SF Weekly - August 14, 1991
Bad Liquor: AMC's Sound of Drink and Darkness
Publication: SF Weekly
Author: Andrew O'Hehir
Date: August 14, 1991
On a hot summer evening in the sylvan suburbia of the Oakland hills about 12 or 13 years ago, my father presented me with a volume of poetry by Wallace Stevens ("The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream," and so forth).
He had always loved Stevens' work but felt he could no longer read it. He told me it made him feel too crazy. "It's an odd feeling," he said in uncharacteristically hushed tones. "As though I'm not really in control."
My father was drunk and in his boxer shorts; I was a scared and diffident teenager. I certainly didn't want to know psychological about the goblins or abandoned dreams awakened in my dad by Stevens' arch, elliptical lyricism. Now I'll never know, at least not exactly. But I have a much better idea what he was talking about.
I think the music of American Music Club might have played the same role in my life as Stevens' poetry did in my dad's. When I hear the opening bars of almost any AMC song, I have to stop what I'm doing and listen, plunged into an internal landscape tinged with yearning, intoxication and despair. It isn't precisely the territory of psychosis, but it is a twilit American countryside where unexplained lights shine from the horizon, trees throw strange, distorted shadows, and we're careful not to examine our reflections too closely. What my father was trying to tell me was never to feel too sure I was master of my own heart.
Long one of the favored attractions of the San Francisco nightclub netherworld, AMC, we are told, is finally making a serious bid for alternative rock "success" (whatever that's like). Everclear, the groups first US album in three years, will be released this week by the local independent label Alias. A video has been made for the prospective hit song "Rise"; a national tour will follow in the fall. Well-established as critics' darlings in New York and London, and one of the only contemporary rock bands to combine emotional honesty with real musicianship and a poetic sensibility.
AMC long ago earned whatever money they may make. And as they say ,it's been a long, strange trip. "Gary, tell me", drawls singer-songwriter Mark Eitzel, in one early AMC opus I've probably heard hundreds of times, "why the leaves on the trees are falling this year as early as the spring". The song is a half-mocking, intentionally cheap country two-step."If we sit here and drink enough beer", Eitzel continues a bit later, "we'll be two inflatable dolls in a hooker's bad dream". But the other half of the equation, in typical AMC fashion, is profound pathos and sadness: "If you drink too much you will drown.....and the shame of my life is watching you drown".
Many of the people who I knew who came of age in San Francisco's bars and clubs in the mid-1980's shared the feeling that the leaves were falling on us in the spring, so to speak - the puzzling sensation of youth somehow desiccated and cut short. Too young for midlife crisis, we were old enough to feel that adulthood was real of ever-diminishing possibilities. "Oh god I hate you", another Eitzel lyric lamented, "for telling me what's going to happen the rest of my life".
Like members of some over-extended dysfunctional family, we'd gather every week or two for our inebriated therapy sessions - presided over by the passionate, beautiful, perverse theatre of American Music Club.
On second thought, maybe the way we felt wasn't so illogical. We were stereotypical 22-to-35 urban bohemians all right, underachieving artists and writers with meaningless but untaxing Financial District jobs, afflicted with hangovers, nicotine mouth, rapid-turnover serial monogamy and post collegiate existential gloom. Grotesque egotists? Sure, sometimes. But we were also middle classed refugees alienated by the Reagan Revolution, young caucasians without cellular phones.
People our age were making millions on Wall Street (or machine gunning each other down on the sidewalk), while we bitterly downed the Hotel Utah's draught beer. The first wave of a terrifying plague was killing our friends and neighbors. Destitute and insane people were living on our city's streets in unprecedented numbers, rivaling the anti-utopian vision of science fiction. When Eitzel begged an indifferent lover "Tell me why you gave up so easily", we laughed at the joke. We already knew why, wasn't apathy - real or affected - the safest sex of all?
AMC shows were musical theatre but they weren't much like Oklahoma!, or for that matter like The Eurythmics. Eitzel's quasi-legendary performances have always been closer to Antonin Artaud's theatre of cruelty than to the carefully constructed masks put forward by most practitioners of pop music. Sometimes he'd play his sad, tender and witty songs brilliantly, backed by the laconic, delightful playing of guitarist Vudi, bassist Danny Pearson and a rotating roster of drummers. At other times he'd demolish the songs in a painful excess of self-contempt. We needed the songs - AMC has always been one of those bands whose fans know all the words - but those of us who showed up every week needed the psychodrama too.
Often drunk beyond reason, Eitzel would abandon songs midstream, hurl glassware, rail accusingly at (or plead pathetically with) the audience, engage in public disputes with friends and lovers, and bounce his skinny body among the tables and amplifiers and drum kits like a boneless rag doll. The rest of the band would continue playing the complicated, wistful melodies, wearing that blank look worn by children who are trying to pretend that Daddy isn't really trying to hack up the dining room furniture.
But Mark was never so drunk that he didn't understand the macabre transaction taking place in those nightclubs. Was the real spectacle his music of love and loneliness or his hyperaware, self-ironizing misery? He wasn't sure, and neither were we. He invited us to watch him suffer - while he provided a running commentary - and then made sure we noticed him watching us, as we stood around mesmerized like a road sized crowd at a fatal accident.
My roommate and I used to half-jokingly used to call Eitzel's sado-sacrificial performance circus "The Atrocity Exhibition", after the short story by JG Ballard. But a different short story by another English angry young man of the 1960s offers even eerier parallels . In "The Master" by Christopher Priest, a traveling vaudevillian desperate for a gimmick begins amputating his fingers, toes, arms, legs on stage. (Hence predating 80's performance art by at least 10 years). Finally he must construct a machine that will allow him to sever his head from his limbless torso, while the story's narrator makes love to a woman backstage.
How far would Mark Eitzel go to play Jesus for San Francisco's thrift-store romantics? Would he kill himself to relieve our over-educated angst? Did he know where the agony-schtick ended and life began?
"It was pretty hard to tell for a while," he told me over a Coke at Cafe Soma, as a cold afternoon draws into night. Mark survived, and so did we. He's off the sauce now, and his relationship to his art is a lot more, manageable, as they say in clinics. "At one point in my life," he confirms,"I did think the most honest way to present myself was to put everything on the line; just lose myself in the performance and be completely manic."
One of my favorite new songs on Everclear is another country fuck-up, called "Crabwalk". It's about the Mark Eitzel of yore, though it could be about lots of people. "He reels around the nightclub like a hubcap off a car that just crashed into the sign that says this way to the nightclub."
As for me, I lost my boring Financial District job and became a journalist. Most of the people I used to reel around the with I don't see anymore. Some of them I miss. But I'm stopping by the Music Hall on Thursday to drink a beer and hear AMC play some new songs. Maybe they'll play some old songs too. Maybe I'll see some familiar faces.
"We still want to make everything real, make the show real", Eitzel says, "and we don't want to compromise ourselves for a crowd. We want the show to be good, but we don't want it to be this fake thing where we're trying to suck up to anybody. I'd much rather drive the crowd out than play something different than what we want to play."
"We have attempted to drive crowds out before," quietly suggests guitarist Vudi, "although usually the approach is a little less aggressive these days."
Clad in his omnipresent stylish fedora (there's a definate baldness quotient that could affect the teen-dream potential), Vudi has joined us with a Guiness and a cigarette. Mark does his best not to look at the beer. Although the two bicker a lot, they seem much too, well, philosophical for rock and roll. Eight years of great reviews and still both are working day jobs.
Vudi doesn't think Mark's calmer disposition has changed AMC's central performance dynamic.
"We present ourselves as very fallible," he suggests."We're really vulnerable when we are on stage. It's not because we are lazy. We just come out and say, you know, 'Here's all this weakness' And that's our point of strength. A lot of people will just turn away and go 'Well, maybe it's interesting, but I'm not the doctor' But other people will like it. They like being the doctor. It's sort of like an inverted performer-audience relationship."
Everclear isn't exactly an uplifting record, but it contains much of Eitzel's best work and continues his gradual shift away from solipsistic despair, and from the willful self-mockery that so often undermined the despair. He certainly has not abandoned bohemian ennui. "The price of your soul's less than the cab fare," he rages on "The Dead Part Of You", a rare rocker 'that gets home before the living end.' Or on the almost sweet "Miracle On 8th Street" 'Come on let's waste another thousand years, sitting around your kitchen table'.
The album may be a less tor de force than the brilliant 1988 song cycle California, but Eitzel threatens to confirm the British rock-critic hype that has dubbed him one of the greatest songwriters of a generation.
In some ways, AMC's influences can be called "obvious" - 60's pop, 70's punk, and Joni-and-Judy acoustic folk, with dashes of country, bluegrass and gospel - but it's the way they're transformed by a contemporary urban American perspective that makes Eitzel's work seem original. Amid a national aesthetic climate of terrible aridity, Eitzel still finds fertile soil in the open spaces and empty hearts of our troubled country.
"I wish we were back at a time when people believed in American culture and American art," he muses. "Think about the great American artists, like Martha Graham. When you look at her work, it's like she was saying, 'I'm going to reinvent America; I'm going to express America.' It just doesn't happen anymore, we're all ashamed of what we've become - this great bloated, fascist pyramid that's falling over. It's a shame; I still love American culture." Mark Eitzel: national culture. Get used to it.
Something rescued him from becoming yet another 1980s minor league version of Jim Morrison, and I don't think booze had much to do with it. Good hasn't always saved artists, but somehow Eitzel was saved by his songs.
"I feel good about the songs I'm writing now, and I'm doing them a disservice if I don't play them well," he says in a sudden burst of earnestness. "And I want to survive. I'm not going to drink a six-pack on stage anymore; I'm not going to smash glasses against my head anymore; I'm not going to jump up in the air and land on my knees anymore."
"For me it's a decision to live: If you drink all this whiskey before you go on stage, and you drink after the show, you are not going to have a voice in the morning, and you're going to feel sick to death and depressed for weeks. Why? Why do that for a crowd? I mean, if that was God in the audience and it was my final judgement, maybe that would be a good time to do that stuff. Of course, he would probably do the same thing most people do, and that's go, 'Poor pitiful little creature, why doesn't he get a job and an attitude?'"
Vudi interjects: "And then he'd say 'Do it again. For a thousand years!'"
"Yeah," Eitzel laughs bitterly. "'That was funny-ha ha. Do it again - ha ha.' It's not worth it.I don't know, maybe I am letting down the audience. But, shit, you know, I don't care. I need to do these songs, and I need to do them for years. I'm not going to sacrifice the next 20 years of my life or however long I live - even five years - for cheap thrills. For the carnal act of performance. Fuck that shit. It doesn't get me love, it doesn't get me money, it doesn't get me anything. So why do it? Why not just play the damn song and get out of people's lives?"
Those of you who want Mark Eitzel in your lives will have to pursue other avenues. If you like, you can borrow my Wallace Stevens collection.