sax rohmer #1 (a mountain goats playlist, track 3)

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. these songs are not in the order I would put them in if I were actually making a playlist. I’ll post a mountain goats intro playlist to spotify, and share it with all of you, soon. there will still be essays about other things from this newsletter; one is coming up on Sunday, in fact (look for it!)

Sax Rohmer #1 (Heretic Pride)

I guess the way I can tell you about the Mountain Goats is to tell you that in 2012, due to a bunch of shitty circumstances that were in great part my own fault, I ended up living at my parents’ house in Philadelphia and commuting into New York for work about five times a week, on the Megabus, which left me with back problems I still haven’t entirely fixed seven years later. I was stuck between jobs, between places to live, between answers. It was unclear whether the shape my life had taken for the last several years was feasible any longer. Every day felt like waiting in line for something on a public city block in the absolute blazing sun and the line never moves and you’ve forgotten sunscreen and strangers sneer at you for waiting in a line in public.

It wasn’t the first time I’d gotten into this band; each really difficult time in my life has one or a few Mountain Goats albums, or even just a stray handful of never-officially-recorded tracks that run alongside it, and memorialize it, and end up meaning the same thing it means. These connections have never worked chronologically; they don’t need to. The Mountain Goats’ back catalogue stretches far and wide enough that whenever I have wanted to do some kind of emotional dart-throwing at it, there has always been plenty for the darts to hit, songs from all kinds of eras onto which the swamp creature of my emotions could rise up and attach itself.

During this time, a friend kept sending me tracks from Heretic Pride, the Mountain Goats’ eleventh studio album from 2008. I couldn’t get into it; it felt dense and unwieldy, designed for people with better taste and a real background in punk or metal. It felt like I would have had to have loved it first from within some clique by which I had never been welcomed, by way of codes I barely even knew about. So I ignored it---except for exactly two songs, each of which I played over and over to the point of for a while obliterating my ability to hear them at all. Perhaps shamefully, this is my favorite way to relate to music - to absolutely suck out all its essence, to plug myself into whatever gives me the most feeling and consume all of it in one gluttonous sitting, until I’ve effectively made it disappear. This obsessive replaying is the way I first familiarized myself with almost all of the songs in this series of essays. It is personal and selfish and ahistorical and not even particularly musical and absolutely neglectful of the careful composition and curation of an entire album. It is most of how I know how to love anything. 

At the show I attended a few weeks ago, Darnielle said something like this: There are a few categories of Mountain Goats songs, and one of them is “Will JD have a stroke onstage while playing this song?” And then he launched into “Sax Rohmer #1.” The only two songs off this album I would acknowledge or listen to for years were the two in this category, which also happen to be the two named for racist early-20th-century genre novelists: “Sax Rohmer #1,” and the album’s perhaps best-known track, “Lovecraft in Brooklyn,” an even more bite-your-own-mouth furious, enraged propulsion tank of a song. They are both will-JD-have-a-stroke songs; they are both driving songs. 

Heretic Pride is a catalogue of evil, featuring supervillains and serial killers and thrones of human skulls, punctuated by intensely bleak jokes. The characters, up to and including Rohmer (a horrifically racist obscure English pulp novelist who created the (thankfully) now nearly-forgotten character of Fu Manchu), are uncharacteristically unredeemable. It is a crawl through the sick, squirming caverns of human history and nature, which makes the moments - like this song’s chorus - when it blows out the windows and lets in simple, true-hearted longing, all the more horribly effective. “Sax Rohmer #1” opens Heretic Pride, and it feels like a movie when it does. The initial verse lists a series of mildly sinister images, and then, just after the one minute mark, the chorus howls in, adolescent and open-faced with feeling, nothing to do with what came before: And I am coming home to you/ with my own blood in my mouth/ and I am coming home to you/ if it’s the last thing that I do. It is nearly impossible to listen to this song only once, to not immediately start it again.

I couldn’t drive in early 2012, and can’t drive now. I only ever had a license briefly, as a teenager, before I went to college and let it expire. When I first listened to this song, I hadn’t been able to legally drive in years. Nevertheless, driving songs are among my very favorite type of song, and I spend a lot of time looking for the right way to listen to a driving song without being able to drive. Being a front-seat passenger in a car someone else is driving is on this list but not as high as one might think - above it is taking a cab over a bridge at night, especially when one is a little bit drunk, walking very fast through a city, and, perhaps the closest thing, sitting in the front upstairs seat of the Megabus while it speeds along the freeway between cities. The Megabus is cheap and unsafe and hateful and I despised it with my whole heart for those few months, but there may never have been a more perfect setting for this song. 

The chorus doesn’t match the lyrics, either in words or in emotion -- the sudden outburst of wide-open relatable love and rage seemingly has nothing to do with the crawling tapestry of the verses. I don’t know what caused Darnielle to name a song for this author, more than the album’s general soft-goth obsession with both pulpy murder scenes and the worst of humanity. But the song, like many on this album, can’t help but take a sudden wild swerve into a gritted-teethed open-heartedness, making a space wide enough for the listener to climb in and drive away. The distance from one to the other - the obscure stated subject of the song, the bare-faced emotion in the chorus - isn’t entirely explicable, but it also doesn’t need to be.

Most artists I love make work that sometimes, if not always, speaks in nearly illegible code. The trick is to understand that the code is actually a series of doors rather than a wall with no footholds. The near-nonsense of this song’s verses and those verses’ dissonance with the exposed nerve of the chorus is a kind of welcome; once one gives up on identifying the singer’s particular story, one is free to place one’s own experience, whatever it may be, within the container offered. If you have no idea what Sax Rohmer means to Darnielle, then you might as well give up on it and just wallow in whatever “coming home” means to you. 

I didn’t have anyone to come home to those few months. I didn’t even really love anyone, or, if I did, I wasn’t stupid enough to think of that person as someone to whom I could come home. Instead, I threw myself into the song by imagining a different world, imagining myself into another, better movie. When I played it so many times that friends who could see my Spotify history emailed to say they were concerned about me, it had nothing to do with the present circumstances of my life. Rather, its propulsion was the hope of feeling so much, wanting so much, that I might gather enough momentum to jettison myself into a wholly different life, one in which I would be coming home to someone, able to drive and driving a car fast, off the bus and beyond it, into a life like the long last sequence of an episode of prestige television. With my own blood in my mouth was always the hook that pulled me into the song; I was so determined to punch a hole through my life and get out into a better one that I could have bit down on my tongue and not even felt it. The romance of “coming home to you” and the violence of “with my own blood in my mouth” may be the exact place where the driving song lives, the song whose theme is always rage, is always defiance, in which even love and home and domestic comfort is a “fuck you, you’ll see, I’ll show you” promise, catapulting those of us who feel too much to hold it all behind our teeth forward down the highway, toward home but never arriving at it.