In January of this year indie-rock forerunners Modest Mouse released a rather innocuous ballad – “Coyotes” as the second single from their first album in eight years, “Strangers to Ourselves”. Unbeknownst to both fans and non-followers of the band, this seemingly slight song was founded on a deliciously too-good-to-be-true story that occurred over a decade ago, centring upon perhaps the most famous Coyote since Wiley himself.
Back in 2002, to the bemusement of the general public and a wildlife control officer, an urbanised coyote embarked upon the MAX Light Rail at Portland International Airport. Initially, the coyote had been seen wandering across the tarmac of the airstrip at Portland airport, ambling past planes and luggage trains, and darting past holiday goers oblivious to the creature. But, when chased off from the airport runway the coyote immediately boarded a train destined for the city centre.
A Fox news team were first on the scene, and reported that a security officer Calvin Toussaint had incredibly spotted the coyote sitting lackadaisically on a train seat. Upon finding the creature Toussaint stated in disbelief, “I kind of turned around and we looked at each other eye to eye”.
For those unacquainted with the creature, coyotes are opportunistic predators that pose a real threat to smaller animals and free-roaming pets in the US, such as rabbits, cats, and even smaller dogs (a far scarier threat than your typical London fox). After deliberating on what action to take, an animal control officer was called to capture and release the coyote from the train carriage. And, a few hours later the coyote was successfully lassoed by a wildlife official before the train left the station.
A Portland spokeswoman, Elisa Dozona, told the Southeast Missourian paper at the time that “he was really sweet”. When the coyote was released far away on port property Dozona stated that he simply, (and rather serendipitously) “ran away and bounded after some field mice” to never be seen again.
Although this ephemeral encounter with a potentially dangerous coyote incurred no significant consequences the local music scene was captivated by the unbelievable tale. So much so that the story would be directly referenced that same year in a song by Riot Grrrl pioneers Sleater-Kinney, ensuring the coyote’s entrance into Portland folklore. Yet, perhaps more significantly this confrontation would go on to become the centrepiece of Modest Mouse’s pseudo-comeback album thirteen years later.
Why this apparently innocuous confrontation would warrant such an explicit response over a decade after the events in Portland occurred is fully explained by the passionate lyrics of Modest Mouse’s lead singer and songwriter – Isaac Brock, who uses the incredible story as a foundation for a politicised lament. With endless think pieces written on gentrification and the latest urbanised insult to a previous culture, Brock instead highlights a now often overlooked affect of the suburban crawl – the damage to wildlife, and the negative mystification of any animal, but the domesticated pet.
“Coyotes” drowsy, waltz-like composition is figured by a gentle percussion and an understated guitar that lays diametrically opposed to Brock’s charged words. This conflict is fully utilised to reveal Brock’s own bewilderment at the apparent pretence of the safe confines of the city, and those fragile barriers that keep the once native animals from their now decimated habitat.
Mankind’s behavin’ like some serial killers / Giant ol’ monsters afraid of the sharks.
Brock’s direct reference to Jaws in “Coyotes” signifies humanity’s own primitive ability to eliminate a perceived threat, at any time. The line may appear therefore as a nod to the culture of prize hunting, for many the nadir of which occurred in July this year due to the infamous death of Cecil the Lion. However, perhaps the most interesting aspect of the song’s diatribe on wildlife issues was the misguided response cultivated purposely, or otherwise, by the band’s social media campaign.
Modest Mouse announced “Coyotes” with a simple picture of the animal on Instagram. And, for many users this was deemed as simply just another cute creature contained on the web, with many ‘liking’ it and reposting it based solely on that fact. Moreover, a haunting video released for the track would go on to inspire a slew of “aww” responses amongst those that understood the song’s clear message (Embedded). Although arguably an on-the-nose social critique, Brock’s statement was clear – that the final level of thousands of years of destroying ecosystems, urbanisation and gentrification had distilled wildlife to the falsehood that the privileged few wanted it to be, an opportunity for a few likes and the squeamish appreciation from a friend who you’ve shown that cute creature to.
And we’re in love with all of it / And we say, “What can we say? / And we lie, we love to lie.
The documented story behind “Coyotes” is an intrinsically and unavoidably fascinating hook, but the fact that the meaning of the song was misunderstood or disregarded is hardly surprising. Arguably, this response has only increased the pertinence of Brock’s worries, transforming a potentially amorphous tirade about wildlife and urbanisation into a sly dig at humanity’s natural complacency. Ultimately, this ignorance has converted Brock’s version of the urban legend into an uncomfortable reminder of the insatiable expansion of vast, grey cities that have made the wildlife of yesteryear a distant reverberation from a half-open train window.
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Cover image YouTube