Bitter Melon Farm 1

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Released: 1999; 2002
Label: Ajax; 3 Beads of Sweat

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Liner notes

(booklet): 2

27 Tracks from 1992 – 1996
2 in a series of 3 compilations


I was in a Sam Goody's 3 in Ames 4 thumbing through the bargain bin when I saw what I'd been looking for: Robert Redford narrating field recordings of the sounds of the North American wolf. 5 This was the same record that my grandmother got for free when she renewed her subscription to National Geographic back in 1974, and its cover was forever burned into my brain — the black mountain, the yellow sky, the silhouette of the wolf howling at the setting sun. That the record had ever been made bore witness to a different time, one whose nature is hard to describe but which has to it a very distinctive taste. It's the same taste that rises in your throat when you see the footage of that guy trying to set the water speed record on Loch Ness in '74 or '75 6 — the speedboat's moving, and it's moving faster, and then it's really hauling ass, and then it does a quick flip in the air and submerges itself beneath the inky water in the blink of an eye.

I remember watching that footage on my grandmother's television, sitting on the floor in her bedroom, the ceramic owl atop her space heater glowering down at my eight-year-old body seated cross-legged way to close to the screen. Suddenly the mysterious Loch Ness Monster 7 was being represented as somehow dangerous, something that hadn't ever occurred to me at all. The theory ran that the monster was angry about the loch being too noisy and crowded all the time, and had intentionally upset this guy's boat. They slowed down the film, and they zoomed in on a small dark disturbance on the already dark water, and the music was slow and minor and punctuated by shrill strings. As I remember the film, and the room, and the sounds of my grandmother fixing dinner in the kitchen two rooms over, the image gets grainier in my mind, the voice of the narrator lower and harder to hear, and the dust on the screen of the television becomes vivid, as though viewed through a high-power microscope lens surgically grafted to the mind's eye. The presentation becomes as ominous as it was then attempting to be, but it becomes so for reasons quite different from those its producer had in mind. It is the same year that an underwater submarine will take a picture of what its pilots will claim was a gigantic unidentifiable body sailing quickly past its camera, but the picture will look like a close-up from a pornographic film, all pink and moist and triangular. 8 They will say it's a fin. I will be unable to interest my friends in this, except for Brian Plummer, who will have left town by the middle of the year.

For some reason the songs on this collection of singles and strays remind me of all that — they are like a voice saying "Give me some of that" without any visible referent. Most of you have never eaten a bitter melon. I recommend that you go to your local Asian market, buy a few, and ask whoever's at the counter how to cook them. Then go home, follow the cooking instructions you've received, have a seat near the stereo and make what you will of these songs while you eat. I recommend a little cayenne pepper to offset the bitter taste. In the end I did not buy the CD of Robert Redford narrating the sound of the American Wolf, preferring to spend the rest of my life wishing I had bought it. Some pleasures are more subtle than others. I hope you find that to be the case with the songs herein.

— John Darnielle, Colo, Iowa, March 1999

Thanks to the usual suspects, though I'd like to remember especially the people who initially released these difficult songs. Peter Hughes, of course, and Gregor and Herwig; Jeff Smith, Jeff Fuccillo, and WPRB, and Jason Rothenberg; Jonas Sevenius and all our friends in Sweden; Dan and Danielle Varenka; Jon Nall, who would like to remind you that UNC completely blows; and Dennis Callaci, whose early intercession is the only reason that any of this ever saw the light of day. Front cover: "This box for you. It is Happy Box," ink on 20-pound bond by Lalitree Darnielle. Ten bucks says my wife can kick your wife's ass. The Mountain Goats burn and endorse incense from House of Mohan, 9 PO Box 64407, Washington DC 2009, who'll send you a brochure which, among other things, explains in a completely bitchin' one-page photo essay how essential oils are made; the Mountain Goats order and read poetry sold at a discount from Spring Church Book Company, PO Box 127, Spring Church PA 15686, 9 who'll be more than happy to find any book of poetry you might want to get and who are a small, friendly business deserving of your patronage. They will send you a catalog if you ask them for one. The Mountain Goats have always wanted to give out free plugs to people whose good, fair business practices — oases of goodness in a weary world filled with faceless corporate monoliths — warrant it, but have always let aesthetic considerations get in their way until now. The Mountain Goats use and endorse the third person plural and will do so until the cows come home. The Mountain Goats persist in the belief that eventually the cows will in fact come, and that they'll stay home once they get there. All songs written by John Darnielle © 1999 and ℗ 2002 by Cadmean Dawn (ASCAP, except for "Sail On," which is by the Commodores, and "The Sign," which God channeled through Ace of Base. If you've made it all the way down here to the bottom, you get the bonus question: if there's a mirror standing at the end of the universe, will radio waves eventually bounce off of it and make their way back to us, and is this the only way in hell that commercial radio's every going to be any good again? Send your answers to every radio station in your country and I'll see you next year in Pompano Beach. 10


Fig. 2 You light up my life; you give me hope to carry on.
You light up my days, and fill my nights with song. 11

Bitter Melon Farm compiles songs from three Mountain Goats releases: Transmissions to Horace, Songs for Petronius, and Songs for Peter Hughes. The remaining eight songs are taken from eight old and rare compilation releases, I Like Walt, You and What Army?, Howl, In Release City, I Present This, The Wheel Method, Dog So Large I Cannot See Past It, and Those Pre-Phylloxera Years.

Table of contents

  1. Noche del Guajolote
  2. Going to Bangor
  3. Against Agamemnon
  4. Going to Cleveland
  5. Early Spring
  6. Historiography
  7. No, I Can't
  8. Alpha Desperation March
  9. Going to Monaco
  10. Star Dusting
  11. Teenage World
  12. Going to Santiago
  13. Sail On
  14. Black Molly
  15. Rain Song
  16. The Bad Doctor
  17. Alpha Double Negative: Going to Catalina
  18. Pure Intentions
  19. The Lady from Shanghai
  20. Pure Love
  21. Song for an Old Friend
  22. Snow Song
  23. Faithless Bacchant Song
  24. Short Song About the 10 Freeway
  25. No, I Can't
  26. Song for Dana Plato
  27. The Sign

Noche del Guajolote 12 13 14

The glowing world, the bench backed up against the house
The chicken coops, the darkness surrounding everything

It was late and the night was moving slowly
And we lay down on the ground because the world was lonely

If you keep quiet, it'll stay like this forever
If you'll just keep quiet, it'll stay like this forever
I feel certain of it now

And all the birds were sleeping in their perches
A little wind, swaying birches
And the North American wild turkey that your father brought home
Woke up and came toward us

And the moonlight and the turkey waking up And the night air and the moonlight on your skin And the moonlight and the turkey waking up And the quiet yard and the turkey and the moon Unimaginable, unimaginable, unimaginable, unimaginable

Going to Bangor 15 16 17 18

The ocean wind
Cold on our lips
The wild fern growing
The sinking ships
All the signs
Are easy to read

In the morning
You come my way
Your skin is pink
The sky is gray
There's fresh cranberries
In your mouth
And thick red water
Dripping out
You expect me to believe
Everything you say
Well, OK

Against Agamemnon 19 20 21 22

Red, red
Red everywhere
Bright red all along
The thin canvas wall
I stepped outside
For a little air
Stepped outside
To get away from it all
Went out through the front
I saw the purple sky
Making jokes about my condition

I am going for a walk
I'll be back in half an hour
Watch over the children
I'll be back in half an hour
Hey, hey, la la la
Hey, hey, la la la

Going to Cleveland

Going to Cleveland is annotated with Transmissions to Horace.

Early Spring

Early Spring is annotated with Transmissions to Horace.


Historiography is annotated with Transmissions to Horace.

No, I Can't

No, I Can't is annotated with Transmissions to Horace.

Alpha Desperation March

Alpha Desperation March is annotated with Transmissions to Horace.

Going to Monaco

Going to Monaco is annotated with Transmissions to Horace.

Star Dusting

Star Dusting is annotated with Transmissions to Horace.

Teenage World

Teenage World is annotated with Transmissions to Horace.

Going to Santiago

Going to Santiago is annotated with Transmissions to Horace.

Sail On

Sail On is annotated with Transmissions to Horace.

Black Molly 23 24 25

Black mollies in the aquarium
Darting back and forth as though an earthquake were certain
And I turned up the heater
And I ripped off my shirt
And I grabbed hold of my stereo
And I threw it out the window

You were in town again
You'd come around again
You were dragging me down again
With you

Siamese fighting fish 26 flashing like sparklers
It started to rain
And the telephone rang a couple of times
I put a bullet through its cold, dead brain
And I got out my photographs of you
And I put bullets through all of them too

You were in town again
You'd come around again
You were dragging me down again
Dragging me right down with you

Rain Song 27 28

"The Mountain Goats on the, um, uh, well, the, um, 24th of January, a Monday, at about 10. And, uh, this is called, uh, this is called, well, I don't know what it's called. By the time I write down titles on the tape then I'll know what it's called."

The rain came down
It soaked the old hibachi 29
And I wish I could sing
Like Allen Callaci 30
And then you would know
How sad it was
When the rain came down

Drop by drop
Gallon by gallon
Brother, if I could sing
If I could sing like Allen
You would know and understand
How sad it was
When the rain came down

The Bad Doctor

The Bad Doctor is annotated with Songs for Petronius.

Alpha Double Negative: Going to Catalina

Alpha Double Negative: Going to Catalina is annotated with Songs for Petronius.

Pure Intentions

Pure Intentions is annotated with Songs for Petronius.

The Lady from Shanghai

The Lady from Shanghai is annotated with Songs for Petronius.

Pure Love

Pure Love is annotated with Songs for Petronius.

Song for an Old Friend 31 32 33 34

The garter snake passed lazily through the tall yellow-headed sourgrass
There was cold, clear water in a tall, clean glass
Sunlight hit the sides and it came through the water tilted
I saw the condensation on your hand, I could feel the glaciers melting
And a warm, soft wind
Covered up everything
On the day your love came screaming through me

You had oranges and lemons in a canvas bag beside you
And seven different kinds of light welling up inside of you
You smeared citrus pulp all over me, it felt OK
And good old East Rutherford 35 three thousand miles away
I felt a warm surge blast my mind
Coming in from behind
On the day your love came screaming through me

And in the fresh light of day
I felt something falling away
On the day your love came screaming through me

Snow Song 36 37

What cars there are
Go by like snails
And ice crystals shine
On the staircase's handrails
The quiet air
Was worth some discussion
As the windows crack
And the cold is crushing
They've shut down the roads to the coast
There's white streets as far as the eye can see
And I'd just as soon make you disappear as look at you
But I draw you close to me
How do you feel about that
How do you feel about that

Faithless Bacchant Song 38 39 40

Somewhere in the damn forest
Where the fat vines look like my brother's arms
Thick and ripe
I'm trying to get out for days and these green vines keep getting in my way
I came up to a clearing
Where the cross currents cooled my face
I would have sat down there in the middle
I would have rested just a little
But for the fire-bellied toads 41
See, the ground was wet and they were everywhere
Fire-bellied toad number five
From what may or may not have been a limited series
Opened up his little mouth
As though to speak, and then he spoke
And then he spoke to me
And he said, "You can't holler down our rain barrel
You can't climb our apple tree
I don't want to play in your yard
If you won't be good to me" 42
Honey, it was downright creepy

Short Song About the 10 Freeway

Short Song About the 10 Freeway is annotated with Songs for Peter Hughes.

No, I Can't

No, I Can't is annotated with Songs for Peter Hughes.

Song for Dana Plato

Song for Dana Plato is annotated with Songs for Peter Hughes.

The Sign

The Sign is annotated with Songs for Peter Hughes.

  1. Bitter Melon Farm, Nall, accessed August 22, 2014.


Thanks as always to Caliclimber, whose Flickr page provided the album art and who painstakingly transcribed the liner notes.


  1. Bitter melon, Momordica charantia, is a vine native to Asia whose warty, cucumber-like fruit is eaten throughout the world. It generally has a bitter flavor, hence the name, having a short edible period before it ripens and becomes too unpleasant to eat. 

  2. A good deal of the liner notes are explanatory comments on individual songs or groups of songs, or comments on other releases. These are footnoted with those songs or releases rather than being transcribed here. 

  3. Sam Goody was a music and video retailer from the 1950s through early 2000s. 

  4. Ames is a city in central Iowa, containing Iowa State University. 

  5. This documentary album is The Language and Music of the Wolves, a project of Natural History, a magazine published since 1900 by the American Museum of Natural History. The record provides samples of multiple wolf howls and sounds, narrated by Robert Redford, the famous actor, director, and environmentalist. 

  6. John Cobb was an English racecar driver and pilot. As described here, while attempting to set the world water speed record on Loch Ness in Scotland in 1952, he hit a wake, overturned his boat, and died. This event is sometimes used by Loch Ness Monster believers as evidence for the cryptid's existence. 

  7. The Loch Ness Monster is a proposed cryptid purported by believers to be a large, pleiosaur-like being living in Loch Ness, Scotland. There is no solid evidence for the existence of the monster. 

  8. I'm not entirely sure what this refers to, but based on the description and time period, it seems likely that this refers to Robert Rines' photographs from the 1970s, which include reddish photographs of fins and bulbous shapes which he claimed were of the Loch Ness Monster. 

  9. As far as I can tell, both of these businesses are still in operation as of August 2014.  2

  10. Pompano Beach is a Florida beach town located on the southeastern end of the state. 

  11. These lyrics are taken from You Light Up My Life, a romantic song written for the soundtrack to the film, You Light Up My Life. The song was written by Joe Brooks and recorded by Kasey Cisyk, and the soundtrack because a top 20 album. 

  12. "If I were King, Spandau Ballet's 'Pleasure' would open Bitter Melon Farm, the Synthesizers cold and sweeping, the bass hammering out its octave-leaps grandly, Tony Hadley's voice luring us all toward a watery, expensive death, imploring: 'What made you feel like breaking my heart tonight?' This idea didn't exactly go over like gangbusters with the boys upstairs, though, so you've got a song about a turkey instead, recorded live at KSPC Claremont one early summer afternoon when the world was simple and people slept with their eyes open." — Bitter Melon Farm liner notes

    Spandau Ballet was an English new wave pop band from the 1970s to 1990. "Pleasure" was the opening song of True, their most successful album. 

  13. Originally released on the I Like Walt compilation. There, the track is billed as:

    The Mountain Goats with the Bright Mountain Choir Recorded in the Summer of 1993. The Mountain Goats are John, Sarah, Amy, Rachel, and Roseaaaane.

    The compilation was released by Walt Records in 1994. 

  14. Translated from Spanish, this means "turkey of the night" or "night turkey". 

  15. "We played this song in Utrecht, Holland, and in my secret heart I'd been hoping that the two-piece version of it was going to whip the audience into paroxysms of emotion. I had envisioned romantic young Dutch men and women taking to the streets, pulling the old men away from their chess games and forming them into minor league baseball clubs with names like the Dordrecht Wild Ferns or the Ooij Interminable Dysfunctional Relationships. Instead the sound man cursed at us because he'd thought that we were making fun of the music he'd been playing over the P.A. as we took the stage. The music was Guv'ner, and I was not making fun of them. I was dancing." — Bitter Melon Farm liner notes

    Dordrecht is a city in the Netherlands; Ooij is a village located near Nijmegen. Guv'ner was an American rock group in the 1990s from New York City. 

  16. Going to Bangor is part of the Going to ... series

  17. Originally released on You and What Army?, released by Sing, Eunuchs! in 1994. 

  18. Bangor could refer to a number of places, among them a town in Maine and in Northern Ireland, but other locations exist elsewhere in the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia, Ireland, and in other locations. I'm not sure which of these this song refers to. 

  19. "This is actually one of two or three favorites out of my innumerable songs. If you read the play Ajax by Sophocles, its actions will become clear as crystal. I feel confident that half of you think I'm lying and won't bother to investigate further, and that the other half are direct descendants of Sophocles who have been waiting for this moment to indict me on charges of copyright infringement." — Bitter Melon Farm liner notes 

  20. Originally released on Howl ... a farewell compilation of unreleased songs, released by Glitterhouse in 1994. On the album, the Mountain Goats are listed as Rachel, Sara, Roseanne and Aaaamy; the accompanying photo of John is captioned The Mountain Goats without Rachel, Sara, Roseanne and Aaaamy. 

  21. Agamemnon was the mythical king of Argos, famous for commanding the Greek forces against Troy during the Trojan War, in which Helen, daughter of Zeus and Leda and the wife of Menelaus, the king of Sparta and Agamemnon's brother, was kidnapped by Paris, king of Troy. According to the Odyssey, after returning from the Trojan War, he is murdered by the lover of his wife, Clytemnestra; other stories have Clytemnestra herself do the killing. Agamemnon and his family are marred by many such betrayals and murders, purportedly because of the crime committed by Tantalus, his ancestor, whose eternal punishment in Tartarus was in retribution for revealing the secrets of the gods to humanity. 

  22. Ajax is, as described above, a play by Sophocles which describes Ajax's refusal to accept the award of Achilles' armor to Odysseus during the Trojan War, plotting instead to kill Agamemnon and Odysseus in revenge. During a fit of madness, he tortures and slaughters sheep in his tent, thinking they are Agamemnon and Odysseus. Ajax eventually commits suicide out of shame after storming out of his tent. My best guess is that this describes the scene in which Ajax leaves to commit suicide, but I am far from certain. The liner notes to Transmissions to Horace cover a similar theme. 

  23. "Now, this is one angry little bastard, ain't it?" — Bitter Melon Farm liner notes 

  24. In the liner notes, John explains that this was recorded live at the Tokyo Rose in Charlottesville, Virginia, between 1992 and 1996, and released on In Release City by Slowball in 1996. 

  25. Black mollies, or Poecilia sphenops, are a species of small, aggressive Mexican freshwater fish commonly kept as pets or used as feeder fish. 

  26. Betta is a genus of colorful freshwater fish from Thailand and Cambodia. Betta splendens, commonly called Siamese fighting fish, is the most well-known species, sold throughout the world as pets. 

  27. "Generally speaking, my generation is loath to interpret anything. We strive toward the transparent gesture, the act whose meaning is so self-evident that absolutely no one misunderstands it. Though this seems to me an odd goal, everybody's got to do his part. Allen Callaci is the best singer that my generation has produced. This song says as much, takes it's ball, and goes home." — Bitter Melon Farm liner notes 

  28. Originally released the I Present This compilation. The original billing includes this description:

    "The Rain Song" tells it like it is and throws in the oh-so convenient Habachi/Callaci rhyme t'boot.

    The compilation was released on vinyl by Union Pole in 1994. 

  29. A hibachi is a Japanese heating bowl, usually filled with charcoal and used to keep rooms warm. In English, it also sometimes refers to a small, flat griddle used as a barbeque, and would more correctly be called shichirin, although this term is uncommon in English. 

  30. Allen Callaci is a musician and singer from the Inland Empire music scene that John grew up in. He was one of the main members of Refrigerator, and collaborated with the Mountain Goats on Lonesome Surprise

  31. "This was to have been the first song for a post-Mountain Goats band called the Orange Trees, which would have eschewed home recording entirely and made slick little pop songs. In the end I decided that getting overlooked by one demographic was quite sufficient, thanks. There are some people in Canada who are very fond of this song and I love them for it, since I have a soft spot for it myself. It could have benefited, however, from the vocal stylings of one Tony Hadley." — Bitter Melon Farm liner notes. See also Zoop, Farm Sanctuary, New York, June 16, 2007.

    Tony Hadley is an English pop singer, famous for being the frontman and singer for Spandau Ballet, mentioned elsewhere in the liner notes. 

  32. Song for an Old Friend is part of the Song for ... series

  33. Originally released on The Wheel Method, a compilation album by Pottery Records released in 1995. The album covers of this compilation were individually done by hand; no two were the same. 

  34. Nall catalogues this song also as Going to East Rutherford, but it's unclear whether this title was ever used by John. 

  35. East Rutherford is a borough in New Jersey located in the inner ring of the New York City metropolitan area. 

  36. "This song's title is, for me, a generic term with a very specific purpose. I use it when I've written a song whose mood reminds me, either lyrically or musically, of the winter I spent in Portland, Oregon, a season during which I almost died at least twice." — Bitter Melon Farm liner notes 

  37. Originally released on Dog So Large I Cannot See Past It, a compilation album released by WPRB, the Princeton University radio station, in 1995. 

  38. "You want to know the deep, dark truth about how neurotic I am? I mean do you really, really want to know? Fine, then. When Ajax and I started discussing reissuing all this stuff, I was of two minds. Mind #1, the louder and more punk rock of the two, said: 'Screw reissues. If they didn't buy it the first time around, let 'em suffer.' I am often attentive to the voice of Mind #1, since I feel a deep personal debt to the people who've been faithfully buying every little record that had a Mountain Goats song on it since day one. But Mind #2, who's in charge of petty resentments, spoke to my vanity, saying: 'The compilation that put out 'The Faithless Bacchant Song' spelled 'Bacchant' with only one 'c,' and everyone who bought it assumes that you don't know how to spell. Boy, do they think you're stupid.' Wherefore this tiny song, which is all full of faults, is actually in one sense the glue holding the whole thing together." — Bitter Melon Farm liner notes 

  39. Originally released on Those Pre-Phylloxera Years, released by Box Dog records in 1994. Phylloxera is a genus of aphid-like insects who feed on grapevines and obliterated French wine production in the 19th century, called the Great French Wine Blight. 

  40. A bacchant is a devotee of Dionysus (known to the Romans as Bacchus) the Green god of wine and ritual madness, and so accordingly is also used to describe a drunk. 

  41. Fire-bellied toads are a genus of small, vividly-colored toads from Europe and parts of Asia. 

  42. A quote from a 19th century folk song called I Don't Want to Play in Your Yard, written by Philip Wingate. The chorus goes as follows:

    I don't want to play in your yard
    I don't like you any more
    You'll be sorry when you see me
    Sliding down our cellar door
    You can't holler down our rain barrel
    You can't climb our apple tree
    I don't want to play in your yard
    If you won't be good to me

    Versions of this song, some with different titles, have been played more recently by Peggy Lee, The Puppini Sisters, and other musicians.

    Nunberg, Geoff (2014). "Slide down my cellar door". Language Log, University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved August 23, 2014.