The Guardian - September 2, 2004
My Bar-Room Revelation
Publication: The Guardian
Author: David Peschek
Date: September 2, 2004
Mark Eitzel has a new hat. It's a really nice hat, he looks great in it, but he's more comfortable in the hat than with the compliment. The eminence grise of American independent music, a man revered by, among others, Coldplay, REM and Radiohead, a man whose laceratingly intense live shows (he will later only half-joke) invariably provoke reviewers to make reference to his "rictus of pain", brightens.
"I want incisive questions about glamour," he says, grinning.
Between 1985 and 1994 Eitzel made seven albums as singer with American Music Club, many no longer available, though four - a faultless run from 1988's California, through United Kingdom (1990) and 1991's devastating Everclear to Mercury in 1993 - are masterpieces lauded at the time with rabid critical acclaim. One writer claimed, not unfairly, that a new American Music Club record was worth the entire output of the music industry. The band's intensely passionate muse made for emotionally eviscerating records, sometimes elegiac, sometimes furious, which now stand as a key influence on a subsequent generation of musicians reinventing the traditions of American songwriting. By the end, though, relationships within AMC were tense - as revealed in their patchy final album, San Francisco (named after the band's home town).
"The band ended after touring for a year and being broke," Eitzel recalls, wearily. "It was sort of mutual, but like with everything else in AMC we couldn't agree on anything."
"Except disillusionment, actually."
Six Eitzel solo albums followed the band's demise, and a handful of unofficial releases. Eitzel's perennial discomfort and what he sees as his marginal status within the music industry are reflected in the titles of two of his favourite solo albums: The Invisible Man and The Ugly American.
Now, though, unexpectedly, there is a new American Music Club record, Love Songs For Patriots - a scathing, literate, sometimes even funny collection of songs that stands with the band's best work. The reunion began when Eitzel, then living in Chicago, received a call from drummer Tim Mooney. He was one of AMC's earliest members, though he doesn't appear on record until Mercury. "He had personal problems that made it inconvenient for him to be part of the band," Eitzel says. "Put it this way, at the time he was a close personal friend of Courtney Love."
Lonely in Chicago, Eitzel had flown to San Francisco for a party at his house there. "My room mate was having a big blow-out," he remembers. "A party I don't have to get home really pissed from - I can pass out there. Tim called and said, 'Why don't we try a song?' I said, 'No, let's just talk. Discuss.' I didn't want it to be the same. I showed up and Tim had set up a full drum kit, with microphones and Danny Pearson's bass already soundchecked. It was sort of like walking into the house of somebody you like but they wanna have sex and you're like, 'Oh, no! Eww!'
"We walked around each other for two hours," Eitzel continues. Finally, the ice broke and they recorded two songs. One, "Another Morning", links love songs to a key figure in the AMC mythos, Kathleen - the woman with whom Eitzel, who later came out as gay, lived for eight and a half years. They sent the tracks to Vudi, the band's guitarist, in Los Angeles, where he now works as a bus driver. Vudi thought them, smiles Eitzel, "demonstrably better than expected".
Although Eitzel had already written the songs before the reunion, Love Songs For Patriots is, also, demonstrably different from his solo records. "It's not my band," he says enthusiastically, still palpably rediscovering the thrill of collaboration. "I can't tell them what to play."
The new album pivots around two extraordinary, characteristically unforgiving songs. One, "Patriot's Heart", is a brutal re-evaluation of what it means to be American, set in a run-down gay bar. "If you wanna see something patriotic," Eitzel sings, half full of bile, half regret, "there's a stripper ... It's so red, white and blue the way he works the bar ... " The other, "Home", an echo of the much-loved AMC song "Last Harbor", sets a quest for love through a blizzard of self-loathing to surging, majestic chords. Eitzel recounts the song's genesis with a mixture of exasperation and elegant self-mockery. A journey from oblivion through anger and self-doubt to a kind of redemption, it is a quintessential Eitzel story.
"I used to go to bars every single night," he begins. "I had a long period of denouement."
Do you mean denouement?
"I mean decline. I have a friend who's a bar tender in a lot of bars, funnily enough. There's a bar called the 33 Hundred club, where old men go to die. I was an old man, and I went to this bar for my last drink at 1:30, before stumbling home at 2. I was staring at my last drink, wanting nothing more than to stare at it and drink and be an old man. This kid sat down next to me, very good looking but I don't care. He says, 'Hey, how you doin'?' Fuck. I would not look at him, but he would not stop. He's like, 'How are you?' 'Fine'. 'What do you do?' 'I'm having a drink.' He's an anomaly in this place 'cause he's under the age of 50 and he's not fucked up. He started talking at me, and I'm like, 'Well ... whaddyado?' Then he says, 'Well, I'm a deep psychedelic house DJ.' I said, 'Great! That's great.' I think he thought it would really blow me away, but I just saw his brain shrink to the size of a pinhead. He says, 'Have you ever heard of that?' 'Yes. No. I don't care.'
"I just wasn't being friendly enough to him. He said to me: 'You know what your trouble is?' I said, 'What?' 'You have to live with more love in your heart. I said, 'I really don't need somebody with some post-ecstasy revelation to give me some bullshit about what I fucking need or don't need in my motherfucking heart.'
"And he wouldn't stop. He said, 'No, really, you need more love in your heart. I have a beautiful woman waiting for me at home and we have great sex every night ...' And I'm ready to kill him! I didn't have anyone waiting for me at home and I just wanted to finish my drink. So I gave up. I said, 'You know what? Leave me the fuck alone, I just came in here to have a fucking drink, not fucking talk with you. And I'm sorry, but you're the one who started talking to me and this is what you fucking get. Fuck off.' And I left, and walked home, and I felt kind of bad, because he was just trying to make conversation at a bar, and I thought, the only thing left in this whole world that even bothers to hate you now is your pride, which was the start of the song. And I made it home. I stumbled home."
In truth, Eitzel is happier now, in an infectious, uncomplicated way, though his Italian boyfriend is likely to be deported soon by homeland security, despite being a homeowner and having lived in the US for 16 years. Though he's vitriolic about the injustice, Eitzel is pragmatic about the likely outcome: maybe, he says, actually quite relishing the prospect, he'll move to Italy. In the meantime, he is torn between promotional duties for Love Songs For Patriots and spending what little time may be left with his lover in San Francisco.
Finally, too, Eitzel can openly acknowledge the worse of his songs. "We're San Franciscans which means - and it's pretentious, it's a bore - that we believe that music is more important than making money, that creating art is the thing. It's really about changing lives, entertaining people, making the moment happen, making something beautiful." His passions are no less precipitous but they are the passions of a man who, to paraphrase Derek Jarman, would not be so angry were he not living so hard. But after torturous deliberation, it's as if Eitzel has brokered a deal with an increasingly mad world and reached something approaching comparative contentment. It suits him, he looks great in it.