Water: an essay on art

The Mountain Goats perform at NPR Tiny Desk

Despite being a writer, books never make me cry. Not ever. Not even with laughter. And however much I love books, I don’t think they’ll ever make me cry. Which is why I need to fill that fix somewhere else. Thus, I turn to music and the occasional film (see: Inception and the pinwheel scene, Upstream Colour and the bathtub scene – or, unabashedly, when I was twelve, the end of Pay It Forward… and, well, you know what happens there).

And, inevitably, when I think of the music that continually provokes a strong emotional response, I come back to the Mountain Goats, specifically solo performances by their mastermind John Darnielle. Even more specifically, an NPR Tiny Desk concert he performed some years ago where he played an acoustic range of some of my favourite songs (1). At various stages of my life (2) each song in his fixedly perfect set list has brought water to the shores of my eyelids. The approximately twelve-minute concert sees John play “Colour in Your Cheeks”, “Hebrews 11:40”, “Psalm 40:2”, and “Going to Georgia”.

1: Though maybe this is a case where these songs became my favorite because of this performance. It’s one of those chicken/egg thingamajigs.

2: Every few months I return to YouTube to get my fill of Darnielle’s melodically shouty brilliance.

Photo: Freya Marshall Payne

I almost have his brief pre-song explanations memorized and his monologue before “Going to Georgia” has especially glued itself to me, wherein he mentions young male writers get this idea in their head that they need to do something drastic to get a woman’s attentions and affections. He goes on to say the young man will inevitably end up harming himself as gift-offering to his beloved. This, I think, fits in with art, at least tangentially… Because while I don’t think art forces us to approach it at risk of self-harm or that harming ourselves is the way toward brilliant art,(3) I do think art begs a vulnerability – especially music (that near cousin to poetry, my incestuous lover). We cannot gain anything from art if we do not first become vulnerable to its impact. Like rain. If I want to get wet, I have to step outside. And if I want to experience the birth of the sun after rainfall, I also have to be outside. I need to expose myself to the elements. (4) The elements are also Darnielle and his guitar.

3: I used to think my best work came from my deepest places of pain and that to be a tortured artist was somehow noble or desirable or notable. The idea of being a tortured artist as desirable? Hogwash. The idea of art coming from pain? Naturally.  I’ve since encountered suicide statistics for poets, and, interestingly enough, poets who use a predominance of “I” (inward-centered) as opposed to “un-I” language (my term for outward-centered) have a much higher rate of suicide (successful to boot). I immediately think of Sylvia Plath and then all I can think of are novelists: Woolf, Hemingway, John Kennedy Toole, Foster Wallace. Nevertheless, it scared me off writing intro-centric poetry for a brief spell… before I decided my sanity could survive the appalling mesosphere of gloom layering my then-depressive milieu. God, being twenty and chronic-depressive is absurd.

4: A related transcendent experience I had took place on country roads near Upland, IN, where I attended college. I foolishly took off on a four-mile jog beneath grimacing skies, which began to vomit uncontrollably at the exact midpoint of my run. I ran the last two miles under a thick deluge, a Noah without an ark. At one point I was swamped under the spray of a passing semi, which (no exaggeration!) became a wave stretched above my head like one of those obnoxious waterfalls at waterparks.

Photo: Freya Marshall Payne

In “Hebrews 11:40” Darnielle says, “If not by faith, then by the sword, I’m going to be restored.” As pseudo-referenced in an earlier footnote, the need for restoration is a recurring theme in my life and, I suspect, others’. Art is a gateway to restoration and while art operates on faith, it just as often operates by a proverbial sword. Art deserves our defence and it has earned our loyalty as crusaders for it: as concept, as physical object, as salve against political salvos. This song feels powerful to me because the restoration of anything takes work (5). It takes work because you have to want it. Again, art begs our vulnerability. If I want to approach with an iron soul, I can easily come away from an encounter unchanged, perhaps similar to how I face most trap music. Or rockabilly. Or an indie band who’s just trying too desperately to be a non-copy of a copy (6).

5: This my father and I would discover after picking up an antique radio from a friend for a fiver and spending the better part of a week stripping down and dressing up what is now a beautiful 1940s console radio that also works. Now it is gladly exuding WKEB 90.9 seventy years following the WWII broadcasts it probably pumped into the living room of some logger’s house in the backwoods hamlet of Medford, WI (my birthplace).

6: Here I can’t help but think of the hundred million plus views of something like Rebecca Black’s “Friday” which doesn’t necessarily signal what kind of art actually matters more. Depth of effect or spread of effect? It breaks my heart nobody in my circle of friends knows the Mountain Goats but everybody will get down to Kid Cuddy’s “Pursuit of Happiness” no problem while playing Rage Cage or True American, using, naturally, the champagne of beers. (Which, pleasingly, hails from my home state. We’ve give the world cheese and beer and after that, well, it’s pretty easy to brag we come in the top twenty-five of the contiguous United States. Definitely in front of Kansas.) Grudgingly, I admit it’s catchy, whether or not I’ve just participated in power hour using aforementioned champagne, of course. Which begs the question, is my heart moved by what I am driven to call “low art” even as I am repelled by attempting to split creation into tiers?

Photo: Freya Marshall Payne

The John Darnielle NPR Tiny Desk concert set list seems to plumb the spiral from my throat to my heart to my soul with each passing lyric, meaning by the end of “Psalm 40:2” I’m a philosophical cesspool barely resident in the physical environ, deep in my feelings and not worth disturbing unless you’re willing to listen to some type of rant not dissimilar to this current thread. “Lord, send me a mechanic, if I’m not beyond repair,” Darnielle croons. Again, to reference my state of mind earlier splayed across a windshield for your perusal, this line hits me between the brows. Don’t we all wish to be within the realm of repair? Aren’t we all waiting desperately for someone to come along and fix us up? My high school self definitely thought that was the purpose of a girlfriend, wherefore I Romeo’d my way through three different relationships which made me unwittingly fall on my own knife at no fault of the girls’.

The truest, highest art (ugh, here I go; sorry, Rebecca) points us back to humanity, the creators of the mirrors meant to show us who we are, who we can be, and what we might begin to do to get there (then again, “Friday” doesn’t do this for me; enter smug justification). I’ve rarely been more gratified than when I might be mechanic for someone else and rarely more suffused with a semi-ashamed pleasure than when someone comes to my rescue. Art is itself a rescue but in the way that a life buoy is a rescue. Someone is at the end of the line pulling you in after you become enlightened enough to grab hold. Additionally, an arm or two waits to pull you into the boat before pruniness sets in and then you’re back in the boat, swearing to your friends how and why you’ll never go overboard again. But of course you will and art will be there, followed by people. Or vice versa. Either way, it’s a caduceus belying a human/art harmony.

Before the last song, Darnielle asks the audience what they want to hear and someone immediately yells out “Going to Georgia.” Thank god for that person because this is perhaps the best song of the bunch (7). While I haven’t said much about Darnielle’s performance or presentation as being integral to my experience, it is. I connect with him and his delivery much quicker than, say, a Leonard Cohen (8). It is how he performs the songs as much as their lyrics that gut me into a teary, flopping fish of a man. I once tried to show a girlfriend “No Children” (another of my favorite Mountain Goats’ tunes) and I regretted it immediately upon pressing send on my flip phone. She didn’t connect with it and I probably paid for the overarching relationship-failure themes present in that song during the next month of our relationship, which, I’m happy to say, did not end because of that mishap. Nonetheless, I never mentioned the Mountain Goats to her again and I assume she’s never been brought to tears by one of their songs. Not everyone connects the same and I could spiral this into a mad verbose semaphore on the subjectivity vs. objectivity of art but, simply put, I won’t.

7: Or, by corollary, the best song because of the bunch. The old chicken/egg conundrum distorted.

8: A historic legend to whom I think Darnielle’s songwriting prowess is equal. Cue disagreement and anger from all Cohen diehards. No matter.

Photo: Freya Marshall Payne

In “Going to Georgia”, as earlier mentioned, Darnielle speaks of a young man chasing a woman. He goes down to visit his lover in Georgia and when he arrives, Darnielle sings this glorious line: “The most remarkable thing about you standing in the doorway is that it’s you / And that you are standing in the doorway.” Art stands in the doorway, waiting for us to come home to it. It’s a rare book that I reread, a rare album that I listen to on repeat. But when I find a piece of art fitted to my figure I wear it for weeks, never feeling a drain on that art’s life-giving capabilities. And I think humans also stand in that doorway. At least the good ones, like that girl in the song. Because like art, humans are ready to welcome us back home when we stray from the path, spend a few nights in the woods, and suddenly remember how good a fire and a pair of arms can be at night.

The next line says, “And you smile as you ease the gun from my hand / I am frozen with joy right where I stand.” Art and humans both take the gun from our hand. That ineradicable urge to harm ourselves, to think we illuminate ourselves by self-inflicted pain. No. We might make art from pain. But we never become more beautiful by mutilating ourselves. Darnielle tells us to put down the knife, uncock the gun, come home, quit running away. When we do, we become “frozen with joy”, a human ready to capture the essence of the forthcoming moment, a human ready to run toward more art. In particular, I become a human ready to cry at the immense purity of the experience Darnielle has evoked in me.

Queue the water.


Michael Prihoda is a poet, editor, and teacher living in central Indiana. He is the editor of After the Pause, an experimental literary magazine and small press. In addition, he is the author of five poetry collections, the most recent of which is The First Breath You Take After You Give Up (Weasel Press, 2016).

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