Monday, November 22, 2004

My town is a salad bowl.


Florida's capital city sits in one of the few hilly regions of the state. Visit the two capitols (the historic old capitol and the newer high-rise), the Tallahassee Museum of History and Natural Science and the Alfred B. Maclay State Gardens (blooming azaleas and magnolias in season). The Park Avenue Historic District contains fine examples of old southern mansions enveloped by palmettos and large oak trees dripping with Spanish moss.

Two Hundred Miles from Anywhere Else
Gloria Jahoda, The Other Florida

Florida with a Southern Accent
Local booster bumper sticker

Born April 26, 1964 to Jeanne and Robley Light at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital one George Evans. weight 4 lbs. 9 oz.
Released January 27, 2003 by John Darnielle et al. one triple gatefold CD with booklet, Tallahassee. weight 13 oz.

Tallahassee is my birthplace and former hometown for 17 formative years. Tallahassee is John's mystical muse of inspiration. My Tallahassee is 37-9, Larry Key and the thrill of the 1979 Tangerine Bowl (or any bowl for that matter), not the Tomahawk Chop, Heisman QBs, and ho hum another BCS bowl berth. John's Tallahassee is "Tampa Bay takes it all the way to January" and other improbabilities, but will he ever love her again? My Tallahassee is "Das Kapital" in the Flambeau but not Diane of NPR, The Oxford American, and the dread Crimson Tide. My Tallahassee is backyard Belgian hares, live oaks and Spanish moss; John's is front yard peacocks, scrub palmetto and the nectar of plums. What follows is a meditation on a town, an album, and the intervening personal mythologies which created them both.


My Tallahassee is Parga Street; John's Southwood Plantation Road. Mine is West Tennessee, Mission, Tharpe, and sundry old canopies like Meridian, Micosoukee, and St. Augustine. John's "roads leading out to the sea � all of them lined up." My Tallahassee is seven hills, Mission San Luis and the first Christmas in America. John's is a point on the edge of a map, a funny name. He is, after all, the pomo Stephen Foster way down in Leon County.

Given Tallahassee's neither here nor there reality, not quite Florida and certainly on no map of the Old South, it makes sense that her poet laureate would be a native Chicagoan who came to town via Manhattan. Gloria Jahoda wrote the classic The Other Florida in 1967; its descriptions of Tallahassee, however, outdated, have never been surpassed:

Tallahassee is an unsettling paradox made up of paradoxes. There is no city in Florida, or in the South, quite like it. . . . This is why it is like no other city you or I have ever seen--an outpost willing to pay for Hungarian maestros, a haven of rural philosophers who want atomic research, and a boom town which honors its ghosts. Above all it is utterly American because it refuses to be typical of anything whatsoever.

Such paradoxes will continue to inform this essay's appreciation of the similarly named album.

It should come as no surprise then that Tallahassee's great lyrical proponent is a native of California who makes his home in Iowa and now records for a famous English record label. In fact, Tallahassee is far from John Darnielle's first recorded paean to my home town.

Top 5 non-Tallahassee Tallahasee songs from the home office in Ames,
1) alpha sun hat
2) going to georgia
3) alpha omega
4) alpha acquae
5) going to dade county

In The Tallahassee Democrat, Darnielle opines, "You hear about certain towns and something sticks. For me its places on the edges." 20 miles from Georgia and 30 from the Gulf Coast; surrounded by lakes, swamps, and a National Forest, Tallahassee is as edgy as it gets, center of its own alternate universe revolving around that crucial mix of athletics (high school, college and semi-pro), education (2 universities, major research sites including the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory and a major community college), politics (county seat and compromise state capital), and their genetic offspring--corruption writ large.


Tallahassee is an album by the Mountain Goats. Its fourteen songs document the decay and eventual collapse of a house in the city of Tallahassee, Florida, as well as the concurrent decay & collapse of the two people who lived inside of it.

My Tallahassee is John Kurzweg and the Night but never ever ever Creed. My Tallahassee is Robert Shaw conducting me as a member of the boy's choir in Britten's War Requiem, Marcus Roberts at the Opperman amphitheater, and the Psychedelic Furs at The O.K. Club (1980). John's Tallahassee is "a terrible silence," Frankie Valli on the stereo, Howlin' Wolf on a sympathetic station (WANM?), and The Mountain Goats at the Beta Bar (2002). His Tallahassee is a 4AD-released song cycle of 14 anecdotal nuggets from the alpha couple's last gasp. My Tallahassee is Stinson of the Democrat, and so is John's.

Unlike previous Darnielle creations (he is the Mountain Goats with only occasional support from various hands, most famously Rachel Ware on bass, but see cool beans #4 for the crucial input of the bright mountain choir), Tallahassee abandons the lo fi recording technologies of Panasonic sx 1700, Panasonic RX-FT500, Marantz PMD 222, and telephone machinery for a proper studio, Tarbox, and producer, Tony Coogan of Belle and Sebastian and Mogwai fame. Darnielle also highlights one main co-conspirator Peter Hughes (on bass and drums). Instead of tape hiss, Tallahassee has a finished sound that is no more complicated than the previous 10 full length tapes and CDs. This finished studio sound remains spare and elegant - borrowing from the Miles and Thelonious vein - and a willful riposte to those idiotic critics who link quality with speed and quantity and who will never understand the concept of half time.

This is not a record review nor will I plumb the meanings of Darnielle's winsome and yet still world-weary lyrics. If you've read this far, go out buy the disc and judge for yourself lazybones!


The rooms on this site, whose details were cobbled together from the terrible mess they left at the site of their love's last great flaring-up, contain areas for further investigation which can be viewed by clicking on any item that illuminates itself when you scroll over it with your mouse. In an irony worthy of our electronic age, this is perhaps the only illumination ever to take place within the walls of this house. Feel free to explore every corner of every room, but in feeling such freedom, do spare a thought for our heroes, who were only able to feel free when they'd traded in their freedom for a couple of vodka gimlets.

My Tallahassee is Edward Kilenyi's Casey Stengel anecdotes between Beethoven sonatas. My Tallahassee is Hickle the Bald Eagle and Ole Joe at the Wakulla Springs Lodge; John's is "innumerable gibbons," vultures and other improbable critters. My Tallahassee is road trips to Alligator Point, Camp Weed and points west; John's is night driving from Tampa to Cedar Key and points northwest. My Tallahassee no longer exists if it ever did outside my own imaginings, and the same can be said for John's alpha couple and their south Tally digs.

Cue the legend.


Anonymous said...

My Tallahassee is the home of the Brand New You, an FSU band that did the unknown hits "Blowout" and "March of the Drunken Astronaut." These might be on an AAJ compilation cd, along with Mitch Mitchell's the Terrifying Experience.

But I've never been there...

-alec eiffel

G. E. Light said...

Mon Frere!

Anonymous said...

I remember hearing about you when I was growing up in Tallahassee. A year behind you, I went to Leon but your various successes in school and out of school were always well documented. You were someone for me to look up to, yet we never met.

We probably drank cans of beer at the same bonfires down the windy paths off the roads whose names I can no longer remember. I was a very sad but smart girl who hated growing up in Tallahassee, but it is likely I would have hated growing up anywhere.

You had such a catchy name. I can remember reading the announcement that were going straight to Harvard and then I googled your name, over 30 years later.

And here I am. You seem to be living just as interesting a life as I would have expected.

Well played, G.E. Well played.