During my first year in college, my roommate and I, still barely more than strangers, discovered that we had remarkably similar though maybe unconventional taste in celebrity heartthrobs. We loved writers. One afternoon, as we lay in our own beds just three feet away from each other, we watched a video of one of our favorite novelists reading from his book. Not long into the reading, the novelist paused to invite the members of the band The Mountain Goats to join him on the stage. At the time, I was annoyed that my writer didn’t just keep reading. After all, I wanted to listen to him, not to some obscure band that I had never heard and didn’t much want to hear. Still, The Mountain Goats, all two of them, filed out of the wings and took their places under the bright lights on the large, empty stage.
The two members of the band, both men in their late 40s named John, looked a little homely against the well-lit stage and the glamorous auditorium hall. They seemed too old to be seen in public with their overgrown, shaggy brown hair, the kind that fancy all-boys high schools do their best to outlaw, and both were dressed in button-down shirts and jeans and jackets without a tie. One John sat down on the piano bench, and the other John—or rather Jon, as I would later learn—took a seat behind the drum set, and after a few opening words, they played. Together, with easy piano chords and a soft rhythm, they sounded excited but relaxed, almost as if someone had given jazz a mild sedative. The song was called “In Memory of Satan.”
In the years since I first heard The Mountain Goats play—sheer luck that I happened to like a writer who liked this band—I’ve gone back to the video of the novelist’s reading, skipping the reading and only listening to the parts when The Mountain Goats play. I did not, as it turns out, recall that my first encounter with The Mountain Goats was “In Memory of Satan,” nor did I remember the song after that, or the song after that. I remembered only the last song, the one when everyone from the wings ran onstage and danced as The Mountain Goats closed out the evening. For the next few days, I hummed the refrain under my breath until they were the only words from the video that I could remember. I am going to make it through this year, if it kills me. I am going to make it through this year, if it kills me.
When I try to recall how it felt to hear The Mountain Goats play for the first time, I remember shock and admiration for the way just two men on a stage could generate so much passion among so many people. There were thrashing heads and violent dances and people jumping up and down with their eyes clamped shut, and The Mountain Goats played with a ferocity I wasn’t sure I had ever witnessed before. Their uncontrollable energy seemed near divine. Watching all these people—grown men and women, writers, musicians, teenagers—all in the same room feeling the same thing at the same time, it was the closest thing I could imagine to a direct encounter with God.
In the time since seeing that video, I’ve learned that John Darnielle, the John on the piano, has often spoken about wanting, above all, to remain human. A fan once approached him, thanking him for being as good a person as his music made him seem, to which John Darnielle responded, I am always wanting to dispel this idea that I am a good or special person in any way…I think that ascribing some quality called goodness to a person because of his or her work [or] words [or] deeds is a habit worth breaking. I am fortunate to have gotten on a path of growth where I’ve been able to follow my true self for a while now. Plenty of people didn’t catch the same breaks and ended up doing lousy things but they’re still good people, they just got lost. I think there’s maybe lost people and junior cartographers. I am a junior cartographer most days but woe betide the junior cartographer who presumes to truly know the map.
Sometimes, I think John Darnielle’s music is my map, my guide to all the places I have ever been and even the ones I have yet to see, and his lyrics are my key. I imagine each chord and each rest filling in the topography and the lyrics telling me which direction to move in and which way to turn. I imagine following long hidden roads at night in the darkest and emptiest places on earth, relying only on the faith I place in his music to show me the right path, and I imagine that this path is beautiful.
Sometimes, too, it feels silly to follow a map that I know was never meant to be a map, but when I hear John Darnielle’s voice yelling through the speakers in my bedroom, howling I am going to make it through this year, if it kills me, I feel certain, for a brief moment, that his music contains my very world, and that somewhere, on the other side of those speakers, John Darnielle is shouting only for me, commanding me to hang on as long as I possibly can because no matter what, this world will not kill me. As I follow him down the backroads and the highways until the bitter end, he shouts, we hold on as hard as we can. Our knuckles are white. And sometimes I follow him because going somewhere is better than not going anywhere at all, so I hum quietly to myself and follow his path, knowing that there will be good music for the journey and better music when I get there.
When I think back to before I had ever heard of John Darnielle or his music or his map, I deliberately let him slip into my memories, as if to ask him to write these moments into the guide he has given me. I wonder sometimes if it is wrong to interpret my memories within a world created by someone else’s eyes, but memories have never been very reliable narrators, so no one can tell me that they do not fit within the world of John Darnielle’s music. And besides, they are my memories. If I want John Darnielle there, why shouldn’t I let him in?
In my memory, when I first learned that brothers cannot save you and that fathers do not have all the answers and that mothers know how to yell and how to drink, he whispered that way out in Seattle, young Kurt Cobain snuck out to the greenhouse, put a bullet his brain…Some moments last forever, he said, and some flare out with love. He reminded me that love can eat a path through everything, that there is terrible damage in the way people talk about…love [as] this benign, comfortable force. It’s not that, he whispered. It’s wild. And when I hear those words, remembering what it felt like to hide in my bathroom behind a barricaded, locked door and hear my mother scream from the outside, I let John Darnielle lure me into believing that though I am terrified, maybe this is how my mother loves. Though she is wild, yes, that might be love.
And at my high school graduation when I did not want to cross the stage in celebration with the classmates who had made me nervous to walk through the halls of my own school, I remembered John Darnielle. I heard his voice as I waited in line with the people wearing red caps and gowns just like mine, waited to hear my name called and recognized as one of a group of which I did not belong. When it was finally my turn, I marched up the rickety steps on the side of the makeshift stage in my high school gymnasium and glanced out at the faces in the crowd, some of which I could not recognize, and others I wished I would never see again. To this, John Darnielle responded, people say friends don’t destroy one another. What do they know about friends?
And he was there when I was forced to spend three days alone in a hospital where the visiting hours were limited to two per day, and phone privileges were restricted to the same two hours and to the white telephone attached to the wall outside the nurses’ station. And from behind the clear glass windows, the nurses would watch from their desks, careful that we did not try to hurt ourselves with the cord. Sitting in the scratchy armchair staring at the phone on the wall and the cord dangling down, I can remember thinking, in old movies, people scream, choking on their fists when they see shadows like these. But no one screams because it’s just me. But John Darnielle reminds me that it is never just me. He reminds me that he is always there too: a voice in my ear as a frightened child, a friend on a lonely graduation day, an iron will when I have lost my own. I am going to make it through this year, if it kills me, he repeats over and over when I can no longer bring myself to say it.
If I follow John Darnielle’s map back to these places where he never was, his voice guides me from within the speakers in my bedroom. So far away from those moments, he reminds me how far away I am now, too. It’s good to be young, he says. But let’s not kid ourselves. It’s better to pass on through those years and come out the other side with our hearts still beating, having stared down demons come back breathing. His voice leads me to the moments that I cannot find because I am too young or too sad or maybe just too lost to find them on my own, and I wonder if there will ever come a time when I am not too young or too sad or too lost.
John Darnielle has given me the course through which I can chart my own life, a life indebted, in part, to a moment in a college dorm room when I watched a video of two homely middle-aged men walk out onto a stage. It is a life co-written with white telephone cords and locker-lined hallways and the stench of room temperature wine. And in a rare lull between songs at a Mountain Goats’ concert in Bristol, England, a man in the audience shouted out from the dark crowd, telling John Darnielle that he had saved his life. From the bright lights of the stage into the nameless faces in front of him, John Darnielle shouted back. “No, sir, you saved your life. I was just the soundtrack.”
Alina Williams graduated from Skidmore College in May 2016; in addition to writing she enjoys gymnastics, contortion, and spending too much time upside down. To find more of her work online, check out alinawilliams.com.