Alternative Press - February 1995
Affairs Of The Heart
Publication: Alternative Press
Author: Jon Wiederhorn
Date: February 1995
He doesn't really belong here, and he knows it. A sad looking, balding man who has lived for years in some of San Francisco's shadier neighborhoods, American Music Club vocalist Mark Eitzel appears as out of place in the Riga Royal Hotel bar as Allen Ginsberg would at a surprise birthday party for Rush Limbaugh.
Dressed in a black-collared shirt with red carnation designs across the shoulders, and sitting behind a small sculpted table that seems too small to hold more than a couple of drinks, he seems both in awe and in contempt of the well-to-do folk that surround him.
"Neil Young stays here when he's in town," he comments. "He's a superstar. I could never be one-twentieth of the songwriter he is. I would love to play with him someday, but the likelihood of him having even heard of American Music Club is very, very slim."
Eitzel sighs at his own realization, then drops his eyes to the menu. If today were five years ago, he would doubtlessly have to pull up another table to hold the many bottles of beer he would be consuming. Those were the days of nihilistic self-immolation when he used to wobble around the stage in a drunken stupor, breaking glasses over his head and throwing himself to the floor, emulating Iggy Pop, while the rest of the band - Vudi (guitar), Danny Pearson (bass), Bruce Kaphan (keyboards) and Tim Mooney (drums) - played a strange, dramatic hybrid of weepy folk, melodic pop and kitschy lounge music. Back then he drank to anesthetize his pain, and bled for applause both literally and figuratively. These days, all his bleeding is vicarious, achieved through a poignant mix of personal lyrics and emotionally revealing songwriting.
"Quitting drinking was the best thing I ever did for myself. It gave me time to clear my head and think. But it's hard to be in the music business and not drink," Eitzel says. Today he still drinks, but only socially, and only in moderation. "I party when I drink. I have a really good time, and then the next day I won't drink. I try to do it for my own enjoyment, as opposed to closing the bar down every night."
When a waitress stops by and offers Eitzel a fine selection of micro brewery beers, he declines, ordering a cup of coffe instead. But regardless how sober he might be, Eitzel's songs still sting with intoxicated despair, tapping a kegfull of missed opportunities and broken promises. American Music Club's new record, San Francisco, by far the band's most uplifting record to date, is filled with catchy, crafty songs, yet the album is still fairly draining. Lines like "I don't need anyone's love/ I couldn't afford it anyway" ("Wish The World Away") and "I should trade in my watch 'cause all I do is watch the numbers slip away" ("Cape Canaveral") abound, delivered in a voice that veers from a tattered whisper to an agonized howl.
"I just love mopey, morose music," Eitzel admits. "It's my favorite stuff. The mopier, the better. People seem to find American Music Club difficult or painful to listen to, but I think it's really therapeutic. It's hard to make a medicine that doesn't also hurt you, and sometimes a real hurt can't be cured by aspirin. Sometimes morphine's the only thing that will do it. So maybe my songs are like morphine as opposed to aspirin."
While Eitzel freely admits his material is challenging, he hopes that the power of his songs will keep audiences interested even if they don't immediately bond with the music.
"They're coming up with new soft drinks nowadays that are sweet, bubbly and that you don't have to learn to like. One of the criticisms they had with Coca-Cola is that there is a learning curve to liking it, just like there's a learning curve to liking coffee or scotch. But once you like Coke, it's part of your life. I want to be like Coke."
When he makes a point, Eitzel often becomes animated, gesticulating enthusiastically while speaking in a soft, authoritative voice. At times, he looks like a cross between Martin Short's Saturday Night Live character Ed Grimley and a dime-store cigar salesman.
Onstage, however, Eitzel is as passionate and convincing as Neil Young, contorting his face into 100 aching wrinkles, delivering pretentious lines like "The world is held together by the wind that blows through Gena Rowland's hair" ("What Holds The World Together") and "All I have to offer you is archaeology and Christmas" ("Can You Help Me") with such heartfelt conviction it's hard not to get washed away in a flood of emotion.
Unlike the myriad of recent alternative bands that communicate distress through volume & ripping distortion, American Music Club express themselves more subtly, yet as powerfully. Eitzel, who once was the singer of San Francisco punk band Toiling Midgets, knows the difference between making a noise and making a statement.
"I define rock as trying to move people - trying to make a moment happen any way you can. And for me, amplification always seems to bury the communication. So (for American Music Club) I thought, 'Let's shut these things off and I'll talk to you instead. This is loud and it's annoying. So fuck it.'"
In the past, lots of jaded critics and a few loyal fans have been inspired by Eitzel's eccentric personality and fervid songwriting, but many music fans have found American Music Club to be too thick to swallow.
"I guess I set myself up for that when I write the songs. But there's no way I could sing these songs any different way. The thing is, when you write really personal songs you always take the risk of being a little bogus. Some people think you're really false and bogus half the time anyway."
Such comments have led many to believe Eitzel is a miserable, self-depreciating lout who places himself only slightly above child molesters and rock critics on the evolutionary chain. But even though he says things like, "Most of us are ants in an ant farm, and the only time that anything of any merit happens to us is when we pass out or when we're really high on something," and even though he did drunkenly tell Rolling Stone in an interview last year, "I should really kill myself," Eitzel claims to be a fairly confident, healthy and well-adjusted individual.
"I'm not down on myself. People get the image I am because of what they see and read about me, and that's my fault for not controlling the situation. I don't have to drink myself into a complete crying jag (during interviews). I don't have to do anything I don't want to do. I don't think I'm false, and I don't think I'm crap. I'm actually pretty egotistical and arrogant," he says, then pauses to chew on a chicken finger he's held between thumb and forefinger for the past minute.
"To tell the truth, you've never met anyone as arrogant as me," he says surprisingly. "I'm awful. I really, really believe in what I do. Don't print my lyrics out and frame them on a wall and tell journalists how beautiful and wonderful they are because I don't have to do that. I know how good they are. They're my life."
To a large extent, Eitzel's tearstained songwriting has been a reflection of both his working enviroment and his life experiences.
"Unhappiness has always been around me," he laments. "In '84 and '85 my parents died and then I had all these friends die of AIDS, and then I had all these other friends get addicted to heroin. I've always lived in neighborhoods where there was violence and death happening, and that kind of thing seems to have been dogging me for years."
With images of junkies, whores and drive-bys still fresh in the air, the waitresss lovingly places a plate of heart-shaped crabcakes on the table. The streets outside may be paved with blood, but for those with money, the scent of fresh food always overpowers the stench of the gutter.
"Aw man, little hearts. It's beautiful," remarks Eitzel with a fake sob. He's only half joking. When it comes to affairs of the heart, Eitzel is a hopeless romantic. His songs may crackle with despondency, but no matter how emotionally bloodstained his material is, he clings to the belief that love conquers all. For Eitzel, who refuses to talk about his own relationships, claiming they can all be found in his song lyrics, love takes many forms.
"It's Your Birthday" is a message of encouragement to a friend of his who fell in love with a transexual, and Eitzel describes "How Many Six Packs Does It Take To Screw In A Light" as a song about heroin and "a sleazy weekend in a hotel room."
"I've never fallen in love with people because of their perfections. I've only fallen in love with people because of their imperfections. If you want to live your life only trying to find an ideal, then you're denying yourself. But I think love is good no matter where it takes you," he declares adamantly. "It's the only thing to live for, and the only thing that makes you forget the many unpleasant details of life."