53. Mark Eitzel – The ecstatic epiphany: a celebration of youth and beauty past, present and future

/ On the emblematic use of jewelry as a metaphor for the dissolution of our hopes and dreams, a.k.a. Take courage, Matador, 1991

Take courage

That show at the Borderline, 17th January 1991.   The day that aerial bombardment of Iraqi troops in Kuwait began.  The day I passed a busker in the Underground singing ‘There but for fortune’.  Amended a little for flow, this is what I wrote in a magazine called Fire Raisers later that year:

‘The drunken showman came to town.  He was more oceanic, demonic, human and angelic than I dared expect, and this was, he felt, a bad showing.  He looked like a clown coming onstage, in his red shirt, pinstripe jacket and woolly hat.  Some seventies American bum comedian, who delights in looking ridiculous, whose amble brings the first laugh of the night.  He dispenses with the hat and jacket.  You soon realise there is another reason to love this man, for he gives all that he has.  He sings with almost infinite expression, shocking to see after so many blank faces mouthing.  [My habitual diet was indie groups in pub back rooms, so there’s more than a measure of truth in this].  He begins with ‘Firefly’, the song I began with.  The guitar is bright, his face full of energy and movement.  It’s an unselfconscious performing air that swells up the songs and makes writing flat words on paper seem like a dead occupation.  Even in cutting these songs into grooves, what feels important here now might be lost.  They oughtn’t to make the planned LP of this show.  The sound man seems to pack up early, and Eitzel laughs sadly, feeling that it would be still more damning as a record, these songs rushed out of himself, imperfect songs that are complete for being the next feeling, a part of the whole, joined to all previous songs whose existence he so desperately craved.  It’s above the songs, in the air between him and us; where ‘Jenny’ is, where spit, tears and rolled eyes, contorted face and stretched jaw are.  Sometimes he’s concentrating so hard on the feelings behind the songs that he loses concentration and often seems on the verge of losing it altogether, unable to come to the next word.  At other times, the sense of conflicting urgency and despair, and frustration at the shade and shadow cast on his voice by the electrics, leads him to sing without the microphone; then he worries that this is worse because he can’t be heard and goes back behind the amplification.  He wants the full impact of these songs to explode inside your head.’

In contrast with that live performance and the record they did indeed put out (Songs of love live), this single is an oddity, recorded the previous summer with the reverb up to ten and an ethereal softness to the singing.  This is the record of Mark Eitzel’s which is most deserving of the up-to-that-point not entirely fathomable comparisons to Nick Drake – Pink moon-ish in its bleak, stripped-down acoustics.  You wouldn’t exactly call the B side ecstatic, but it’s as close as Eitzel got at the time; resignation from longing seen as a kind of ecstasy.  I can stop trying; what bliss.  Its mood and melody must have bled into ‘Chanel # 5’, for its chorus shows it to be a sibling song, baked in the same batch.

The ecstatic epiphany

Typically at the time Eitzel said of the single, ‘You don’t want to hear that, it’s a piece of shit’, a view he may also have been holding when he wrote the sleeve notes for it.  Of the B side he said, ‘I was a hoodlum from Manila and I could operate in any kind of extreme heat and humidity.  I could keep my cool and sell you the kind of trash that a sucker would believe they always deserved.  I was a crook from the Pacific Rim and I could do my bit for Jesus by making you find beauty in the kind of trash I made you believe you deserved. etc’.  And of the A side: ‘I used a lifetime of experience to produce something almost incomprehensible about a single banal childhood memory.’

You begin to understand why he isn’t quite as revered as Nick Drake or either Buckley.  Obviously it’s a major drawback still being alive.  Obtuse and perverse to the end, Mark has thankfully declined to do the one thing guaranteed to make him a star: to die in mysterious, narcotic or suicidal circumstances.  Added to that, there are plenty of other examples of the will to failure, like the choice of Mitchell Froom as producer for Mercury at the point when a big pop record might easily have secured for American Music Club the kind of sales that would have taken a long time to tail off with each subsequent release; the name of his music publishing company (I Failed In Life Music); and his inability quite always to hold a tune when singing live.  Eitzel is far from perfect, but that’s what makes him a more loveable character than the sexually confident Buckley senior, and a warmer one than the more isolated Drake.  If his afterlife when it comes will resemble anyone’s, Townes Van Zandt is the most likely model – remembered for being quick to make a devastating joke at his own expense, but highly respected and like treasure when you find his songs for the first time.

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