Tuesday, June 19, 2012

"Jeff Davis County Blues" - Mountain Goats

I'm sweating as I write this. Even sitting next to my propped-open window as it clamps down tight to cradle a humming box fan, I can still feel the day's trapped heat leaking out of streets and sidewalks. Living with heat like this wasn't a skill I learned growing up, as I was always ensconced in the artificial chill of air-conditioning at home or school. It wasn't until I started driving in high school that I really began to dig the heat. I'd drive to my baseball games or, later on, home from work on a grounds crew and, even though I was already soaked with sweat, I'd leave the windows down. After a while I would start to thrive on the heat, enjoying the way it surrounds you like a physical medium and how it allows you to live intensely in the moment.

It's a fitting coincidence that I discovered the Mountain Goats while driving through the Loop on just such a scorching Chicago afternoon. The Goats' music (especially their lo-fi work) seems almost tailor made to be listened to be heard pouring out of shitty car speakers into a Hadean atmosphere. All Hail West Texas especially captures this feeling as John Darnielle unfolds one of his cryptic song-cycle narratives from the perspective of a the eternally-unhappy Alpha Couple, marooned together in the desert. They reflect on their relationship, moving from infatuation ("Jenny") to initial problems ("Fault Lines"), denial ("The Mess Inside") and finally a suitably unresolved ending ("Source Decay") but no song on the album better captures a specific mood than "Jeff Davis Country Blues".
The first thing you hear, even before Darnielle's cheap-sounding guitar, is the tape hiss rolling down from out of the silence like a heatwave descending onto the plains, creating its own warm sonic atmosphere. "After three nights in jail / I head west to Toyavale / switch to 285 in Pecos, head up to Red Bluff" he sings softly, playing with the poetry of place names and American highway geography. His character has been set free but has no outlet for his newfound freedom so instead he drifts down the highways of the southwest, because moving is easier than stopping and finding himself somewhere he doesn't want to be.

It's a feeling I've often shared, the trance-like escapist other world that one creates driving alone late at night. There's something about being cloaked in darkness, save for a few incandescent dials and passing streetlights that centers your thinking and allows you to feel like you're stepping outside the flow of time. Your world becomes as limited as your field of vision and schedules, demands, pressures become somehow part of a reality that doesn't intersect with your current one. Driving down a darkened highway in the summer you can't see the end of the road, you can't see the houses and you can't see anyone else. All you have to hold on to is those receding white lines, the warm wind surrounding you and your thoughts. It's a surprisingly addictive feeling and one that makes me suspect that I'll never fully be able to let go of owning a car, just because giving up on that particular brand of mediation would be too hard.

But the thing about late-night rides is that you can only go so far until the sun comes up or you run out of gas and when you stop moving, everything you drove away from manages to catch up with you distressingly fast. When our narrator eventually finds himself a bed, he sees this all too clearly as he tries to distract himself with motel magazines before giving in and having to "sleep for twelve hours, and dream about home." So he tries halfheartedly to keep going, pushing into New Mexico, but it's no use. The memories and emotions are too strong. The thought of ending his journey somewhere (and with someone) new and strange is too much to bear. He turns around and starts making his way slowly back towards Texas.

Nowadays gas is too cheap to just cruise the way I did as a kid. Or maybe I'm just too poor. Probably both. But when I do get the chance to drive home by myself late at night, I cherish every moment of it. I'll coast as slowly as is practical, let my hand loll out the window, using the car's speed to toy with the principles of aerodynamic lift, delaying the arrival as long as possible. Often I'll turn to Darnielle's newly-released driver and lose myself as we both use cars and motion to help put a little distance between ourselves and whatever awaits us when we take our keys out of the ignition. On a good night, I'd like to think that the drive takes us somewhere other than our initial destination.

Jeff Davis Country Blues  Buy All Hail West Texas


  1. So, yeah, I'm going to listen to All Hail West Texas, but your ruminations on driving in the heat, late at night, just nailed it so perfectly. I'll be left with that, long after the last notes of the Mountain Goats have faded away.