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

February 1, 2010

/ 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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52. American Music Club – Chanel #5

January 25, 2010

/ Rise, Alias, 1991

American Music Club - Rise

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.


51. New Order – Hurt

January 1, 2010

/ Temptation, Factory, 1982

New Order - Temptation

Of course, had Ian Curtis not committed suicide, it might all have been so very different.  Had Joy Division left as planned to tour America on the day following his death, the group might have discovered the music of the clubs of New York a year earlier.  But how willing would Curtis have been to go down the rhythm-oriented, technological route?  Likely as not, a schism would eventually have resulted; the musical differences of legend.

The death of Curtis meant that the new group felt the need and had the chance to start from scratch, enabling a radical shift in outlook which might never have happened if Joy Division had come back from America and settled in with Martin Hannett to record their next album.  As it was, at the same time as they intent on reinventing themselves, New Order were perhaps understandably clinging to the skeletal, shipwrecked remains of that third Joy Division album – the ghost that was brought to the surface to become New Order’s first, complete with Bernard’s and Hooky’s Ian Curtis impressions.  This was how they managed to record more or less simultaneously both Movement and the startling, sequenced throb of ‘Everything’s gone green’, and not long after that ‘Temptation’ – mysterious, simmering with defiant life, and magically accommodating the past within its blueprint of the future.

Of all the fine B sides that New Order turned out during the first half of the eighties, I’ve gone for the one coupled with ‘Temptation’.  The first single of theirs that I bought, both A and B have a personal head start over the others but ‘Hurt’ deserves to be chosen on merit alone, and I’m not the only one who thinks so.

Let’s start with the words, such as they are.  Lyrically carefree and careless, particularly when (unfairly but inevitably) set against Curtis, Bernard was always a sloppy wordsmith.  But he was capable of flashes of brilliance, and of picking words and lines which might be meaningless or at least not terribly meaningful yet suited the mood of the music.  The nonsensical and vaguely apologetic ‘Hurt’ is no exception in this respect.  What made Bernard special as a front man was not so much his occasional lyrical brilliance but his unwillingness, his discomfort.  An initially diffident singer learning to sing in public, he was atypical to the point of being unique; the leader who didn’t really want to lead, at least not like that, before an audience (though behind the scenes it may have been different).  It gave him a vulnerability which helped balance New Order’s musical strength and confidence.

Is the vocodered ‘1234’ with which ‘Hurt’ begins a respectful nod to Kraftwerk?  The track has a sequenced dance floor shimmer that also betrays a debt to Giorgio Moroder, Donna Summer and ‘I feel love’ but ‘Hurt’ is necessarily darker, stripped of most of the light that might have reflected from sequins stitched into a Summer dress.  Ingredients that go into making a great early to mid-period New Order record – an off-on-his-own melodic Hooky bass line, experimental drum programming – are mixed in with atypical elements – choppily rhythmic dance-oriented guitar, a synthesised harmonica or melodica part – and Bernard finding his voice for perhaps the first time, whooping it up with ‘ow’s and ‘oh’s.

I first knew it in its foreshortened 7 inch form, and the drop-out sections in the 12 spook me a little even now, but here are both versions for you to decide your own preference.


50. Joy Division – These days

December 20, 2009

/ Love will tear us apart, Factory, 1980

These days

Surprisingly, since they emerged from that catalytic moment when the Sex Pistols played Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall on 4th June 1976, Joy Division were not a singles band.  They found their feet as Factory set about doing its own sweet thing, tearing up the rules as it went, and as a result the group’s releases were not of the LP and supporting singles kind.  Their pre-Factory EP was followed by a part-contribution to the Factory sample double seven inch, a flexi, and just three singles before Ian Curtis committed suicide, with one of those, ‘Atmosphere’, being made more widely available only after his death.  Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that Joy Division did not have time to become a singles band; of course, the new entity with a new name that arose from the wreckage of Curtis’ death released not only a succession of great singles but three or four that were as catalytic in their own right as the evening that the Sex Pistols played to forty-odd souls in Manchester.

Together with XTC’s Drums and wires, Unknown pleasures is for this writer the default setting against which the sonic qualities of all subsequent music is assessed.  Since I first encountered it, there hasn’t been a year in which I haven’t played it at least once.  Closer also comes close to this benchmark, but Unknown pleasures is darkness measured in shades of electroacoustic light; it is fear and horror and alienation named and managed and transformed into wonderful, hard-wearing art.  It remains one of the great tragedies of popular music that one of the men who made it could not continue to find solace in turning bleakness into beauty.

The bubbling syncopation threaded through ‘These days’ tentatively anticipates the dancefloor invention of New Order’s ‘Confusion’.  It’s an atypical Joy Division song, which as it peaks sees them at their most psychedelic; not a tendency that they are noted for – usually transcendence was achieved by filtering the rhythms of Can and Neu! through Martin Hannett’s production, and through the bleakness Curtis vocalised, poetically lifting from his own life as much as from dystopian sci-fi and the heaviest Russian novelists.  Lyrically ‘These days’ is another take on the subject matter of its famous flipside, but one which is less morbidly certain in its outlook.  One couplet stands out:

Spent all my time, learnt a killer’s art
Took threats and abuse ’till I’d learnt the part

And then there are the closing lines, with a hauntingly vague glimmer of hope giving way to a final, doom-laden question:

We’ll drift through it all, it’s the modern age
Take care of it all now these debts are paid
Can you stay for these days?


49. The National – You’ve done it again, Virginia

November 30, 2009

/ Lit up, Beggars Banquet, 2005

They’re the kind of group whose fans are fervent enough to call ‘heresy!’ over this, but with Boxer, the National have come as close to making a great album, start to finish, as I suspect they ever will.  Boxer’s charm goes beyond the obvious, attention-grabbing immediacy and idiosyncrasy of ‘Fake empire’ or ‘Mistaken for strangers’; there is for example ‘Start a war’ with unwittingly or otherwise its acoustic guitar echoing ‘Don’t send me away’ by the Verlaines and its title the song on Pacific Street by the Pale Fountains (a record also bedecked in yellow and black); or ‘Racing like a pro’ in which the glow of youthful dreams are turned into grim adult reality using an everyday melody that no-one had yet thought to pluck off the shelf in the vast repository of tunes that the Muses watch over like the curatorial librarians of a past, present and future Alexandria.

What separates the National – two sets of brothers and an unrelated vocalist – from those at the level to which I suspect they aspire – REM, U2, Bruce Springsteen – is that Matt Berninger is a world-weary front man rather than a world-dominating one, a self-confessed fuck-up (to judge at least from the National’s earlier releases) whose self-deprecating humour leavens the mood in ways that rarely happens with our good friends the spiky extraterrestrial, the bombastic evangelist and the everyman storyteller and sentimentalist.  Their songs provoke imaginative responses and touch in unexpected ways on the lives of their listeners (‘Mr. November’, ‘Gospel’).  The world-weariness jars gently and beautifully with the messianic energy of the National’s extra large music, propelled by the big, propulsive drumming of Bryan Devendorf.  When the National’s mood slows or saddens, then they have more in common with Tindersticks, Tom Waits or even the Blue Nile than with Michael, Bono or Bruce; city sickness, night owl melancholy and romantic yearning are there in abundance.  I’m also reminded of Mark Eitzel’s desperate humour when coupled with the sustained tension and wild release of the American Music Club’s California, though the contrast the National generate is less extreme, less a thing of beauty.  But there’s still the same America-sized scale, the same underlying anglophile audiophile tendencies.  Messrs Curtis, Sumner, Hook, Morris, and Hannett, take a bow.

So it will be fascinating to see which way the National go next – aiming for the worldwide glory and fame that supporting both REM and Barack Obama suggests, or steering clear of those treacherous waters, deftly navigating round the whirlpools and offshore rocks to explore quieter seas of greater marine interest.  Most likely will be a middle path, one that might be interpreted either as a healthy disregard for the spoils of pop war, or an unhealthy shirking of the historical imperative for groups of their type to be bigger than is strictly necessary.  Either way, I reckon they’ll scale some more heights, even if they probably can’t top Boxer.

To fill the merchandising gap between Boxer and the record due in 2010, we have had the A skin, a night / The Virginia EP film and offcuts combo.  The film makes a nice enough background for dabbling either with hallucinogens or on your laptop, though I suspect it would irritate if you actually paid too much attention to it.  But fair play to the National for letting director Vincent Moon go his own way.  The offcuts are of the kind of quality that makes them collectively another fine but not great LP, and I had a hard time choosing from the four B sides included in the set, each of which presents a different facet of the National.  Should we eliminate ‘Without permission’ because it’s a cover?  That would be harsh, particularly as Caroline Martin’s beautiful song in its original form is so Nationalesque; how it comes to be that way is almost certainly one of those quirks of fate that determines a style of song writing can emerge independently in two geographical locations at more or less the same time.  But you can see why the National were drawn to it.  The song burns like a slow fuse and crucially both writer and performer resist the temptation to let it lead to a stack of dynamite.

‘Blank slate’ and the maudlin but graceful tarrying of ‘Santa Clara’ are presumably outtakes from the Boxer sessions, but might have been at home on the record.  Time can make the artist and the offcut-seeking admirer wonder why they left off these but put on, say, ‘Green gloves’.  ‘Blank slate’ has the kind of sonic propulsion perfected within the grooves of records released on Flying Nun and later adopted by residents of Sub Pop.  But really it all goes back to Joy Division.  The lyric is an imaginative wonder in keeping with the song’s title that Ian Curtis could never have sung:

I keep it upstairs
Gonna be a blank slate, gonna wear a white cape
But I keep it upstairs
Gonna jump out of a cake with my heart on a string

In the end I’ve gone for ‘You’ve done it again, Virginia’, another short story about an individual struggling with life and drink, another Berninger pen portrait, another secret meeting in the basement of his brain.  Lyrics like ‘a cool, tall drink of water is all you ever wanted to be’ are scored with an undercurrent of the kind of old-timer, sepia-toned brass that Tom Waits used to colour ‘In the neighbourhood’.  It’s an irresistible combination.


48. Hit Parade – Huevos Mexicana

November 9, 2009

/ You didn’t love me then, JSH Records, 1985

hitparade_sleeve

Huebos Mexicana is a breakfast dish served in the cafes of Palenque, Chiapas. Rumours maintain that the barrios and cantinas still ring to the beat of this infectious tune.

You may not remember, but in the mid-eighties the Hit Parade – school friends Julian Henry, Matt Moffatt and Raymond Watts – managed a run of six Top Ten singles.  For a while it seemed that only Bananarama could match them for consistency – but then Bananarama failed to hit the Number One spot, which is just what the Hit Parade achieved in 1986 with ‘See you in Havana’, that fabulous ballad on which Julian Henry ceded vocal duties to Cath Carroll, herself already well on the way to being a household name as frontwoman of her group Miaow.  Possessed of that wonderful voice which we all used to argue about – was it the blend and nip of Irish coffee and cream, or rather the sweetness of honey with the zest of lemon? – she helped push the Hit Parade to that next level of stardom.  It seemed there was no stopping them now.  But then Hi-NRG follow-up ‘I get so sentimental’ was trumped on the dance floor and kept off the top by Rick Astley’s ‘Never gonna give you up’; and despite a heart-breaking melody and the continued kick of Carroll’s presence, ‘The sun in my eyes’ barely scraped the edges of the top forty.

hitparade_cc&jh

The game seemed to be over.  It was left to the considerably more image-conscious Pet Shop Boys to clean up with their similarly melodic sequenced pop.  Still, the singles collection With love from the Hit Parade did good business in the album charts on its release in 1990; nostalgia had already had a chance to settle on the Hit Parade like morning dew on particularly green and well-tended grass.

You may not remember, because I’m making it up.  In a perfect world, it might have happened.  In any of many alternate realities, it probably did.  In those perfect or alternate worlds, the recordings of this world’s Hit Parade might well have been beefed up and generally enriched to the point that – as they sprang from tinny daytime factory transistors – no population of human beings could have said no to them.  In this world, had some of Julian Henry’s songs found their way into Stock, Aitken & Waterman’s clutches, it’s conceivable that they would now be staples of eighties discos and Magic 105.4 FM’s playlists, though not necessarily with the Hit Parade as the artist’s name.  But the imperfectly crafted pop songs of such a perfectly named pop group merited them finding themselves in that mythic place, whether or not the intention of the name was ironic.  (There must have been dozens of new groups since who’ve thought, damn, wish I’d got to that name first.)

And in an imaginary past where the Hit Parade were regulars in the Hit Parade, we might recall that ‘You didn’t love me then’ was the A side – fine as it was – overturned by its flip immediately attracting all the radio play; hastily resleeved as the lead track, we might plausibly pretend that ‘Huevos Mexicana’ went top five, and in so doing disqualified me from writing about it.

hitparade_card

But in this world on this blog I can say that I love ‘Huevos Mexicana’.  The spindle hole on my copy of the vinyl was punched slightly off centre, so to my ears it has always had an unintentional elliptical sound effect that somehow added an extra woozy glow to its already euphoric charms.  Lyrically it captures all sorts of things within the finely woven web of its pop – the Beats, summer holidays, spicy scrambled eggs for breakfast in Tijuana, fishing marlin, the Zona Rosa in Mexico City; even Malcolm Lowry’s metaphysically challenging novel Under the volcano is cutely referenced.  What a contrast with almost all of the rest of Julian Henry’s songs of the time, which majored on love breaking down against a west London backdrop.

In the real world, the Hit Parade did not seem unduly dented by their failure to set the charts alight, going on to record two singles and an LP for Sarah Records in the early nineties before coming back to life in the 21st century.  And here’s where perfect or alternate and real worlds collide, for now of course it’s possible to imagine all this for yourself by downloading that collection of hit singles, With love from the Hit Parade.


47. Cowboy Junkies – Witches

October 31, 2009

/ Sun comes up, it’s Tuesday morning, RCA, 1990

cowboy_sharon

Light and dark: rarely has a single as successfully conveyed each on either side of its flipped coin.  On the A side, the joy of sleepily waking alone into a sunlit room, and lazily contemplating the day ahead and how ‘I kind of like the feel of this extra few feet in my bed’ and ‘everybody knows that good news always sleeps till noon’.  On the B – the dark side – the essence of the occult distilled into a few carefully chosen notes of acoustic guitar and the ice water of Margo Timmins’ voice, simultaneously wondering whether to answer the call of witches, and summoning them up.  It’s a preternaturally still piece of music, and yet when Margo sings of the night winds, suddenly they whistle through your already moonlit mind.  The song’s atmosphere is sensuous beyond words; shivers of delight and fear run down Margo’s back, and yours.  You can’t help but be drawn to those witches.

cowboy_margo

I first heard this not long after its release, set apart from the album on which it also appears (The caution horses).  Taped for me by a girl whose sensibilities tended occasionally towards the eldritch, it stopped me dead in my tracks.  If you’ve never heard ‘Witches’, I hope it does the same to you.