some things stay sweet forever:
words on the mountain goats and other things

As the direct result of one half-joking invitation, one impulse decision, and one vaguely terrifying journey from Miami to Boston, I went to my first Mountain Goats show on Tuesday the fourteenth of April. The days between then and now have been hectic and exhausting and — more recently — filled with snot (thanks for the germs, New York and/or flying metal people cylinders), and it’s been a bit of an ordeal to sit down and pull my thoughts together. Still, I didn’t want to just leave them rolling around in my head. It gets dusty in there.

So this is quite overdue, but here are some words on some goats.

My ending up at a Mountain Goats show 1,506 miles from my house may have started years and years ago, every time I’d sit in my room all bummed out to be missing whatever tMG tour was going on then. It may have started the first and tenth and hundredth time I listened to Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1, which starts with the lines “Do every stupid thing that makes you feel alive / Do every stupid thing to try to drive the dark away.” It may have started when I weighed the security of some small savings against the opportunities for recklessness that kept appearing in my path.

It may have been a combination of all of the above and a simple text from my friend Sammi, who’s studying at Brandeis up north, asking me to see the Mountain Goats with her. This came while I was lamenting the lack of Florida stops on the just-announced Regional Heat tour, all bummed out to be missing another tMG tour.

It took me a while to respond with a definitive “yes.”

In the interest of context, I’ve spent the vast majority of my life missing out on shows as a result of living below the poverty line in a household where I wouldn’t have been allowed to go to anything regardless of cost. So for the past year or so, I’ve been approaching my new freedoms with staunch gratitude and a wide-eyed disbelief.

I tried very hard to talk myself out of booking this trip, but it came down to this: no matter how unwise, taking this risk was a possibility after years of things like this seeming impossible. I’ve waited my whole life to be able to do things like this, and the truth is that I don’t know how long they’ll remain within my reach. I’ll be leaving my childhood house soon, and with that escape will come rent and too-tight budgets and well-worth-it frugality. If my window for recklessness is closing, there are some opportunities I can’t let myself pass up.

This was one of them.

So I took my first real plane ride to Boston, equally awed by the miracle of flight and the distinctive “My broken house behind me / And good things ahead” invincibility of it all. I overcame a different fear every few minutes, made it to Brandeis in one piece, and met up with Sammi.

This is probably the part where I should tell you about the necklace. I’ve told this story countless times by now, but it’s one I hold close to my heart so I’m going to tell it again: in February, as part of the best birthday present I’ve ever gotten, Sammi sent me a necklace with lyrics from San Bernadino etched into them.

The past year has been almost as rough as it has been magical. Sammi’s been there through all of it, and I’ve learned that — even beyond being an incredible friend — she’s an incredible person. She is bold and thoughtful and fiercely, fiercely kind.

We love a lot of the same things and I feel lucky to share those with her. When she started listening to the Mountain Goats earlier this year, I was so stoked. This is, after all, a band best shared with friends.

I really do believe that. Since I became a Mountain Goats fan by way of Nerdfighteria, I’ve always associated the band with a strong sense of community. Most of my friends today are from that same place and many of them love the Mountain Goats, too. Though we love the band in sometimes different and often personal ways, there’s a strong and collective connection to the overarching themes of survival, of unlikely triumphs, of striving upwards towards the light and being careful not to hurt others along the way.

Yesterday, my friend Maddie put it this way:

That kind of means the world to me.

I love the Mountain Goats. I love their music in the quietest moments and on my loneliest days. If, in some unfortunate alternate universe, none of my friends listened to the Mountain Goats, I’m confident I would love them still.

But being friends with people who love the band is a huge, inextricable part of how and why I love them. I am, as John Green put it when speaking to Rolling Stone, actively grateful to the Mountain Goats on a daily basis — not just for their impact on me, but for their impact on people I care about. The stories set to this soundtrack, the protagonists who find happiness and hope and understanding in these songs, the unshakeable strength thrumming through a community that knows you don’t end up a Mountain Goats fan without seeing your story among those they tell — I’m grateful for that, too.

I’m grateful that this band exists and grateful that so many of my friends and so much of the broader community — a collective of fans who tend towards kindness and respect — attribute some part of themselves to its existence. I’m grateful every time I hear someone say that the Mountain Goats have helped them save themselves and I’m grateful when people post about their favorite band and I’m grateful when people sing along the way you do when you’ve lived those words or lived by those words yourself.

So when the night of the show arrived, it was wonderful to find myself in line with Sammi, as well as Maddy — who I know through the Harry Potter community — and a bunch of new friends. Maddy offered us snacks and water from their cooler; we facetimed our friend Owen before conspiring to one day get him to his first Mountain Goats show; we talked about LeakyCon — the Harry Potter con many of us had gone to last summer —the way people talk about home.

That morning, Sammi and I had began shortening the band name’s to just “Goats” — partly because she had rearranged her necklace’s letter charms to spell exactly that, partly because it was hilarious. After just a few minutes in line, we’d gotten everyone else on the Goats bandwagon and took it upon ourselves to let the world know we were, in fact, Goats AF.

These small moments — the fleeting silliness and lasting memories— were not unlike the way we communicate online. Long-distance friendships are funny that way: we count down to days we get to spend together, but when those days arrive it feels so normal and familiar. Mostly because it is.

No matter how many times we travel hundreds of miles to spend some time with each other, it always gets me that faraway sidewalks and chilly convention centers can feel so much like home.

That’s how it went. We waited and then we didn’t.

We ended up front and just-left-of-center. Like, look at that dweeb in between the two speakers in this photo:

That is me. I am the dweeb.

While I’m on the subject of goat friends, here’s some more sap: being able to experience this show with people I love who love the Mountain Goats — and strangers-turned-new-friends-because-they-love-the-Mountain-Goats — immediately made the night so very special.

Contrary to what several grumps near us (who still only made up a very tiny part of an altogether incredible audience) were so vocal about believing as they loudly made fun of my friends and I, the Mountain Goats are a band about optimism and resilience and celebrating the total victory of living to fight another day every day. Our group took that to heart, and I’m very grateful I got to live that night out with them — with people who are respectful but fiercely enthusiastic, who yelled along or kept an awed silence depending on the song, who left no room for irony. I’m not an official astronaut person, but I think our positive energy and gratitude could be seen from space. That’s a conservative estimate.

And that’s where I like to live, you know? In spaces dedicated to celebrating the things we love and the people we love them with. That’s what I seek out, and I’ve found that what really sticks in my life does so when this is met halfway, when all those good vibes are matched by whatever/whoever brought us together in the first place.

The Mountain Goats do that. The Mountain Goats do not mess around when it comes to good vibes.

I’ve been listening to the Goats for a good five years now, give or take. In that time, I’ve come to love the way I’m always discovering new songs of theirs, always learning a little more backstory. Along the same lines, the Boston show taught me that there are things about the band I would never have learned in my room or through my headphones.

Like the way John Darnielle thanks the audience after every single song and half a dozen times after the very last encore. Like the way you can see the truth in their assertion that they don’t plan their encores, because they’re sincere in their first goodbyes and elated to be welcomed back onstage. Like the way that they’re all smiles when the crowd screams along and when it bears silent witness, through songs about triumph and devastation alike.

The Mountain Goats’ brand of gratitude and positivity is immutably genuine. Being part of that changes you in the very best way.

I’m big on unironic enthusiasm and wearing my heart on my sleeve and clinging to my convictions. I’m a front-row-whenever-I-can-swing-it, “jump-up-and-down-in-the-chair-can’t-control-yourself love it” kind of person. I’m also anxious and insecure to a fault. These things mix terribly.

I tend to hype myself up for shows and events but come out of them wishing I had let myself live a little more, wishing I had danced and sung along, wishing I had shut out all my worries for just that moment. I’ve been working on breaking out of that for a long time, and I’d love to say it’s anything but the slow and frustrating process it is — that I’m anywhere near where I want to be. For years and years, I’ve let my fear of other people create a gap between what I live by and how I live. I’m not proud of that.

On Tuesday the fourteenth, though, the Mountain Goats created a space where I felt so safe as to live beyond my boundaries for the night and leave the venue a little freer. From the moment the band walked onstage right through the third and final time they waved us goodbye, they were so happy and so present that I realized I could be, too.

John Darnielle, in particular, seemed to operate on three distinct settings all night: 1) transcending worldly bullshit to jam out unburdened by any possible scrutiny, 2) singing songs like it was the first time and last time even when it was the thousandth, and 3) connecting with the audience in real, unforgettable ways.

He sang along to T-Rex’s The Slider (which cues the band’s entrance after we hear Dusty Rhodes’ “hard times” speech), spun joyfully in circles during instrumental solos, danced with his bandmates every chance he got, straight up growled out lines like “I’m gonna bribe the officials / I’m gonna kill all the judges / It’s gonna take you people years to recover from all of the damage” (during which I am 93% sure he was looking at me while I did the same), and poured his whole heart into every single song.

For a dude creeping up on twenty-five years making and performing music as the Mountain Goats, you’d never know this wasn’t his first night before a crowd that sang his words back at him. Song after song, line after line, JD never let up on these awed smiles and surprised laughs in reaction to our reception. Sometimes he’d touch his hand to his heart in gratitude. Sometimes he’d point at a guy in a Lucha mask or anyone screaming along to a line. Sometimes — a bunch of times, actually — he’d look over at our little group and share a moment with us; we’d sing a line at each other and he’d smile to let us know he was as stoked to be there as we were.

Things like these made me feel like I could dance a little, sing a lot, get a little closer to being who I am beneath my armor. And I did.

It’s been a long time since I’ve said any band or story has singlehandedly saved my life. I’ve realized this simplifies the matter and distances me from my own survival. That said, I still hold as true that some things have really helped me along the way — that some things inform my understanding of the world and myself, help me believe my experiences and struggles are valid, remind me that there is so much to live for. I feel insurmountably indebted to a few things, the Mountain Goats among them.

I carry that gratitude — and what I’m grateful for — with me everywhere I go. I try to wear it on my sleeve.

The Sunset Tree documents John Darnielle’s experiences growing up under his abusive stepfather. The liner notes read:

“Dedicated to any young men and women anywhere who live with people who abuse them, with the following good news:
you are going to make it out of there alive
you will live to tell your story
never lose hope.”

I listened to that album long before I knew to call my own situation abuse, through my initial realization that my normal wasn’t actually normal, and every single time I have needed a reminder that what I was facing wasn’t deserved or inescapable. It’s been, by turns, a lifeline and a safety blanket and an unparalleled source of hope — a reassurance that I am broken, but not irredeemable.

It was a good night.

Sammi and I made it back to Brandeis, put matching “I only listen to the Mountain Goats stickers” on our laptops, and sat in her dorm’s hallway eating sandwiches and talking about the show.

The next day, I took a bus trip to New York, where I’d spend four days having even more adventures with more friends. I listened to the two records I’d bought at the show — despite not owning a record player myself — in my friend Jackson’s apartment. I carried my Regional Heat Tour poster through countless city streets in a torn-up plastic bag. I came back to Miami and put it up on my wall.

When my trip was over, I missed the feeling of a Mountain Goats show so much that I dug into the last of my savings and booked a trip to catch the Regional Heat tour one more time in Austin.

It’s possible this wasn’t the wisest decision, but neither was going to Boston.

This Year might be the Mountain Goats’ most famous song. It’s definitely one of my favorite things in the world. There’s a bit that goes “There will be feasting and dancing / In Jerusalem next year / I am gonna make it through this year / If it kills me.”

Another song that made the set list on Tuesday the fourteenth was Steal Smoked Fish, where John sings “Feast when you can / and dream, dream when there’s nothing to feast on.”

I have done and will do more than my fair share of dreaming. I don’t resent that; I can’t ever resent hope. This year, though, there was feasting and dancing in Boston. There will be feasting and dancing in many places yet.

For the first time in my life, “next year” is more than an empty, necessary promise I make myself. It’s a reality.

I measure my time in countdowns now. Bad days can only be so hard when I know I have a concert in a week, a New England weekend with my coworkers next weekend, a trip home to GeekyCon in August. Bad days can only be so hard when I know I’m seeing the Mountain Goats again in less than two months.

Even when these things run out, bad days can only be so hard when I know I have these memories and this music everywhere I go.

And I am thankful.

Thankful for these moments, thankful for the people I get to share them with, thankful for this band — this band that I don’t think sets out to teach us things, but has taught my friends and I plenty; this band that assures us our stories are worth telling and will be told; this band that tells our stories and our friends’ stories and stories we don’t yet know but need to hear; this band that affirms our truths and assures us the worst of them do not define us, tells us we are not hopeless, shows us we are never alone.

It’s like this: the chorus in Animal Mask — one of my favorite songs off the Mountain Goats’ new Beat the Champ — goes “Some things you will remember / Some things stay sweet forever.”

If anything even begins to capture the night I went to my first Mountain Goats show, it’s those words right there. But this line, at least to me, isn’t just about unforgettable moments. It’s about how we fill the stretches of time between them — the stretches of survival between the nights we celebrate being alive. I’m learning to love that process.

And if the Mountain Goats are part of both the memories and the in betweens, I’m happier than I can say.