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Tuning Up: It’s Okay to Get in the Magic Van

How do you know when you’re rehashing the past rather than recapturing its essence?

John Darnielle's Wolf in White Van.

People underestimate just how starved everybody is for some magic pathway back into childhood.

So speaks Sean Phillips, the disfigured shut-in at the heart of John Darnielle’s acclaimed debut novel, Wolf in White Van. He’s not talking about guitarists or musicians. He’s explaining everyone’s bewilderment upon hearing that he makes a living as proprietor of a role-playing game played by pen and paper via snail mail. But who knows, maybe Darnielle thought of us in passing when he wrote the line. After all, he’s also singer, songwriter, guitarist, and bandleader of indie-folk-rock band the Mountain Goats.

I’ve never even heard the Mountain Goats, but I was intrigued after seeing Wolf on a few best-of-2014 book lists. I’m only a few chapters in, but I’ve found that, besides being full of flowing, musical prose that’s perceptive, engrossing, and indelibly human, Wolf is interesting in that its very form echoes the pathway metaphor: The plot plays out in reverse, culminating at both the climax and the tragedy that shaped Sean’s unusual life.

I’m probably fixating on the metaphor more than I should, but that’s the beauty of art—it inspires us all differently. To me, Sean Phillips’ magical-pathway truism can be interpreted from several angles. Some might read it and nod vigorously as they too yearn for days when they didn’t have to worry about putting food on the table or deal with a loved one’s failing health. Some might take the darker view and let it dredge up negative feelings about friends, coworkers, or family members who seem to run away from reality and be hell-bent on amusing themselves 24/7. But why don’t we just admit it’s true—we are all looking for a way back to our youth. Let’s own the fact. Revel in it.

That is, unless you define “childhood” as that immature part of life when all you care about is getting whatever you want, however you want. But I don’t think that’s what any of us really misses about being young. What we miss is the sense of wonder. What we miss is the conviction that anything is possible. What we miss is the freedom. Or at least the freedom we like to think we had back then. (Interesting how we conveniently forget all the rules of yore. Rules from parents who may or may not have been all that fair or rational. Social mores that were a lot more restrictive and judgmental than today. Never mind not having any money or a car!)

We have to go forward in order to go backward. If we want to recapture the addictive feelings of wonder and possibility from our youth, we have to push ourselves toward new vistas.

What I prefer to see in Darnielle’s little linguistic gem is something less volatile, less mopey, and more inspiring: We have to go forward in order to go backward. If we want to recapture the addictive feelings of wonder and possibility from our youth, we have to push ourselves toward new vistas. Not adrenalin-fueled thrill seeking per se, but growth. New experiences that help us find deeper meaning in life and understand each other better.

When it comes to our music, the real trick is being able to discern the well-worn paths past the same old scenery from trails in the process of being blazed. Of course, all metaphors break down somewhere: Seeing the smooth, hard-packed dirt of a real-world path is a lot easier than looking at your musical journey and identifying when you’re retreading and playing it safe. And everyone’s path is different. Only you can tell if your musical reality is moving forward toward that nebulous portal to the exhilarating world of youthful fulfillment, or to a dank, stagnant present that loses its wonder with each passing day. But for our own sakes and for the sake of helping to keep music vibrant well into the future, we owe it to ourselves to rise to the challenge.

So go on—hop in, buckle up, and take a ride in your own magic van to your/our future past.