"I'll tell you a very funny story," John Darnielle says. This is probably not the first funny story he's told today. Nor will it be the last. Today is a publicity day for Darnielle. When it's over, he will have talked to more than a dozen members of the music press. And tomorrow, he will do it all over again. He has submitted to this grind to promote his upcoming six-date tour, which he will embark upon to remind listeners of All Eternals Deck, the hyperliterate indie folk album he put out last winter with his band the Mountain Goats.
It's a measure of his hard-won success that the dozens of journalists who've requested his time have been corralled into two days of 15-minute phoners. Darnielle is less available these days than he once was. That was back before his shows became events around which a whole generation of hapless Young Werthers arranged their Moleskine planners. But today, on this warm Friday afternoon in spring, and by the grace of the songwriter's team of publicists, we have been made captive to Darnielle. There is hardly time to follow-up on his breezily expressed pontifications. We imagine this is what it's like to be one of his many dedicated followers.
Though after 20 years, 13 albums, and a fanbase so fervent as to warrant a feature two years ago in New York magazine, Darnielle can afford to be his own person. Much of the humor in the story he's about to tell us hinges on that fact.
"So when I was 17, I had this girlfriend," he begins. "We had a really unhealthy relationship. And I really worshipped her."
At the time, Darnielle started reading Joan Didion, whom his girlfriend disapproved of despite having never read the writer Darnielle calls "the foremost stylist of American letters in the second half of the 20th century."
"Now my girlfriend was a fellow book person," Darnielle says, the strain of disbelief still loud in his voice nearly 30 years later. "We're talking about an intelligent person who's chosen to be shallow, alright?" The 17-year-old him protested. And his girlfriend gave in, kind of. "She said, 'I just want you to know you can do whatever you want,'" he says. "'But if you read more Joan Didion, that will send me the message you don't love me.'"
Darnielle stopped reading Didion for a while, only to begin sneaking peeks into her 1979 book of essays, The White Album, near the end of the relationship. Three years after the couple broke up, they crossed paths again. Darnielle was on his way to studying English at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif. Together the exes achieved something like closure. "I was like, 'You know, that was totally bogus that you forbade me to read one of my favorite writers.'" he says. "And she was like, 'Oh, yeah. I'm really sorry about that. That was all messed up. You should read what you like.'"
Today, despite the apparent harm the relationship inflicted on Darnielle's younger self, he recognizes the unlikely prize the power struggle bestowed upon him. "It sort of forged this connection with Didion's work, which had this forbidden fruit-quality. I ended up writing my English thesis about [Didion's second novel, 1970's] Play It as It Lays."
Darnielle shrugs off our suggestion that this struggle also prompted him to assert himself in his songwriting. But the meekness that crippled the 17-year-old Darnielle has never been on view in his music career, which he began in earnest in his mid-20s. Since the early '90s, he has amassed one of his generation's most audacious songbooks. He has written concept albums and song series, all with a fascinating mix of wry wit and adolescent self-seriousness that do battle in his oeuvre like shoulder angels. Though Sasha Frere-Jones describes him more concisely. To The New Yorker's pop critic, Darnielle is simply "America's best lyricist."
No one ever truly knows how artists' pasts shape their work. But sometime after Darnielle and his early tormentor broke up, he indeed asserted himself, not only in his own life but also in the lives of his listeners. He is their self-possessed and very American idol. And together, idol and idolizer are like the frayed couple Darnielle has chronicled in his "Alpha" series of ballads:
Ah, the lengthening hours in the refinery
Belching fire into the sky
We do our best vampire routines
As we suck the dying hours dry
The night is lovely as a rose
If I see sunlight hit you
I am sure that we'll both decompose
Doubtless, for Darnielle and his fans, there are more vampire routines to come. There will be more albums and tours, broken up by the blenching dawn of 15-minute phoners.