By the time he was in seventh grade, Darnielle was sending science-fiction stories to magazines and entering poetry competitions. “My father would tell me if I wasn’t writing in meter verse, it wasn’t poetry,” Darnielle says. “My stepfather wanted me to write Marxist poetry; if it didn’t serve the revolution, it wasn’t worthwhile.” I asked him what his mother thought, and he let out a sad laugh. “You have to understand the dynamic of the abused household. What you think doesn’t matter. Your thoughts are passing. They are positions you adopt to survive.”
When a junior-high teacher submitted Darnielle’s poems to a New York literary competition, one was selected, and Darnielle made plans to go to New York for the awards ceremony. But he got into a fight with his stepfather, who kicked him out of the house. (Darnielle’s mother would sometimes leave her husband, but she always returned.)
Darnielle and his stepfather continued to battle throughout high school. Darnielle allows that there were parts of the man he appreciates. “I wouldn’t be talking with you if it wasn’t for him,” Darnielle says. “He had this huge brain and great taste, and he had me listening to Randy Newman when I was 8.” But, Darnielle says, “that doesn’t mean he wasn’t a monster. He beat all of us. There was a day when I was 15 when I walked down to some train tracks and sat in a building above them for three hours, ready to jump. If a train had come, I wouldn’t be here today.”
By the time Darnielle graduated from high school, he was using heroin and later crystal meth. Eventually, a therapist told him he might find a salve for his own pain in helping others. He started taking classes to become a psychiatric-nurse technician and found work at Metropolitan State Hospital in Norwalk, California. “It’s not that complicated,” Darnielle says. “My favorite movies are gory horror films. I love Faulkner. I wanted to see the most painful things possible. Maybe it was to see people worse off than me, but a lot of it was just to see how many bullets I could eat.”
Darnielle lived on the hospital’s grounds and took classes at a local college. He turned to music as a new outlet for his writing. He had taken piano and clarinet lessons as a boy and knew some basic guitar chords. From the start, he was prolific: “I’d write a song in ten minutes, and then I’d write two more.” His early songs were dark and funny and already full of literary and biblical references. In “The Doll Song,” for instance, he writes about talking to dolls about his broken heart, then segues into this verse:
I started reading the bible
1 corinthians 13
where paul talks all about love
but i don’t know what he means
because he says that love is kind
that hasn’t been my experience
so i set the bible on the kitchen table
and yelled at it until i was not able to
yeah i’m talking to inanimate objects over you.
The Doll Song
Darnielle came up with a band name—mountains goats are referenced in “Yellow Coat,” a Screamin’ Jay Hawkins song Darnielle loved—and started playing small nearby venues and recording his songs into a boom box he bought at Circuit City. He gave cassettes to his friends, and one of them ended up in the hands of Dennis Callaci, the head of Shrimper Records, a small but influential California-based record label. Taboo VI: The Homecoming, the Mountain Goats’ first album, was released in 1991. Darnielle began releasing a new batch of songs every six months or so, but he kept his day job.
On a day off in 1994, Darnielle was reading Internet posts about the indie-rock scene in his area. A commenter wrote something nice about the Mountain Goats, Darnielle sent a thank-you e-mail to her, and they began corresponding. The woman’s name was Lalitree. She was one of his first fans and is now his wife. The couple eventually moved to Iowa, where Lalitree went to college.
For the next five years, Darnielle toured solo, sometimes driving himself to gigs with just one guitar and an amp. He was past 30 and still wasn’t making a living off his music, but he was starting to attract what would become the prototypical Mountain Goats fan—literary, sensitive, obsessed. Some early fans started an unsanctioned website and began posting bootleg recordings and detailed interpretations of Mountain Goats lyrics. The crowds at his shows were still small, but the fans who came were intense. Some would stay for hours after the show, waiting to talk to Darnielle, and Darnielle would willingly oblige. “I’d talk to everyone. If it took an hour, that was cool.”