The Coroner's Gambit 1

Cover of The Coroner's Gambit Back of The Coroner's Gambit

Released: 2000
Label: Absolutely Kosher

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Liner notes


Incense factory, Calcutta, 2 West Bengal, circa 1931


or Slavonic Dances, 3 if you prefer. Sixteen new songs from your earnest friends, The Mountain Goats.

to be sung at the base of trees in Vancouver, Bombay, New Albany, Hull, Delft, Dar-es-Salaam, et cetera. 4

(paper wrapping front): 5

He was an old Hmong 6 craftsman who worked mainly in wood — altarpieces like small bowls for water or petals, elephant-shaped incense burners, intricate rosebuds or lotuses, and, later, in accord with the inevitable crushing forward movement of the age, crucifixes —and lived in a house his father had built in the nineteen-twenties. His father had done whatever work he'd been able to pick up in order to feed the family; selling hand-carved trinkets at religious festivals was what had done the job during the long Thai holiday season, and that was where he'd picked it up. His woodwork was neither a hobby nor a form of meditation for him, and he didn't think of himself or his job as anachronistic in any way. It was what he did for a living during the daylight hours.

He fell in love with a woman who had initially stopped by the table he set up on Friday mornings on Ratchwithi Road 7 near the children's school. She was from Taiwan: she'd met a Thai businessman there when she was nineteen, and he had brought her back home with him. Together they'd raised two daughters and a son, and then, in her forty-eighth year, just as she'd begun to enjoy adjusting to her new role as one-half of a doting grandparental couple (her first daughter, Mae Noi, having given her a grandson), her husband had been struck by a motorcycle weaving in and out of traffic during the permanent rush-hour conditions that plague the downtown Bangkok streets. The accident was not serious for the rider, who landed atop the car against which his motorcycle had pinned his victim, but the victim had suffered internal injuries too grave to be repaired. He died after two days in the hospital. She mourned him for as long as she could, and then, on days when she felt perfectly fine and the world seemed pleasant and good, she found herself mourning him some more.

Her sister-in-law came to live with her; the feeling between them was really more a matter of duty than of affection, but she was genuinely appreciative of the company. Though Mae Noi and the baby came by once a week for tea, it was hard to be alone; even with her sister-in-law there to share memories of the husband and brother they'd lost, and to make small talk when the memories became painful, she felt acutely and terribly lonely many times throughout the day. So when she stopped at his table of hand-carved bodshisattvas 8 and spirit-houses 9 by the school one Friday while walking her grandson to class, and he asked her innocently whether it wasn't a lovely Spring morning, she felt sharp pangs of excitement and gratitude. The feelings were like young sprouts pushing through cool earth in their difficult, explosive journey through the soil to the surface. Of course he had been lonely forever; his father and mother, though good people, had given him little idea of how one wound up getting married, and so he had wound up never doing so. Though a solitary person by nature, he was still a very friendly man to anyone who got to know him, and he loved company though he lacked the ability to say so. She found him charming, and after seeing her at his stall a number of times throughout the course of the school year he invited her to his small, old house for soup, where they told each other stories of their lives — small stories, without the huge dramatic flourishes with which more fortunate people feel the need to embellish their histories. His soup was mild and nutty like the food that the people in the hills had been enjoying for thousands of years. It made her feel loved, and she loved him for it. They spent many evenings giving sustenance to one another, and teaching each other songs they'd sung as children. He told her how to say "good grandson" in the Hmong language, and she transliterated his name into Mandarin so he could sign his name to his pieces in one elegant, small character.

The time was not very long for them; he was fifteen years older than she was, maybe more, and while decades of daily exercise had kept his body in trim fighting shape, he could feel in his blood that he had the same hard arteries that had killed both his father and his grandfather while they were still relatively young. Within a few years of their unfathomable fortune in finding one another they were both gone, the second following the first in natural response to unendurable grief and loss. Their time together was sweet and warm, and was like nothing else in the world. May their names, which history has seen fit to hide in the warm folds of its endless memory, be sung forever in the wordless movement of young trees in the wind. Let the love they cultivated like delicate juniper seedlings go on growing forever, rooted in its own self-sustaining riches. May the hours they gave one another wash gently over our cold world and heal its terrible sickness. May they rest in the limitless grace and peace that is their love's one true reward. 10

(paper wrapping back): 11

Elijah, Baboon, Horseradish Road, Onions, and the Alphonse Mambo recorded in Omaha with Simon Joyner, Chris Deden, Lonnie Methe, Brad Smith, John Kotchen, Steve Micek, and Pat Oakes. All of them are owed money and are to be treated with deference and respect. Five of the remaining songs were recorded at Main St. in Colo, which is a small town in Iowa, and the rest were recorded two blocks north of Emma McCarthy Lee Park in Ames, which is a considerably larger town half an hour west of Colo. Though happy circumstances currently have the Mountain Goats claiming Ames, we continue to straight up represent Colo and will put the slap down on anyone who disrespects it. Transfer and levels by Bob Durkee at fBE in Pomona, California, with Joel Huschle attending. As a result of some regrettable but inevitable conversations that took place during the transfer, Bob, Joel, and the Mountain Goats have formed a new, super-powerful punk rock machine called Stage Bidet 12, and we urge you to watch for us and clear us a wide berth whenever we're in your town. Instead of thanking all the people I always thank to whom I say, collectively and with no less sincerity: thanks, I am just going to spend the time left us here addressing an absent friend. Rozz:13 I wish you hadn't've gone and killed yourself. Though I hadn't seen or spoken with you in eight years since that night when, as far as I can tell from the reports I was later able to piece together, you tried, not without reason, to strangle the life out of me out there on the landing of Damien's apartment and I probably never would have ever seen you again anyway, it was still hard to hear that you were gone. All your friends had been predicting your death since the early eighties, and no-one could bear the though of you growing old, but none of that did anything to soften the blow when I heard. I don't really believe that the dead see or hear what we do out here in the realm of corruptible things,14 and I don't imagine that anyone reads the scribblings on the backs of album jackets to them, either, so I am really only addressing a memory. To that memory I say: I thought of you now and then when I was writing these songs. I don't suppose they'd do much for you, but I thought of you all the same. All your friends miss you in some way, a little or a lot. The rumors about your final hours are dismal and tawdry: I am sure they would please you immensely. For your sake, I hope that the Christians were wrong and that you were right about whether the faithless are destined for eternal torment. In the event that you are a ghost and are wandering the earth moaning and rattling chains, I moved to Iowa from California four or five years ago: stop by any time. Have a seat on the couch until I get home from work. Help yourself to anything in the refrigerator, or to the whiskey and sake on top of it. Make yourself right at home.


They have been talking about a journey into the interior. They know the dangers and yet they have already decided upon it. No one can talk them out of it. It is clear that their minds are made up. Their knapsacks are packed.

Their guides have been chosen They remain cool to suggestions. They smile enigmatic smiles. They no longer answer questions.

Carol EMSHWILLER. "Being Mysterious Strangers from Distance Shores" 15 16

Shower and Tampa are outtakes from the album.

Table of contents

  1. Jaipur
  2. Elijah
  3. Trick Mirror
  4. Island Garden Song
  5. The Coroner's Gambit
  6. Baboon
  7. Scotch Grove
  8. Horseradish Road
  9. Family Happiness
  10. Onions
  11. "Bluejays and Cardinals"
  12. Shadow Song
  13. There Will Be No Divorce
  14. Insurance Fraud #2
  15. Alphonse Mambo
  16. We Were Patriots

Jaipur 17 18

"This house is so haunted with dead men I can't lose" 19

I was having visions of sugared pastry
Cooked up in clarified butter 20
I tried to turn my visions into prayers
But I built my castle way up high in the air

Yeah, I came to the gates of the fabled pink city 18
Hungry and tired and cold
Swing low, sweet chariot 21
Chrome tailpipes shining, bright as spun gold

My brothers picked me up out of the rushes 22
Handed me into to the company of evil men 23
But I inched my way down the Eastern Seaboard
I am coming to Atlanta again 24

Yeah, I came to the gates of the fabled pink city
Hungry and tired and mad as all hell
Swing low, sweet jewel-encrusted chariot
Make me young again, make me well

I am the killer, dressed in pilgrim's clothing 25
I'm the hard to find stations on the AM band 26
I am the white sky high over Tripoli 27
I am the land mine hidden in the sand

Yeah, I came to the gates of the fabled pink city
Hungry and tired and alone
Swing low, sweet, sweet, sweet chariot
Coming for to carry me home 21

Elijah 28 29 30

Streak the windows
Smear the walls with coconut oil, 31 yeah
Fill the cast-iron kettle with water and magnolia blossom 32 33
Let it boil
Let the water roll
Let the fire take its toll

I'm coming home
I'm coming home

Dust off the idols, give them something to eat
I think they're hungry, I know I'm starving half to death
I know you're waiting, I know you've been waiting for a long, long time

And I'm coming home
I'm coming home

Set the table those three extra places
One for me, one for your doubts, and one for God
Let the incense burn in every room
Feel the fullness of time 34 in the empty tomb 35
Feel the future kicking in your womb 36

I'm coming home
I'm coming home

Trick Mirror 37 38

Seventeen years ago 39
They told me to teach him everything I know 40
Let the fire rain down 41
Rain down
Watched it flare up inside his heart
Saw it tearing him completely apart
Head to toe
I know

And blood will run through the streets of Rome 42 today 43
And roll across the ocean

Fourteen years ago tonight
Watched him tearing through the garden killing everything in sight 44
I let my curiosity
Get the best of me

I saw the sourceless anger eating at him from inside
No one around him to stem the rising tide
Evil from his head down to his feet
Quinines bitter, sugars sweet

And blood will run through the streets of Rome today
And roll across the ocean

Island Garden Song 45

I will sail
To the far shore
And I will chop
A hole in the hull too big to repair

And I will turn
The soil with my hands
And I will make
My home there

My garden will grow so high
My garden will grow so high
That I will be completely hidden

And I will go
Where I will go
And I will jettison
All dead weight

And I will use
These words for kindling
And I will sleep
By the garden gate

My garden will grow so high
My garden will grow so high
That I will be completely hidden

The Coroner's Gambit

When Death came calling today
I heard the gentle grace of his cadences
I couldn't say no
I couldn't say no

When he showed me his new silk scarves
Laid out on the shiny black plastic tray
Couldn't say, couldn't say, couldn't say, couldn't say, couldn't say no
I couldn't say no

And I'm sorry I couldn't
You know how badly I wanted to
Didn't want, didn't want, didn't want, didn't want, didn't want to lose you

But his smile was dazzling
And his eyes were sparkling
Like moonlight
On the water at midnight
Couldn't say, couldn't say, couldn't say, couldn't say, couldn't say, couldn't say no
I couldn't say no

Baboon 46

The sun came up above the strange white plain
Blood-red flowers all wet with rain
And the spirit wasn't really willing anymore
But the flesh was very, very strong 47

And I've got very little money left and I've got no sense
But I'll have none of your goddamned impudence
Sun came up above the new white fields
Everything was new again

Pure power stripped of meaning
Sky burning
Spring cleaning

Daisies on the hillside like cancer on the skin
Pretty little yellow eyes that flutter in the wind
I'd be grateful my children aren't here to see this if you'd ever seen fit to give me children

And my defenses may be working with a skeleton crew
But I'll be skinned alive before I'll take this from you
The sun came up above the ocean out west
All the colors of the rainbow

Stand up straight you can see the house leaning
Day breaking
Spring cleaning

Scotch Grove 48

On the way home from the party
Neither of us said a word
LeAnn Rimes 49 on the car stereo
Sang that song you know I hate, the one about the blackbird 50
And the rain came down on the windshield
I wished it would wash us both away
You had to open up your mouth, didn't you
I knew what you were gonna say
And you were Bluebeard's wife 51
Opening every cupboard trying to find the smoking gun
I told you, I told you
I told you not to open that one

Horseradish Road 52 53

The way that everybody's voice
Comes out muffled when they speak
The way we take our diminishing inventories
Month to month and week to week

The Maria Callas 54 records
On the stereo all the time
You're gonna get yours
And I'm gonna get mine

'Cause in this car, in this car
Somebody's bound to get burned
I know, I know
'Cause I've been watching the road turn

The Enigma Variations 55
On the radio
The things that I could guess at
The things that I already know

When the twelve thousand dollars
That turned up in your purse
You've done something awful
I've done something worse

And in this car, in this car
Somebody's bound to get burned
I know, I know
'Cause I've been watching the road turn

Family Happiness 56

As we cruised across
The Canadian border
You reached into your handbag
Pulled out a microcassette recorder
Started quoting Tolstoy into the machine 56
I had no idea what you meant
Guess I'm supposed to figure these things out
Or maybe it's supposed to be self-evident
But I've gone feral
And I don't speak the language anymore
We're headed deep into the forest
I got the pedal to the floor
The engine shudders like a dying man
When you reach out to grab my hand
You could bring out all your weapons
You can't make me go to war

Long winding Canadian highways
Innumerable evergreens
Weather forecast on the AM radio
Says, "We'll be expecting highs in the low teens"
When I mouth my silent curses at you
I can see my breath
I hope the stars don't even come out tonight
I hope we both freeze to death
Look at the person I've turned into, tell me how you like him now
No standards of any kind to break, no creeds to disavow
I am right here where you want me
Do what you brought me out here for
You can arm me to the teeth
You can't make me go to war


The last white slabs of snow
Melted off seven weeks ago
And the geese are headed north again
Through the tightening sky, and I
Can feel my heart in my throat again
New onions growing in the ground

The cows come gingerly out of the barn
When they see that the ground is warm
They pick up a little speed, it makes me feel so good
And I feel it rushing down my throat, fresh blood
I head out onto the earth, its cold heart is melting
I don't know if I can stand it
Springtime's coming, that means you'll be coming back around
New onions growing underground, underground

"Bluejays and Cardinals" 13 57

Bluejays and Cardinals all come out to play 58
The highway traffic gets out of your way

Skies clear up if they're overcast
Pit bulls are gentle when you come past

Stars come out of hiding for you
And I would too, but this world couldn't hold you
You slipped free
Without me

The new sheen over everything
When you open up your mouth to sing

Baseballs travel faster when you watch them fly
Apples fatten on the trees when you walk by

You bring something unreplaceable to each and every day
Or you used to anyway, but this world couldn't hold you
And you slipped free
Yeah, this world couldn't hold you
You slipped free
Without me

Shadow Song 13 59

If you get there before me
Will you save me a seat?
If you get there before me
Would you save me a seat?
And if I never get there at all
Would you leave the seat empty?

If you get there before me
Will you light us a fire?
If you get there before me
Will you light us a fire?
And if I never show
You can watch the embers glow
You can keep the fire burning

This is a song for you in case I never make it through to where you are
This is a song for you in case I never make it through to where you are 60

There Will Be No Divorce 61

The rain fell all night
And it kept me awake
It was still falling by morning
It was hard to take, and you were
Sleeping on the floor
Breathing free and even
If I ever want to drive myself insane
All I have to do is watch you breathing
And at 5 AM
I turned the radio on
And an old man's voice
Sang a short, sweet song
And then the static roared again
Hungry for blood
I heard the rain falling from the rainspout
Down, down into the sweet, wet mud
And you punched out all the windows
And the wind began to wail
And you gathered your hair behind your head
Like God was gonna catch you by the ponytail
And then the old voice crackled through the static
And I felt young and alive
And the hairs stood up on the back of my neck
We were rising from the grave
Yeah, yeah

Insurance Fraud #2 62 63

Bag full of oily rags
Fifty cent lighter
Dreams of retirement in Cancún 64
Burning ever brighter
There's a lot of ways to make money in this world
But I can't recommend insurance fraud

Burnt out shell of a Volkswagen
Blood stains on the driveway
Torn up Mercedes
By the side of the highway
Big plans, big plans
Let me tell you something, sister
You will never get away with it

I was sitting in the recliner with the TV on
When you said something evil, and then you were gone
Explosives in the water main
A blown fuse
College graduation photograph
Splashed all over the 6 o'clock news
I won't be cashing in your policy
'Til I find out what it is you're trying to do to me 65

Alphonse Mambo 66 67 68

I could almost hear the rhythm section
Kick in as the sun began to blaze
I saw you walk across the plaza
Figured I'd just play it like it lays 69
Yeah, yeah, yeah

I think I'm gonna be real sick again
Think it's gonna happen real soon
And I know I can't afford another night here in this place
With its sixteenth floor view of the ocean and the dunes

And it's gonna be just you and me today
Waiting for the other shoe to drop in Tampa Bay 70

I can hear the roar of the crowd
In the stadium a couple blocks away
It's the kind of thing that used to get me all worked up
But I don't want to talk about it now, OK, OK?

I just want to get this whole thing over with
I don't want to deal with it anymore
I hear the cogs all slipping at the same time
And then I see you walk in through the door

And it's gonna be just you and me today
Waiting for the other shoe to drop in Tampa Bay

We Were Patriots

Clear sky over Calcutta 2 71
Warm wind
Dvořák 72 on the shortwave
Clear signal coming in

La la la
La la la la la
La la
La la la la la la la

Long vowels spill like liquid from your mouth
I hang on every word you say
An army of transistor radios on the bookshelf
Left on all day
Let them play
Yeah, let 'em all play on and on and on
Let 'em all play longer and louder
Long after you're gone

La la
La la la la la
La la
La la la la la

Clear sky sheltering our fragile little house
Listening to the radio all the time
Your hand on my forehead as though to check for a fever, yeah
Big plans in mind

La la la la
La la la la la
La la la la
La la la la la la la
La la
La la la la la la
Yeah, yeah


Thanks as always to Caliclimber, whose Flickr page provided the album art and the sleeve text. Thanks also to asrath who provided a source for the label text, to Harrison Lemke, who pointed out the possibility that John meant to refer to Lila McCann in Scotch Grove, to Brendan Robertovich, who corrected an error in my labeling of the liner notes, and to Mairead Beeson, who offered a detailed analysis of several parts of Elijah.

  1. The Coroner's Gambit, Nall, retrieved July 10, 2013.


  1. Originally titled Jab-Jab, a Caribbean term for a person costumed as Satan for Carnival, The Coroner's Gambit is thematically oriented around death. "This record took so long to write, you know – it went through so many different themes and had so many songs – but there was one song from early on, when the album was still called Jab-Jab, that pushed it toward being a record about death and terminal places. The song didn't end up on the album. It was called 'Tampa.' If you can get a tape of the set I did at Terrastock in San Francisco, I think I opened with it there. It was a terribly dark song about someone who finds a body buried in the snow, and when I noticed that both it and 'Family Happiness' were probably going to be on the same record, I thought: 'Why not point the whole album toward the grave?' Then I looked at some other songs from the preceding months and saw how they'd fit into that theme, and it sort of grew from there, and new things came in and pushed out the old ones." — Heavy Metal, Ephemera, and Popular Culture: A Chat with the Mountain Goats, Space City Rock, Spring 2001

    John mentions this as being the first album he believes he started writing strong material for: "To me the songs start to get interesting around The Coroner's Gambit, that's sort of the dividing line for me..." — William Caxton Fan Club, Which albums are you playing songs from on your current tour?

    The Coroner's Gambit was originally intended to be released in two parts; a vinyl produced version with arrangements and a CD version with boombox recordings. This ultimately didn't come to pass, resulting in the Coroner's Gambit we have now, with a mix of home versions and more polished takes. "The idea here is to say something about the malleability of even the most volatile material... The honest truth is that I'd like for people to pick one format (based, probably, on which cover art appeals to them more) and then commit to that one. They can have someone tape them a copy of the other format, if they want to have both, doesn't bother me a bit. I do hope there'll be a few people who'll buy one and say to themselves, 'This one is good enough for me; I don't want or need to hear the other one.'" — Cory Brown interview, circa 1999 

  2. Calcutta, now officially named Kolkata, is the capital city of West Bengal in India and the former capital of India under the British Raj, the ruling body in India at the time the photo states it was taken.  2

  3. The Slavonic Dances are patriotic orchestral pieces by Antonín Dvořák, a 19th century Czech composer. These pieces catapulted Dvořák to fame and remain his most popular pieces. Dvořák is again referenced in We Were Patriots (see footnote). 

  4. I am not aware of anything linking these six cities (if you are, please contact me). Vancouver is a metropolis in British Columbia, Canada (or a smaller suburb of Portland in the United States); Bombay, now Mumbai, is the capital of Maharashtra in India; New Albany is the name of several small towns in the United States; Hull is the common name for Kingston upon Hull, is a city in East Yorkshire, England, as well as several other towns around the world; Delft is a city in the Netherlands; Dar-es-Salaam is the largest city of Tanzania. 

  5. The Coroner's Gambit was released inside a translucent paper wrapping which had these bonus liner notes written on them. Photos are available on Caliclimber's Flickr album (here and here) as usual. Thanks to Brendan Robertovich for pointing out my initial mislabeling of these notes as the sleeve, which they are not, and to Caliclimber for patiently answering all my pendantic questions about this issue as well as providing excellent photos. 

  6. The Hmong are a people living primarily in the mountains of Laos, Vietnam, China, and Thailand. They speak Hmong, a language in its own family, and have immigrated extensively due to multiple harsh conflicts, including the Laotian Civil War and the Vietnam War. 

  7. Ratchawithi Road is a major road in Bangkok, Thailand. It is misspelled in the album text. 

  8. A bodhisattva is a Buddhist practitioner dedicated to the enlightenment of all sentient beings. 

  9. In many Southeast Asian countries, spirit houses are small shrines made to house and give offerings to the spirit who protects a household or area. 

  10. This text is only present on the vinyl version of the Coroner's Gambit. "I put it on the vinyl since I figured that people who favor the CD format are probably more inclined to care mainly about the sound that's on the medium, whereas vinyl-favoring people tend to be more into the whole-package aspect of things – details, you know. Ephemera." — Heavy Metal, Ephemera, and Popular Culture: A Chat with the Mountain Goats, Space City Rock, Spring 2001 

  11. The liner notes to the Coroner's Gambit are part of the informal series of Biblical references

  12. A bidet is a washbasin for the genitalia. The only reference to a stage bidet I could find was in Dan Rhodes' book, This is Life, p. 42: "He sat on the on-stage bidet to check it for comfort, then lay for a while on the single bed, after which he requested a firmer mattress." John answers a question about Stage Bidet in a 2001 interview with Space City Rock as follows:

    SCR: The liner notes to The Coroner's Gambit reference Stage Bidet. How and when should we expect Stage Bidet to manifest itself publicly, if at all?

    JD: Run screaming if you ever hear that Stage Bidet is playing your town. Stage Bidet, when it comes, will not be pretty. That is all I care to say about it this early in the morning. I don't even want to think about it. 

  13. Rozz Williams was an Inland Empire musician alongside John. He fronted the goth rock band Christian Death until committing suicide on April 1, 1998. Several Mountain Goats songs, namely Shadow Song, "Bluejays and Cardinals", Maybe Sprout Wings, and maybe others, as well as the Coroner's Gambit itself, are dedicated to Rozz.  2 3

  14. The realm of corruptible things is from some translations of 1 Peter 1:18. See for example the King James Version (retrieved September 19, 2013), "Forasmuch as ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, from your vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers." 

  15. The source of this quote (which only appears on the vinyl version) is correctly titled "Being Mysterious Strangers from Distant Shores", a short story from Emshwiller's collection Verging on the Pertinent. There are several other small changes from the original text (including the dropped period), which is as follows:

    "They have been talking about a journey into the interior. They know the dangers and yet already they have decided upon it. No one can talk them out of it. It is clear that their minds are made up. Their knapsacks are packed. Their guides have been chosen. They remain cool to suggestions. They smile enigmatic smiles. They no longer answer any questions. 

  16. Carol Emshwiller is a science fiction, short story, and magical realism writer from Michigan. 

  17. Jaipur is part of the informal series of Biblical references

  18. Jaipur is the capital city of Rajasthan, India. Its nickname, the Pink City, anecdotally arose when the city was painted pink to celebrate the arrival of the Prince of Wales in 1853.  2

  19. This verse comes from Haunted House Blues, by the American blues great Bessie Smith, written by J. C. Johnson and sung in 1924. Alexander, Scott, Red Hot Jazz, retrieved September 19, 2013.

    "'Haunted House Blues' by Bessie Smith seemed like a good way of locking all the doors before the proceedings began on The Coroner's Gambit, if that's not too strained a way to put it. There was a Celine Dion sound-collage that was actually going to be the lead-off bit where I had her saying 'Made a deal with the devil' over and over, and eventually just 'deal with the devil' a few times, but it's probably best that I left it at home when I went to transfer the songs from cassette to quarter-inch." — Heavy Metal, Ephemera, and Popular Culture: A Chat with the Mountain Goats, Space City Rock, Spring 2001 

  20. Clarified butter, known as ghee in India, is widely used in Indian food and religious rites. The most common pastry cooked with ghee is probably the samosa, which is usually filled with meat and spices. 

  21. These lines refer to the title and chorus of the popular spiritual song Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, first recorded in 1909 and written in 1862. The chorus is the repeated couplet, "Swing low, sweet chariot / Coming for to carry me home." This refers to 2 Kings 2, where Elijah is taken to heaven in a chariot.  2

  22. Likely a reference to the birth of Moses. According to the Bible, when Moses was born in Egypt, all male Jewish children were to be killed. His mother therefore hid him in the rushes, where he was found and raised by the Pharaoh's daughter. Exodus 2:1 – 8, Holman Christian Standard Bible, retrieved September 19, 2013. 

  23. This sounds like a reference to Joseph, who was sold by his brothers into slavery to passing traders. Genesis 37:28, Holman Christian Standard Bible, retrieved September 19, 2013. 

  24. The Eastern Seaboard refers to the eastern coast of the United States. Atlanta, the capital of Georgia, lies a couple hundred miles off of the coast. 

  25. Compare to Matthew 7:15: "Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravaging wolves." Numerous stories and fables including this motif have increased the fame of this verse. Holman Christian Standard Bible, retrieved September 19, 2013. 

  26. The AM band refers to one of the two major commercial radio bands (the other being FM). Standing for amplitude modulation and having lower sound quality than FM, AM radio is mainly used for talk radio and news. 

  27. Tripoli is the capital city of Libya. 

  28. "It's about jail, sort of." — Go Rehearsal Studios, Room 4, Carrboro, October 15, 2000 

  29. Elijah is part of the informal series of Biblical references

  30. Elijah was a Biblical prophet in the 9th century BC, advocating for the Hebrew God over Baal, the Phoenician. He is invoked in several Jewish rituals, such as seder.

    Elijah is also notable for being one of very few people who entered heaven alive — see 2 Kings 2:11. Interestingly enough, Enoch is one of the rare others (see Genesis 5:22–24). Thanks to Mairead Beeson for making me aware of this! 

  31. I'm not aware of any ritual where coconut oil is smeared on walls — if you do, please contact me. Some of this is reminiscent of the story of Passover in Judaism, in which God instructed Moses and his followers to smear the blood of a freshly-slaughtered lamb on the doorposts to be spared the 10th plague of Egypt — the death of every firstborn male:

    The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: ... Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month they must each select an animal of the flock according to their fathers' households, one animal per household... You are to keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembly of the community of Israel will slaughter the animals at twilight. They must take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses where they eat them... You are to eat it in a hurry; it is the Lord's Passover.

    I will pass through the land of Egypt on that night and strike every firstborn male in the land of Egypt, both man and beast. I am Yahweh; I will execute judgments against all the gods of Egypt. The blood on the houses where you are staying will be a distinguishing mark for you; when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No plague will be among you to destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.

    Exodus 12, Holman Christian Standard Bible, retrieved March 22, 2018.

    I am uncertain enough about this allusion to not include it in the series of Biblical references, but I do think it's worth considering. Thanks to Mairead Beeson for her analysis of this! 

  32. Magnolia is a genus of hundreds of plants with large, fragrant flowers. 

  33. The combination of coconut, pot, and flowers, especially in the Indian context of this album, is reminiscent of kalasha, a metal pot used to hold a coconut in Hindu rituals. However, a kalasha is not boiled, nor in my knowledge is the coconut used on the walls, so this comparison may be spurious. 

  34. The phrase, "the fullness of time", is from some translations of Galatians 4:4: "But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law". Galatians largely concerns Biblical law. King James Version, retrieved September 19, 2013. 

  35. A likely reference to the empty tomb left by Jesus after the resurrection

  36. A stretch, but perhaps a reference to this Biblical verse: "For you see, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped for joy inside me!" Luke 1:44, Holman Christian Standard Bible, retrieved September 19, 2013. 

  37. Nall incorrectly lists Trick Mirror as Seneca's Trick Mirror, despite it not being listed as such anywhere else. I'm not sure of the origins of this title change. 

  38. The song appears to describe the youth of the Roman tyrant Nero from the perspective of his tutor, the philosopher Seneca the Younger. Seneca was forced to commit suicide in 65 AD by Nero due to his involvement in the Pisonian conspiracy to kill him. Seneca, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, retrieved September 19, 2013. 

  39. Seneca began to tutor Nero in 49 AD when he was recalled from exile by Agrippina the Younger, Empress of Rome to Claudius. As he was forced to commit suicide in 65 AD, this spans 17 years (including 49 AD and 65 AD). This song is therefore written from the perspective of Seneca's final days. Seneca, Public Broadcasting Service, retrieved September 19, 2013. 

  40. This must refer to Nero, the infamous tyrant. Nero ruled Rome in the 50s and 60s AD until his death during a rebellion. Nero famously executed his mother and idled during the Great Fire of Rome. 

  41. Most obviously refers to a metaphorical rage inside Nero, but perhaps also an allusion to the aforementioned Great Fire of Rome, which was rumored to be at least ignored by by Nero, or worse, caused by him to make room for his architectural projects. 

  42. Rome is both the current capital of Italy and the historical capital of the Roman Empire. Founded in 753 BC, Rome is one of the oldest cities in the world. 

  43. According to the above calculations, Seneca would be near his death during the time of this song. This then likely refers to the Pisonian conspiracy, an assassination attempt against Nero in 65 AD. Seneca was suspected to be involved with the assassination plan and was ordered by Nero to commit suicide. If this song takes place before the assassination attempt was intended to be carried out, this line could refer to the blood of Nero; if afterwards, it perhaps refers to Seneca's blood from slitting his wrists, the method he used to kill himself. 

  44. Nero used his gardens to execute Christians, burning them for light, torn by animals, crucified, and otherwise murdered, blaming them for the Great Fire of Rome.

    "... Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace... Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.

    "Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car." — Tacitus, Annals, Book XV, Chapter 44. Translated by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb, The Internet Classics Archive, retrieved September 20, 2013.

    The Great Fire of Rome occurred in 64 AD, the year before Seneca died. However, John describes these murders as occurring 14 years prior, in 51 AD, shortly after he returned to Rome to tutor and advise Nero. This corresponds roughly to when Nero entered political life as a proconsul, according to Tacitus' Annals (Book XII, Chapter 41). I am not sure of the significance of this discrepancy in timeline; perhaps he is assuming that Nero murdered people in his gardens at other times as well, or is referring to the first times that Seneca witnessed Nero's violence. 

  45. "... it's one of those songs that I sort of wrote and didn't ask myself what I was writing, just sort of go through it, find some chords, and keep going. But I'm pretty certain that this is a song about the need for isolation and the possibility of finding something in there that you didn't know you needed." — McCabe's Guitar Shop, Santa Monica, June 30, 2012 

  46. Baboon is part of the informal series of Biblical references

  47. Spoken by Jesus to Peter: "Stay awake and pray, so that you won't enter into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak." — Matthew 26:41, Holman Christian Standard Bible, retrieved September 20, 2013. Also repeated in Mark 14:38

  48. Scotch Grove is an unicorporated town in Iowa. 

  49. LeAnn Rimes is an American pop country singer. 

  50. I have been unable to find any LeAnn Rimes song about a blackbird — if you know what this refers to, please contact me.

    Possibly this refers to the Lila McCann 1997 country hit "Down Came a Blackbird", but it's hard to say. 

  51. Bluebeard is a folktale in which an aristocrat forbids his wives from opening particular doors in his house, then murdering them when they do and find the bodies of previous wives. Eventually, his final wife is rescued by her brothers, Bluebeard is killed, and the wife inherits his fortune. 

  52. "It's another one of these songs I've been working on lately where people's love for one another degenerates into a horrible poisonous hatred. And when they think about how much — how good it was at one point, it just — you want to say it breaks their hearts, but at the same time you know it doesn't, because they just keep plugging along, and you keep saying, 'Oh boy, wouldn't it be great if somebody could just kill you because, you know, you can't kill yourself, you know that's wrong, and you know it would be fucked up and all your friends would be mad at you and so would your family, but if some kind, well-meaning guy would just come along and end it for you, you know, blame's off you.' That's what this song is about." — Terrastock II, Custer Avenue Stages, San Francisco, April 17, 1998 

  53. I am not sure which road this refers to, but would love to know if you do. 

  54. Maria Callas was a celebrated American opera singer. 

  55. Variations on an Original Theme for Orchestra, commonly known as the Enigma Variations, is a collection of pieces by Edward Elgar, an English composer who wrote them as a cryptogram, each piece describing a friend. 

  56. John explains that this song is named after the Tolstoy novella of the same name: "It's just the Tolstoy short story of the same title, about a particularly unhappy marriage. It is probably translated under various titles." Tolstoy's novel Anna Karenina similarly opens with the line, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." — Heavy Metal, Ephemera, and Popular Culture: A Chat With the Mountain Goats, Space City Rock, Spring 2001; Anna Karenina, translated by Constance Garnett, retrieved September 20, 2013.  2

  57. The quotation marks are in part a tribute to Rozz. When asked what they signify, John replied, "The answer is actually really simple, but I'm going to pay tribute to my late friend Rozz by not telling. Rozz's band (Christian Death) had an album whose title was in quotes ("Ashes"), and his answer regarding those quotation marks was one of the less satisfying answers I've ever been given about anything." — Heavy Metal, Ephemera, and Popular Culture: A Chat with the Mountain Goats, Space City Rock, Spring 2001 

  58. This may simply refer to the species of bird. However, these are also names of professional American baseball teams, the American League Toronto Blue Jays and National League St. Louis Cardinals. Given that they are in separate leagues under Major League Baseball, the teams would only play each other in the World Series, the championship game, a matchup which has never occurred. 

  59. "My friend Rozz was 35 when he hung himself and he is at this place; this is a special place for me. It took me a couple years to sort through what it feels like to have a guy who you've lost touch with but who you were close to once check out." — Masonic Lodge, Hollywood Forever Cemetery, December 12, 2012

    "This was a straight song for somebody I missed." — City Arts and Lectures, Herbst Theatre, San Francisco, February 24, 2009 

  60. This line has sometimes been sung, "This is a song for you for when I never make it through to where you are". — Masonic Lodge, Hollywood Forever Cemetery, December 12, 2012 

  61. "This is a rather... direct love song..." — VPRO session, Amstel Festival, December 7, 2002

    John describes some of the context of writing this song in his Daytrotter interview in 2008 (mirror). 

  62. "There were two takes of it, hence the number next to its title on the album." – Zoop, Farm Sanctuary, New York, June 17, 2007 

  63. Insurance fraud is committed by trying to dishonestly scam an insurance company into giving a payout without actually meeting the payout conditions. Here, it sounds like life insurance or homeowners' insurance fraud is being committed, where a death is faked or a house is destroyed for insurance money. 

  64. Cancún is a Mexican city known for its beauty and popularity as a vacation spot. 

  65. At the end of the song, you can hear a train pass by. As John describes:

    "She [Lalitree] wanted a free-standing house and not an apartment, we didn't have any money, so we wound up with a place that cost $270 a month in Colo. At the train tracks. At the crossing. If you listen to that album, The Coroner's Gambit, there's a song, Insurance Fraud #2, where you hear a sound effect, it sounds like a train? It's a train. It's two trains, 'cause they came both ways. And most of the songs that the trains ruined, I discarded, but I was like, 'Nah, you know, that's all right for that song." — City Arts and Lectures, Herbst Theatre, San Francisco, February 24, 2009

    Similar banter describing this story occurs at Zoop, Farm Sanctuary, New York, June 17, 2007. 

  66. "This is a song about being in a motel. This is a very familiar story to so many people, that's why I share it, because it's a universal experience that people know about. When you're in Southern Florida in your motel and you're on the cusp of divorce, and the shit's coming down, and you're all out of the OxyContin, and it's really starting to get ugly, the dreadful headache-y clarity of the whole situation is sort of cresting along with the beautiful Southern Florida sunset. And people — everyone who's had this experience sort of has a — it's a fraternity, a blessed fraternity. It's like the Order of Nicodemus, only with more OxyContin." — Letters to Santa, Chicago, December 7, 2011

    Given this description, I think it's safe to call Alphonse Mambo an Alpha couple song, especially with the Alph- in the title. 

  67. Alphonse Mambo is part of the Alpha couple series

  68. John has confirmed that this is a pun on the Alphonso mango. After Johnp, a regular poster from Ireland, mentioned the similarity in name to the forums, John commented, "ten years I had to wait for somebody to make this connection and it took a guy from a country that saw its first mango in 1987 to do it / Ireland for great win yet again". Alphonso mango is a sweet variety of mango grown mainly in India.

    The Mambo is a Cuban musical style and dance from the 1930s. 

  69. This phrase is used extensively in English speech, particularly in gambling and athletics, but likely originates from the rules of golf. In the United States Golf Association Rules of Golf, Rule 13, Ball Played As It Lies, states, "The ball must be played as it lies, except as otherwise provided in the Rules" (retrieved September 20, 2013).

    Simultaneously, this is an homage the Joan Didion novel Play It as It Lays. To my ear, John subtly confirms this homage at City Arts and Lectures, Herbst Theatre, San Francisco, February 24, 2009. 

  70. Tampa Bay is a large estuary in western Florida near Tampa. 

  71. Incidentally, the cover of The Coroner's Gambit depicts Calcutta with an apparently cloudy sky overhead. 

  72. Antonín Dvořák was a famous Czech composer. He is mentioned elsewhere in the Coroner's Gambit via the mention of the Slavonic Dances, one of his pieces, as the subtitle to this album.