Usually, It Fades In the Sun

In the latest installment of her column Flirted With You All My Life, Niko Stratis writes about the Mountain Goats and how our tattoos tell stories about the worlds we’ve built.

Music Features Flirted With You All My Life
Usually, It Fades In the Sun

This is Flirted With You All My Life, Niko Stratis’ column of personal essays about the intersection of sobriety, popular culture, recovery and music.

There has to be a story here. Words spoken aloud that hover in the air as a hand attached to an arm and a body and a name I don’t know reaches out and touches my skin, skin on flesh and bone that is only waiting to order two lattes to go. One with oat milk, one without. No sugar. Fingers I have never known the sensation of trace the black and red and yellow lines on my arm and ask what they mean, these marks on my skin visible for all to witness but still private. For a moment I say nothing at all, this quest for knowledge is not made with honest desires. Their fingers leave the outline of a woman sawed in half in a magic box on my right forearm and return to where they came from and neither of us say anything, we let all things linger in the air like dust waiting to fall to earth. My brain screams to say nothing at all, as my mouth says the story is that I used to have a drinking problem and poor impulse control.

No one laughs, there are no future questions.

I have a lot of tattoos. Not a record-breaking amount, but enough that I don’t know the number off the top of my head. They cover my arms, my chest, my shoulder blades, my thighs. My fingers. My hands. The first tattoo I ever got was to honor the memory of a former partner. It’s an absolute shit drawing of her initials that I asked a friend to draw and then committed to my bicep with little editing or forethought of what the idea of forever truly meant. The tattoo artist asked me what they meant, and I told him about the woman who had died of cancer a few months prior to me getting this tattoo. He asked how old I was, only 25 then, and he said I was too young to know how this feeling felt. I felt too old to be just learning the sensation of a needle digging graves for ink into my skin.

That tattoo has faded on my arm, as so many more have joined and flanked it, ghosts and skulls and blades and donuts. A pineapple and a woman sawed in half. They all have stories, speak to memories and moments that are sometimes not entirely clear to me. An exclusive club of knowledge that permits few members. There is something to be said in letting people in on the stories we survive and letting them build worlds out of it.

We all have our road that led us into the Mountain Goats. People that came in when John Darnielle was recording on boomboxes, where you could hear the tape run thin behind sparse guitars and a voice learning the boundaries of its power. Maybe you entered with All Hail West Texas and “The Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton” or The Sunset Tree and its iconic refrain of I am going to make it through this year if it kills me. However you arrived, here you stand. Welcome, there are stories to find yourself in here.

The Mountain Goats, and their chief architect John Darnielle, are the promise made real of our need for lore in the work we consume. They are fingers tracing the lines of a stranger saying there must be something here. I came into the band through Tallahassee, a record telling the story of The Alpha Couple, a name that means nothing unless you are one of the arrived masses, those who know the lore and have done their homework. The Alpha Couple are a disastrous pair that are holding fast to a love that threatens to sink them to the depths of the blackest of oceans. When I first heard Tallahassee, sang the chorus In my life, I hope I lie, and tell everyone you were a good wife, and I hope you die, I hope we both die that threads throughout “No Children,” I felt at home. My desire for something saccharin, nihilistic, tender and destructive all at once found a voice to hold onto.

Many of my tattoos don’t really have stories at all. Some of them are funny, the product of decisions made with little fanfare. On my left arm, in the inner fold of my elbow, I have an Illuminati eye that I got from a queer stick and poke artist in my living room in the middle of winter. I lived by myself in a two-bedroom apartment above a haunted electrical supply store in the Yukon, nestled away behind a Ford dealership, and everywhere I went saw this symbol spray-painted on dumpsters with “No God,” “No Religion” and “YOLO” written at each point of the triangle. I thought it was funny. I got the tattoo, just without the words. People think it means something, an attachment to some strong desire for wealth and power when, really, it’s just the thing I would see spray painted on dumpsters when I would get drunk and high and walk around the back streets of my former home late at night. Sometimes the hidden meaning is ascribing a mark to the aimless pain of your own self-destruction. I was broken a lot then, and working so hard to seem together, complete, and whole and complex in the eyes of people who might perceive me that it only intensified the damage.

The Mountain Goats were an outlet that I could pour all my fears and misplaced anger into. They write ballads to the beautiful lives of broken people who maintain their hold on this world and it somehow makes you feel more alive. To know that you are not the only one who feels the damage here. Darnielle moved away from the boombox era by the time I got into the band with Tallahassee, the whirring of tape behind all things had been cleared away and replaced with an urgent need to be heard, and not considered just an oddity for super-fans and obsessive hoarders of cult-like classics. I love the boombox era work too, but it always feels like there’s something holding it back—a lack of trust in Darnielle’s inimitable songwriting and voice. Maybe we always take some time to find ourselves.

I had a partner once who didn’t like the Mountain Goats, and so I never listened to them when she was around. Once, during the binge-drinking festivities of the holiday season, I told her that I was worried about what booze was doing to my brain and the sinister blades of my intrusive thinking and she told me to not become one of those people who just doesn’t drink. And so, I drank more, and when she wasn’t around, I listened to the Mountain Goats and I imagined myself as one of the sad and broken people in Darnielle’s songs—who were nonetheless still here, a part of the lore of this world and I hoped that, maybe, I could survive to become this person too.

People love to rend the flesh from the bones of the Mountain Goats, dig through the tendrils that tether all things together. Hidden meanings and nods to older works within the skeletons of the monuments of the new worlds they have built as the band has grown through the ages. With each album, I dig through to find the meaning buried in all things and never once realize that what I am looking for is an answer to a question about myself. Because I belong here, I am part of this world—and if I am part of this world, then there is meaning for me here and I can find it.

There was some talk once about Mountain Goats records as seasons, and my perception that Beat The Champ, an album about wrestling and the dark light of the soul, is a fall record. This is only because I would listen to it in the fall in the Yukon when I still lived there—I stood and stared out the window with a mug of coffee in my hand that sometimes had the pungent sting of alcohol mixed into its black depths and watch the frost accumulate at the base of the windows and know the cold was coming fast. I announce the things that are hidden in the work that only mean something to me, tell my own stories using their words because it is easier to process all things through the art than to do it myself sometimes.

The morning after the last night I drank, I had a tattoo appointment. I woke in my bed in my new home in Toronto, the sun shining in from the windows and the smell of a party the night before holding in the air like dust in a sunbeam and my roommate said “Wasn’t that a great party we had last night?” and it truly was, and the first thing my brain said was that I should kill myself and I knew I had enough. “I need to quit drinking,” I said, showered and then left the house to get graves dug into my skin.

Jenny From Thebes is the title of the new Mountain Goats record. Jenny is another piece moving about on the tabletop of John Darnielle’s grand design. A character drawn into the world that only those who know to look down all the corridors might find her trail. She appeared on All Hail West Texas in a song titled with her name, and only now is her story being expanded on—this woman who pulled into a driveway on a yellow and black Kawasaki motorbike, who already felt like the outline of so many promised stories.

Jenny’s story is teased out on Jenny From Thebes; on “Fresh Tattoo” she is given structure and centre. A flag planted deep in the flesh of the world. Darnielle said, in a post after the single went live for the first time, that this is the flashpoint of Jenny’s story. That here she has taken in her last lodger, has marked her skin to close out the chapter as she looks to move forward. It’s a song that feels familiar to any who have spent their years in the lore of Mountain Goats work, easily at home with the songs that first dug into my skin when I played Tallahassee for the first time but more boisterous and confident. Darnielle’s voice is steadier now, Peter Hughes’ bass holding onto the rhythm with Jon Wurster on drums. This is a ship that has broken the sea, taken command of the waves crashing around it.

Jenny marks her skin with a tattoo of a Greek shield to announce that she is done with the weight of this life and is looking to make new tracks, steps that will create new lines to trace and dig graves into flesh to pour ink and mark time once more. You may forget the whys and where, of an old tattoo on your forearm there, but usually, you recall the day you got one and usually it fades in the sun.

I walk down to my tattoo appointment and my playlist on my phone starts with a Dwight Yoakam song, “South of Cincinnati,” and I think of my mother back home in the Yukon and all the places I have come from. And then it shifts and moves into “Transcendental Youth,” from the album of the same name, and something in it helps my feet find confident steps forward down the street, moving through the pain and torture of my head spinning with the final recollections of the previous nights whiskey and cigarettes. Stay sick, don’t get well, Darnielle sings and I feel, once again, like the beauty of the broken world is real and possible. I think about never drinking again and I smoke a cigarette into the wind, the ash burrowing behind my sunglasses and into my eyes—and I wonder which tears are from that and which are from the dread of all things. The song moves with precision, drums crushed and struck gently, a horn plays gentle announcements into the sky like the angels of a quiet afternoon and all things feel possible in this moment. Hard, but possible.

I get a tattoo from another trans woman on my shoulder of a harpy holding a mirror and gazing upon her own vanity, her scars and tattoos and the way that she admires her own broken image in this world, and I don’t know it, but this is well and truly the last time I ever have a drink. I walk home, the ink wet on a Greek chorus on my arm and play the Mountain Goats and Darnielle sings Bright star of the morning, shine on his rising way. I feel broken and part of the beauty of this world. In “Fresh Tattoo” Jenny’s own feet find swiftness as she makes forward declarations, Wurster’s drums craft a new rhythm from the ruins of the old and it picks up right when you need it to—it uplifts and drives hard and makes it known that we are surviving all the stories that we tell. You cannot tell your tale if you are not around to repeat it after all.

Just as tattoos continue to tell new stories from old wounds, Jenny From Thebes is the Mountain Goats doing the same—telling new stories that grew in dark places they no longer find themselves. The memory is there, strong enough to conjure recollections, but the craft and desire is different now, stronger. Darnielle is more composed, less rushed but no less raw or real, his fingers on a guitar strum with the kind of confidence the same man on Tallahassee or earlier had yet to claim. Hughes and Wurster and all the new players and collaborators have built a stronger and more robust foundation upon which to lay these songs. The addition of Bully’s Alicia Bognanno on guitar adding depth, the horn and strings by Matt Douglas, too.

I wonder about Jenny’s story unfurling through Jenny From Thebes and how my desire to plumb its depths is not unlike tracing my fingers along the marks on a stranger’s skin and asking to know their stories. Different, there is consent and desire here to speak and be heard, but not dissimilar. The Mountain Goats have built this world to be explored and uncovered, tattoos on the skin of all who have arrived here with stories to tell and ways to write ourselves into the world around us. All of us want to be found within each syllable, within the beautiful parts of a broken world filled with desire, to play our parts and to know the secrets that have dug graves into our skin.

Niko Stratis is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in outlets like SPIN, Bitch, Autostraddle, Catapult and more. Her work primarily focuses on culture, the 1990s, queer/trans topics and as often as possible where all those ideas intersect. Niko lives in downtown Toronto with her fiancé and their dog and 2 cats. She is a cancer.

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