54. Toiling Midgets – Mr. Foster’s shoes

February 8, 2010

/ Golden frog, Matador, 1991

Anyone who had missed the ‘Bad liquor’ wildness and fury of American Music Club from Everclear onwards – in a recorded sense, for live Eitzel could still be just as unhinged as he once was routinely in the days when the group performed mostly in San Francisco alone – would welcome the howls of rage that formed his contributions to Toiling Midgets’ Son LP (or ‘Sketches tO make you ruN away’ as the back cover put it).  It gives you a sense of the many musical Mark Eitzels there were, might have been, and indeed have been, more or less successfully, since he broke free of the restrictions he felt being a member of American Music Club placed upon him.  Eitzel was really only passing through the Midgets as a guest vocalist; they had been Toiling a long time before he came on board – since the late seventies San Francisco punk scene, in fact.  Drummer Tim Mooney would later became a member of American Music Club; AMC’s Tom Mallon was also involved in the making of Son.

Part prog, part punk, part alt or avant, there’s the light and shade but not the subtlety that made Engine, California, United Kingdom and Everclear such inviting records in which to wallow, but it’s still a compelling listen, dissonant and discordant, a definite precursor of quiet-loud post-rock.  Eitzel fits right in, bad-mouthing the moon and everything it illuminates.

Another favourite of Eitzel biographer Sean Body’s, coming at number two in his personal selection of the best less well known American Music Club songs in his book Wish the world away, ‘Mr. Foster’s shoes’ is a stripped-down version of a song on the LP, with the psychodrama of Eitzel’s vocal performance underscored by Tom Mallon’s string arrangement, beautifully played by cellist Carla Fabrizio.


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.

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.