I put in a laughably late request to get on the list. Never heard back in like, what: the 45 minutes between when I sent it & getting to the show? Once there, I was told the computer system was down, so even if the publicist did get back in time, anything they sent in would be gone. I’d need an e-mail to get in.
Of course I didn’t have an e-mail & wasn’t surprised to have not heard back (cf. my *totally* unprofessional 45 minute prior request). I was hoping that maybe I could show some credentials to a tour manager & see what they could do, when lo & behold a friend working backstage swooped in out of nowhere w/ a spare ticket. I don’t know what kind of saint I must have been in a past life to earn the kind of friends that I have, but I’m incredibly grateful to have ’em…I know, those sentiments are nearly as cloyingly sweet as a Smittens song). Tooth decay is no laughing matter; SRSLY, this kind of writing is the opposite of funny, so on to the show.
I was mucking about in the back during opener Matthew E. White, who was clearly very talented, just not in a style that was particularly suited to my interests. Instead, I decided to take advantage of a candid & unoccupied moment to talk a bit to John.
Knowing full well that he was into coffee (mostly due to a cursory read of a pre-show article that John Hodgman wrote where he talks about John’s rhapsodizing about “the alchemy of chemex1 coffee”) I figured I’d attempt to display some distinction by picking his brain about what roasters he likes, during the pre-show press hang-time mill-about. Long time readers (all 3 days!) may know that I am an absurdly obnoxious coffee snob. (No joke, that last one was me. Sweet and Low! In a $20 cup? Mr. Ozersky, you sir are a foodie; I would love to slather ketchup all over your Iranian Ossetra Caviar on toast with crème fraîche in rebuttal.)
Seeing my opportunity open, I offer, “So, I’ve gotta ask, with your having lived in both Portland and North Carolina, do you prefer the North Carolina/NYC/East Coast coffee scene, or do you think we’ve got the best out here?”
JD: “What specifically do you mean?”
JD: “You know, this is gonna disappoint you, but I’m embarrassed to admit that I like Peet’s.”
HTWC: “Peet’s?!? Really?”
JD: “Yeah, I like really dark roasts. I don’t care for all that, what-do-you-call it? Latte art?”
HTWC: “Oh, but good coffee is so much more than that. Peet’s burns off all of the…I don’t know: taste?”
JD: “See, I’m not looking for nuance in a coffee. I just want to get a really good dark roast, fire up the old Chemex, get my 6 cups in me and GO!”
An enthusiastic stagehand behind me says, “Yeah, you just wanna get it in your veins, like, right?”
John offers a supportive “Yeah.”
The gentleman behind me continued: “Sorta like ‘why bother with a $10,000 Basquiat-painted heroin syringe? It’s what’s in the needle that counts.’, Am I right?”
John and I both cringe a bit and then non-verbally share that we had a similar reaction as the gentleman saunters off to attend to something.
HTWC: “That was an ugly metaphor, wasn’t it?”
JD: “Yeah, a bit. Putting aside how he passed, kinda apt, though. Now I’m wondering what a Basquait syringe would look like.”
HTWC: “Samo as many others, just worth a bit more?”
JD: “Good one.”
HTWC: “So, no latte art?”
JD: “Nope! I don’t need like, hearts or whatever.”
HTWC: “So no trips to Heart Roasters while you’re in town?”
HTWC: “C’mon! I’m in a room full of Portlanders! Nothing?”
One roadie looked up & smiled, offering a thumbs up to Heart. Oh buddy, if I ever see you in line, your espresso is on me. Shit, I’ll even spluge for one of those $6.5 chemex pours of the Kenya Gaturiri (OMG To. Die. For. Bright like Heart does from their extra light roast, & so complicated (it’s ok to hate me a bit for that link; whatever, I love it) like a Faulkner sentence but infinitely more enjoyable, in my not-so-humble estimation. Forward fruit notes with some mild chocolatey hints make it even better than the Stumptown Gaturiri & even slightly better than Coava’s (although Coava’s baristas are nearly peerless in the city for espresso…though I have to say that Barista’s baristas are just as on it.) I guess I was expecting banter like this from John, since he was able to so quickly express himself with such depth on such a wide-range of subjects, throughout the show. At times, I felt like his thought process was somewhat similar to mine, only without my manifold glitches, stumbles, backtracks and missteps,. He seemed to effortlessly offer pure and focused unedited content straight via caffeinated blast from synapse to tongue. What I imagine my brain would look like if it…am is to be worked more better good and not is of the bad normals? Whenever he spoke, I found myself simultaneously comforted and slightly jealous & I imagine that’s not an unusual reaction to him.
I could have gone on at length (as I’m sure readers here will have no doubt of) in defense of the manifold joys of 3rd Wave Specialty Coffee, but I neither wanted to be too disagreeable nor monopolize his time, so I slunk off to go take some notes.
So, I must admit: there’s fashionably late & then there’s (pardon the pun) Feckin’ late (my mates are always on about, when I tell ’em I’m 5 minutes away, “Great. Now is that M.F.T. [Michael Feck Time] or Real Time”. Point is I’m way beyond Feckin’ late to the Mountain Goats party.
Yeah, I’d heard them before, (quite a few times, actually) but I hadn’t really *heard* them before today’s show. I mean in my previous listenings, I just committed the auditory equivalent of glancing by & since I’m almost never able to immediately hear all – or sometimes even any – of the lyrics (my ears are a strange loop) the style jumped out at me & in my previous all-punk-all-the-time mindset, didn’t really give them a second thought. Then I heard the Jawbreaker cover of Boxcar, which offended my sensibilities, because once upon a not-very-long-at-all time ago…(cue cheesy flashback cutaway sequence)
My ex and I were talking about this one time on a long road trip & I was on about how it lacked the punch that it needed & she said that she liked how he changed the lyrics from “killing cops & reading Keroauc” to “watching Cops & reading a female author” which upset me greatly, for radically altering the spirit of the song. It takes the revolutionary sentiment of physically ending the violent watchdogs of the exploitative and oppressive status quo while also reading the works of a hagiographic dreamer. Never mind that now to my more evolved mindset, violence is as abhorrent to me as Keroauc’s misogyny, (though I still regard the police with distrust & cherish some of the more focused dithyrambs of Keroauc, despite the truly unevolved patriarchal & conservative bullshit he was immersed in), I was outraged when I heard this!
It reeked of tokenism & a faceless one at that instead of chasing what is loved, since the whole point of the song is embracing what is truly loved, despite whatever image is expected from a group or “the scene”. Turns out it was just me being foolish. She was saying that it was a female author who’s name she couldn’t remember, not just “a female author”. Of course, it was Didion, as in Joan Didion, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” is easily one of the best pieces of creative nonfiction to emerge from the 60s. And that photo of her smoking? If that is not the very embodiment of urbane sophistication, I don’t know what is. I would give anything to have a seat at a table where people who look like she does in that photo are discussing the issues of the day & the larger ones as well. What constitutes art? To what extent are we as humans, truly free will agents? How much of this chair may I remove before it ceases to be able to be considered a chair? How many more obnoxious questions can I ask before I chase away every reader?
My point? That Jawbreaker cover I really took personal affront to & accordingly harbored a deep reluctance to give them any further of a chance. Oh how glad I am I repented of my foolishness!
From here on out, in vain attempt at some sort of brevity, I’ll just quote my unedited notes (aided only by a cursory glance at the setlist) & lines that jumped out at me.
Sold out for the night, long in advance I suspect. The front area of the stage, normally seats is standing room only, & people are standing.
Opening music is some Elliott Smith, chosen by the venue, I’m certain, though I can’t imagine John minds too much. Then there’s a song, clearly chosen by John that I don’t immediately recognize, as the lights dim.
1st song is “White Cedar” which just opens w/ John & the keys. Shout out to NW 23rd that gets a cheer from the crowd. Horns kick in, slightly off-key, but in a charming, not obnoxious way.
“I’ll be reborn someday…”
2nd song “Amy AKA Spent Gladiator 1” is just john, the bass & drums…driving.
“Let people call you crazy for the choices that you make”
3rd song “Love Love Love” has a slow, acoustic opening. I can tell it’s an old favorite as the crowd sings along knowingly in a way that just doesn’t happen with a new album, no matter how great the songs are. There’s also an allusion to Kurt Cobain in the song that jumps out at me. Even bigger than that is this haunting line:
“The things you do for love are gonna come back…”
4th Song “Up the wolves”
Slow, yet upbeat. Folky & dancey at the same time. Takes 2nd verse to a shouty level that’s pretty compelling.
“There’s bound to be a ghost at the back of your closet
no matter where you live.
There’ll always be a few things, maybe several things
that you’re going to find really difficult to forgive.”
Whoa. Ouch. Whoa.
5th song is “Until I am whole”
He prefaces the song with mention of his Catholic upbringing & how that “Yoga of self-mutilation” influenced him.
Dire sounding acoustic opening, but takes a nice turn to avoid dirg-y ness.
6th song is called “In The Craters on the Moon “
About not leaving a room for quite some time. Thrusty acoustic opening. Really exuberant & tumultuous driving end to the song.
7th song: “It Froze Me”
“This song is super old.” Loud crowd road…”doesn’t mean it’s any good”
Picked opening. No drummer onstage.
8th song: “Woke Up New”
Now John’s onstage by himself.
“On the morning when I woke up without you for the first time
I was cold so I put on a sweater and I turned up the heat
And the walls began to close in and I felt so sad and frightened
I practically ran from the living room out into the street”
Oh lord, who hasn’t been there? The roughest, loneliest of mornings. Actually cold, too. Even when it’s summer. Hell, especially when it’s summer.
9th song: “Steal Smoked Fish”
He’s excited to play this song in pdx. Joke about his relationship w/ it. “Some songs you make a clean break from & move onto other things, but then others are like ex’s you can’t quite quit: “Hey, I was just thinking about you…Wanna meet for coffee?”
The lyrics get a huge local cheer:
“Across the Burnside bridge
Before anyone shot their movies there
We hid from the whipping rain
When we had run out of cocaine”
10th song is “Shadow Song”
“If you get there before me, would you save me a seat…”
Really low, somber & bittersweet start. The most intense song so far…intense is not the word. Reserved? No, not that either…down? Words fail me to find this mood right now. I’ll just listen…
11th song is “Ezekiel 7 and the Permanent Efficacy of Grace”
He brings drummer back to the stage. Takes the keys. “The clouds explode & the desert blooms…
Angstiest keyboard-led song ever. I love it. Abt tortured & torturer, plays well as love & combat. Emotionally charged like the precursor to a thunderstorm, then the mallet-hit toms kick in & it’s as if a convoy, large & thunderous has set out across a sprawling scene, tearing asunder the underbrush & causing creatures to scurry hurriedly out of the way. Ends w/ solitary bass kick like an expiring heartbeat.
12th song is “The Diaz Brothers”
The bassist is back. Talking about Scarface & watching it with his kid & a hyper-caffeinated rant about the need to not vilify characters that are horrible because to do so would violate the whole premise & render the experience unwatchable.
Has a real punch to it, provided by more-aggressive-than-this-night-has-seen drumming. The bass is also exceptionally thunderous on this track.
13th song: “In Memory of Satan”
The horns come back. “The secret to a good long life? Jumping up & down.” The Satan is this song is the one of depression, of not leaving yr house, John tells us.
14th song: “Cry For Judas”
Opens w/ the “do my thing” gag from James Brown to the horns section. “Can I do my thang?”. Not as obnoxious as you might imagine; I know I’d roll my eyes were I to read that.
Good, rumbly bass & drums combo; feel that beat in my chest & through the whole seat.
15th song: “Wild Sage”
The horns split, leaving the band alone.
Slow, falsetto start “like a prisoner breaking out of jail…”
16th song: “First Few Desperate Hours”
“Ever think about changing the lyrics from ‘I’ll fly away’ to ‘I’ll get divorced’? That’s this song”
Clearly a crowd favorite. Really, vigorously upbeat, like a colorado drive with a few giant clouds in an otherwise gigantic & clear azure sky.
17th song: “Spent Gladiator 2”
The trumpet player comes out. “This song is about the sure eventuality of defeat”
1st song John sings w/out an instrument. Doesn’t seem as uncomfortable alone at the mic as you might expect, which is not to say he doesn’t look uncomfortable. Makes a few gestures to hammer home his lyrics.
“Maybe spit some blood at the camera…stay forever ALIVE.” Hard close. “Thank you, goodnight.”
We know they’re not going anywhere. The question is how long of an encore are we gonna see. Full band is back, of course…
Encore 1: “Transcendental Youth”
Johns at keys. He said, after 2 tours he still can’t quite explain the song & makes a point, a near-superstitious one, about never repeating the same speech twice, but challenging himself with every intro.
“So, not to sound like one of those Chakra counting hippies, but this song is about the ‘healing power of sexuality’, is what I want to say & then I realize how horribly obnoxious that sounds, like if you saw that on the placard as one of the seminars at a convention… you’d turn & run the other way, wouldn’t you?” Yes, John. Yes I would. Still, good song. I see why you named the album after it.
Encore 2: “This Year”
Peppy acoustic opening immediately recognized by the crowd. Great, shouty delivery
The enthusiasm, even playing a song it sounds like they’ve played for quite a long time still comes through in the sound & in the performance, all bounces & smiles from John & the band
“I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me”
2nd Encore 1: “No Children”
Great line about Chopin, “…can’t show the nuance of Chopin on a Yamaha; what do I look like Reginia Spector?” “Yeah, actually, you kind of do.”
“I hope you die. I hope we both die.”
2nd Encore 2: “Palmcorder Yajna”
Great lively song that resulted in John & the bass player leaping around the stage like cracked out Bunny Rabbits. The smiles were thoroughly contagious. I left my perch on the balcony to come down & dance, knowing that I’d remember all I’d need to & to hell with what I couldn’t.
After the show, it occurs to me that all of us in the room (exception of a few drunken shouter-outters, who, to John’s credit, he handles with the utmost of diplomacy & tactful good humor) are essentially like John to varying degrees: bright, over-caffeinated, with a great many books at home and a great deal to say, and sometimes, no one to say it to.
It seems the thing about John, about the type of patience he displays with the voices crying out in the crowd, that type of semi-guarded-but-always-present compassion he shows is born out of those days (Weeks? Maybe months?) spent alone in a room, hurting. The sort of conclusion one can fairly easily come to after such a thing is that no one is worth ignoring. Every person that you pass, that you get the chance to interact with is someone you should make a good faith effort to hear, because they have walked through some kind of hell or other. Protect yourself if you must, because sometimes that’s just what you have to do, but give them a chance before you make that decision. That’s what I learned from watching the Mountain Goats play; well, that, and HAVE THE MOST FUN EVER, even when you are sad. Hell, ESPECIALLY when you are sad. That’s part of how you dig yourself out of that.
I think that’s how John responded to heckling & shout-outs with aplomb instead of haughty or dismissive cruelty. When people are paying money to see you play music & night after night you’re constantly being told how great you are just for doing what you love to do & would be doing anyway if you could, if you are of a certain temperament, it is easy to see how one might respond self-righteously instead of with patient curiosity. “I’m the goddamned artist & you’ll take what I give you or you’ll have nothing at all!” instead of “Hey, you know, I really like that song, but I knew that when I was playing with X & frankly don’t remember how it goes anymore.” Basically, some people just react without considering what they are interacting with and others have this remarkable ability to be present. Of course, no one is all one or all the other but it was inspiring to see John navigate the crowd, taking in what they were putting out & responding quickly yet complexly in his hyper-caffeinated glory.
At the end of the day, what I found so compelling about John wasn’t just the music, which I deeply enjoyed, but this sense that I was in the presence of a person who is both brilliant AND compassionate, which is just an infectious & inspiring feeling.
1: Of all the chemex pics I could have linked to, I picked this one because I drink my morning cup out of the same exact cup pictured here…which I’m actually a bit mad at, because it chipped the very chemex in question this morn. Damn you Chicago and yr being stronger than anything ever!