The Contra Costa Times - December 28, 1995

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Beautiful Loser
Publication: The Contra Costa Times
Author: Tim Goodman
Date: December 28, 1995

Acclaimed Bay Area songwriter Mark Eitzel may not be a hitmaker, but he's happy-outside of his songs.

Mark Eitzel is having a badly needed cup of coffee and nibbling at an opulent pastry. He in in the middle of one great, rambling mock of Whitney Houston. And he's smiling, broadly. If he is the dark prince of music - a man responsible for songs that are painful and bitter and sad - then he's doing a tremendous about-face.

Eitzel, former lead singer for the SF band AMC, is easily one of the most acclaimed musicians you have never heard. Described by the respected British music journal New Musical Express (NME) as "one of the greatest living songwriters," Eitzel, 36, has been winning over critics throughout the world since 1986.

A lot of good its done him.

Sure, the band landed a contract with Warner Bros. - an unbelievable feat given the bands tendency to ignore rock's standard 4/4 beat, thus assuring little radio play and cult-status sales figures.

And yes, the great ink is nice. But would it be too much to have a hit?

It's not such an impossible dream, as Eitzel points out. Look at the Cowboy Junkies or Mazzy Star - like AMC, they play moody, non-mainstream music.

"They're all really quiet and really huge, and I have never been. And I've been doing it for 12 years."

But these days, if Billboard success is going to happen to Eitzel, it'll happen on his terms. The previous AMC album, 1994's San Francisco, was the bands' last.

"They wanted to make a pop music album," Eitzel says. "I was trying to make the record into a hit just to keep AMC together. I failed miserably."

San Francisco is a much more upbeat album than others in the AMC back catalog, but it is hardly a failure. Though Eitzel calls it flawed, it features some of his most touching (lyrics edited out) and sarcastic material.

But the push for a hit was too much for Eitzel. "I couldn't work in a democracy anymore." He is gone solo now and things, well, sound different. "Look at the new album. It's my sensibility."

Eitzel's solo debut, 60 Watt Silver Lining, will be released by Warner Bros. in February. "I was aiming to make an anti-rock album," he says. And he has succeeded. In the past, you could never tell what AMC would do. They could play everything from a waltz to punk to country. It was shot through with a tremendously downbeat mood, all lyrically angst-riddled and wired to Eitzel's dark side. But musically, it could be all over the map.

With 60 Watt Silver Lining, Eitzel is on familiar ground.

Slow, melancholy songs with subtle jazz and blues hues throughout. As usual, the lyrics are brilliantly sad, with a few upbeat numbers mixed in.

"I was trying to do it as a tribute to Chet Baker. Trying to get away from suburban white indie rock. I just wanted to expand my boundaries. I'm trying to explore my songwriting and get away from the AMC song structure. Cole Porter wrote a lot of list songs - nothing but lists. That's so cool. I wanted to do that."

But make no mistake about it, this is not going to be a pop hit. Which is fine for Eitzel, who continues to get support from Warner Bros. "I don't get told anything. I turn my list of songs and it's, 'Great. Get started. We love you.' And I say, 'it's real different than you thought.' 'Great!'"

He's pleased that his record company cuts him slack. "They know maybe I wont sell records, or if I do, it's not because I'm trying to make a hit. Because I did that."

Eitzel laughs, hard. For somebody who pours out an album full of bleakness, without a mike in his face he is a veritable standup comic. He's wary of the dark prince thing. "It drives me nuts. Some people put pen and paper together and draw happy faces. Others make sad faces. I don't try and address that. It's too painful. I just try and make nice songs for people."

That said, Eitzel is a long, long way from the kid who was born in Walnut Creek and lived there until he was 7 - participating in not one, but two of that city's wholesome Walnut Festival parades. He now owns a home in San Francisco's Bernal Heights area, near Mission Street. Eitzel is the ultimate beautiful loser. He seems to be at home with the characters he creates - people knocked silly by the world, failed romantics, barflies, dreamers, lost poets. His references to Chet Baker is particularly apt. Baker played jazz but also sang ballads. His delivery was moving and emotional, but stylistically flat, much like Eitzel's. What stood out was his passion. Eitzel's parade of lost lives is perfect for him. It just doesn't translate to the mainstream. Let's face it, we're not talking Hootie & the Blowfish here.

"I always feel alienated. I cant help it. I get freaked out."

He remains a favorite of his peers - bands like Pearl Jam and Smashing Pumpkins wanted AMC to join them. But Eitzel's sound is far more Tom Waits than it is rave-up alternative rock.

"I don't know how I fit in. I get interviews and attention, but no one ever knows who I am."

While Eitzel waits for 60 Watt Silver Lining to come out, he's already finished two other albums and is working on a soundtrack to a movie by UCLA graduate film students. He remains close friends with the members of AMC (particularly Danny Pearson and Bruce Kaphan, who played on his solo album and whose parents live in the East Bay). "We might get back together, we might not," Eitzel says.

One thing is clear. He's not worrying about hits anymore. He's going to keep expressing himself, playing his unique style of music.

Anyone who jumps on the bandwagon is certainly welcome. "I know where this is coming from," Eitzel says. "I'm not going out in front of a crowd and rock out. It's better to do the stuff that you do best, instead of rocking out or - I could do country! - you just do what you do."