The Cubs and music: Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle discusses ‘Cubs in Five’

John Darnielle, of the Mountain Goats.
John Darnielle, of the Mountain Goats. DL Andersoni

CHICAGO — It is an afternoon in October, and John Darnielle is on the phone, talking about a song he wrote more than 20 years ago. He was in his 20s then, a young songwriter attending Pitzer College in Southern California, working on a music project called the Mountain Goats. On most afternoons, Darnielle says, he would watch television with a guitar in his lap. On some days, he would turn the channel to WGN and watch his favorite baseball team, the Chicago Cubs.

One day, as the Cubs played some meaningless regular season game, Darnielle sunk into a sofa and began to sift through a particularly chaotic relationship — an on-again, off-again thing that seemed like it was going nowhere. So he strummed his guitar, and he pieced together some lyrics, and he muted the sound on the television.

And before long, the chorus came out like this:

"And the Chicago Cubs, will beat every team in the league, and the Tampa Bay Bucs, will take it all the way through January. And I will love you again; I will love you like I used to…"

The song would comprise of 168 words and last just 125 seconds, and when he was done writing, Darnielle called a friend, Peter Hughes, to offer a harmony vocal. They recorded the song on a cassette, in mono, and Darnielle gave it a proper title: "Cubs in Five."

"It had a nice melody and a nice rhythm," Darnielle says now. "I knew that people that like what I do would probably enjoy the song.

"We use the word ‘hit’. But it’s not a hit, in terms of selling a lot of records. But I knew, when we play this one live, people are going to like it."

Two decades later, you might know that Darnielle is one of the most prolific and acclaimed songwriters in America. A year ago, the Mountain Goats put out their 15th studio album, "Beat the Champ." And Darnielle’s lo-fi style and storytelling have developed a cultish and devoted following in indie rock circles. Darnielle has written hundreds of songs, some memorable, some not, some about the best death metal band out of Denton, Texas. But these days, when Darnielle plays shows, whether solo or with his band, when he stops the concert and calls out to the audience for requests, he still hears the same song, over and over.

Cubs in Five.

"It’s one of the big five," Darnielle says.

The enduring popularity of Cubs in Five owes much to the simple quality of Darnielle’s songwriting. In short: The song is catchy and hopeful and sad. But perhaps some of it can be owed to the song’s subject. The Mountain Goats are at their best when delving into utter despair and sadness. And until recently, there were few things more sad than the endless futility of the Chicago Cubs.

There is something about the Chicago Cubs that causes this, of course, something that inspires poetry and art and songs about the hopelessness and misery. More than three decades ago, a man named Steve Goodman, a Cubs fan and songwriter, wrote a song called "A Dying Cubs Fan’s Last Request," his ode to fandom and life. Eddie Vedder, the lead singer of Pearl Jam, once penned a tribute called "All the Way," singing about the day when the impossible would happen. Darnielle, a fan since childhood, sat on a couch and wrote a great love song about his favorite team.

"I was inspired, probably, by watching the Cubs game on TV," he said. "When you’re watching a baseball game, you have so much idle time, between pitches, between innings, to think about your life. It’s one of the things about baseball."

Now the Cubs are in the World Series, of course, and Darnielle’s song has added another dimension. Before Friday night’s 1-0 loss at Wrigley Field, the team could have actually still won in five. And so Darnielle has spent part of the last week thinking about the meaning of the song.

In some ways, he says, the relationship metaphor doesn’t quite work.

"Well, it’s simpler than that," Darnielle says. "You have a relationship with a team that you like. And it’s kind of one-sided, insofar as the team knows you’re out there, but they just don’t know who you are.

"But there’s a dynamic. It’s the same as theater. There’s a dynamic between the audience and the performer. It’s a relationship. It’s something where you’re there; you’re very interested in the idea of the team succeeding. And especially over the long arc of the season, as the wins grow to mean less and less as you get further away from possibly making the postseason, I don’t know that it has a parallel to a relationship. It’s kind of bigger."

In this case, the song starts out simple enough. Darnielle opens by singing about things that will never come true.

"They’re gonna find intelligent life on the moon, and the Canterbury Tales will shoot up to the top of the bestseller list, and stay there for 27 weeks."

In the next line, Darnielle and Hughes belt out the famous chorus. All these years later, Darnielle is not exactly sure why he picked the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to supplement the Cubs. Hughes was a bigger football fan then, and Darnielle liked the Oakland Raiders. But that wouldn’t really sound all that good, he thought.

"I think in my head I just went, ‘Tampa, they suck, right? And it sounds good. It’s a nice hard B. It comes out nice. My team is the Oakland Raiders, but Oakland Raiders would not sing nearly as well in that line."

In the next verse, Darnielle delves into more fantastic ground. There is a line about the stars spelling out the answers to tomorrow’s crosswords, and Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, spearheading a revival of Heaven 17, the English new wave band. And then there is the chorus.

"You feel it when you write a song," Darnielle says, "that it’s going to work out."

The song appeared on a 22-minute record titled "Nine Black Poppies," released in 1995. It opens the album, in front of a song called "Going to Utrecht," which is also a fantastic song. But few people yell out to hear that song concerts.

"Over the years the song’s taken on a life of its own," Darnielle wrote earlier this week, in a reflection on the song. "Everybody knows that feeling of the hopelessly doomed vow to renounce something or someone you won’t and can’t forget. Everybody knows that feeling…"

In a later conversation, Darnielle joked about the idea of baseball being a metaphor for life. It is, after all, kind of a tired trope.

"People have been drawing life and baseball parallels, and life and boxing parallels forever, and I’m always cranky about like, ‘Well, hockey is a great game, too.’ Why don’t people do these life metaphors with hockey? It would work."

But Darnielle is still a Cubs fan, so he will be following this season for as long as it goes. He has young children, which makes it hard to follow every pitch. But for so many years, the season ended before October. So this is different. This is nice.

"The futility of the last month of play, when your team is already eliminated, there’s something glorious about it and something terrible tragic about it," Darnielle says.

Now the Cubs might actually win. The might end 108 years of waiting. They might beat every team in the league.

They’re gonna find intelligent life on the moon.