Shine On

Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse is running the race his way.

Back when Mark Linkous, the man behind Sparklehorse, was dirt poor, he would venture into the woods near his Virginia farmhouse and root around for pieces of old rusty tin. "I'd make whirligigs out of them or shoot them up with a shotgun and write 'This was shot with a twelve-gauge shotgun at 3 p.m. on August 2nd from ten feet away' on them and then try to sell it as folk art," he drawls. "And people would actually buy it. I'd take them into Charlottesville or Richmond, and I actually sold quite a few of them."

After inking a contract with Capitol Records five years ago, Linkous wound up with a far fatter budget than the one to which he'd grown accustomed, and the subsequent success of his 1995 debut, vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot, meant that he no longer needed to patch together gewgaws for subsistence. But as demonstrated by Good Morning Spider, his just-issued sophomore offering, his scavenging days are not yet behind him. The CD was recorded at Static King, his one-room studio set in the middle of a field, and features songs hammered together using junk-store treasures and the occasional found object. "I do still search around for discarded things like plowing disks," Linkous says. "Sometimes plowing discs make really good high hats."

Linkous wound up on this idiosyncratic course only after rejecting the path most taken. Like so many small-town teens hypnotized by the mythic promises of the coastal metropolises, the soft-spoken musician, who'd played in punk bands during his Virginia high school days, lit out for New York City as soon as he graduated. "I ended up getting into a band with guys a little bit older than me and being more of a pop group, like a Flamin' Groovies kind of deal," he recalls. "Then the band moved from New York to Los Angeles and things got really bad out there and we broke up. I was really disillusioned with the scene and traditional pop music, and I just started hating it." The Tom Waits album Swordfishtrombones, which a friend gave him, became a lifeline of sorts--"and then somebody turned me on to Daniel Johnston and this totally homemade, field-recording documentary style," he says. "That really inspired me and sort of saved me. I just quit and moved back to Virginia and started playing traditional Irish music."

For a while, Linkous spent his time picking banjo in an all-acoustic group and setting the words of poet/mystic William Blake to music. Before long, though, he was writing off-kilter tunes of his own and enjoying the isolation of rural Fluvanna County, Virginia, in ways that he never had prior to experiencing tangled urban intrigue firsthand. "I think that's when I started doing really good music," he notes. "'Cause I just said fuck it to the whole thing and started doing four-track and eight-track recordings. And other musicians would pass them around."

Steve Wynn and David Lowery of Cracker eventually wound up with Linkous tapes, but it was the copy that reached the members of Radiohead that paid off most handsomely. The mega-selling Brits instantly cottoned to Linkous's charming creations, which are as odd and imperfectly matched as a buffet of casseroles at a Sunday potluck, and their endorsement promptly vaulted Sparklehorse into the big-label realm of money and exposure. When asked where he would be without Radiohead's support, he says, "I'm really not sure. I think there would probably be some sort of underground following, maybe similar to Vic Chesnutt's audience, but I guess it's helped having rock stars being into Sparklehorse."

The reference to Chesnutt makes sense. Like Linkous, Chesnutt is an eccentric Southern singer-songwriter who was raised from obscurity thanks to the praise of a platinum-selling act--in his case, R.E.M. And the comparisons don't end there. Both men suffered injuries that affected their legs, and while Linkous is no longer dependent on a wheelchair as is Chesnutt, who was injured in a car wreck when he was a hard-drinking young man, it was touch-and-go for a while.

For Linkous, his health nightmare began when he was touring Europe in support of his first album. After ingesting a handful of pills--a deadly combo of anti-depressants and recreational drugs--Linkous says, "I collapsed, and it ended up fucking me up real bad."

Complicating Linkous's condition was the fact that his legs were pinned underneath him for the twelve hours it took for him to be found, bringing about a phenomenon called "Saturday night syndrome." In such situations, the cutting-off of circulation causes potassium to build up in the limb in question--and when the limb is straightened, the accumulated minerals race into the bloodstream and induce a heart attack. Linkous, who flatlined for several minutes, knows all too well how close he came to dying as a result. "They ended up having to do all these operations, because it was like a chain reaction: my body shutting down, my organs not working."

Seven surgeries and many weeks in a London hospital later, Linkous realized how lucky he had been to fall ill in a country with socialized medicine. "At the time, I didn't have health insurance," he points out. "If it had happened anywhere else, I would have been fucked forever." An added bonus was the revelation that his recording had made more of an impact on listeners than he had previously understood. "By the third month, when I was coherent enough to know what was going on, my walls were just covered with letters from people. I didn't know that the album had helped so many people in a positive way."

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