The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle on His 1995 Song “Cubs in Five”

And what it means to him in 2016.

Cubs Win
Chicago Cubs fans cheer after the Cubs’ 8–4 victory against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Thursday in Los Angeles.

Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

It’s 2016. The Chicago Cubs are in the World Series for the first time since 1945, and are preparing to do to the Cleveland Indians what they’ve done to everybody else who’s gotten in their way this year: defeat them, expertly and methodically, relying on a pitching staff that sports the league’s best combined ERA, Game 1 loss or no. If you’ve been following the Cubs for a while, this is, if not an entirely surprising turn of events, a still somewhat miraculous one. It has been an historically long drought.

My name’s John Darnielle, and I sing in the Mountain Goats. Before I sang in the Mountain Goats, I was a kid who was bad at sports. I liked Muhammad Ali, and I was into the local wrestling matches, but the team sports my friends loved left me cold. I couldn’t hit, and I couldn’t throw. But I did have a favorite team, and that team was the Chicago Cubs. They became my favorite when I was in the third grade, after I read a story in My Weekly Reader about a man who’d been a Cubs fan for years but felt he was getting a poor return on his investment. He was putting his fanhood up for auction to the highest bidder: That was the story.

When I was a kid, my sense of moral outrage was keen and always very close to the surface. I remember reading this story twice and thinking: “That’s no fan.” I felt the team deserved his loyalty whether they were winners or not, and so I said to myself, in the privacy of my heart and to nobody else: “That’s my team now.” It was a relief: People asked young men who their favorite ball club was back then, and I never had an answer. Now I did.

About 20 years later I’m getting ready to graduate from Pitzer College. It’s been a tempestuous four years in my personal life: I’ve ended one long-term relationship twice, once for a month and once for good; I’ve started playing music under the name “the Mountain Goats,” small-T please, we’re particular. The music is not for everybody, but I’m starting to make inroads: releasing tapes and 7-inch records, even a full-length album with an indie label in Chicago. There’s a whole scene going on in Claremont and Upland and Pomona and La Verne; the national indie outlets mostly ignore it, but to those of us at the center of it, it’s exhilarating. I have made friends with a guy named Peter Hughes, who plays in a band called DiskothiQ and is the new bassist in Nothing Painted Blue, one of the best and most respected stalwarts of the scene.

It’s a good time for baseball—there’s a whole lot of characters and great stories, and the arrival of the superstations to the Southern California cable market means I can watch all the Cubs games I want. They’re not good yet, but they have character. I’m at my mom’s house watching a game while she’s at work. Specifically, I’m on the couch strumming my cheap Korean nylon-strung 3/4–size guitar, and at some point, I reflect idly on an on-again, off-again relationship I’ve been having for the last several years that’s given me a great deal of pleasure and at least as much pain. Presently, I’m hoping that I’ve emerged from the final “pain” phase of the process (spoiler alert: I hadn’t), and I’m kidding myself, as one does, thinking: Well, I’m free of all that now; there’s a lot of unlikely stuff that’d have to happen before I’d ever dive back into that radiant, glowing, magnificent ocean of high highs and hurt feelings.

That’s when I get the conceit for the song, and I ad-lib the first verse and the chorus. Then I mute the TV, do it again, start scribbling down lyrics, and I think, jeez, this one’s kind of good, why don’t you call Peter, a harmony vocal would be cool, and he’s into baseball, too, right?

I didn’t keep records of my work then (and I don’t now: I like to let things retain their natural anchorless drift), save for the hard evidence: the cassettes, I mean. Peter shows up—he’s got the day off from his job as a substitute teacher—and we both sit around my mom’s dining room table with my boombox and the tiny guitar I still have on a high shelf in the basement, the one I’d covered in stickers and painted Nick Drake lyrics all over in black and red watercolor, because it looked totally twisted and bizarre. And we sang:

They’re gonna find intelligent life up there on the moon,
and The Canterbury Tales will shoot up to the top of the best-seller list,
and stay there for twenty-seven weeks;

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
I will love you again; I will love you, like I used to

“Why don’t you love me like you used to do?” ran a song on the outgoing answering machine of the person to whom the song was anonymously directed, at whom I was very angry on that day (for reasons lost to history), but with whom I could never stay angry for long, because that’s how it is when you’re a fan: You keep cheering, even when the circumstances might tell a less devoted partisan to seek out fairer pastures. You play nine innings. You keep hoping.

Over the years the song’s taken on a life of its own: 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, because they want what they hope is way over on the usually-only-theoretical other side of it, the undiscovered country that you have to take on faith. When the Cubs win the World Series this year, we long-game fans and hopeless lovers will notch what we’ve all learned, over the years, is a rare thing in this world: the awaited victory. The W on the flag. The substance of things hoped for.