Bleeding with the band: A personal essay

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I have never had anything against going to concerts. The problem is that the majority of my favorite musical groups — the Four Seasons, ABBA, the Supremes — are either dead or broken up. So, when I hear that the Mountain Goats are coming to the Fillmore in San Francisco, I impulse-buy a ticket to my first concert. I plan to go by myself, free of the pressure to pretend to enjoy myself out of social obligation. I want to be alone, surrounded by people I do not know. 

There is an emergency on BART on the way to the city — I am afraid my first concert will be marred by this bureaucratic inconvenience before I realize that there is a medical emergency, and that I am an asshole for making this about me. I sit grumpy and agitated in my last-minute Uber, looking down at my phone and compulsively checking and rechecking my expected arrival time as it oscillates between “a few minutes late” and “just in time.” I am thinking about how awful a decision it was to blow my money on listening to music with strangers when I have a perfectly good Spotify account at home, when the “night light” feature on my phone activates, signaling that the sun is going to sleep soon. I look up, and I see the sky is that purple hue that only materializes for a handful of minutes every evening. I watch it hug the city as we make our way across the Bay Bridge. I decide to myself that I will enjoy this night, even if it kills me. 

I look up, and I see the sky is that purple hue that only materializes for a handful of minutes every evening.

When I get to the Fillmore, the opener is in the middle of her first song. This is unfamiliar territory for me — the dimly lit room, the overpowering air conditioning, the posters adorning the walls. I think about how the freshman version of myself would probably be scared in this strange venue filled with strange people. I smile at that thought. 

Lydia Loveless continues singing out her soul as I mill about the crowd of people. It is dark, and I of course do not know anyone, but from what I can gather, I have nothing in common with them. On the surface, they seem mostly to orbit the age of 30, maybe older. They have turned their bodies into works of art with their tattoos, piercings and vibrantly colored hair. They smell of alcohol and weed, they are tall, they are everything that I am not. They are exactly the kind of people I want to share this night with. 

When John Darnielle, the frontman of the Mountain Goats, walks out with his crew, we all cheer. It dawns on me that there is something that I have in common with these people after all — our love of this band, of Darnielle most of all. I weave through the crowd until I end up right in the middle of it, peering between the heads of two of my fellow worshippers for a direct view of Darnielle at the mic. I do not know all the songs the Mountain Goats sing, with the selections spanning the band’s 17 album discography, but I do not think that it matters. The times that I do recognize a song, I scream with everyone else and stumble through the lyrics as we jump and wobble like puppets jostled by Darnielle’s voice. 

We sing a song that makes me think of home, a song that reminds me of God, songs about an opossum and a wizard king and Ozzy Osbourne. We sing a song that I played for my brother every morning in the car for about a month as I drove him to school. We sing a song I thought that I did not actually like but have since revisited. And we sing a song I had forgotten helped me survive my senior year of high school, a song I had really needed when I first heard it all those years ago. 

All the while, I am struck by how out of place I must seem here. There is a line from a song (which they do not play tonight) that goes “And they came from Zimbabwe, or from Soviet Georgia / East St. Louis, or from Paris, or they lived across the street.” This line does not leave my mind as I wonder where we all come from. I know I cannot possibly understand Darnielle’s lyrics when they turn to topics of abuse or his childhood trauma, but I do not doubt that they carry a different weight for more than a few members of the audience. I like to think that as he sings his pain, turning the air in the room into his grief and into his joy, he is letting me know him. He is teaching me how he bleeds so that I may better bleed with him.

I like to think that as he sings his pain, turning the air in the room into his grief and into his joy, he is letting me know him.

I still do not know if I am a “concert person,” but I loved that night. I loved how everyone in that room seemed to breathe the same air that vibrated with Darnielle’s pulse. I loved how his voice bound the congregation under his spell. I do not know what the Mountain Goats mean to anyone else who was there that night but I like to think that I have now somehow become a subconscious part of the way they listen to the band. All I know is that those who gathered at the Fillmore that night left an indelible mark on the way I will listen to the Mountain Goats, on the way I listen to all music.

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