Fear and Rats In Los Angeles: John Darnielle's Book Signing

Music has always been an extremely large part of my life. I started playing guitar after my uncle gifted me one of his Ibanez RG-series and a few dog-eared Master of Puppets tab booklets. Since then I’ve played in a couple of shitty garage rock bands, worked as a music journalist, and met the love of my life after giving the cute girl in my Music History class an internship with me at Music In Press. I could ramble on for hours about the multitude of ways music has helped shape who I am today, but I'll spare you the sentimental details. 

One musician in particular has molded my life more than the rest. Over the past 3 years, I have become obscenely obsessed with John Darnielle and his quirky, honest band The Mountain Goats. The soundtrack of my day-to-day life has become a shuffled playlist containing over 500 songs that The Mountain Goats have released over the past decade or two. So, as the true dedicated fan that I am, my heart dropped when I heard that John Darnielle was coming to LA to promote his newest book, Universal Harvester.

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I knew I had to go, but I was unsure if I even wanted to meet John Darnielle. After hearing me gush over him for the better half of this article I'm sure you're thinking that I'm crazy for saying that. It was probably just the nervous paranoia talking, but I'd always heard that you shouldn’t meet your heroes. We tend to idealize the people that we look up to, and it can be easy to see someone as the person you imagine them to be instead of the person that they really are. I thought about it long and hard... then proceeded to buy tickets in a feverish rush five seconds later, deciding that my inevitable disenchantment was a risk I was willing to take. 

Elise and I packed up my car with granola bars and knock off cans of La Croix and hit the long, congested road to Downtown Los Angeles. The bane of my existence is the fact that nearly every noteworthy event is hosted in LA on a weekday, and the only way to get there is by fighting rush-hour traffic in the city infamous for its particularly vicious case of the sniffles. To put things in perspective, we left at 4:45 expecting to get there with time to spare, yet the short 30 mile drive left us ripping our hair out trying to find an affordable parking space so we weren't late. The event started at 7:30.  

Once we finally caved in and parked in one of those pay-by-the-hour lots that litter every major city, we stumbled into the bookstore, tensions high. We were met with a much larger group that I expected. Over a hundred devoted Darnielle fans huddled together around a vacant microphone waiting for the man himself to emerge from the back room and read from his new book. Elise and I joined the mass of swarming bodies. We squeezed behind a bookshelf next to the bathroom with a 3 inch porthole between the necks of two antsy kids. 

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When he finally strutted into view how all great musicians do--fashionably late--the room fell silent. He rambled on for a while about how he hates wireless microphones, and how he was proud of Skylight Books for doing it right by choosing quality over convenience. From that moment on I knew he was a mirror image of the John Darnielle that's cooped up in my imagination, playing songs on a wonky old acoustic guitar, blinds closed, voice angrily crackling.

Sadly, I’m not huge on reading. I’m much more of an audiophile. But, when John Darnielle began to read from Universal Harvester, I knew that this book would be worth my time. Universal Harvester's obscure imagery, haunting dialogue, and fantastical themes completely captivated me and left me begging for more after he snapped his book shut and started the Q&A. They were clearly on a strict schedule. 

The first thing I noticed during Q&A was how important each question seemed to be to him. He answered each person eloquently with a heavy dash of humor and included countless stories that enthralled everyone in the room. I’m sure if it weren’t for the bookstore staff keeping him on track, he would have had a meaningful conversation with everyone in the room; something I was certainly not expecting. It meant a lot to me that he seemed to be just another average person who happened to have the spotlight turned on him. 

After the Q&A,  the dreaded signing began. I clenched my book and a vinyl copy of Beat The Champ close to my chest and patiently waited. Elise and I checked and double-checked our numbers… 98 & 99. Okay, so there are a few people ahead of us, I thought. No trouble! More time to rehearse what I'm going to say.

I’m mostly joking.

The line moved surprisingly fast, and in the meantime we were able to connect with some really rad Mountain Goats' fans. Most everyone we spoke to had met John Darnielle several times before (his band harbors a pretty tight-knit cult following), and many of them had great stories about their road to discovering The Mountain Goats. One woman we met had even been friends with John in high school. I was fascinating to get some juicy details as to what he was like back in the good old days. 

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This is when I noticed that there were only two people ahead of me... then only one. My heart began to pound when I was called up to his desk. My tongue was frozen! "Oh no," I thought. "What do I say?" Then he looked up to me and saw my Busy Rats shirt that Elise had drawn up and said “Wow that’s a really cool shirt! I absolutely love rats. Such beautiful creatures.” I thanked him and gestured back to Elise, telling him that she had drawn it. He was really impressed and went on to chat with us about his childhood pet rats. A dream come true, a conversation with my hero about a topic dear enough to Elise and I that we named our blog after it: rats! 

Our conversation went on as he told us all about the different names of his pets from when he was a child, and he even let us in on a little secret. According to him, his family found an Egyptian Spiny Mouse that he named “Universal Harvester.” Maybe he was just messing around, but I like to believe that it’s true. 

Elise and I said our thank yous and walked out into the cold Los Angeles air, unable to contain our excitement. The drive home was nearly empty in comparison to the way up, and--as a cherry on top of our elating night--we were able to take the 60 freeway home (hopefully some of you get that reference). I still cannot fully describe how it felt to meet the person I look up to most in life, but I’m so glad that I took the leap and showed up. Sending out a huge thank you to Skylight Books for arranging this event, and another thank you (plus a kiss) to John Darnielle for being a lively, warm, and welcoming spirit.  


Thank you so much for reading! Let us know your favorite Mountain Goats song in the comments below. Or, tell us about the time you met your favorite musician and what it was like for you!