Roots & Branches - September 1994

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It Must Be Love
Publication: Roots & Branches
Author: Mike Davies
Date: September 1994

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Whether they're talking about solo projects, American Music Club albums like Everclear and Mercury, or the emotionally draining live shows, you can pretty much guarantee that at some point the words 'bleak', 'desolate' and maybe even 'suicidal' will be attached to any description of Mark Eitzel (pictured above). Usually in much the same breath as 'genius'. The familiar litany's inevitably going to be sounded again with the release of the eagerly awaited new AMC album, San Francisco. However, maybe this time a few more will pull aside the veils of darkness and notice the smile lurking underneath. You see, in much the same way as Cohen twenty years before him, Eitzel's songs may be melancholy but they're also cathartic and, yes damn it, sometimes humorous.

"I'm not Cohen, come on. I mean, if only. But yes his songs are about life, like mine. I wish people would look at me like 'oh yeh, he's just another songwriter' not this gloomy doomy person I'm made out to be, which I'm not. Lord knows I can be a miserable fuck, but so can we all. Give me five Black Labels and having to deal with the record business and you bet I'm suicidal. Fucking A, right. But anyone who tells you life is all like Baywatch is probably the most suicidal person you'll meet."

If you're looking for a sample of the Eitzel humour, check out "Hello Amsterdam", the album's rock out pop song and a saga of the rock 'n roll gig as living hell.

"We play Amsterdam once every year when we tour and we always fail. It's always a horrible, horrible experience. The band's up there flailing away like the balding old guys we are and the audience is bored out of their minds. We're going 'life is fucked' and they're saying (adopts stoned Dutch drone) 'well you know you can have some therapy if you need it' and 'why are you so repressed and upset about these things, all you have to do is live your life. Smoke this and go down to the sex place, it's okay, everything's okay.' But we don't sing about freedom, we sing about repression and pain and I don't think people want to hear that in Amsterdam. It's more 'Okay dude, fuck off, go home.' It's always a horrible experience. We said we wouldn't play this time but now I find we're booked into the same club. I told the agent we wouldn't do it, but it's still there on the itinerary. It's like this doomy thing awaiting us. It's worse than Purgatory, it's like having needles stuck down your fingernails!"

Well, that's the Dutch fan club chapter closed. So on to the other witty ditty, "How Many Six Packs Does It Take To Screw In A Light?" which sounds like a Wonder Stuff title but actually sounds like Ode To Billy Joe.

"Totally, yeh. I love that rhythm, it's so sweet, it really makes you feel that weighty Southern humid heat. I didn't rip it off, but you can't help playing that beat."

These days, after his much documented eight months on the wagon, Eitzel isn't big on throwing back six packs. "Half of one and I'm lit," he says. But for a man whose early works traded off that Charles Bukowski booze in the gutter lifestyle, to wake up sober and find himself hailed as the new singer-songwriter messiah must have been a startling experience. Has being 'fashionable' affected the way he approaches the music?

"I don't feel fashionable at home. We've never been fashionable in San Francisco. If we're not snubbed, we're ignored. It keeps your feet on the ground. But not drinking has affected the way I write. It's still about me me me, but I've tried to introduce more freedom into it. With this album I wanted to write stuff we could play every night, not things that would give me no relief. It's more fun and more honest to rock out. Singer songwriters are the most self-absorbed little pricks you'll ever meet. I am that but I do take myself out of the songs as much as I can. You have to sing them every night and you don't want to take your clothes off in front of people all the time. I do it to some extent, but there has to be an escape valve. I get the release writing the song, I don't need to have it again every time I sing it, that's for the audience."

So, if Mercury was about death and deliverance. San Francisco is (mostly) about love. Not that Eitzel's gone soft.

"I had an epiphany. I was listening to this album and every song had love in it and I thought that was so good, because it's so hard to put love in song without it becoming superficial. So, I thought, why not."

Cue "Fearless", a song written directly after seeing the Jeff Bridges movie of the same name.

"I cried for half an hour after seeing that film. It was so great that he was courageous enough to return her love and that her love was strong enough to reach him. What a beautiful statement to make. It resonates strongly in my life, I know love has that power."

He sacrifices his state of grace for the love of his wife.

"That's what killed me about Wings of Desire too, there's a harder but better road and that's the one to take. Sometimes it's better to burn than to go to heaven."

So, does he go along with divine mercy and redemption?

"I am religious, I believe in God, or some Other, but I don't know about divine mercy. I don't think God gives a fuck about us. But I still believe God is love. It doesn't mean love is always a caring, compassionate thing. It can be terrifying sometimes."

And redemption?

"At this point I'm this semi-artistic person who goes to cafes like a real artist and writes in a note book like a real artist. But I write pop lyrics. My redemption would mean having a wonderful swimming pool in the back yard and a satellite dish with a great TV and stereo system. I'm not looking for much. I believe that in this life you make what you want of it."

I don't know about swimming pools, but sometimes, when I hear Eitzel's mournfully laid back tones on a scoured heart ballad, I have this image of him as the resident crooner at some seedy, run down desert hotel for the lost. The Charles Bukowski of the Sands?

Eitzel, chuckles and beams. "I wouldn't mind that at all. That would be amazing, what a great gig. Get a few drinks in, go on stage, get a few drinks in, go home, pass out, get up, get a few drinks in, go sing, get a few drinks in. I'd do that. Why not. It sounds much better than Amsterdam."