Going to Graceland

There’s no way to justify the leap I’m about to make here, so I’ll just get right to it: two of my favorite songs in the world are “Going to Georgia” by The Mountain Goats, from 1994, and “Graceland Too” by Phoebe Bridgers, from 2020—and I think they’re about the same people. Or more accurately, “Graceland Too” takes the things about “Going to Georgia” that are broken, and loves them, and fixes them.

As only and exactly obsessive The Mountain Goats (hereafter, TMG) fans are aware, “Going to Georgia” is one of the best and most-beloved songs TMG ever recorded. They also have only played it live twice since 2012, and then only under coercion, despite touring multiple times per year for that entire span. The listing of live performances here makes it obvious how sudden the dropoff was. 

First, here is one of my favorite renditions. The song is an amazing jewel—two verses, two three-line choruses, done—barely over two minutes end to end. In most performances the verses are more spoken than sung, but the arc from the poetry of those first lines to the two drawn-out vowels of the chorus: “the world shi-i-i-i-ines as I cross the Macon County line; going to Georgia-a-a-a-a,” is exhilarating in a way few songs or musicians ever achieve. 

Even just the first couplet is shockingly wonderful:

The most remarkable thing about coming home to you
Is the feeling of being in motion again
It’s the most extraordinary feeling in the whole world.

I have two big hands and a heart pumping blood
And a 1967 Colt .45 with a busted safety catch.

The world shines
as I cross the Macon County line
going to Georgia.

The most remarkable thing about you standing in the doorway
Is that it’s you
And you’re standing in the doorway
And you smile as you ease the gun from my hand
And I’m frozen with joy, right where I stand

The world throws its light underneath your hair
40 miles from Atlanta, this is nowhere.
Going to Georgia.

The world shines
as I cross the Macon County line
going to Georgia.

So why did he stop playing it? And just 4 years after he referred to the song as “like doing 20 Hail Marys and 5 Our Fathers”? Well. The song’s story is certainly not one of healthy well-balanced adults making responsible decisions, but few TMG songs are. 

In John Darnielle’s own words, though [John is the first and Chief Mountain Goat]: “…I don’t play “Going to Georgia” any more because I can’t really reconcile how buoyant it is with how much I dislike its narrator…” (from his tumblr). And then further: “The likelihood that dudes who romanticize their own stalkiness have heard the narrator of ‘Going to Georgia’ run through his schtick and said ‘I can dig it! He must really be in love, to be so fucked up!’ seems pretty high, on the other hand. I’m at a place in my life where I want all such dudes to know that I am not on their side.” (still tumblr

I’m one of those people who doesn’t really process lyrics unless someone forces me to listen to them, and so I didn’t really get it until I saw a clip of John recapping the plot of the song. In case you are like me, let me do you that same service: A young man with “a heart pumping blood” shows up on the doorstep of a woman who is important to him, holding “a 1967 Colt .45 with a busted safety catch.” Rather than calling the police, she “smiles as she ease[s] the gun from [his] hand.” As a story it’s tragic (and unrealistic—as John says in that clip above: “if you should find yourself in this song… call the cops!”) but the song itself really doesn’t seem to know that it’s sad. Moreover, when he wrote the song, John knows he didn’t know it was sad, and that’s enough reason for him to stop playing it. Which is, in a different way, sad for me, but completely reasonable.

And which is also why I was so delighted to find an unlooked-for replacement on Phoebe Bridgers’ new album. Again quoting that first tumblr post from John Darnielle: “A better song would be one from the perspective of the person whose former partner has shown up on the porch of his/her house with a damn gun, that’s the hero of the song whose story is more interesting from where I’m at now.”

And, honestly, that’s exactly what “Graceland Too” is.

No longer a danger to herself or others
She made up her mind and laced up her shoes
Yelled down the hall but nobody answered
So she walked outside without an excuse

In “Graceland Too” the broken heroine of the song is no longer the narrator, because we have moved into the perspective of the person “whose former partner has shown up on her doorstep.” The heroine is introduced as a direct repudiation of the “Going to Georgia” psychopath: “No longer a danger to herself or others…” She is a damaged person—leaving a mental institution as the song begins—but specifically one who has been treated, who has made herself whole, and only then goes out into the world. She isn’t going to show up on anyone’s doorstep holding a gun.

[A quick aside: Phoebe Bridgers has been amazingly open about her lyrics and inspirations (for instance, calling out that the “rebel without a clue” line in this song was stolen from a Tom Petty song, that itself stole from a Replacements song). I’m not aware of her mentioning the Mountain Goats, and I don’t actually believe that this song was literally written in response to “Going to Georgia”… I just think the alignment is perfect. In fact, in an interview about the songs on Punisher, she said about this song: “This song is about caring for somebody who hates themselves and how that can be really hard,” which is so precisely that “more interesting story” John Darnielle was looking for.

She can do anything she wants to
She can do whatever she wants to do
She can go home, but she’s not going to

The first chorus is also the first real appearance of the narrator: “She can do anything she wants to / she can do whatever she wants to do…” This is both information and affirmation. Yes, the heroine is free both from the facility she’d been checked into, and from her own demons—the “danger to herself” she previously posed. As important, though, is that the narrator believes in her, and thinks that she “can do whatever she wants to do.” 

I can’t get over how wonderful this is as poetry; how deftly the impersonal statement of fact is balanced with the deeply-felt, romantic, statement of belief. Phoebe is good at words.

So she picks a direction, it’s ninety in Memphis
Turns up the music so thoughts don’t intrude
Predictably winds up thinking of Elvis
And wonders if he believed songs could come true

I’m asking for it if they do
Doesn’t know what she wants, or what she’s gonna do
A rebel without a clue

The second verse has two meta-connections that I can’t skip over, only because I think they’re fun. One, in the first line, the phrase that first made me think of “Going to Georgia”, even though it’s a completely superficial connection: “it’s ninety in Memphis” has a round number and a Southern city, and so that took me straight to “forty miles from Atlanta, this is nowhere”. I dunno. 

Two, the last line happens to echo so precisely John Darnielle’s worry about his song: “and wonders if he believed songs could come true.” In fact, Phoebe made this even more on the nose in a tweet explicating that line:

So we spent what was left of our serotonin
To chew on our cheeks and stare at the moon
Says she knows she lived through it to get to this moment
Ate a sleeve of saltines on my floor and I knew

I would do anything you want me to
I would do anything for you
I would do anything, I would do anything
Whatever you want me to do, I will do

The third verse and chorus are of themselves poignant and gorgeous. The turn into the chorus is one of those phrasings you know you’ll remember forever: “Said she knows she lived through it to get to this moment / ate a sleeve of saltines on my floor and I knew / I would do anything you want me to.” The affirmation of that first chorus, “She can do anything she wants to” becomes devotion, “I would do anything you want me to.” 

And then that devotion gets turned around, almost babbled, repeated: “I would do anything, I would do anything…” The passion of this realization explodes out of the song: the heroine is back, she has survived, and she is here, now, and the narrator’s commitment in response is so violently felt that she has to repeat herself five different ways to get it across.

Whatever she wants
Whatever she wants
Whatever she wants (whatever you want)
Whatever she wants (whatever you want)

It’s an amazing love song, and it earns its resonance exactly by telling the story that “Going to Georgia” doesn’t. We get to see the internality of the narrator who has a broken friend/lover/beloved show up on their doorstep, we get to see them wish the best for this person who has been struggling with demons, and we get to see them respond with adoration when she puts her brokenness behind her: “She knows she lived through it to get to this moment.” The heroine here doesn’t show up, broken and threatening, and demand to be fixed; she has done the work to fix herself so that she can get back to the woman she loves. I agree with John: this is a much more interesting song… but I still love both of them.

You read this whole post, so here’s a present for you: a live version of “Graceland Too” that is just perfect:


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