Wesley dated, but not successfully. “The girls I hung with had narrowed their diets to coffee, cigarettes, and morning-after pills. The other problem is, I wouldn’t have sex with them,” says Wesley, who is still a virgin.
Wesley was a voracious reader, but that certainly didn’t make him any more accepted. “I was reading a book of Alexander Pope essays at lunch, and a kid said ‘What the fuck is that? Some Catholic shit?’ ” That was his sophomore year, just months before he discovered the Mountain Goats.
Wesley can tell you exactly where he was when he first heard “the music,” as he calls it. “I was coming back from a music festival in Sunshine, Florida, on the I-95, late at night,” he says. “We had met a homeless college student with dirty dreadlocks. She put in the Mountain Goats’ album Tallahassee and played three tracks—‘Tallahassee,’ ‘First Few Desperate Hours,’ and ‘Idylls of the Kings’—and that was that.”
If Wesley’s explanation of Darnielle’s appeal isn’t especially complex, it’s certainly heartfelt: “His songs are all full of literary allusions and Bible references. Everything that I’m into, he writes about. A lot of them are about people feeling isolated, and I knew what that felt like.”
One day, Wesley sent me an e-mail trying to elaborate on what he meant. The drama and melancholy of it go to the heart of the Mountain Goats’ appeal. He wrote out a lengthy autobiography, with different chapters marked by Mountain Goats’ lyrics including this one from a song called “Absolute Lithops Effect”:
And I, I will bloom here in my room
with a little water,
and a little bit of sunlight,
and a little bit of tender mercy.
“There’s always one guy with really sad stories who wants your undivided attention. I can’t do that anymore. It leaves me spent.”
Absolute Lithops Effect
In his junior year, Wesley took a business class that provided him with Internet access during school hours. He started reading everything he could find out about Darnielle. He found they had both been baptized Catholics, both loved Latin and Greek myths, and reveled in church history. One day, Wesley took all his punk belongings out into his family’s backyard. He built a pile made up of black T-shirts, concert posters, CDs, and ticket stubs. He pulled out a match and started a fire, then watched as the ashes of his past life floated away.
Wesley grew out his mohawk and started wearing vintage clothing, not unlike Darnielle’s stage garb. After learning about Darnielle’s years as a psychiatric nurse, he volunteered to work with elementary-school kids after school. He started accumulating albums of rarities (Wesley estimates he has 1,000 Mountain Goats songs in his collection, not an atypical number). He began posting on Mountain-Goats.com under the name Adam. When he reached out to Darnielle to tell him how much his music meant to him, Darnielle responded with a thank-you. Wesley was overjoyed.
Wesley loved that while Darnielle wasn’t a practicing Christian, he still had an encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible. One day, Wesley played for me the song “Pigs That Ran Straightaway Into the Water, Triumph Of.” “That’s a reference to Matthew 22:6,” Wesley told me. “That’s where Jesus casts the demon into a herd of swine. That he can work that into a song is so cool.”
Wesley keeps a small bound notebook with all the good advice he has received in his short lifetime, some from his parents, some from his teachers, and a lot from Darnielle. On the first page, he has transcribed a Darnielle quote from a 2004 interview: “Don’t eat meat. Be as passionate as you can all the time. Work for social justice. Cuddle your beloved more than seems reasonable. Write. Give money to charity as often as you can, and give a little more than you’re comfortable giving. Remember the homeless always and everywhere. Thank whatever God you worship for your inestimable good luck in being loved, and if you are not loved, love someone as best you can.” Shortly after arriving in New York this September, Wesley received a $350 check he wasn’t expecting. He went to an ATM and withdrew $40. Wesley soon came across a man with a cardboard sign reading NEED A TICKET HOME. Wesley gave him the money. “I tithe 10 percent because of my beliefs, the whole ‘What you do for the least of my brothers, you do for me’ thing,” Wesley told me. “So I should have just given him $35, but I tithe the extra percent because of John.”
Wesley and I met for pizza one afternoon in Brooklyn. The King’s College literary magazine had hosted an event the previous evening in the cafeteria where kids could read either their own poetry or the words of their favorite artists. Wesley, of course, read from the Book of Darnielle, while the next girl read the lyrics of Conor Oberst, a.k.a. the folksinger Bright Eyes. Wesley was disgusted. “Bright Eyes is not a man, he’s just a boy,” Wesley told me. “Bright Eyes is just this over the top ‘I am wussy man, here me roar.’ Did you know the word virtue comes from the Latin word for man? You get too sensitive, you lose your strength. And his stuff is so vague. John once wrote a song that has a line ‘I love you because you gave me sausage and cheese when I was hungry’—it’s earned because it’s a concrete thought: You fed me, that’s why I love you.”