Editor's note: this piece contains discussions of suicide, depression, and alcohol and substance abuse.
on the day that Dennis Brown’s habits caught up with him school children sang in choir
and out behind the Chinese restaurants, guys were jumping into dumpsters
and the stench was overbearing
but they were past the point of caring
on the day my habits catch up with me, I’ll be down among the jumpers
Like many a fan, my main point of entry to the Mountain Goats was through The Sunset Tree. Who’d have thought an album containing some of the most harrowing songs John Darnielle had ever written that touch on his domestic abuse would make for such an universally loved record that introduced so many people to his work? Despite the heavy subject matter, it’s full of some of the band’s most popular songs, including This Year and Dance Music, two of the first that I ever heard. I first listened to them one October, and that Christmas I ordered myself a copy of The Sunset Tree and then fell in love with the band, the album, and with every song on it. Well, every song except one.
“Song for Dennis Brown” is my favorite song on the Sunset Tree, and one of my favorite songs that John has ever written (there’s far too many contenders to ever choose a favorite). Yet I remember struggling to like it at first. I even remember looking up the tour setlists ahead of my first ever Mountain Goats show, noting that Song for Dennis Brown was one of the most played songs from my favorite album, and feeling a little disappointed. I didn’t dislike it, per se, but being sandwiched between the anxious energy of “Magpie” and the instantly likeable fan favorite “Love Love Love” didn’t do it any favors in my eyes. I’d have honestly have rather heard any other song on that album before it. I considered it my least favorite on the album for a long time, and to tell the truth, I’m not sure exactly when my opinions on it changed.
I remember reading a brilliant article once that said something about how many Mountain Goats fans are often sad people, and are drawn to their favorite songs in their times of sadness and wear them as a badge of honor. As one of my favorite songs from their album Transcendental Youth would put it, we “make up magic spells, we wear them like protective spells”. A year or two after I got into the band, I’d moved away from home for college, and learned to appreciate that line more and more. While it was an exciting experience, it led to me recognizing my own depression for the first time, which was getting worse and worse. I’ve never really liked the winter seasons, especially because of how the sun sets too early, but this was probably the worst winter of my life. I was drinking too much most nights, and I’d felt truly suicidal for the first time, clinging to these songs like a drowning man to a rock in order to stay afloat. I’d spend days lying in bed with the same songs on repeat over and over—No Children, In Memory of Satan, In Corolla, Ezekiel 7, Riches and Wonders. I wanted to go home, but unfortunately, I was home, and it was unbearable.
As melodramatic as it sounds, I owe my life to some of their songs. Were it not for “This Year” coming up on a playlist I’d made, I’d have attempted to swallow some sleeping pills I’d bought from a chemist’s a few weeks previous, ready for the night I knew I’d snap. But I didn’t. Not yet.
and when the birds come home in spring
we will fill them up with buckshot
and jets of contaminated blood
will cloud the rivers and the lakes
“Song for Dennis Brown” isn’t one of those songs I’d clung to during that time, but it’s one I’ve clung to a lot since. I’ll let John himself explain it best, in this introduction to the song that he gave before a radio session.
“Some drugs, like heroin, it’s easy to die, you can really just make a wrong turn and die. But you gotta work to kill yourself from cocaine, you’ve really gotta mean it and ramp yourself up, and get going so bad that you lodge your heart and collapse your lung. And so, me, in high school, living in the house I lived in, yknow—I thought about killing myself every single day. Every single day. It was the main thing I thought about, and I didn’t want to hang out with anybody who didn’t find that an interesting topic of conversation … a lot of people are frightened to talk about that kind of stuff, so while writing the album, I tried to get in touch with that angry, frightened 17 year old man that I once was. I thought about how, well—I was reading about Dennis Brown, and I felt just like I would have felt at 17, I thought “What a great thing, you know, he went so insane that no one could touch him,” he entered a sort of holy state, if you’re that far out on the sticks.”
John Darnielle is a brilliant writer, and just as good a frontman live, with his brilliant stage presence and impeccable banter. I’ve not heard Song for Dennis Brown live but I’ve heard a lot of my other favorite songs that have taken on a whole new dimension thanks to some of his introductions and descriptions. The first time I heard the above description, it took me aback. I was that angry, frightened 17 year old man. Quite often, I think I still am. As the brilliant new single “Andrew Eldritch is Moving Back to Leeds” says, “Nobody ever gets away / even the best of us come back someday;” a line in a completely different context, but one I choose to apply in this way for myself. Many fellow mentally ill Mountain Goats fans will understand the feeling, and how these songs help us endure these moments of darkness, our black dog days. I’m incredibly fortunate to not be in my worst low and not needing to clutch onto these songs. I’ll still listen to Song for Dennis Brown and You or Your Memory and Heel Turn 2 on repeat as a musical comfort blanket, and it always helps. I’m never going to get away, but I’m learning to survive.
I’m still fighting my demons – I don’t drink as much anymore, I’ve gotten better at fighting, and while I’m still struggling to reach out for help when I need it, I’m working on it all. More than anything else, there’s one pervading thought which always provides relief and calm. No matter where we may be in our lives, or how low we ever sink, we will always have the Mountain Goats.
it took all the coke in town to bring down Dennis Brown
on the day my lung collapses
we’ll see just how much it takes
This piece was submitted anonymously.