Saturday, September 15, 2007

I'm a Believer: Eric Spitznagel and the Mountain Goats

I love the Internet. Here's why today.

I spent 1991-1994 living in first England and then Chicago studying and performing theater, with a guy named Eric Spitznagel. Then in '94, I left Chicago for Bama and then California, and, back in the Stone Age, that would have been the end of it. Intermittent letters and phone calls maybe, long years of silence. Timothy Leary defined life and death as a continuum state, not an either/or, pointing out that you were already "dead" in parts of the world where you had no influence or contact, whether you were still alive in another locale or not, and you were still "alive" even after your physical death in areas where your ideas and concerns still had active impact. So, for all intents and purposes, in the pre-Internet age, Eric and I would be effectively dead to each other (with the occasional séance).

Instead, the following:

A few weeks ago, I realize that one single on a compilation CD that came with the Believer magazine keeps sticking in my head. It's "Palmcorder Yanja" by the Mountain Goats, and since Eric, in addition to being an author,is an editor at the Believer I shoot him an offhand email asking if he's familiar with them. He doesn't respond. I forget about it. Weeks go by. Then he pops up in my inbox explaining that not only is he obsessed with the Mountain Goats, but rather than respond to my email, he's blogged about his love of John Darnielle (the man behind the band) at great length. Here's a sample of what he wrote:
I love that the band's name is plural, even though it's just one guy playing an acoustic guitar. I love that John Darnielle, the lead singer (okay, the only singer), has a piercing nasal tenor that makes most people scrunch up their face and say, "What the hell is that?" I love that he's written hundreds of beautiful and sometimes hilarious songs about gardening, talking animals, abusive relationships in Florida, Aztec mythology and ancient Danish burial traditions - sometimes all at the same time. I love that most of his songs were recorded on a Panasonic RX-FT500 boombox, giving them the same crisp sound quality of an answering machine circa 1988.
So I read his blog, which so expressively communicates his passion that it inspires me to go to the Mountain Goats website, where I discover a horde of mp3s for free download. (There's also an equal amount of material available to stream, but I'm still hooked on ownership, so I only sample the music I can download into my iPod.) Well, I'm enough of a musical obsessive myself that I go hunting the net for photos of live performances I can use as faux CD-covers and to make sure I get the year of recording correct. I convey this to Eric while I'm still in the process, who happens to be online at the time I write him, and he response with a flurry of additional mp3s in my inbox - all bootlegs, live gigs, and rarities - not commercially available stuff I could buy - as neither he nor I want to take food away from an artist, particularly not one working on this scale. And besides, I know that having amassed around 30 or so songs for free, I'm not going to make it out of the day without going to iTunes and picking up something by the Goats as a dual act of thanks and clean karma. (I got "New Asian Cinema" - you should too). So now I'm a die-hard Mountain Goats fan. I've taken my iPod off "Shuffle Songs" for the first time since I got it, am playing Darnielle constantly, memorizing lyrics so I can sing them out of tune in the shower, and am working on converting my wife and child.

Which is why I love the Internet. Because, apart from being a case-in-point that Cory Doctorow is totally right when he argues that giving it away free generates sales, someone on the other side of the country who would have remained an increasingly-distant memory receding into my past has an active, vital, ongoing influence in my life in real time. All hail techology and old friends and the way the one brings us together with the latter.

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