In the long-time war of attrition that was my quest to get Sarah into the Mountain Goats, “Sax Rohmer #1” was the crucial attack, a laser-guided missile that I volleyed straight into her heart when I snuck it onto a mix CD¹ commemorating both her 25th birthday and my own move to Brooklyn after a year-long, self-imposed exile in Lewisville, North Carolina. I didn’t put it on there with the intention of making her cry, though I certainly accomplished that2 – I just thought it was the perfect fit for a mix that was entirely about the year we had spent apart. Also, I really wanted to get Sarah into the Mountain Goats.
This song calls out for (non-ironic) inclusion on a romantic mix-tape because it exudes a powerful optimism and hope the way a lot of Mountain Goats songs don’t. That’s not to say “Sax Rohmer” doesn’t contain it’s fair share of darkness – “A rabbit gives up somewhere/And a dozen hawks descend/Every moment leads towards its own sad end.” But as Aubrey Graham once put it, working with the negatives can make for better pictures.3
The narrator’s struggle to win his one-man war and return home is thrilling because he sees defeat and disaster around every corner, and he’s unique as a Mountain Goats character because these specters of danger aren’t just the product of his fevered mind. There might not be a connection between those Chinese spies and the chalk marks on the windowsills, but that’s not a risk this guy can take – and those godforsaken wolves up in the hills and their ceaseless howling aren’t doing his nerves any good, either. We don’t know what the exact nature of the narrator’s mission is – the song’s namesake wrote pulpy spy novels, so that offers some context – but the stakes are high and if he does make it home, he’s going to take a beating on the way.
I’m not going to pretend that moving to NYC was a life-or-death, high-wire espionage act – in the decision between being close to Sarah and wasting away another year alone in my hometown, it was the obvious choice. But any life change of that magnitude requires a certain deal of determination and grit, whether it’s dealing with the intense planning required or simply pulling yourself free from the quicksand of your own inertia, and in times like that, the clarion call of purpose that is “Sax Rhomer #1” is essential.
- Previous attempts to get Sarah into the Mountain Goats include “Genesis 30:3” (more stuff about childbirth than I would have preferred, but it’s still a beautiful love song) and “Going To Georgia” (I actually included the Tiny Desk Concert version of the song, complete with Darnielle’s diatribe about why he doesn’t like the song any more, in a misguided attempt to express the exact kind of brash, youthful love that Darnielle decries while also distancing myself from the negative implications – it’s possible that my intentions may have gotten lost somewhere along the way)
- One of the few “Making A Girl Cry” stories I can recount with little shame.
- Please forgive me.