Melody Maker - October 26, 1991

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Suffer Time
Publication: Melody Maker
Author: Andrew Smith
Date: October 26, 1991

Eitzel puts out a cigarette, knocks over a beer glass and continues with his story.

"I really did do the acid and I really did go to the cliffs. There was an unusually colorful sunset that night and kids were letting off fireworks on the beach, enjoying themselves."

"Then suddenly it was dark and I was so high I could hardly walk and I forgot where I was. I was terrified, so I headed back up this huge cliff with the mist coming in from the sea. It was private property and you're not supposed to be there and I'd heard stories about this mad farmer who goes around with a shotgun 'cos he doesn't want anyone to fuck his cows or something. I was going up this hill and suddenly there were these headlights piercing the air over my head. It was like 'ET', which of course is one of my big films (in fact I do seem to recall aliens inhabiting my body at that particular point).

"I got totally paranoid, mainly because of the thought that I would be caught so high I could hardly speak or think by this American fascist redneck, and there's nothing more frightening on the face of the earth than that. So I waited, but he wasn't going away, so in the end I just gave up and finished the climb up the hill, expecting to die, and do you know what? It was the fucking moon! Then, of course, I had to negotiate the cows, which I'm also terrified of."

The singer is describing the genesis of "Western Sky",from American Music Club's majestic California album. To me it is and always has been one of the half dozen most devastating, desperately beautiful love songs ever recorded.

That he wrote it after a night spent dodging alien beings and cows doesn't change a thing, but it's a surprise. Now Eitzel's laughing at me. "'Western Sky'," he concludes, "is basically about God putting messages up in the clouds for us all to see." That I can live with.

Luckily, the essence of great (as opposed to good) rock, as with all art, is that it leaves itself open to infinite interpretation.That San Francisco's American Music Club make great rock is beyond question. Their latest LP, Everclear, is by my reckoning the third masterpiece they've produced in five attempts, and if ever a character was made to be mythologized, it's their extraordinary focus, Mark Eitzel. The fact that he's so mentioned in the same breath as such celebrated casualties as Tim Buckley and Nick Drake speaks volumes.

Eitzel accordingly goes to great lengths to resist such comparisons. Being called "extraordinary" will in itself cause him a little pang, I know (though he'll secretly be flattered), and time and again we've watched him onstage following passages of spellbinding intensity with others of clownish flippancy. Maybe it's guilt, or maybe he doesn't enjoy the responsibility of being a lightening rod for all or pain and confusion, for the fallout from life's minutest and most primal dramas.

Last week Allan Jones, in his review of Everclear, aptly described the song "Why Won't You Stay" as "a waltz through Hell, basically, a description of a relationship that's gone beyond all convenient feeling." It's that word "convenient" that struck a chord. Nothing about American Music Club is convenient.

"I don't have any illusions, but I do have fantasies about what I do," he explains. "When I play a song, I try to make the moment happen. I don't understand all that stuff where writers come to see me and find this 'devastating moment of truth when God withdrew from the Garden of Eden and a shadow formed over the world and lightening struck the bell-tower and the widow clutched her heart for the last final words that nobody heard.' What are they talking about?

"I don't get all that shit. I'm basically thinking, 'Will I remember the words to the next verse?' And all those pictures they take of me looking like fucking Nosferatu...you know, part of me goes, 'Okay Mark, if you're gonna have a myth, maybe you better work it and then when you finally get cancer, it'll help pay for it'. But there's no myth.I 'm not Judy Garland - I'm not anyone that you can martyr. My songs you can have, but you can't have me. I'm not going to become a very precious item for anybody. I can't get through a song and have people take me that seriously. It scares the shit out of me."

So you undermine the process by telling bad jokes?

"Well, I think that if you're going to tell jokes, you might as well tell really bad ones. If someone wants to weep at a show, I'm not going to stop them. Okay, fine, that's beautiful. But if people are getting into it to the point where it's almost gross, sure I'm going to undermine them. My music is precious. There's nothing worse than someone believing an audience should hang on their every word."

The paradox is that this natural awkwardness that Eitzel brings to a stage makes him seem even more mysterious and fascinating. How can a man be acting the court jester one minute, his band frowning around him in disapproval, and then have a room of people so completely and willingly in his thrall the next? None of us have ever seen anything like it. There are so many contradictions.

"Are there? God, not that I know of," he says, initially astonished at the suggestion, though he later agrees.

"You see, I write the songs as these little traps that are inescapable. If you write about pain, you have to reinvent the pain. Anything else is bullshit. The thing about writers like Al Green or George Jones is that their music is real, you believe it. If you lived these songs, they could devastate you, so, yeah,I do look for ways out of them. I'm terrified that I'm going to live my songs. It could happen so easily."

Haven't you gone some way towards that, given the struggle it's been to get your music heard?

"Yeah, but that's just business shit. The people I feel most affinity with are probably Hank Williams and Elvis Presley. I wouldn't call them heroes, but they're people I can relate to, because offstage they had nothing, but onstage they were somebody."

Do you think of yourself as nothing offstage?

"Well, yeah, I'm definitely just another face in the crowd. Which is fine by me, I'd rather be that than the life of the party. I've been the life of the party before and it didn't make me feel better."

You don't secretly harbour a desire to be big, to be Axl Rose, for instance?

"I'm sorry but those people don't even know what they're fucking doing. That's just gross indulgence, it's got nothing to do with it at all, with real people."

Sounding almost sure of himself for a moment, Eitzel immediately reconsiders.

"I'm not putting them down. It certainly...I mean...I don't know. I spend a lot of time putting myself on a pedestal simply because I spend a lot of time writing words and thinking about what I'm saying. That's wrong: who knows that Axl Rose isn't the greatest poet of our age? He may well be, though I think I'd go towards some rap artist more than I would him, even though I'm sure they're equally indulgent. And equally rich, because success is a measure of poetry in a way. The thing with me - and this could be my problem - is that I never really wanted to write words that meant something to a thousand people, I wanted to write songs that meant something to one person. Whereas Axl Rose...you know, he is probably the greatest poet of our age. Yeah, now I think about it, he is."

Do you think the way you've chosen to do things is brave?

"No. It's brave to have no sense of self-worth. It's brave to have no soul."

Why?

"Because it's so stupid. I think that people who are spontaneously stupid are admirable. I don't know many of them, I try to avoid them, but I still admire them."

But surely it's much easier to fit in like that,to be at ease with the world?

"Yeah, it is. Look at Axl, he's fitting in very happily. You bite into him and there'd be nothing but air. He's barely there. Come to that, he's probably going to send his SWAT team down to kick the shit out of me anytime. It'll be SPAU: Special Pepsi-Cola Assault Unit. The SPAU force. I'm sure they've got a unit attached to Axl...I don't know, I'm sitting here saying this. He's just a dumb rock singer. I'm just a dumb rock singer. It's hilarious isn't it? There's no real difference between us. We're both dumb rock singers, we're both ambitious, the only real difference is that when he wanted something, he didn't have any shame about it, he went and got it."

What's your idea of success?

"I'd like to have a huge house, where all these people that I like could live. With a cook, a really good cook. And a car, I'd like a car. Other than that, I'd just like to be able to keep writing songs. I want the band to stay together. I want to keep the same fans: I'm one of the few people that can genuinely say that I love my fans without being corny."

Born an Aquarian, with Scorpio rising and a Scorpio moon ("double Scorpio: apparently it's a terrifying combination, really bad"), it comes as no surprise to find that Eitzel's youth happened on the hoof. His father was in the army and his adolescence was spent here in Southampton, flunking O levels and, later, A levels, hating every minute of it.

He tells me how, as a child, he used to go to bed with tunes from his parent's radio running through his mind, hearing them mutate into new songs as he went to sleep: "For years I was convinced someone was recording what was in my head, stealing it and playing it on the radio."

The most important experience in Mark's recent history, though, was watching a friend die of AIDS. In San Francisco everyone knows someone with the disease. Right now, he says, that's what "Western Sky" is about ("I hate to see you look that way, all the beauty has left your face..."). There's also a song on Everclear dedicated to the same friend. I'd imagined it might be "The Dead Part Of You". In fact, it is "Rise" - curiously, the record's one weak link.

"The song is like me being a complete jerk to somebody who's really sick. It's me saying, 'Go on, rise, maybe what you need is food for your eyes'. But who am I to fucking say that? In the end, he died voluntarily, because his health insurance was running out and he didn't have any money for rent or pay for food. The drugs he needed are very expensive, and in the end he couldn't afford them, so he died. I don't know what that kind of indifference does to a country's soul.

"And I'm no different: I hate to make it sound like i'm such a wonderful, caring person, 'cos I'm not. Not at all. I think people should be, I want there to be other people who are, but I'm basically an asshole, I really am not a nice person at all.

"I wrote 'Rise' because I did care. I'm sorry it didn't turn out better. I wrote it because I thought I'd love to bring in my guitar and play him some songs, but then I found myself wondering what the fuck he was going to get out of that, me coming in and playing him all these quiet, sad songs. He was sick, he already knew that. So I wrote 'Rise' because I was really, really angry about the fact that he was sick. It's not a very good song, I'm not very good at singing compassionately about anybody..."

Here Mark Eitzel tails off, again racked by doubt, the uncaring asshole whose records I wouldn't trade for all the tea in China.