Two of America’s finest writers were in Baltimore on Saturday night: Pain-packing, high concept fiction writer and musician John Darnielle at a late evening reading at Bird In Hand in Charles Village and grandiose, gestural trapper Ralo yelping and turning-up into the early morning at the V.I.P. Room in East Baltimore.
Darnielle, best known for his work as the Mountain Goats, made the reading a friendly free-for-all. He began by celebrating oblique horror writer Robert Aickman (whose short stories are being reissued by prestigious New York Review of Books and who, according to Darnielle, you should absolutely check out) and that gave way to a haunting reading of selections from “Universal Harvester” (Darnielle on the title: “If there is a universal harvester what is that? What is the thing that comes and mows everybody down?”), his novel from last year about late ‘90s video tape culture, grief, and ennui, stitching together a number of profoundly regular-ass people up against the wall. Then he answered questions—lots of them, like he was your friend shooting the shit and not an adored cult figure and excavator of pain like no other.
One “Universal Harvester” selection Darnielle read resulted in plenty of tears and fervid nods of recognition: “I’ve met children who’ve been through things that would drive most adults to the brink. They look and act, most of the time, like any other children. In this sense—that they don’t succumb to despair, that they don’t demand a space for their pain—it’s very true that children are resilient. But resiliency only means that a thing retains its shape. That it doesn’t break, or lose its ability to function.”
Ralo, meanwhile, is an outrageously sincere rapper from Atlanta known for confessional raps (a real good one: ‘Ralo Escobar,’ a slow-grind song about success sliced in half by memories of seeing his brother commit suicide) and stunts such as making it rain on the homeless and recording his confrontations with the police. His show at V.I.P. Room was one of those all-too-typical baffling rap shows where the headliner is nearly an afterthought or one of many things going on—a “happening” but with bottle service, you know?
The moment from the show, though, was Ralo performing ‘My Brothers,’ his loping collaboration with Future from last year’s “Famerican Gangster 2,” with the beat dropping out and Ralo just rapping, unadorned: “Every nigga in my car strapped, fuck a seatbelt/ All these pussy niggas join a gang because they need help/ You fuckin’ my shit in the club/ Ain’t hard for a bitch to sleep when she sleep with a thug/ See me ball or see me with nothin’ at all/ Give me the love, got people they want me to fall/ I never turn my back on my brother and I never will/ He know I never steal and I would never tell on him/ Anything I got or ever had he can get half of/ Even when I’m mad, it’s all love, we call it mad love.”
It’s hard to explain what these sorts of declarations from Darnielle and Ralo meant to a whole bunch of people unless you were in the room full of people listening intently, mouthing along, nodding in recognition, freaking out inside or for all to see, be it in a big club with blown-out sound over east or a delightful little book cafe not far from Johns Hopkins University. (Brandon Soderberg)