittered by life and beset by the kinds of challenges that make the fainthearted cut and run. They’ve slogged through the mire together and often felt the sting of hot tears bathing arguments so loud and long that neighbors would skitter away nervously after the storm had retreated. Their differences are looming, but they can’t get past the reality that something tells them to suck it up and go for it. Their path is both extraordinary and unremarkable at once, and I still can’t get through the song without recalling my own over-embellished sob story and bawling my eyes out in the name of complicated love. Whatever the setting, be it ducking under the bubbles in my tub or cutting down proofs in my very busy and very open office, I blubber for my private joys and sorrows, and to look at me you’d think I’d lost a casual friend or, at most, my favorite pet. It makes people uncomfortable.

Back at the concert, I try my best to avoid looking to my left at Neil. He’s the guy in the church, swallowed in a shabby tweed jacket, too big for him–his father’s. He is there because we need each other and because being together is the one sure detail that makes everything else we do feel like a consolation. He is that flickering candle that leads me home, but sometimes he can be a real pain in the ass. I’m told I’m not all sunshine and roses myself, so I give him a pass unless I’m really livid. Years ago–back before I’d discovered real affection and genuine good fortune—I dragged him to hell, and when he came back, he was kind enough to bring me with him. And that is saying something.

When the song had begun, Neil had jostled me in excitement, beaming, “It’s your favorite!” He listens. He knows me, from what foods I hate all the way down to which obscure indie song is my favorite of all obscure indie songs. It is touch and go for a minute, and I beg myself, Don’t be that girl! Do not cry in this bar!

There is no organ at the show, so the band casts their familiar piece in an upbeat guitar, bass, and drum kit mix. It surprises me. How can they capture all the complicated emotion in the song with a typical, high-energy rock show rendition? The album version had spoken of my story, and how can I appreciate its art without all the right pieces in place?

I really should learn to trust people more talented than I am. People who write for Decibel and studied poetry while I was nailing down fractions.

For the first time in memory, crammed against the stage and surrounded tightly by indie kids and ex-indie grown-ups who followed the group from the beginning, I see all the optimism and certainty that had been crammed into my favorite two minutes and fifty-three seconds on vinyl. I had gotten the message that love and stability are hard won, for the lucky. But I had missed entirely how much you’re allowed to enjoy wading through the crap and arriving at something that closely resembles pure happiness. I am not tortured by experience; I am human, living a variegated and complete life just like the people singing along all around me. The gleeful energy rattles the walls of the crowded club, and even the hipsters in the back forget about themselves and their drinks if only for a moment.

Catching a glance at Neil as the song winds away, I don’t burst into tears in this stuffy, crowded bar. Instead, a great, dopey grin plastered across my face, I squeeze his hand, and he squeezes back.


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