“Dance Music” in “Lents District”

“alright i’m on johnson avenue
in San Luis Obispo
and i’m five years old or six maybe
and indications that there’s
something wrong with our new house
trip down the wire twice daily

i’m in the living room
watching the watergate hearings
while my stepfather yells at my mother
launches a glass across the room
straight at her head
and i dash upstairs to take cover
lean in close to my little record player on the floor
so this is what the volume knob’s for
i listen to dance music
dance music

okay so i’m seventeen years old
you’re the last best thing i got going
but then the special secret sickness
starts to eat through you
what am i supposed to do?
no way of knowing
so i follow you down your twisting alleyways
find a few cul-de-sacs of my own
there’s only one place this road ever ends up
and i don’t wanna die alone
let me down, let me down, let me down gently
when the police come to get me
i’m listenin’ to dance music
dance music”

John Darnielle, the power behind the The Mountain Goats, is a genius.

His songs, while lo-fi, carry a deep weight. They sneak up on you. Paste Magazine voted him into the top living songwriters and I wholeheartedly agree.

This song, Dance Music, is both sad and fun (one of Darnielle’s tools is the dichotomy). I find myself whistling and singing along but am then reminded of the tragedy presented in the lyrics. It is both fun and sad, it cries at the fear and abuse but praises the salvation found in it’s eponymous dance music.

The song reminds me of a poem by Portland poet Matthew Dickman called Lents District.

Lents District

Whenever I return a fight breaks out
in the park, someone buys a lottery ticket,
steals a bottle of vodka, lights
a cigarette underneath the overpass.
205 rips the neighborhood in half
the way the Willamette rips the city in half.
It sounds like the ocean
if I am sitting alone in the backyard
looking up at the lilac.
This is where white kids lived
and listened to Black Sabbath
while they beat the shit out of each other
for bragging rights,
running in packs, carrying baseball bats
that were cut from the same trees
our parents had planted
before the Asian kids moved in
to run the mini-marts
and carry knives to school, before the Mexicans
moved in and mowed everyone’s front yard –
white kids wanting anything
anybody ever took from them in shaved heads
and combat boots.
On the weekend our furious mothers
applied their lipstick
that left red cuts on the ends of their Marlboro Reds
and our fathers quietly did whatever
fathers do
when trying to keep the dogs of sorrow
from tearing them limb from limb.
Lents, I have been away so long
I imagine that you’re a musical
some rich kid from New York wrote about debt,
then threw in Kool-Aid
to make it funny. I can see the dance line,
the high kicks of the skinheads, twirling
metal pipes, stomping in unison
while the committed rage of the Gypsy Jokers
square off with the committed rage
of the single mothers.
In the end someone gets evicted, someone
gets jumped into his new family
and they call themselves Los Brazos,
King Cobras, South-Side White Pride.
Dear Lents, dear 82nd avenue, dear 92nd and Foster,
I am your strange son.
You saved me when I needed saving,
your arms wrapped around
my bassinet like patrol cars wrapped around
the school yard
the night Jason went crazy –
waving his father’s gun above his head,
bathed in red and blue flashing lights,
all-American, broken in half and beautiful.”

Dickman nails the feeling of those memories. Distant yet so real. Flashes of memories and places full of triggers. I am not entirely sure why the two seem related, perhaps its the nostalgia and sadness of youth taken away and the deus ex machina of Lents or dance music.

I found escapes in literature, friends, and adventures.Growing up I found escapes in the secret places, like tree houses and the dry canals at the back of alfalfa field.

Thank God for the music and parks and strange miracles that give us ways out.

Thank God for escapes.


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