BAM - August 9, 1991
Membership Has Its Privileges
Publication: Bay Area Music Magazine
Author: Steve Solder
Date: August 9, 1991
It's hard not to size up Mark Eitzel and picture him with one ear.
It's one of those rare San Francisco summer days when the temperature climbs into the nineties and nobody wears a jacket. The 4th of July looms two days away. Mark Eitzel, American Music Club's chairman of the bored, you might say, is sweating like everyone else at La Boheme, a Mission District Coffeehouse.
Wiping down his close-cropped hair with a napkin, his shirt unbuttoned, Eitzel spends 90 minutes contentedly tossing off bitter bon mots while conversely insisting that "life is so much better" since he quit drinking six weeks ago: "I wake up in the morning ready to go to work now. It's easy!" Lest devotees of Eitzel's self-deprecating wit and wisdom conclude that he is turning into Norman Vincent Peale, no need to worry. This still isn't the man to turn to for a lecture on the power of positive thinking.
To wit: On quitting drinking: "I feel so good, if I compromise, I'll hate myself. More than I already do. (sheepish smile) That's a joke." On a possible career change: "I'd be a really good circus geek....I could do that pretty well. If you got me started." On his idols: "The only people I trust are drunkards, drunk addicts, and Born again Christians....because they're all in the same plight. They're all as pitiful...well, pitiful's the wrong word. Pitiful is the word I use for myself." On Mark Eitzel: "I have a lousy personality and I'm not the most literate person in the world, so that's pretty much why I put it all in a song. I mean, I'll never make it on my good looks, and I'll never make it on Johnny Carson."
Johnny Carson? No, probably not but Jay Leno, maybe. After all, with a tangled history that stretches back to the early 80s, AMC is poised to take its place among America's elite independent bands. A wonderful new album, Everclear, comes out on the Alias label this month (the group celebrates its release August 15th at SF's Great American Music Hall), members of the group say they were ecstatically received at this summer's New Music Seminar (and this is one outfit that doesn't engage in self-promoting hyperbole), and a growing cult is championing this disarmingly involving and self-involved singer/songwriter and the sympathetic ensemble that surrounds him.
Picture an American Morrissey with a receding hairline and a rootsier record collection. And while Eitzel's insistently naked emotionalism can make life difficult for those around him, it can be incredibly moving when everything falls into place. As droll bassist Dan Pearson observes in what's intended to be a glowing compliment: "Sometimes Mark can be amazingly, you know, non-erratic."
And sometimes Mark can be amazingly, you know, erratic. Pearson recalls that the first time he saw AMC, before he actually joined the band, Eitzel passed through the audience after the set, shaking hands and saying, "I'm Mark Eitzel, vote for me." The next time Pearson saw him, Eitzel "freaked out, ran off stage, and slept all night in a place that was under construction in the Berkeley Hills."
Vudi, then an erstwhile country guitarist playing punk with The Farmers, introduced Pearson to Eitzel's music and convinced him to switch from guitar to bass and to bring along drummer Matt Norelli from Pearson's band The Ironics to round out a new version of AMC. Vudi recalls: "The first time Danny and I played with [Eitzel], he ran off the stage. Five minutes later, he came back and said, 'Thanks for not leaving.' But we've had people in the group who've run off. If they thought it was stupid, they'd just leave."
But Vudi and Pearson stayed. As did Norelli, for a relatively long time. Drummers, you see, seem to pass through AMC with Spinal Tap-like frequency; current skinman Tim Mooney signed on after Everclear was recorded (Mike Simms plays on the album) and is referred to by Eitzel as "[drummer] numbers two and five." Mooney, who's also a member of San Francisco art-punkers the Toiling Midgets (with whom Eitzel sometimes sings), has never actually drummed on an AMC record, though Norelli, Simms and Mallon have.
Legend has it that the name American Music Club was adapted because its inanity appealed to Eitzel. Vudi professes not to know if that's true. "I never asked," he acknowledges. "I used to think about it, because it's such a horrible name." But now he's concluded it's an appropriate moniker because AMC's music comes from "an American perspective - the psychological landscape of America, that which is not spoken. Like American neurosis, that's not faced, that's not acknowledged by us Americans.It's not a real happy place, is it? Yet people seem to behave as if everything's fine for them."
It was Tom Mallon who brought the group to the attention of Frontier Records' Lisa Fancher, who signed the band, albeit, with some initial reluctance.(Pearson says that Mallon insisted that if Fancher wanted Flying Color, a now-defunct pop band also on his Grifter label, she had to take AMC, too.) The band recorded three albums for Frontier - The Restless Stranger (1985), Engine ('86), and California ('88) - as well as 1989's United Kingdom for the British Demon label.
Since California, however, there have been big changes for AMC. Negotiations with Frontier fell apart midway through the recording of Everclear, leaving an opening for Alias to pick up the group. Mallon, a forceful multi-instrumentalist/producer who'd helmed all the previous albums, was sent away as the result of a personality clash. Mallon's wife, Leslie Rule, was out as manager several months after her husband left. Pedal Steel player Bruce Kaphan came aboard as a full member and, with his experience as an engineer and producer at the Bay Area's Music Annex, took over many of Mallon's former studio tasks. And, of course, the AMC's singer songwriter discovered the joys of sobriety.
The latter subject seems to be the one Eitzel most enjoys discussing. Drink and romantic devastation are his favorite subjects, and alcohol has inspired many of his musings.On Everclear alone, there's "Miracle On 8th Street" ("We'll turn the brandy into beer/Later they'll say,'What a miracle'"),"Sick Of Food" ("I just called to ask you what you did last night"),"Royal Cafe" ("I can see 'em all standing 'round the bar/With crowns of gold on their heads"),"Jesus' Hands" ("I got a thirst that would make the ocean proud"), and the woozy rocker "Crabwalk" ("Nobody has any pity for the life of the party"). He may be on the wagon, but Eitzel still waxes poetic on the subject of bar culture.
"I've been in bars since I was 14", he recalls. "This month and a half is the longest I've ever been without drinking. I went to see the Mekons last night. I couldn't stay there. There were so many people and the Mekons are such a great band, and such a drinking band. I can't imagine going to a Mekons show without a beer in my hand. So I left."
"There wasn't the big incident," he explains of his cold-turkey temperance. "Maybe it was watching Kitty Dukakis on Oprah. [laughs] No, no! It's just, it's just...I think my mind was starting to go. One of my favorite Replacements lines is: 'You get old in a bar.' You get old in a bar real quick."
"I had this conversation with this guy. He was like, 'What are you going to write about, drinking all your life? Is that all you can write about?' And I was like 'Ah, I don't know.' I mean, I love drinking, and I love bars."
"There's a lot of good romanticizing in it. There's a lot of good in drink, really. It's an easy set-up for a life: You live your life and you die under the wheels of the next truck. Hey, that's a good way to live and it seems a good ending."
On a bad night, Eitzel can make you squirm uncomfortably as he wallows in self-pity. But on a good night, he can make you...well, squirm uncomfortably as he wallows in self-pity. Eitzel can be absolutely riveting as he weaves self-depreciating remarks between his songs and throws his body into his performance, sometimes rolling around onstage like wounded prey. (Pearson has been known to wander over and kick the singer's prone body, "just for the fun of it").
"I try to recreate the moment ,the time, when the song really kicked for me," Eitzel explains. "And I really try to do justice to the song. And try to recreate a lot of these songs, I pretty much try to move people. And I've got to move myself too."
"It's such an artificial thing to do - to stand up in front of people and do something. And I don't want to be an actor, and I don't want to go through the motions. I won't do that for anybody."
"I've gotten so into the music [that] I can't sleep at night after the show," Eitzel continues. "I mean, I spend all day thinking about the show. I'm out of my mind by the time I get on stage. And by the time I'm off, I'm a wreck! And then I go home and stare at the ceiling all night. I don't figure there's any point getting on stage unless you do that - unless you really put your whole life into it. I really believe that."
And what happens when he put's his whole life into it - and everything falls perfectly into place? "I still sit at home and stare at the ceiling" he grins. "Our judgement for the criteria for every show is not really what people think or what people say to us. It's another thing.I t's like, how honest was it? If I go through the motions, it's like zero time or negative to me. [Then] I've lied. I've been whoring up there. Obviously, I have been anyway. Every rocker like myself is a whore, basically. But I haven't been a good whore. [laughs] An honest whore. I've just been this self-aggrandizing asshole. That's how I feel. And then I'm embarrassed, and then I'm upset."
Eitzel's writing style is as bare all as his onstage antics. He speaks of backing off from writing about drink and "this person", then he refuses to elaborate on just who "this person" is. But he does admit to having lost friends because of his brutal frankness. "Like that song 'Ex-Girlfriend', he says of a track on Everclear. "That guy didn't like that I wrote about him."
"He didn't like it at all. At all! It was like I used him or something - I used him to make this song so I could play it in front of other people, which is how he feels. And it's true. [laughs] Yeah, I guess that's what I did."
And then there's "Rise", the video off the album, with its plaintive plea for a dying friend to "tell me how to make something beautiful flash before your eyes."
"I had this friend with AIDS," he explains. "He's dead now. He died last Sunday. I was sitting on his bed and I was thinking, what can I do for you? All I can do is write songs. So I wrote 'Rise' for him. Incidentally, he hated that song. He doesn't like rock; he likes Barbara Streisand. Lord knows why we were friends..
"I've done AIDS benefits before, but my sense is, who wants to hear a song like mine that's so seriously sad. So dwelling in this pain. People who are sick want to watch TV, or they don't want to talk to anybody, or they want to hear happy stuff. Not happy stuff, but real stuff that's upbeat. You don't want this stuff pushed in your face. You know: 'I know I'm sick. I know I'm dying. I know I can't lift my arms anymore.' What do I do, y'know? My sad songs aren't going to help anybody. They're for the healthy. You're healthy, you get depressed, you put on an AMC record, you feel better."
I tell Eitzel about a friend I brought to an acoustic AMC set one night. The anecdote is a lead-in to a question about the sometime polarizing affect of his onstage antics: My friend reacted that night with uncharacteristic loathing. Eitzel listens intently to the story. He laughs when I repeat her four-word review - "I hate this guy!" He recalls this particular show and addresses a few specifics of the night's trying circumstances. He shrugs and says,"Well, that's OK, either love or hate. Nothing in between - that's fine with me." But the tale obviously affects him. Later, as he unlocks his bicycle outside the cafe, he inquires, "Could you bring your friend to the show tonight?" I explain that she doesn't live nearby. Eitzel looks a little disappointed as he bids farewell.
That night at the Great American Music Hall, AMC is giving one of its now-frequent great performances. Eitzel is charming the crowd in his own diffident way, frequently taking time for lengthy song introductions while Kaphan, Mooney, Vudi and Pearson watch with practiced nonchalance. Taking a moment for self-laceration, he dredges up a story about some acquaintances who'd recently had to drag some reluctant friends along to watch AMC and its "whining, pitiful" frontman. He turns the tale into a kind of verbal medley of self-abuse by matching it with my "I-hate-that-guy" story, wringing some laughs out of the monologue before concluding, "He told me not to take it personal."
Eitzel then shakes his head. "But, man, it's hard," he grieves, scanning the room for sympathy. "You know?"