/ Rise, Alias, 1991
It’s tempting to stitch a piece on American Music Club together using only Mark Eitzel’s wonderfully desperate words:
‘Let’s go out and get really drunk tonight… you can be Miss Bottomless Pit of 1983 and I can be Mr OUT-like-a-light’
‘Falling, falling and hey, I don’t see the bottom’
‘She’s almost your ticket… OUT… again’
‘The sun upon the sea… did you dress that way for me?’
‘Love is the most beautiful killer’
‘Here I come on my bed of nails, in the s k y …’
‘Lazarus wasn’t grateful for his second wind’
‘I’ll love you like the sea, I’ll wash over every border, drown every boundary’
For me the songs of American Music Club are tied up with long walks along the banks of the Thames in the company of someone I loved and lost, or let go; she was the one who drew me into Mark Eitzel’s world. No doubt many of his fans can draw upon something similar in their own experience.
But beyond a relationship that failed, it was hard to keep following Eitzel, though I tried – his is the kind of character who with long exposure becomes overbearing, too intense, too much. He couldn’t escape from himself, but his listeners could. Ultimately I overdosed, and swung away. It didn’t help that I had foolishly argued with a friend that Eitzel’s level of intensity was one of a kind, a level which allowed him to stand balding head and shrugged shoulders above all others. Ten thousand soul and other kinds of singers must have shook their heads in sorrow at that kind of thinking.
So – like Mark himself – I went and took a breather in sunnier climes. From time to time I would listen again to California or United Kingdom and marvel that someone could make something so beautiful out of such horror of the world and its inhabitants, something so funny out of such misery. It’s up there with Tim Buckley’s Blue Afternoon and Starsailor in terms of criminality that these records are not readily available.
Gradually, over the last couple of years, I’ve been trying to catch up, in part inspired by Sean Body’s excellent book Wish the World Away: Mark Eitzel and the American Music Club. Though understandably shy of intruding on the private life of its central subject, it’s a solidly written account which gives enough personal detail to generate understanding of how the music came to be; and Body is at his strongest when discussing the recorded work and evoking the messy glory and glorious messiness of an American Music Club performance. He also carefully dissects the tangle they got themselves into business-wise. So now that I know a little about the genesis of Mercury and San Francisco, I’ve listened to the former again and the latter for the first time. San Francisco turns out to be a great album – often California-esque in its mood, but musically ranging further and wider, though not always quite as successfully. And so on to Eitzel’s solo records, starting with the jazz record (60 watt silver lining; unfortunately Eitzel’s blue moods are not entirely suited to jazz) and the one made with Peter Buck (West; this works much better, perversely being more naturally played than the rather forced jazz record). And I’ve heard good things about his latest, Klamath, so that’s where I’m going next.
There are a whole host of American Music Club B sides which are tempting to pick on title alone – ‘I just took my two sleeping pills and now I’m like a bridegroom standing at the altar’, ‘The amyl nitrate dreams of Pat Robertson’, ‘In my role as the most hated singer in the local underground music scene’ – but I’ve gone for one of the B sides on what was the first CD single I ever bought.
There are at least three recorded versions of ‘Chanel No.5’. None of them is definitive. There’s a fairly straight first take by the band on The Everclear rehearsals late 1990, and Eitzel’s raw, almost vitriolic version on Songs of love live. In truth that version tops this one, a sombre studio reading that perhaps doesn’t make the best of the song’s melody. But in its mood of resignation, this version does something that the spectacular live performance does not – it allows the character of the prostitute to blur and align with that of the song writer. Eitzel wrote more than one song about prostitutes, unsurprisingly, given that he lived at the time in the parts of San Francisco where they worked. The subject obviously fascinated him, perhaps as the polar opposite of the lost or unobtainable loves that he also fixated on. You also suspect that – at least at the time – he subscribed to the Pop Group’s notion that ‘We are all prostitutes’. But while his ceaseless song writing touched on this theme again and again, composition was in itself an attempt to escape that feeling of being bought and sold. Happiest spending time turning sadness and pain into songs, Eitzel has been generous enough to pass that transcendent feeling on to us.