grendel's mother (a mountain goats playlist, track 2)

a quick note: I went to see the mountain goats, I tried to write about it, it turned into something bigger, now short essays about mountain goats songs are an occasional feature on this newsletter.

Grendel’s Mother” (Zopilote Machine)

I realized at some point in September or October of 2012 that things with this person I loved were not going to get any better. I began to suspect that we were maybe not even really in love, and that I was probably just using him as a sharp and jagged surface on which to hurt myself. But by then it was fall, in a soft part of Brooklyn, on a street overhung with generous green leaves like something out of a world with dinosaurs, and at night the streetlights cut orange through the canopy of the trees and blew out the long line of stoops and doors like an old photograph. I was in almost unbearable pain most of the time, but sometimes in the midst of all that heartbreak, coming at me like a truck on a highway in the opposite lane, I felt slow and easy and good, as though it were already over and I was looking back on it, rather than waiting for it to happen.

One night he was supposed to come over so we could break up, or at least that’s what we should have done. Maybe it really was what I intended when I asked him to come over and went out to my stoop to meet him when he arrived. I thought we could sit here, in public, not touching, unsexy, our knees to our chests like children in a talking circle in grade school, and be people to each other more than bodies. For the whole two hours or so I waited for him to show up that night, determined to go outside and talk and not come back inside together, I listened to “Grendel’s Mother” on repeat, and then he showed up and we sat outside on the stoop, not touching, our knees to our chests, just like I’d planned, and we didn’t break up, and eventually we we went upstairs and the whole thing went on for a few weeks longer before it burned itself down.

I saw so clearly both the way he wanted to love me and his total inability to do so, how absolutely unequipped this person was to have the things he himself so badly wanted. I could have been kinder if I had been better at not believing him when he was in front of me, if I had been able to resist playing the make-believe game he so much wanted someone to join in with him. But knowing how to give someone what they want regardless of whether it is good for them has always been the thing to which I am addicted, which is why I have loved so many addicts, because their answers are easy and obvious, walking into a room a foot in front of them every time. 

I suspect a lot of people come to The Mountain Goats’ music at these sorts of times in their lives, saturated with emotion and looking for a container to hold the overflow. Zopilote Machine was the Mountain Goats’ first studio album, released in 1994 and re-released in 2005 and “Grendel’s Mother,” a gentle two-minute lullaby about a monster, is one of the better known and more accessible tracks on it; The Mountain Goats were still occasionally playing it at shows as recently as last year, although I’ve never managed to hear it live. But none of this matters to my feelings about the song, and certainly didn’t matter then. I hadn’t even really listened to the rest of the album; I had landed on this song, and stayed there, for weeks, until all the song was about was that particular stretch of October, knowing I should end something and not ending it. A lot of music is like this, where what it means is eventually one and the same with the time when one listened to it, until the song acts as a glass case for the moment under which it first played, whether or not its music or lyrics have anything logical to do with the content of that time in one’s life. “Grendel’s Mother” is a song about the actual character in actual Beowulf and also about how we can only access tenderness from the place of who we already are, whatever jagged-toothed animal that is. But it probably means something else to you, and that’s what it’s about, too.