Saturday, November 10, 2012

God Damn These Vampires: An Exploration of the only two Mountain Goats Songs I’ve ever Heard

The title and the premise of this piece may not sound very promising, but neither did the premise of Nicholson Baker’s U and I, in which Baker explores his experience with John Updike despite having read very little of Updike’s work.  Now, granted, I haven’t actually read U and I, because I have a probably unfair prejudice against John Updike—Gore Vidal told me I should hate him—and I’m somewhat skeptical of Baker because Geoff Dyer, in his essay “Unpacking my Library,” which is a reference to the Walter Benjamin essay of the same name, comes across a copy of Baker’s mid-90’s novel Vox and speaks disparagingly of it, and this alarmed me, because Vox is one of the few Baker novels I’ve read, and I liked it at the time, but maybe I shouldn’t have? What’s wrong with me?  Does liking that book reflect poorly on me? Because you know who else liked it?  Monica Lewinsky.  She thought it was sexy and she allegedly gave a copy to Bill Clinton (and it would have been in one of those hideous Vintage Contemporaries editions, too).  Now, surely Monica Lewinsky is not a paragon of good taste.  But why not? Why shouldn’t she be?

But all of this is really neither here nor there, because it is not my intention to speak of Nicholson Baker right now, but rather of the two Mountain Goats songs that I know, and those songs are: “Lovecraft in Brooklyn” and “Damn these Vampires.” Here is "Lovecraft in Brooklyn":

I first became aware of “Lovecraft in Brooklyn” (and, by extension, the Mountain Goats), in 2009.  I was out with some friends, celebrating one of our birthdays, and one of my companions decided to purchase the Lovecraft-themed “Arkham Horror” board game at a game store in the Uptown neighborhood of Minneapolis.  This naturally sparked a conversation about H. P. Lovecraft and one of my friends said to me, “Have you heard of the Mountain Goats?” I wanted to say, “Those bearded, hill-bound, cuckold creatures? Yes, certainly,” were it not for that little article, and so I said, “No, no I haven’t, who are the Mountain Goats?” And I was told that (a) they were a band I might like and (b), they had a song called “Lovecraft in Brooklyn.” Now, already I had a good idea of what this song must be about, because I knew what had happened to Lovecraft in Brooklyn, thanks in large part to Michel Houellebecq’s monograph, H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life, which is a wonderful title, and which I read in 2006, and clearly information about Lovecraft is always current, because this knowledge came to my assistance in 2009 when my friend told me about the Mountain Goats and it is assisting me now, in late 2012, as I write this blog post.

You see, in 1924, bug-eyed proto-Nazi H. P. Lovecraft (God bless him), left the rural New England haunts in which so much of his fiction is set and tried to establish himself in Brooklyn, where he sought to get a “real job.” The task of “getting a real job” proved remarkably hard for Lovecraft, whose bookish knowledge and literary proclivities apparently didn’t recommend him to work in a stock-broker’s firm or a lawyer’s office, or whatever the fuck kind of white-collar work someone like him could have expected to get in 1920’s New York.  Houellebecq notes that the typical Lovecraft character almost never has an actual job; either they have an inheritance of very old money to sustain them, or economic questions are so irrelevant to their (and Lovecraft’s) interests that they’re just overlooked altogether (I am reminded of the protagonist of Boris Vian’s novel Mood Indigo (or Foam on the Daze, or Froth on the Daydream, there is no consensus on how to translate the title), who has at his disposal a large supply of gold doubloons that spare him the hassles of conventional employment, and the origin of which is never mentioned (or if it is, I don’t remember it; certainly it doesn’t matter).

So, when Lovecraft was in Brooklyn, he was unemployed and this pained him.  What also pained Lovecraft in Brooklyn was the presence of different people.  The families who populate the crumbling estates of Lovecraft’s stories may be decadent and inbred, but there’s an aristocratic element to that inbreeding, as well as one of racio-ethnic purity.  Those debauched in-bred New Englanders are Anglo-Saxons, God damn it, or at least old Dutch families of long standing, and that’s almost the same thing.  In New York, it being New York, Lovecraft came into contact with people of every conceivable racial and ethnic background.  Here there were Italians, Jews, and Asians (the people he referred to in a letter home as “Italo-Semitico-Mongoloids”), black people, Polynesian sailors of the sort who would play such a prominent role in “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” On a related note, he would also find people of mixed ethnicity and mixed raced, and these people, along with the black people he despised so much, would provide the source for so many of the monsters and half-human-half-alien hybrids of his best fiction.

So, to feel like “Lovecraft in Brooklyn” means, first and foremost, to feel really, really racist.  In analyzing Lovecraft’s racism and its relationship to his work, Houellebecq perceptively traces it all back to a common origin: fear.  In Lovecraft’s case, there was the fear of poverty and the fear of the inadequacy that would be represented by his inability to get a job, and Lovecraft translated this fear into an animus against the different people he was encountering in New York, or perhaps it was merely magnified against people that he hated already.  His life is falling to pieces, and here he is surrounded by strange people, many of whom have jobs, and if these “inferior people” have jobs while Lovecraft doesn’t, well, then what does that say about Lovecraft?

Now, Houellebecq’s analysis doesn’t justify Lovecraft’s racism, but it does explain it with sensitivity.  And the Mountain Goats song, while focusing on a more generic depiction of the city as chaotic and loud and distressing to a person on edge, certainly allows for the discerning Lovecraftian to pick up the racial component involved.  The menacing people in the song, what color are they? Now, we progressive men and women of the 21st century, of Barack Obama’s America, we know that it shouldn’t matter, but the Lovecraftian knows that these are “people of color,” and that in Lovecraft’s warped and crumbling mind, that’s a part of the fear.

Well, I liked this song when I listened to it in 2009 (yay, a song about Lovecraft, I must have thought), but evidently I didn’t like it so much that I felt compelled to seek out the rest of the Mountain Goats’ music, or any of it, for that matter.  No, it was not until 2012 that, following a series of YouTube recommendations, I came upon a Mountain Goats song called “Damn these Vampires,” and, as that is an excellent title, I listened to the song immediately: 
And thematically, I found that it was remarkably similar to “Lovecraft in Brooklyn,” but tempered more by compassion and suffering.  Whereas the protagonist of “Lovecraft in Brooklyn” is on the verge of falling apart, we get the impression that his counterpart in “Damn these Vampires” already has, and on multiple occasions.  In the chorus, he sings, and with great pathos, although the vocal style is in that “almost-talking” register that you get with Death Cab for Cutie and similar bands: “Crawl til dawn / On my hands and knees. / God damn these vampires / For what they’ve done to me.” And if you want to see these songs as connected (and, as these are the only Mountain Goats songs that I know, it’s hard for me not to do so), the suffering protagonist no longer betrays evidence of racial animus.  He’s just a man who’s suffered terribly (at the hands of “monsters,” mind you, but at least they’re vampires, and vampires are typically white, Blacula not withstanding) but still has within him the strength to revolt and curse his persecutors.  There is great satisfaction in hearing him say, “God damn these vampires.”

And his sufferings must have been numerous and, in the nature of vampiric assaults, they sucked him dry.  It must have been a steady drip-drip-drip of persecution and harassment that wrecked him inside and out, for he goes on to say, “God damn these bite marks / Deep in my arteries.”

In the Jamaican context (or at least in the context of Jamaican music, which is the aspect of Jamaican culture with which I’m most familiar), to call someone a vampire is a supreme insult (well, almost supreme, I suspect the worst insult that homophobic Rastas have in their arsenal is batty boi, which is their slur for a gay person).  Lee “Scratch” Perry famously attacked Bob Marley’s producer Chris Blackwell for being a vampire and Peter Tosh, explaining his iconic guitar shaped like an M-16 assault rifle, said he used it to “scare all vampires.”

And so perhaps Tosh, were he not long dead (shot in the head during a home invasion in 1987) would join (somewhat ironically, no doubt) with H. P. Lovecraft (also long dead) and the Mountain Goats (still living, according to Wikipedia), in saying God damn these fucking vampires.  God damn them.

So apparently my take-away from the Mountain Goats can be summed up as, “Christ, fucking vampires.” But surely anyone who’s ever felt him or herself sucked dry by the vagaries of life (to which Houellebecq found Lovecraft thoroughly opposed) would agree with the sentiment, “God damn these vampires for what they’ve done to me.”


And just a reminder, in case someone has to have this explained to him, no, I don’t approve of Lovecraft’s racism and anti-Semitism or the homophobia of pretty much every Rastafarian musician who’s ever expressed an opinion on the matter.  The art and the life are two separate things, and if they weren’t, we’d be fucked.  Take English literature, for example.  With a few examples, virtually every British writer of the twentieth century was a casual anti-Semite up until World War II.  Now, does that mean we can’t read the anti-Semitic British writers of that period? Because that’s basically all of them (the same goes for nineteenth-century Russian literature; here’s a fun drinking game: read Turgenev’s Sketches from a Hunter’s Album and take a shot for every story that somehow finds a way to disparage Jews, even if they have nothing to do with the plot).  So no, no, of course it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t read them.  If you’re an adult, then you can hopefully make the adult distinction between a work of art and the life and opinions of the artist who created it.

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