In 1980, I was made Head of Year at Netteswell School in Harlow. I was only 26 and was in charge of the pastoral care of 150 First Years (as they were known then – Year 7 now). In some ways I was a good Head of Year but I made far too many mistakes and was far too young and inexperienced for this to have been a good appointment. At some point I went to my line manager, Malcolm, to ask him to help deal with an older boy who had bullied one of the little girls in my Year group. Malcolm asked me how I wanted him to punish this boy. I told him that I wanted him to be caned. Even just writing this, it looks shocking to me but this was 40 years ago and times were different. Caning was not uncommon. Malcolm agreed to do this. The next day, he came to me and told me that he had this boy in his office and would I come and witness the caning? He was an extremely clever guy, Malcolm. Obviously I couldn’t refuse and equally obviously I didn’t want to witness it. As well as being very clever, Malcolm was a deeply religious and peace loving man but he took his job seriously and this was something that he had to do. What I witnessed was the boy bent over a desk with his arms spread eagled ahead of him with his backside protruding in the air. Malcolm ran a few steps towards him and caned him very hard twice and told him to get out. I never asked Malcolm to do anything similar again. It was sordid and degrading. There was another occasion which had nothing to do with me but I heard about it. A boy was sent to Malcolm for misbehaviour and Malcolm gave him a good telling off and told the boy that he wasn’t going to be caned. The boy protested because he wouldn’t be able to face his mates unless he had the badge of honour of a caning. Malcolm refused to cane him despite the boy begging him to! A very clever man who hated having to administer corporal punishment and did everything he could to reduce the frequency of caning in the school.
When I was 11, I attended a school in Enfield for one year before my family moved to Kent. At one point, the whole class was asked to pick litter up from the floor at the end of a lesson. Suddenly my head was battered twice on my left side and twice on my right side as the teacher shouted at me not to be an idiot and smacked me hard. I had no idea why. Later, one of my so-called friends apologised to me because it was he who had been throwing the paper around instead of picking it up and the teacher had incorrectly blamed me. My Dad occasionally smacked me, probably for taking a joke too far. I can remember once running up the stairs to get away from him as he chased me.
It would be nice to think so but maybe things haven’t changed quite as much as I would like to think.
On the CD sleeve notes of “The Sunset Tree” (not available if you only download individual songs, you snowflakes), John Darnielle, the leader of The Mountain Goats wrote “Made possible by my stepfather, Mike Noonan (1940–2004): may the peace which eluded you in life be yours now. Dedicated to any young men and women anywhere who live with people who abuse them, with the following good news: you are going to make it out of there alive. You will live to tell your story. Never lose hope”. This is an album which tackles the abuse that he received as a child. It’s not quite as unsettling as you might imagine – in fact there’s a lot of hope and positivity. It’s also quite brilliant.
The album title refers to a scene in Samuel Butler’s “The Way of All Flesh” in which the character Theobald beats his son Ernest for being unable to pronounce a hard C when singing a hymn. The hymn, “The Tyrolese Evening Hymn,” begins with the lines “Come, come, come, Come to the sunset tree.”
The Mountain Goats have released 18 LPs and 26 EPs since 1994. I own 11 of them. Early releases were deliberately low-fi, released on cassette or 7 inch vinyl only. For many years, John Darnielle was the only member of the group. Each of the other records is good but “The Sunset Tree” is a standout with every song being remarkable. “Pitchfork” rated this record as the 102nd best record of the “Noughties”.
The record starts with “You Or Your Memory”. It’s a brilliant start to this record which goes into detail about the abuse he has received. He has checked into a hotel room and is remembering what he has been through. He is determined to make it through the night and remain strong.
“Broom People” gives an indication of trouble at home but the comfort he takes from his mother is overwhelming. “In the long tresses of your hair, I am a babbling brook” and as he holds the last note, the desperation is obvious.
“This Year” was a single and it was played quite a lot on MTV. This was the first song by The Mountain Goats that I ever heard. It’s really good with a great hook “I am going to make it through this year if it kills me”. It describes how he escaped his home with his girl for a weekend (“A girl named Cathy wants a little of my time”) but had to face trouble when he got home. “I drove home in the California dust. I could feel the alcohol inside me. I pictured the look on my stepfather’s face. I down shifted as I pulled into the driveway, the motor screaming out stuck in second gear. The scene ends badly as you might imagine in a cavalcade of anger and fear.” The music is driving, poppy with excellent piano and John Darnielle’s vocals which are always a little nasal but very strong and melodic. (The piano is played by Franklin Bruno but hopefully he was never called Frank).
“Dilaudid” features a cello played by Erik Friedlander. (Dilaudid is strong opioid pain medication.) In 2006, John Darnielle said about this song “You shouldn’t mix pills that they tell you not to mix if you are sixteen and think you’re tough”. He sings the song to his girlfriend. “If we live to see the other side of this, I will remember your kiss. So do it with your mouth open and take your foot off of the brake. For Christ’s sake!”
“Dance Music” describes the atmosphere in his house growing up. At the start of the song, the Watergate hearings are on the TV and his stepfather is throwing a glass at his mother. He escapes by turning his record player up “So this is what the volume knob’s for.” Later he is addressing the aforementioned Cathy. “So I follow you down your twisting alleyways and find a few cul-de-sacs of my own. There’s only one place this road ever ends up and I don’t want to die alone”. As with “This Year” this is a fast-paced happy sounding song with distressing lyrics.
“Dina Lipatti’s Bones” is much quieter and John sings in a falsetto with a guitar and piano accompaniment. He has described this as a love song for an old friend, a girlfriend with whom he spent turbulent summer doing hard drugs, possibly Cathy. Dinu Lipatti was a Romanian classical pianist and composer whose career was cut short by his death from causes related to Hodgkin’s disease, aged 33. I’ve no idea what the significance of that is.
“Up The Wolves” is nothing to do with Wolverhampton Wanderers but it is excellent. It seems to be about coming to terms with adulthood after an abusive childhood. Here’s what John Darnielle said about it. “I’m always trying to figure out what to say about this god damn song. Part of me wants to say it’s about revenge, part of me wants to say it’s about the satisfaction of not needing revenge. I think it’s a song about the moment in your quest for revenge when you learn to embrace the futility of it. The moment when you know that the thing you want is ridiculous and pompous and a terrible thing to want anyway. The direction in which you’re headed is not the direction in which you want to go, yet you’re going to head that way a while longer anyway cause that’s just the kind of person you are.” Some of the lyrics seem to refer to Romulus and Remus: “Our mother has been absent ever since we founded Rome but there’s going to be a party when the wolf comes home”
“Lion’s Teeth is even better. It describes an evening when he stood up to his stepfather who is portrayed as a lion. “The king of the jungle was asleep in his car. When your chances fall in your lap like that you gotta recognize them for what they really are. Nobody in this house wants to own up to the truth. I crawl in shotgun and reach into his mouth and grab hold of one long, sharp tooth and hold on. For dear life, I hold on. Well of course he wakes up, his paw hits the horn. I am going to regret the day that I was born. And then mom rushes out to the driveway, my sister too. Everyone screaming. I am dreaming of you. I hold on. For dear life, I hold on and my arms get sore and my palms start to sweat and the tears roll down my face ’till my cheeks are hot and red and soaking wet. In come the cops, they blow torch the doors. I start wailing. The lion roars. There’s no good way to end this. Anyone can see there’s this great big you and little old me and we hold on. For dear life, we hold on. We hold on.” It’s very powerful. I love the line “I am going to regret the day that I was born” as this is clearly what he must have been told by his stepfather. The vocals are angry, powerful, strong and proud.
The third very strong song in a row is “Hast Thou Considered The Tetrapod”. Here’s what John Darnielle said about it. “This is about how if you’re 13 and you live in a house where your stepfather beats your mother nightly. This is a song about the headphones that were most important to me when I was 14.” Again, the lyrics are great. For example, “if I wake you up there will be hell to pay” and you can hear his stepfather saying this as a warning to him. And then…”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 held under these smothering waves by your strong and thick-veined hand. But one of these days I’m going to wriggle up on dry land”. It’s great. Who hasn’t been deep in the dream chamber when listening to music on headphones. It’s also brilliant to sing about how precious a stereo is to a 14 year old. In this case, John is the tetrapod and at some point he is going to wriggle up on dry land. These three songs are heartbreaking yet retain a positivity when he realises that escape is possible.
Upon hearing of his abusive stepfather’s death, John was flooded with a number of long-repressed memories and emotions. One such memory was of his stepfather bringing him to a racetrack, which he recounts in the final song “Pale Green Things”. Though the pain and anger of John’s childhood memories predominate the record, this final song concludes the album on a soft, contemplative, and possibly forgiving note. “My sister called at 3 a.m. just last December. She told me how you’d died at last. At last. That morning at the racetrack was one thing that I remembered”