Jun 24, 2024, 06:27AM

Classic Songs: “Palmcorder Yajna”

The Mountain Goats' ode to tweakers.

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In 2020, a nondescript TraveLodge at 130 E. Holt Avenue in Pomona, California permanently shut down. The surrounding neighborhood had fallen on hard times and become a gathering ground for homeless meth users. The motel attracted prostitutes and drug users. Yelp reviews included: “This place sucks balls” and “Don’t come here. Crackheads all over.” A sign over the front desk read: “No money will be refunded 5 minutes after check-in.”

What made this otherwise forgettable motor inn a place of note is a 2003 song by the Mountain Goats called “Palmcorder Yajna.” The song’s an ode to tweakers with coded lyrics poetically depicting the doom of drug addiction. But the song is much more. 

The Mountain Goats were formed in 1991 by John Darnielle. Music critic Sasha Frere-Jones called Darnielle “America’s best non-hip-hop lyricist.” Darnielle is a brilliant songwriter (and novelist) who once struggled with drug use. At 16, he ran away from an abusive home situation in Claremont, California. He nearly died after overdosing on prescription meds. He then moved with his stepfather to Portland, Oregon where he began using heroin and methamphetamine. He overdosed again at 19.

Darnielle found God, became a vegan and put his drug addiction behind him. “Palmcorder Yajna” has become an anthem of sorts for drug users seeking to conquer their addictions. Like many Mountain Goats songs, the title has coded meaning. “Palmcorder” refers to a video camera used to make a visual record of your speech and actions. “Yajna” is a Hindu ritual sacrifice in which something is burned in a fire. To burn a record of your past behaviors is to cleanse yourself of your personal sins. During a 2006 live show in Minneapolis, Darnielle introduced the song saying, “Those of you who have had the same love/hate/but mostly love relationship with methamphetamine, God love ya.”

Mountain Goat fans dissect every word of Darnielle’s obscure musical prose. The opening verses paint a scene where something is amiss:

Holt Boulevard
Between Gary and White
Hooked up with some friends at the Travelodge
Set ourselves up for the night

Carpenter ants in the dresser
Flies in the screen
It will be too late by the time we learn
What these cryptic symbols mean.

Darnielle tells us that something horrific is about to happen to the “friends at the Travelodge.” He describes “carpenter ants in the dresser” and “flies in the screen.” This is horror film fodder but as we learn in the song’s chorus, it’s a meth horror tale.

And I dreamt of a house
Haunted by all you tweakers with your hands out
And the headstones climbed up the hills
And the headstones climbed up the hills.

A tweaker’s a meth addict. A “tweaker with his hand out” is an addict desperate for another hit. The “headstones climbing up the hills” is the specter of fatal overdose felt by meth users. Dreaming of a haunted house is a common experience for tweakers whose bodies are poisoned to the point of tainted dreams.

Darnielle lived in the Pacific Northwest when he wrote this song. “It’s about people who are fraying at the edges like old shirts… They weren’t really people so much as shadows of people… When I was young I liked staring in the abyss to see what could happen... I spent a year in Portland, Oregon when I was eighteen. I was maniacally depressed and self-destructive… When I sat down to write ‘Palmcorder Yajna’ it all just sort of came spilling out and I said to myself: ‘Why not take away the mask, at least a little?’ And the song came out violently as if it’d been waiting for permission.”

The second verse describes how meth users spend their days.

Send somebody out for soda
Comb through the carpet for clues
Reflective tape on our sweatpants
Big holes in our shoes
Every couple minutes someone says he can’t stand it any more
Laugh lines on our faces
Scale maps of the ocean floor.

Tweakers lose their teeth due to “meth mouth.” They drink massive amounts of soda (especially Mountain Dew), often their only nutrition. Combing “through the carpet for clues” refers to conspiratorial thinking common among meth users as they search for drug remnants in the carpet. They’re barely hanging on as evidenced by the “reflective tape” on their sweatpants and the “big holes” in their shoes. Those who “can’t stand it anymore” are going through toxic withdrawal. The “scale maps of the ocean floor” are their quirky obsessions as they kill time before their next hit of rocket fuel (video games, numerology, Tarot cards).

When Darnielle wrote the song, he looked more like a tech nerd than a stereotypical rocker or drug user. He had beautiful white teeth, thin literary glasses and typically wore a suit and tie while performing. His persona didn’t match his personality. “People had this image of me as a innocent professorial guy, and as an ex-junkie, that really annoyed me, that people would think ‘you know, squeaky-clean John.’ I’m glad on the one hand, that I look like that. On the other hand, that’s really not who I am.”

When writing the opening lyric, Darnielle “barked out an ad-lib that felt like a private joke, mythologizing this nothing area: Holt Boulevard.” (The motel was actually on Holt Avenue). It’s an attempt to cloak what he was really writing about, his early drug days barely staying alive in motels like the Pomona Travelodge.

Darnielle had no way of knowing recovering addicts from around the world would make a pilgrimage to a seedy street in Pomona searching for meaning. They treated Holt Avenue like a modern day Mecca. The hotel was long gone, so they returned to the song for answers.

If anybody comes in to our room while we’re asleep
I hope they incinerate everybody in it.

The “incineration” is the Yajna itself. It’s a ritual cleansing, a sacrificial immolation, a neutralizing of one’s sins. It points to the self-loathing addicts experience after days of self-abuse without bathing, eating or sleeping. The final verse offers a veiled suggestion of hope.

And I dreamt of a factory
Where they manufactured what I needed
Using shiny new machines
And the headstones climbed up the hills.

The factories that “manufactured what I needed” were once the glittering meth-making machines like those portrayed in Breaking Bad. The “shiny new machines” offer an antidote to one’s past life of abuse. If Darnielle can do it, so can they.


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