It is the closest thing to blasphemy I know.
Agnostic on my best days, these feet have only crossed the threshold of a church for weddings and funerals, save twice: a high school study group for my AP chemistry final and Sunday mass with a girl who eventually saw something too familiar in me. God and religion are important; I know this. They are just not particularly important to me, except as an easy metaphor for something beyond the corporeal, like the human chasm reverberating within me, echoing this uncommon silence, after the bridge in “You Were Cool.”
I hope the people who did you wrong have trouble sleeping at night is the best Darnielle is able to offer a childhood friend, one who was grist for the mill of high school, and it is a sentiment that has always been met with an eruption of sub-linguistic enthusiasm, a wordless agreement that ours would be a marginally more righteous world if a reckoning, even a minor reckoning, were delivered to those who have sinned against those we have traveled with. It is a small prayer, yes, but it may lead to an aggregate balancing of the scales in the long-term.
There is no doubt in my mind that many Mountain Goats fans believe themselves to be the subject of this song. Some surely are, but most of us would likely be found in the role of Darnielle’s singer: looking back, aware of the reality, and releasing a prayer out into the void when the time for action is long past: that perhaps those who wronged this friend — a friend you likely think of more than they think of you — perhaps those who slipped a few seconds of hell into your friend’s teenage life rest on a mattress older than they are, perhaps they stare into the bathroom tile at 2 AM once or twice a week. The crowd’s cheer in response to this, the smallest of prayers, is a gift to the singer who may now know that at the very least he is not alone. Not alone in his hope, knowing others believe as he does and praying for a balancing of the scales that accounts for every nickel, if not every dime.
You will not find “You Were Cool” on an album. It has never been cut into wax, layered onto a CD, or recorded reel-to-reel onto a cassette, and knowing Darnielle, it never will be. It is a song, not a recording. Recordings exist though — dozens and dozens of them, no doubt — due to the diligence of Mountain Goats fans, whose insistence on chronicling the band has led to an online archive of bootlegs spanning decades, but these are live performances complete with the singing and yelling of a crowd possessed by Darnielle’s unyielding passion.
Except for one.
In joining Marc Maron on his podcast, John Darnielle gave one of his longest interviews, unleashing an autobiography of the events that were mined for The Sunset Tree and We Shall All Be Healed. And as musicians are wont to do on podcasts, Darnielle performed a couple of songs. I did not realize why I felt something — an absence of something, rather — when the podcast wrapped, not until the next Mountain Goats show I attended, where the audience was equal parts chorus and vessel.
Hail Satan! echoes again and again off the walls as fists pump into the air. Tears cascade to the floor with I am going to make it through this year if it kills me! and again with There will be feasting and dancing in Jerusalem next year! But while I hope the people who did you wrong have trouble sleeping at night is certainly sung in the most broken of harmonies, there is a moment afterward when the body next to you is so overjoyed at the prospect of this minor but necessary retribution that it overrides language. And they scream.
And you scream.
And it’s a cheer, maybe.
Or at the very least it’s a scream that leaves your hairs standing on end and connects you with your fellow concertgoers on a level I don’t quite have words to describe. Imagine screaming out and knowing those who echo you believe there is something in this world that needs righting, receiving a reminder of the basest kind that you are not alone, at least not in this.