GQ - March 1995
Won't Somebody Save This Band?
Author: Rob Tannenbaum
Date: March 1995
The people who cherish American Music Club trade stories about Mark Eitzel much as Grateful Dead fans exchange live recordings of their favorite band. The stories recount the outrageous onstage antics of Eitzel, AMC's brilliant, excessive songwriter and singer: the time he leaped from the stage to punch someone in the crowd, or broke a glass over his head, or chased away more than half of a small audience because they talked during the show, or stormed offstage because the rest of the band didn't want to play an AC/DC song, or jumped up and landed on his knees, crippling himself for weeks.
For Deadheads, concert tapes justify their obsession by confirming (or supposedly confirming, this non-fan must insist) the Dead's reputation as the greatest live act in rock. Similarly, for those of us who think Eitzel embodies the desperate, singed heart of rock lyricism, his outlandish stage behavior dramatizes the unmanageable sorrow of his songs and makes them tangible.In his lyrics, Eitzel parades himself as the King of the Losers. He fills his verses with elaborate images of weakness and self-doubt, saving the choruses for concise confessions: "I've been a mess since you've been gone"; "I'm sick of drink, so why am I so thirsty?" Rarely has rock music been so redolent of bourbon, tears and blood.
In performance, Eitzel makes these tormented conceits believable. Never mind your CD-Rom; this is real interactive entertainment. Shout a request and he'll shout back; walk out in the middle of a set and he'll apologize humbly for boring, then call you a fucking asshole.
The Trocadero is a decaying former opera house in the Chinatown section of Philadelphia, the filthy ash-grey carpeting and a ceiling flaking with black paint. The weather, like the club, seems attuned to AMC; there's a slow early-December drizzle, not even festive enough to turn into snow. Onstage, Eitzel is just finishing the second song of the set, "Hello Amsterdam". It describes an unsuccessful AMC concert, in which his gloomy songs failed to engage the Dutch capital's merry hipsters. After Eitzel sings "I swear they would have liked us if we'd played 'Dancing Queen,'" one of the 400 or so fans shouts "You suck!" Eitzel, holding a white Gibson guitar he has decorated with large, hopeful gold stars, replies sardonically "It's too quick to say we suck." The crowd laughs appreciatively.
AMC's music is uncommon, sometimes unsettling. Eitzel's emotive delivery strips his hoarse voice to delicate whispers and raw howls. The careful, sweeping arrangements hold a fun-house mirror up to rock, country, blues and folk, throwing off distorted and elongated images. Shadowy and uncertain, it's the sound of an old carousel playing rock tunes, the sound of loneliness viewed grandly.
But when the fans make requests, they usually demand tracks from the earlier, hard-to-find albums, released before AMC had a contract with Warner Bros/Reprise. The band always includes older songs - such as "Outside This Bar"; "Firefly," a lovely metaphor for the evanescence of love; and "Bad Liquor," a stomping drunkard's nasty rant - to reward the fans' loyalty. "We won't cheat a crowd - ever," Eitzel says. "Unless we hate them." (That's a joke. Probably) Many in this audience, a mix of slouchy kids with nose-rings, and pot bellied parents mouth the words along with Eitzel.
There are no outburts from the singer tonight,just some mild spurts of Brechtian alienation. "You guys don't get what I'm saying," he sighs, followed by an obscure reference to the band's soundman. "Well, then, fuck off."
After "Outside This Bar", a chilling portrait of solidarity, he says "That last song was about..never mind."
In more extreme moments, AMC's members recall The Replacements' willingness to self-destruct onstage. They finish with a chaotic "Bad Liquor", stopping and starting uncertainly several times, like a stubborn old car. For an audience that appreciates the band's spontaneity, it's an ace show.
Eitzel has prefaced nearly every song with a colorful anecdote, and, since his great theme is San Francisco, "a cold place to have a run of bad luck," there are several about friends dead from AIDS. The other band members - guitarist Vudi, bassist Danny Pearson and drummer Tim Mooney - stand by patiently while he talks.
Eitzel wants to explain himself, because, after ten years as a cult band, with all the frustrations that term involves, American Music Club could break up after this tour. Although despondency, which was once its domain, has become the ubiquitous mood on alternative-dominated MTV, AMC has benefited little from the unhappiness boom.
In this morning's paper, a Philadelphia critic termed Eitzel "an anguished song poet" whose music is "full of preternatural depression." Though this was meant as praise, Eitzel has grown weary of his renown as the Dean of Depression, Master of Masochism. In 1988, he recorded "Blue And Grey Shirt", about waiting patiently for friends who never return (though it's not readily apparent, this is one of his AIDS songs). "I'm tired of being a spokesperson for every tired thing," he sang then; naturally, it became on of the fans favorite songs. He has continued to sing it at almost every show, gradually becoming even more resentful of his role.
"In every concert that I've loved," Eitzel tells me, "there were five seconds in a forty five minute set that made me feel suddenly more human.That's what we try to do."
We're in midtown Manhattan, in a pricey Italian restaurant full of lunching businessmen. Eitzel as a distinctly retro, thrift-shop nattiness, wears a vertical striped cardigan and a pair of dark OshKash workman's pants. "I hate places like this," he grumbles. His distaste for the atmosphere, however, hasn't spoiled his appetite for good food, and he avidly orders chicken ravioli and red snapper sautéed in lemon butter.
He speaks quietly but emphatically in a bruised baritone and grimaces often. His face seems set in a permanent scowl, and, at 35, he already looks a bit jowly: "I don't have a chin; I'm the ugly man's apologist." When he dislikes a question, his scowl is like the warning squall before a storm.
Eitzel fondly recalls the "awful but brilliant" punk-rock shows he saw as a high-school student in England in the late seventies. "I always liked bans that fucked up." He attended a especially memorable Public Image Ltd. show, in which John Lydon threw cheese cubes at the crowd, sneering "Time to feed the animals." Eitzel gets excited: "It was really good."
His first concert experience was formative. He was 14 or so, and invited a girl, on a first date, to see Supertramp. She never showed, so Eitzel sat alone, listening to what he calls "this older guys' put-down of romance." As the show progressed, he began to view the lyrics - "Dreamer, you're nothing but a dreamer" - as a personal attack. "They went out of their way to put me down that night," he says angrily. The slight still seems fresh. "I'll never forgive them for it to the day I die. I really won't. So I got the last bus home, hitchhiked five miles."
Eitzel still prefers a provocative failure to rehearsed perfection. "I mean if the show is going to be shambolic, make it really bad. I don't care about making it right," he says dismissively.This is especially true for concerts in major media centers, like a recent set in London.
"I don't know why I had to stuff that little pony doown my pants, exactly. But I did. Then, of course, the sad clown doll had to give me head during "The Thorn In My Side Is Gone" - a song in which a friend who died from AIDS sings to his lover from the grave. Eitzel used to dedicate "Western Sky", an old song, to his friends with AIDS. But, he says with a bitter laugh, "I don't know anyone with AIDS anymore, they're all dead."
A dark jacketed waiter offers wine. Eitzel, who has written some of the most explicitly pickled songs in rock history, curtailed his drinking a few years ago. He wavers a moment before declining, then continues to explain the band's churlish behavior. "We don't have any self confidence. We have no defense mechanism at all. We're such sensitive people, and that makes it harder."
Though he's proud of AMC's antic shows, he doesn't like to be reminded of the night he attacked someone in the crowd. "That happened in 1981," he says tensely. "It drives me crazy. Fights happen when you're 22 years old. I thought he was making fun of me. Of course I attacked him."
Audiences usually mirror the attributes of the bands they love. In the case of AMC, the group's obsessive songs draw obsessive people, many of whom regard Eitzel as a genius. Although he was quite patient with the fans after the Philadelphia show, he says that isn't always the case.
"I'll insult them to their faces," he says "I just say 'What do you want from me?' Yeah, you get people at the show, and they've just broken up with their boyfriend, and they just wan't to talk all night or take you somewhere. I don't do it. I mean, I'm nobody's mother, and I'm nobody's fucking soulmate."
Eitzel can't be surprised by this reaction though. "He knows he's asking for it," says AMC guitarist Vudi. "He knows he's not like anybody else. He's a nut." And he prefers to let the songs speak for themselves. "I always get asked about my personal psychology," Eitzel says. "How many tragic love affairs I've had, have I ever had therapy - all this kind of shit. It's intrusive and annoying." A few years ago, while drunk, he mused about suicide, in front of a reporter and he's still asked about it. "Whether I'm suicidal or not is my business," he says, agitated. Before lunch has ended, though, he'll casually mention having been suicidally depressed" on a recent tour.
It hasn't been easy watching other bands succeed while trespassing on AMC's turf. As Eitzel dolefully observes, "There's nothing new about what we do anymore. It's fashionable now to be really ultra-depressed." Although he won't expound on this - "I don't want to talk about other bands; I'm too bitter, and I don't like anybody" - he's right. There's even a generic title,"sadcore," to describe the swirled dolor of groups like Codeine and Red House Painters. A cute American slacker becomes a star declaring "I'm a loser", while a fey new British group nails the alienation market sing "I'm a creep." Along with the erotic thrill of singer Hope Sandoval's bountiful painted pout, the languid murmurs of Mazzy Star's "Fade Into You," which echoed AMC's sound, helped make it a major autumn hit.
Eitzel sums up the problem: "We're glum without being beautiful. Is there anything worse!" Jeff Gold, a senior vice president of creative services at Warner Bros. who helped sign the band, is philosophical: "We were realistic from the get-go that these guys weren't typical Top 40 and that this necessarily wasn't going to be easy, owing to the complexity of the music." In the two years since the band signed with Warner Bros, it has paid itself a salary that has allowed the band to quit their day jobs. Eitzel, who says he's never earned more than $10,000 a year before then and had stacked books in library for a while to supplement his income, suddenly had enough to buy a car and a house. "But now it's over," he says with a laugh. "All the money's gone." The band's longtime steel guitarist quit, "sick of not earning money," says Eitzel. Other band members apparently suggested that Eitzel could sustain the group on money he earns from songwriting, but he ruled that out. "That's my money, and I'm not giving it away," he says. "Fuck it. All I do is write songs, I really can't do anything else." And so, he concludes, the bands current level of success "will doom AMC."
Next he'll do a solo album. He even mutters darkly about leaving San Francisco, geographical apostasy akin to Lou Reed's abandoning New York. "I wouldn't miss it," he vows. "I'm out of that shit. I don't want it around me. I don't want to dwell on that kind of pain. I want to write about trees and birds and flowers," he says unconvincingly.
Eitzel moved to San Francisco in 1981 with a band called the Naked Skinnies. He was, says old friend Vudi, "the last punk rocker," dedicated to transcendence at any personal cost. They started a band together in the early Eighties.
"The only music you saw on TV was from England or Australia," says Eitzel, so he defiantly named the band American Music Club. This caused some confusion a few years later, when bands like The Del-Lords and The Blasters made American music fashionable again by playing amped-up Chuck Berry highway rock.
"We're far from that," Eitzel says. "We're more a collection of these intellectual guys, all really overeducated. This band is an amalgam of too many conversations about music, politics, fine art, good food, and wine."
Vudi is more to the point; "We're not, like, really normal people. We're all sort of freaks."
Eitzel says he grew up in a "very sophisticated, very international family." His dad, a marine engineer, repaired boats for the army, which took the family from Okinawa to Taiwan to England. Along the way, Eitzel's mom taught English in their house to locals. He loved the constant travel: "I never made any friends so it didn't bother me."
His parents were "the least supportive people you could imagine," he says. At one point, Eitzel's father visited him in San Francisco yet refused to meet any other members of AMC. "My parents were stupid. They didn't think this was a life. Even if you never achieve any success, it's always a good thing to play music. Better than getting a fucking gun collection or going to church every Sunday, right?" His parents died within a year of each other, in the mid eighties, his father of a heart attack and his mother of cancer. He has one sister who lives in Ohio and works for the Democratic party.
Talking about his personal life makes him nervous. When I start to ask him about "In The Shadow Of The Valley," a song he introduced as being "about my new love," he says forcefully "I'm not going to talk about my new love, not for any magazine. Unless I have ,like, many, many beers. And then you won't be able to stop me."
We're the last ones in the restaurant. As we leave I mention that the Mercury Lounge, the site of tonight's show, used to be a headstone parlor.
It's hard to tell whether Eitzel smiles or grimaces at this. "Well that's perfect for the King of Doom," he says dryly, waves his right arm above his head, as if he could brush away all his troubles.