Music That Matters: “Dance Music” by The Mountain Goats

The following goes into pretty heavy detail about my own decades-long issues with depression and a song that’s about violent domestic abuse.

One of the things that I want to do with this new blog is to start talking about music, and its place in my life. I’m not particularly interested in music reviews: One way or another, the intent of music reviews is to tell you whether an album or song is “good,” according to critical standards. Implicit is the idea that there’s some mysterious, objective standard to separate the crap from the good stuff.

It’s true that I can’t resist the occasional mean-spirited potshot at Nickelback or the entire genre of Christian rock, but for the most part, I long since gave up on the idea that there’s an easy, bright-line distinction between the good music and the bad music. That’s an idea better suited to 20-year-old hipsters who use bands to define their social cliques. I’ve long since left behind my 20-year-old hipster phase, and I’m glad of it.

What I’m more interested in is writing about music and its role in my life. These pieces are less about telling readers which music they should load onto their phone or Spotify playlist, and more about writing a personal biography of how certain songs have affected me over the years.

A lot of these posts will be talking about depression and surviving self-destructive impulses.

A Brief History of My Musical Obsessions

I have a relationship to music that most people associate with teenagers: I think a lot about lyrics, I sometimes obsessively listen to the same song or album over and over again, and I’m almost constantly playing music in the background or on a pair of headphones. Most people expect to find me listening to the kinds of bands you’d associate with a teenage boy — dark, angst-ridden, and harsh in tone. This isn’t without reason, but my tastes are weird and eclectic enough that I’m constantly throwing my girlfriend for a loop with random pieces of music that don’t fit the profile. She was surprised to realize how much I love early Indigo Girls, for instance. My musical taste now is almost nothing like what it was when I was a teen, although if you combed through my record collection from 11th grade, you could see some of the roots.

If the habit seems kind of adolescent, it’s because I’m still dealing with some of the same psychological realities that I had as an adolescent. I was depressed and introverted then, and if anything, I’m more so now.

I’ve used music to survive depression at least since high school. Since I was 15, I’ve had music playing in the background at nearly every opportunity. That’s a habit that’s survived many recording mediums: LPs, cassette tapes on Walkman-type players, compact discs, and the rise of the MP3. I haven’t quite been able to get into streaming yet.

It’s a compulsion that I don’t quite know how to explain, but the best way to start is that yes, it’s an escape, but it’s an escape that allows me to get a better grip on the reality in my head. For a little while, I disappear into the song or songs, and what was a nebulous, indomitable cloud of misery and self-loathing slowly resolves into something with shape and weight: Still fearsome, but now nameable and not quite so indomitable.

Shot of John Darnielle on a green background.
John Darnielle

The first piece of music that I want to write about here is “Dance Music,” by The Mountain Goats. It’s my first choice not because it’s the most important song to me ever, or because it’s my favorite song. It’s not either of those things, although it is a really fucking good song, and probably one of John Darnielle’s best. I think “Dance Music” is a great starting point because it talks about exactly what I’ve been describing: Using the music you love to survive physically and emotionally.

“Dance Music” Verse 1: Domestic Violence at Six Years Old

“Dance Music” is about abuse. In fact, the entire album The Sunset Tree is an autobiographical work about Darnielle’s physically abusive stepfather. The kind of abuse that Darnielle writes and sings about on The Sunset Tree is something that I’ve never lived with, but a lot of the emotions in the songs are familiar to me nevertheless.

Lyrically, there’s two stories happening in the song: The first half is about Darnielle at home as a child, watching television when his stepfather begins to beat up on his mother. Before the glass thrown by his stepfather even hits (whether it hits the wall or the woman, we never know), the child Darnielle scurries up the staircase and cranks up his record player to block out the sounds of the violence in the house:

Alright I’m on Johnson Avenue in San Luis Obispo
And I’m five years old or six maybe.
And indications there’s something wrong with our new house
Trip down the wire twice daily.

I’m in the living room watching the Watergate hearings
While my step father yells at my mother.
Launches a glass across the room, straight at her head
And I dash upstairs to take cover.
Lean in close to my little record player on the floor.
So this is what the volume knob is for.

I listen to dance music.

The line that always makes my throat catch a little is the one that’s next to last in that selection: “So this is what the volume knob is for.” It’s typical of Darnielle’s writing that there’s so much emotional meaning in such a simple phrase. At first glance, it’s very calm — even blasé — but against the background of violence, the desperation in that simple, deceptively calm phrase is clear. The volume knob is the only defense that he has against the brutality in his house. Although it’s phrased as a revelation, it’s clear to me that this isn’t the first time that the young Darnielle has run to the little record player for sanctuary. When his stepfather throws the glass, he doesn’t even pause long enough to notice whether or not it hits his mother before he runs upstairs. Everything has the feeling of a well-rehearsed cycle.

It’s certainly not the last time that he runs to the record player. It come back in the second verse, and in another track, “Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod,” Darnielle describes a scene in his teenage years where he’s beaten into unconsciousness for disturbing his stepfather’s afternoon nap. As his stepfather’s fists come down on him, the only thing Darnielle thinks about is the record player.

But I do wake you up, and when I do
You blaze down the hall and you scream.
I’m in my room with the headphones on
Deep in the dream chamber.

And then I’m awake and I’m guarding my face,
Hoping you don’t break my stereo.
Because it’s the one thing that I couldn’t live without
And so I think about that and then I sorta black out.

I just said that I’ve never lived with the kind of violence that makes up the narratives in The Sunset Tree. That’s true, mostly: The worst that you could say about my parents is that they were kind of boring and middle-of-the-road. I’ve never struck or been struck by a romantic partner. (At least, not in a non-consensual way.)

But I did get my share of violence from my peers while I was growing up. It came in a lot of forms, but I remember especially that in intermediate school (aka junior high — 7th and 8th grade in my district), there were certain boys who developed the habit of punching me in the shoulder as I walked by — hard enough that my shoulder would go numb for several moments. When I moved up into high school, this transitioned into a slightly more subtle form of abuse: By this point, any time someone made a fast movement in my direction, I’d throw up my arm by reflex to protect myself. That meant that my peers didn’t even need to touch me to get hours of guaranteed amusement.

There was lots of that sort of shit through my childhood and adolescence. It’s not the sole reason that I spent most of my lunch and recess periods hanging out in the school library, but it certainly encouraged it. For as long as I can remember, there’s been a certain kind of safety in solitude.

The truth is, a lot of time the world outside my head is just too much for me to deal with. I’ve said, half-jokingly, that I feel like I breathe water while the rest of the world breathes air. I’d be perfectly happy to float down at the bottom of the swimming pool, but the reality of life insists that I come up to the surface and walk around a little bit. Extended social interaction — especially when I’m doing it out of obligation — feels somewhat like I’m holding my breath. The longer and more intense the interaction is, the more I need to dive back into the water. If I can’t, I get twitchy and irritable and generally unpleasant to be around.

I’ve found that solitude in a lot of ways: books, computer games, comics, writing, listening to music, or simply browsing the Internet.

There’s one catch: The water has its own poisons. I’ve had depression for so fucking long that it feels normal to me. The knots of anger and self-hatred thrashing around in my brain have come to feel like part of me, the same way that I have blue eyes or wear a size 11 ½ EEEE shoe. They’re a part of me in the same way that a tumor is, and just as potential lethal. During my last two years of college (late 90s), my suicidal fantasies were so clear and so specific that I remember making the conscious decision that I should never own a gun.

Two things have kept me from acting on any of the self-harming fantasies that have populated my brain for the last 30 or so years: First, laziness. Or perhaps not laziness as such, but paralysis. A really bad depressive episode makes it almost impossible for me to act — even to do the things that I know would make me feel better. This is a pretty common symptom of depression, and although it feels like a kind of death itself, the silver lining is that it’s helped me survive. At my worst,  if there was a loaded Glock on a table on the other side of the room, it would be too much effort to walk the ten feet to pick it up.

The second thing is that most of those fantasies were never about wanting death, but wanting to inflict horrible, gruesome harm on myself. In college, what I wanted more than anything was to figure out a way that I could blow my brains out, reload the gun, then do it all over again. And again. And again, ad infinitum, ad nauseum.

And that brings us back to music: I self-medicate with music at almost all times because it makes it easier to handle the toxins in the water. It doesn’t numb me to them, but it does make them easier to name and understand. It takes me from a place of generally feeling like shit to someplace where I at least can think about why I feel like shit.

“Dance Music” Verse 2:  A Girl Named Cathy

What exactly happens in verse 2 is much more ambiguous. The depiction of the stepfather’s violence is so crystal clear that you can no more escape it than Darnielle can. In the second half of the song, Darnielle is 17 years old, and even without listening to the rest of the album, it’s not hard to intuit that the violence has continued for the last 12 years. There have been a lot more glasses thrown, and lot more running for cover.

The difference is that now he has a girlfriend named Cathy.  The two previous cuts on The Sunset Tree “This Year” and “Dilaudid” talk about the beginning and growth of a very turbulent relationship between two people with similar problems, and the end of “Dance Music” is addressed to her:

Ok so look I’m seventeen years old,
And you’re the last best thing I’ve got going.
But then the special secret sickness starts to eat through you.
What am I supposed to do?

No way of knowing,
So I follow you down your twisting alleyways,
Find a few cul-de-sacs of my own.
There’s only one place where this road ever ends up.
And I don’t want to die alone.
Let me down, let me down, let me down gently.

When the police come to get me
I’m listening to dance music.

Listening to it without any context, this is the interpretation that I developed: In “Dilaudid,” Darnielle is already saying that he knows that the relationship won’t last. Here in “Dance Music,” there’s an abrupt jump from him pleading for her to “let me down gently” to the police coming into his bedroom; the story that creates in my mind is that in his panic and desperation, he assaulted Cathy — just like his stepfather did to his mother in the first verse.

If I’m being circumspect, it’s because I know very little about Darnielle’s actual life other than what’s in the song, and a lot of people have interpreted that verse in different ways. The main thing that makes me rethink my interpretation is that  Darnielle himself says that “Dance Music” was based in part on his arrest for heroin:

My girlfriend and I had gotten into really hard drugs, heroin, and we were doing it a lot and enjoying it. And we pulled up to her house one evening after an evening out, pretty high, I think, and she said … “What’s [the] police doing at my house?” Her mom had discovered our stuff and called the police, which is the right thing to do, I want to say, in retrospect. But at the time we were pretty angry. …

He says still more about the entire song’s creation in The Atlantic:

The record I listened to when I was five—the first time the abuse broke out in our little apartment—was not in fact a dance music record. It was a colored flexi disk of one of the moon landings on a stereo that only existed to play those records. It was a little stereo with a rocket attached to it, and you put the little flexi disk on and the needle on and you heard the sounds of the moon landing, and I remember going up to listen to that stuff to distract myself.

But I also remember the scene from the second verse, the one I wrote first, of being in the car listening to the radio when the police pulled up behind us, to arrest me for possession of heroin. It was the ’80s, and I remember the very new sounds of sterilized synthesizers making these chunky sounds and connecting anything you’re doing in your head with that escape hatch you try to open with a form of dancing, with a form of being immersed in the music that makes you dance.

But my interpretation of the song still seems reasonable to me: It may or may not be what happened in John Darnielle’s actual life, but it wouldn’t be the first that the story did play out that way. If it’s not Darnielle’s story, it might have been his stepfather’s.

Besides that, I don’t think that the author necessarily gets the final call on what a work means. I’ve carried that song around on many audio players, listened to it enough times that it’s been woven irrevocably into the fabric of my own life. That happens with music, more than with any other kind of art. You can listen to it while you’re walking, writing, fucking, crying, or hiding from your violent parent, and it becomes a part of the moment. That’s why I’m doing a series on Music That Matters instead of Novels That Matter. I’m interested in why John Darnielle wrote that song, but it doesn’t change what I hear when I’m listening to it.

I’m lucky that I’ve had so little violence in my life, and I’m happy that I’ve committed so little. The last time that I was a real fist fight was in tenth grade, when one of my classmates took a calculator from me. After starting well by grabbing his arm and flinging him against the wall, I got my ass royally kicked. That may be a big part of why I’ve been in so few fights.

I’ve been less lucky with self-inflicted violence. It’s true that I haven’t  ever gotten out the razor blades and started carving the way I’ve sometimes wanted, and I don’t think that I will anytime soon. For the most part, I’m in a pretty stable part of my life even though I have some really dark days.

But I’ve never been able to shake the feeling that between seizures and depression, there’s a part of my brain that just wants me dead. The fact that it’s so damnably hard to articulate what that feels like — even to myself — is a big part of what keeps me running for the stereo to keep myself on an even keel.

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Music That Matters: “Dance Music” by The Mountain Goats

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