Pet Politics: Mountain Goats, Farm Sanctuary and Other Singular Stuff at Zoop II
Click here for pictures from Zoop II.
Inside the People Barn, 175 humans raise their fists toward the roofbeams and bellow, “Hail, Satan!” Outside, dusk has swollen into total country darkness. Cows with names like Snickers and Ms. Foreman sleep, bovine lumps in their pastures. The chickens are zonked, too, and the pigs and the turkeys and the geese and ducks and the sheep and the goats, all in their species’ own barns or enclosures that angle like crooked molars off a snaking dirt path. Beyond them lies the balance of this farm’s 175 acres, by sheer chance one for every member of that exultant collective back inside, which has now clumped like a bent staple around The Mountain Goats' John Darnielle. He's thwacking the considerable tensile strength out of his acoustic guitar’s strings; his torso is vibrating with the emitted frequencies; and his puckering face registers him as probably the only living thing in New York State more ecstatic than all these, his people, who are still screaming, “Hail, hail!”
They have traveled far. To the small town of Watkins Glen near the Finger Lakes, from close-enough Brooklyn and Toronto, but also from Maryland, Utah, Texas, Oregon. From California. Nadya came from Moscow. Many are Mountain Goats forum members, like mike3000 and Starling Tattoo (who penned and has passed around a zine about the event that’s bare and perfervid, just like a Mountain Goats song). They’re here with special guest John K. Samson of The Weakerthans, Mountain Goats bassist Peter Hughes and Darnielle. "Here" being Zoop II, a weekend-long series of intimate shows, educational farm tours, vegan eating and campfire sing-alongs set up as a benefit for Farm Sanctuary, the Watkins Glen animal-rights center that "works to end cruelty to farm animals and promotes compassionate living through rescue, education
As at the first Zoop in 2007, most attendees will later be sleeping in tents on a rhombic swath of lawn behind the Barn. It’s early June and mostly warm. For now they’re singing, as any Mountain Goats fan worth their weight in TDK D-60 cassettes knows, “The Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton,” the first whisper-yowled track from 2002’s All Hail West Texas, Darnielle’s last (and tenth) full-length album recorded live-to-boombox, before he passed into a latter-day studio phase. Aside from two encores to come, "TBEDMBID" is the closer of an all-request set that’s among Zoop’s biggest draws, right along with the chance to chat up Darnielle as he stomps around the farm in his bouncy, rapter-like gait, or to win a raffle whose prize box is full of goodies so unspeakably rare that they’d be dismissed as apocryphal if they weren’t here. At Zoop.
In 1986, Baur and his then-wife found a downed (unable to stand) sheep on top of a stockyard’s dead pile. They took her to be euthanized, but learned that with some vitamins and proper care she could be saved. They named her Hilda. Soon after that came an adopt-an-animal program. To help pay for expenses, they sold vegetarian hot dogs at Grateful Dead concerts, in peace fairs, on friendly streets. They moved to the Watkins Glen location, expanded the education and legislative work, brought cruelty cases to courts, convinced Burger King to sell veggie burgers, got gestation cages banned in Florida. They used to engage in illegal rescues and talked about it openly, but Baur got busted in 2003 in a veal farm in Wisconsin. “I have not done it since,” he says. To change the law they must act within it, he now believes. Mostly. Sometimes he’s still not convinced that the laws that exist deserve to.
Darnielle entered the picture in 1998, when he adopted a turkey that Thanksgiving. In 2006 he finally toured the farm and felt he especially connected with a sprightly prosthetic-legged goat named Zoop. He offered to do a benefit show. At first the idea was for an event in New York City to raise money and awareness. No one was sure if the Mountain Goats could draw people to a place as out of the way as Watkins Glen.
Three years later, this is historical trivia, like T.S. Eliot worrying that Joyce would never get readers or respect. There’s a hunger for everything Darnielle touches, every demo and tossed-off song and live performance from 1991, and certainly for a weekend with him near the Finger Lakes. It’s not a totally uncommon kind of fannish craving (Stuart Murdoch comes to mind as a similar figure), but Darnielle’s rate of output is Herculean and somewhat raises the stakes. There are something like 35 Mountain Goats releases to date (it can be hard to pin down an exact figure), and an adage he once gave to John K. Samson goes thusly: “Writer’s block is a bourgeois conceit. Just get to work.” Recent years have seen Darnielle experiment with piano, cello and falsetto, but chances are that if you’re a fan of one Mountain Goats album full of brash, affecting, nasally and novelistic narratives over hard-struck acoustic throes, you’ll enjoy, say, 10 or 12 others at least.
So, they made Zoop and people came. Most appear interested in hearing Farm Sanctuary’s educational message and enjoying the chance to camp. Even more were elated by the sets by Samson, Hughes and Darnielle the first night of Zoop. But everybody knows it’s all about the request set, whose song makeup is culled through a bidding system. There’s a large pad of paper in the front of the People Barn with categories: Song, How Much Are You Willing To Donate For It?, Did You Bring Lyrics For John To Read?, Your Name and DYRWTHTS,OIIJTITO (Do You Really Want To Hear This Song, Or Is It Just That It’s Totally Obscure?). There have been some $200 bids, one of them for “World Cylinder,” whose financial guarantor wrote that he’d promised $500 in ’07, “but the economy collapsed.” Most fall somewhere closer to $30.
All the dollars will go to Farm Sanctuary. It’s like a pledge drive or walkathon more than your average benefit concert. Benevolent busking, if you will. The thing is, the engine behind the 50-some-odd requests already on the board, and behind the gas in the very real car engines that brought these people to Farm Sanctuary on this early summer weekend from great distance and often great cost, has everything to do with the world of John Darnielle, where obscurity and intimacy cross-hatch and dovetail, where Darnielle is a wizard behind a curtain and a gatekeeper to his city. He is completely improbable and totally believable, an exception that proves that exceptions prove rules.
He’s so accessible. He’s active and engaged on his forums. His musician-to-listener relation feels organic and makes you wonder what exactly goes on between other fans and other musicians, and if it’s a matter of degree or fundamentals or what. He talks openly about his own childhood abuse, which became the subject of his first autobiographical album, 2005’s The Sunset Tree. Although it seemed strange that he was only then turning truly confessional; his conviction had always felt so absolute with apparently fictional constructions.
On Sunday of Zoop he holds an hour-long Q&A where he answers endless questions about whatever—his favorite key, for instance, (was D, then G, now A minor 7th) or word (“West” gets a long exegesis with regard to “what it means to be from that far into the country, where we all ran out of land and couldn’t run away from stuff any further.” [He’s full of stuff like this.]) But then there’s the other hand, how he’s a strong believer in there being certain unique and unsharable things. How he handwrites each of his set lists. How he doesn’t believe in pre-planned encores, and how he’s against concert recordings, in general, and wonders why a powerful moment couldn’t stand for itself. Then again, back on the first hand, he would never tell a fan not to tape a set, and he makes a box full of rarities for the Zoop raffle. Then on the second hand again, how he recommends strongly that the winner not share or leak anything. That the experience of having these things remain pure in remaining singular.
What’s happening up here is kind and empathic. It's a deep, intuitive, wrenching and invasive empathy—the sort that Mountain Goats songs propose and fans and Darnielle live through as truth. As a writer, Darnielle's a master of singing out something broken and having that song be its own solution. By his own approximation, his music has a rawness, an attempt to scrape the bone and hit some nerve. He likens it to a conductivity test, experiencing a little bit of pain to see that it registers. “Because this is not a world in which we are encouraged to experience our pain, you know, and really just get into it for a minute,” he explains.
This is a reasoning that resonates in Farm Sanctuary’s own convictions. Baur believes that “people would want to eat in a way that’s consistent with their own values,” so if they see what goes on in the meat industry, their eyes will open to all in which they’re complicit. There are many complications to his goal—philosophically, culturally, politically. But Darnielle’s fans, who are willing to undergo his conductivity tests, might just be the sort of people who take the tour offered by Farm Sanctuary and learn about cruel stockyards and overcrowded cages and neck-breaking foie gras production and downed cows and all the rest of the issues that the farm educates about on a daily basis, and they can be genuinely interested. They might not all be convinced, but these are Mountain Goats fans and this is Zoop and they will listen and feel for nerves.
It turns out that Darnielle became a vegetarian while holed up during a blizzard in New York. He rented the documentary Brother’s Keeper and after watching the scene where someone butchers a pig, that was just it for him and eating meat. “To speak in quasi-mystical terms,” he says, “when you are ready to hear a message, it arrives somehow for you.”
Without a guitar, Darnielle has no need to stay up front, so now he enters the fold and moves into the breach and everyone is screaming together and Darnielle narrates the instrumental sections until finally it ends on its last lines of, “I hope you die, I hope we both die!” Except here, at Zoop, everyone is hugging everyone else with Darnielle in the center and singing, “I hope we all die” instead, which seems in the moment to be exactly the point of a place like the People Barn.