possum by night (a mountain goats playlist, track 1)
|Helena Fitzgerald||May 3, 2019|
So, I went to see the Mountain Goats on Tuesday night, and had a great time, like a genuinely great, forgot-to-look-at-my-phone, happy-to-have-cried-in-public time, and I came home and wanted to write about this band whose music, whose whole thing I love so much. I thought I’d write a kind of annotated playlist; a bunch of my favorite songs and a mini-essay about each one, all of which might come together to express something about what it is exactly that this music does for me and maybe for a lot of its fans, what it is that makes it something of a category of its own.
Anyway, I tried to write that and it turned out every entry was like a thousand words long, so instead This Week’s Favorite Mountain Goats Song is now going to be an occasional feature on griefbacon, which seemed like a better option than sending you one incomprehensibly massive Mountain Goats dissertation-playlist. This won’t replace the normal essays, although from time to time it might be the week’s only essay (this week there will be two, because I still owe subscribers an extra one and because, well, I wrote a lot of this before I realized it wasn’t feasible as a single essay). I realize it might make more sense to do something like “Mountain Goats Mondays” and send one of these every Monday or whatever, but that sounds like something an organized person would do, so I’m not going to do that. There’ll be Mountain Goats essays, every so often, for a while. If you don’t care about this band, you can ignore these, although of course I hope that they’ll offer something for every reader, even if you have no idea who the Mountain Goats are. If you don’t know this band but are interested in an introduction to their music, you can email me and I’ll send you a link to a (deeply imperfect, hastily made, non-comprehensive) Mountain Goats introduction playlist. If you do know and love this band and want to send me requests for this series, please do, I will absolutely take requests even if it takes me a while to get to them. TL;DR: Essays about Mountain Goats songs, now an occasional feature here but not the whole thing of the newsletter.
anyway. here’s an essay about a song about a possum.
This song is about a possum, which is how John Darnielle introduced it at the show, and you know it’s about a possum because it’s called “Possum by Night” and because all the lyrics are about a possum. It describes a possum who waddles down to the trash cans near a parking lot on garbage night, climbing up to the top of the compost heap (“if I try,” goes lyric - the possum doesn’t always get to the top of the compost heap; only when he really believes in himself) and watching over the long-haul truckers parked there, avoiding the nearby dogs and the garbage trucks’ intake vents. Possums are gross, creepy, off-putting creatures, a raccoon with much worse personal branding, so it’s hard for me to explain why it is that this song made me cry at the show, and once, discreetly, at a coffee shop yesterday, and why I can’t stop listening to it.
In 2012 the Mountain Goats played at Carnegie Hall as part of a Rolling Stones tribute concert. Two days before the show, Darnielle tweeted:
“In 2 days @jonwurster & I play a song at Carnegie Hall. The Mountain Goats. The band I started in employee housing at MSH. AT CARNEGIE HALL. The band I started while I was on supervised random-drug-testing probation with the state of California. Appearing Tuesday at Carnegie. So tell anybody who says you can't rise above your demons and do what you want: "lol, w/e, the Mountain Goats are at Carnegie Hall."
These tweets read to me not as a brag so much as someone having to say something aloud because the thing seemed so impossible that he had to see if it held in concrete reality. Surely when he spoke it it would vanish and prove to have been a prank, a joke, a daydream the whole time. The tweets were encouraging and angry at the same time, perfectly adolescent in their open-faced feeling. Most of us, if we’re really honest, hold onto a teenage idea of our future in which success is also a punishment for one’s enemies, a proof that you were right after all, and they were wrong, and you were always better than them. The Mountain Goats’ songs offer this feeling in droves; you can heal yourself, you can move up into the light and into grace, and you can still stay furious with all the people who believed you never would, who told you you wouldn’t make it.
But more than that, what broadcast from these tweets was an absolutely baffled sense of gratitude. Darnielle was excited to play Carnegie in the way a teen might be not because he was naive but because he had been through so much of what life offers, which is mostly not one’s band defeating the odds and playing Carnegie Hall. Knowing that the majority of life is much more the random-drug-testing-probation-with-the-state-of-California part of the tweet allowed him to respond with wide-eyed, fuck-you wonder to the near-impossibility that his band had neither failed, nor fallen apart, nor sunk into obscurity, but instead against all odds was playing Carnegie Hall. The opposite of taking things for granted is gratitude as a kind of terror, an open-eyed awareness that luck is the very thinnest ledge on which one might balance, and the greater likelihood is always the swallowing darkness all around it.
As someone who fucked up enough when I was younger that it feels like a massive improbability when I get to have the boring, unimportant, normal things normal people have -- shopping for groceries, vacuuming the apartment, falling asleep on the couch sometimes at the end of the day -- I find very little as relatable or as hopeful as this sentiment. A confused, white-knuckled gratitude runs through much of The Mountain Goats’ work, amazement at having managed to hang on to a life with all its little comforts and annoyances, to have not been kicked out, to have clawed one’s way up to living in the light, to have finally and for a moment run free enough of pursuing demons to do something as small and privileged and simple as sit on a couch and watch television, as eat in a restaurant, as play a rock show for an audience in Brooklyn, or at Carnegie Hall. At the show this past Tuesday, Darnielle kept thanking us all in a sort of thunderstruck way for being there, for caring, looking surprised when everyone yelled and cheered, when everyone knew all the lyrics. He talked about how amazing it was to get this reaction in New York, and still sounded like a kid from the suburbs who can’t believe that big bad cool-people New York would care about him and his little songs. This reaction wasn’t some kind of twee naiveté; rather, like the tweet about Carnegie Hall, it was the astonishment of someone who has seen how grindingly and usually bad life can be, at the fact of its being good, at the wild, long-odds outcome of anything going right.
There’s a line near the end of “Possum by Night” that goes “grow fat and grow old and go blind and be content.” It’s a blessing on the possum, a description of what the possum wants, but it’s also that same gratitude that derives from loss or pain or fuck-ups bad enough to make one know how edge-of-teeth precious these seemingly simple things are. Although Darnielle’s songs are actually about the very specific and seemingly random subjects they claim to be about (possums, wrestlers, Ozzy Osbourne, Jesus, Dungeons & Dragons, insurance fraud, teens with a death metal band), they are also large enough to welcome in whatever human experience you as a listener need them to be about. It’s not so much that they function as metaphors as that they leave the door open. “Possum by Night” is moving in the same way videos of rescued animals are moving, both because we care about the animal and because that animal is you, is me, is all of us, more vulnerable and weaker than we should be, in more need than we would like to admit we are, just trying to scratch out a life where we are safe from dogs and garbage trucks, and not sure we’re capable of it, sometimes.
This invitational specificity is often how both poetry and memes work, leaving the door open so that a very small individual event can include potentially anyone. Memes run on the mechanisms of poetry. Good tweets live and die by the same particularities of language and rhythm and meter that poems do, while the memes that everyone jumps on board with and replicates into uselessness gain that popularity because they offer something very small (a phrase, an image, an experience) in a way invites identification from almost any viewer or reader. “It me” is the basic unit of meme, as we all scramble one after another to hang our own experience on the same phrase or photo or joke.
Possums are often the subject of memes, maybe just because they’re so funny looking, something between a rat and a deep-sea fish and a very small chonky dinosaur. That a possum is so weird-looking, so laughable and off-putting and generally unsympathetic, actually increases the pathos of the song; this track would not hit one’s heart in the same way if it were about, say, a stray cat or something. Instead it’s about a parasitic, unloving little trash monster, waddling through the darkness.
At the show on Tuesday, the banner hung behind the stage showed a possum climbing on top of a sword and some flowers, as though representing the crest of an imaginary, made-up ancient house. The juxtaposition of the sword and the possum was meant to be funny, and was. One of the best tweets about possums is a picture of possum with its mouth open and its head twisted around, captioned “summer lovin, happened so fast / summer lovin, he scream at own ass,” a joke that works specifically because the possum isn’t cute, or cuddly, or pretty, and therefore its image opens the door for both humor and identification. “Possum by Night” was almost called “The Cult of The Cornered Possum,” and aren’t we all in one way or another cornered possums, unlovable garbage monsters still wanting simple soft victories, all of us screaming at our own asses?
A recent meme consists of no more than captioning an image, or a tweet, or pretty much anything, “im baby.” Most poems are also in one way or another a device by which to point at oneself and say “im baby.” The possum is baby, but we all want to be baby, too. The meme is so perfectly damning: Which of us has not wanted to be blameless and unformed, nothing a blob-shaped vessel for love, recognized only for our softest needs? The Mountain Goats’ music understands that “grow fat and grow old and go blind and be content,” is not a small or easy goal, but the largest and most difficult one. Just living our lives, once more into the breach, rooting through the garbage, all of us, sneaking past the barking dogs.