Stephen Wesley has three unconditional loves: John, Joy, and God, perhaps in that order of importance. God is God, Joy is his girlfriend, and John is John Darnielle, the founder and star of a fairly obscure, critically acclaimed, and obsessively beloved indie-rock band called the Mountain Goats. Wesley believes in a mighty and just God, but sometimes he thinks the man upstairs doesn’t approve of the Mountain Goats. How else to explain Wesley’s Job-like disappointments at previous attempts to see the band live? There was the I.D. problem, for instance, the canceled show, and the Mitsubishi breakdown outside of Atlanta in 2007.
But that’s all in the past. Tonight, Wesley waits outside the Music Hall of Williamsburg, bobbing up and down in a pair of green Vans, jeans, and a field jacket adorned with Mountain Goats buttons. He looks more or less like the rest of the assembled Mountain Goats faithful, a cross section of earnest young poet boys, geeky music-philes, and self-styled off-the-grid types carrying messenger bags—nearly a thousand of whom have gathered here tonight to bathe in Darnielle’s light. Wesley follows his brethren inside, sips from a water bottle, and paces the lobby. He stops at the merch table and plunks down $12 on a Mountain Goats T-shirt.
The opening act is a guitarist named Kaki King. Midway through her set, Wesley glances at his watch. “I’m ready,” he says, “for John.” Kaki King exits. The room fills with more fans. The sound system bleats out the opening line of Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons’ “December, 1963.” (“Oh what a niiiight!”) To hard-core fans, and that’s virtually everyone, that’s a cue: It’s time. From a stage door to Stephen’s right, the band’s rhythm section makes its way out, and then, after the requisite dramatic pause, Darnielle emerges. He is a stocky middle-aged white man wearing a goofy smile and a blazer festooned with death-metal patches. And yet he is treated here, among his people, as no less an icon than a Mick or a Kurt.
Darnielle plugs in his guitar, strums a few notes, and says hello. The crowd cheers. Wesley, who is usually quiet and thoughtful, starts chattering like a tween: “Oh my God, Oh my God,” “I can’t believe this is finally happening. Is this really happening?” and “This is the greatest day of my life.”
“I know superfandom went out with the restraining order,” he had told me earlier, with a self-deprecating smile. “But I can’t help it with John.”
Rock-band worship is nothing new, of course, but the relationship between Darnielle and his fans has its own special hue. This is not the mass, global adulation of arena bands like U2. Nor is it fandom as lifestyle as practiced by Dead Heads. It’s the confessional-indie-troubador-and-his-flock-of-disciples model of Nick Drake, the Smiths, and Rufus Wainwright. Like those musicians and their tribes, Darnielle and his acolytes share an unusually intimate, and often pained, bond. Mountain Goats fans tend to have an air of sadness about them, and because Darnielle sings so openly and candidly about his own difficulties, he connects with his audience on a level that few artists are able to reach (the band is called the Mountain Goats, plural, but the group—and the fuss over them—is entirely about Darnielle). Darnielle sings about what his fans feel but can’t articulate. He’s their hero, but he’s also their soulmate, the one person in the world who understands them. That’s why Stephen Wesley and the legions of fans like him can’t get enough of the Mountain Goats. And that burden is crushing Darnielle.
The doorbell rings at John Darnielle’s Durham, North Carolina, home. He puts down a glass of hard cider, pushes his glasses back up on his nose, and flips off a turntable playing Fun Boy Three’s version of “Our Lips Are Sealed.” He shoos away his cat and disappears into the foyer. There’s a shout. His new record is here. Darnielle rips open the top box and pulls out an elaborately designed 45 emblazoned with the words satanic messiah, the name of the new four-song EP by the Mountain Goats, under a drawing of a flaming red dragon. “That is freaking rad. I love records so much.”
Darnielle was born in Bloomington, Indiana, but spent his early years in San Luis Obispo, California, the only son of a librarian and an English professor. His sister was born two years later, but his parents divorced when Darnielle was 5. His mother moved the kids to an exurb of Los Angeles and married a Marxist-leaning pharmacist who beat her and the children repeatedly. Darnielle’s mother bought him a typewriter on his 7th birthday, and he began writing stories after school. “I remember the first line of my first story,” Darnielle says: “Once a bugle stood in the window of a store that sold brass goods.”