God & Worshipper: A Rock-and-Roll Love Story, of Sorts

Mountain Goats fan Stephen Wesley at the band's Webster Hall show.Photo: Rona Yefman

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.”

John DarniellePhoto: Rona Yefman

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.”

Wesley and Darnielle meet backstage.Photo: Rona Yefman

In 2001, Darnielle received a call from 4AD, a midsize record label with a roster of critically respected artists. Darnielle signed with the label, and 4AD gave him the money needed to record his next album in a modern studio. The result was Tallahassee, a series of songs about a married couple battling with each other, alcoholism, and, eventually, death. The record marked a turning point. Soon, Darnielle was appearing on National Public Radio. Where previous Mountain Goats records would be reviewed in alternative weeklies, now Darnielle was being written about reverentially in the New York Times. The New Yorker called him America’s best non-hip-hop lyricist.

Tallahassee sold three times more than the Mountain Goats’ previous record. Darnielle followed up with 2004’s We Shall All Be Healed, and 2005’s The Sunset Tree, an album about Darnielle’s stepfather, who had recently died. The Sunset Tree, largely considered Darnielle’s best album, made many top-ten lists, and sold 37,000 copies, several times more than his pre-4AD releases.

As Darnielle’s songs became more personal, his relationship with fans became more complex. Darnielle already had a non-band blog called Last Plane To Jakarta, but after he signed with 4AD he created Mountain-Goats.com. Fans began posting feverishly, especially when they realized Darnielle was an active participant and often responded to their messages. People began writing to Darnielle directly, asking for everything from free tickets to the next show to how to handle personal problems. Darnielle’s followers didn’t seem to want to get high with him or have sex with him so much as just talk with him. They wanted a confidant. And they were insatiable. “You started to notice that for John to just go from backstage to take a piss became an ordeal,” says Peter Hughes, the band’s bassist and longtime Darnielle friend. “He was being stopped by twenty people when all he wants to do is go to the bathroom and get ready for the show. He’s a good guy, but he’s not Mother Teresa.”

“I know superfandom went out with the restraining order. But I can’t help it with John.”

Darnielle was always uneasy with the worship. He didn’t understand why people wanted to meet him or share their problems with him. “I mean, I love Joan Didion, but I love her writing,” he says. “I don’t think meeting her could solve my problems or make me understand the world better.” Still, Darnielle felt he owed something to people who had invested so much time and energy into his work, and so he accommodated fans.

In 2006, Darnielle released a follow-up to The Sunset Tree called Get Lonely. Darnielle put out another album, Heretic Pride, last February, and hit the road again. The Mountain Goats never sounded better and were never more popular, and Darnielle was finally making a decent living. But the more money he made; the more he had to be away from Lalitree; the more fans demanded of him, the worse he felt.

In April of 2007, Darnielle found himself doubled over with chest pain in a Swedish emergency room. What he thought was a heart attack turned out to be a stomach problem. He pushed through another year touring but knew there was no way he could do a scheduled Australian tour last spring. He put off telling Hughes and 4AD for two days, hiding out at a friend’s New York apartment, playing the KT Tunstall song “Hopeless” over and over again. He finally broke the news to his label and band mates and headed back to Durham.

“Touring is just not normal for me,” Darnielle told me during my visit to his home. “My personality is to never ever talk to people if I can help it. I feel a dedication to the people who listen to what I do, and in exchange I will give the best I have when I play, but I just don’t have the physical energy anymore to talk with them. There’s always that one guy who is standing to the side, waiting everyone out. He’s the one with the really sad stories, and he wants to have your undivided attention. I just can’t do that anymore. It leaves me spent for days.”

After he canceled his tour last year, Darnielle sat at home and contemplated quitting music and returning to nursing. But he ran the numbers and they didn’t work. “I’m now successful enough that I can’t afford to quit,” he told me with a wan smile. Instead, Darnielle has been forced to take on a second job: president of Mountain Goat Enterprises. Music fans are a fickle bunch, and there’s a feeling of having to feed the beast or be forgotten. “I don’t feel like I can step away for a year,” Darnielle says. “I feel like I have to keep the momentum going.”

Darnielle has churned out at least 600 songs over the past fifteen years. “People shout requests at shows for songs I barely remember writing,” he says. He puts in 40 hours a week or more on merchandising, publicity, and other business duties. He has posted 962 times over the past two years on Mountain-Goats.com, where his messages have become increasingly edgy. He corrects fans’ lyrical interpretations (“ ‘Satanic Messiah’ has nothing to do with Senator Obama … nor with Senator McCain”) and scolds readers for trying to capitalize on his work (“the deal is you can make one tour poster for yourself, but no making them for more people, profit or no”).

Going forward, Darnielle has come up with hard-and-fast tour rules, like no day-of-show interviews. And he found himself asking promoters about things he had never dreamed of before. “I started asking them how I can get from backstage to the bus without people seeing me.”

Stephen Wesley sits in the basement of the Empire State Building. Six-foot-three and impossibly skinny, Wesley is hunched over a desk in his western-civ class at King’s College, a Christian school in midtown.

Wesley pretends to take notes on his laptop, but he’s really pressing the refresh button furiously at Mountain-Goats.com. At any minute, John Darnielle’s official site will announce when and where copies of Satanic Messiah will be available, and Wesley, along with the rest of Mountain Goats Nation, is desperate for the information. Darnielle actually set up the EP for digital download last week on his website; fans could purchase the record via PayPal, and pay what they want. Wesley paid $20 and has already listened to all four songs over twenty times each, but you can’t hold digital in your hands. “I have to own the ephemera, the tangible thing, too,” he says.

Class ends, but there’s still no news. Darnielle is selling limited copies of Satanic Messiah on vinyl; some will be available via mail order, the rest at upcoming concerts. But the Mountain Goats don’t come through New York until the tour’s end, and Wesley knows the records will be all gone.

It’s now 2:10 p.m. There are only twenty minutes before Wesley must take the elevator up seventeen floors for a meeting with the university provost. He’s panicked. “I won’t be able to go on the Internet up there,” he says.

Finally, at 2:19, a note goes up at Mountain-Goats.com. Satanic Messiah will be available for online ordering from Beggars Group, 4AD’s parent label, and Tim Adams, an indie-record seller. Wesley’s fingers fly over his laptop, a credit card balanced on his knee. In six minutes, he orders a copy from both sites (“You can’t be too careful, one might lose my order”), paying $17 each, bringing his investment in Darnielle’s four new songs to $54.

There’s one more small problem. Wesley doesn’t own a record player. No matter. “I just found one online for $114.93,” he says. “It’s refurbished and used to cost $450.”

Now $170 lighter, Wesley lopes toward the elevator, five minutes late for the provost. He then returns to the Herald Square apartment he shares with three other students. A Mountain Goats poster hangs in the kitchen. Wesley plugs in his laptop and begins typing. One of the songs on the Satanic Messiah EP is called “Gojam Province 1968.” Wesley is an aspiring writer—he started reading Didion after finding out she was Darnielle’s favorite writer—and he quickly composes a 700-word analysis of the song’s lyrics and posts it on the Mountain-Goats.com. He correctly pegs the song’s subject as disaffected Ethiopians in the last years of Haile Selassie’s reign.

Gojam Province 1968

Like many Mountain Goats fans, Wesley grew up bright, shy, and disaffected. He was born in Trenton, New Jersey, but his family moved south, first to Atlanta and then to an affluent suburb of Orlando, Florida, where his father works as an industrial psychologist. Like Darnielle, Wesley began composing elaborate stories when he was a child, dictating them to his mother after Montessori school. When he was 7, Wesley was evaluated for gifted classes and a school psychiatrist told his parents, “He’s very smart, but he can be easily suggestible.”

In high school, Wesley rarely drank, didn’t get high, and was consumed with the Bible. His friends had pool houses and were interested in skate-punk music. Wesley joined in yet never fully belonged; he was a “straight-edge,” a nondrinking, non-drug-taking member of the punk scene, and his family had less money than many of the other kids’ in town. He tried to straddle different worlds: playing tuba in the marching band while sporting a mohawk, owning a pistol, and memorizing Scripture.

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.”

Before Wesley left, I told him that I was interested in arranging a meeting between him and Darnielle. “No way!” he said. “I feel like Charlie in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. And I have the golden ticket.” I didn’t mention that, in the end, Charlie wound up profoundly disappointed with Willy.

Wesley and Darnielle were set to meet at Webster Hall, the day after the Music Hall show. I found Wesley outside before the sound check, and his face was chalk white. “I think I’m gonna throw up,” he said. As we walked up the stairs to Darnielle’s dressing room, Wesley mumbled reassuring words to himself. Wesley was told Darnielle was changing, and there would be a few minutes delay. Then the dressing-room door opened and a record-label assistant beckoned Wesley inside.

“Hey, you’re the guy I am supposed to meet!” said Darnielle, gamely trying to sound excited. Wesley said hello and took a seat on a beat-up couch. Darnielle ended a long, painful silence by confessing, “I’m sorry, I am in a really bad mood. The stage in Williamsburg is covered in carpet, and I never feel like I play well on carpet. And there was too many people backstage.” He launched into a lament about life on the road. “Doesn’t rock and roll seem glamorous?”

Another awkward pause followed, but this time Wesley took the initiative. He said that he knew Darnielle was a private person and probably hated the artificiality of the situation. With that, Darnielle smiled and loosened up a little.

“Don’t worry, I had a teacher who said the moment when man wrote things down, life becomes a production instead of pure,” said Darnielle. “It’s all downhill from there.”

Wesley replied, “I had a ninth-grade teacher who said the ruin of man was the creation of a false society, which started the first time he shared his crops with his neighbors.”

Both men laughed. Wesley told Darnielle he was a devout Christian. They then began talking excitedly about BibleGateway.com, a website where you can put in any Bible verse and the site spits out translations. “I’ve got something that is going to freak out the Protestant,” Darnielle told Wesley. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small rosary adorned with a picture of Mother Teresa. “I was raised Catholic, and it’s all about the liturgy of the heart, and I still pray it will relax me even though I don’t believe.”

Wesley beamed, paused for a moment, and reached into his own pocket. He pulled out a long, black rosary with two Corpus Christis and two Virgin Marys flanking a medallion.

“I was baptized a Catholic before I became Christian, and I still carry these with me,” Wesley said. Darnielle’s eyes went wide, and he clasped Wesley on the shoulder.

Then Darnielle grabbed a felt-tip marker and began to scribble on a paper plate. “You can’t leave empty-handed,” he told Wesley. He scribbled a line in Hebrew, a verse from Ecclesiastes that he remembered from a college class. It roughly translates as “There is nothing new under the sun.”

The two of them posed for pictures. Wesley smiled beatifically while Darnielle mugged shamelessly, resting his shoulder on Wesley’s. “Someone told me that there is nothing more not rock and roll than two guys posing for pictures together,” said Darnielle. “We might as well go all the way.”

It was time to leave. For a second, Wesley and Darnielle paused without shaking hands. Darnielle because he has germ issues, Wesley because he knows Darnielle has germ issues. But then Darnielle relented, maybe because it was the last night of the tour. The two shook hands and hugged. Then they said two final words, precisely in sync: “Thank you.”

Pig That Rain Straightaway Into the Water, Triumph Of

God & Worshipper: A Rock-and-Roll Love Story, of Sorts