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Abstract Painter

With a heartbreaking sketchbook of nostalgic songs, Mark Kozelek is almost famous.

"Salvador Sanchez was killed in a car accident in Mexico when he was 23," Kozelek says of the long-forgotten Latin featherweight. "Benny Paret had a pretty big televised fight in the '60s with a guy named Emile Griffith, and the head injuries he received caused him to die. The same thing with Duk Koo Kim in the early '80s, against Ray Mancini. In the fourteenth round, Duk Koo Kim fell unconscious, and he died a few weeks later. Big tragedy: His mom ended up killing herself. The referee at the fight ended up killing himself. It was probably a year later that fights went from fifteen rounds to twelve rounds.

"I mean, in the late 1800s, early 1900s, fights were sometimes 35, 45 rounds!" he adds, laughing. "Another guy I mentioned is Pancho Villa. He was named after the Mexican bandit guy, but he was actually a Filipino fighter. He died in the '20s in Oakland -- had some teeth knocked out, and the blood poisoning killed him."

Before Kozelek gets to Mike Tyson throwing couches out the window, he takes a deep breath and considers the why of his ongoing ringside obsession.

"Something just got into my system," he says. "I don't know what it was. I remember being a kid and arguing over which guitarist in Judas Priest was better: Glenn Tipton or K.K. Downing, you know? So that's sort of a boxing reference, too. Or Jim Nabors versus Bobby Vinton. But I guess I'm just paying tribute to some guys who lost their lives really young."

Kozelek certainly knows the dangers of youthful indiscretion firsthand. A drug and booze addict by age eleven, the crooner found himself in rehab before his voice even started to change.

"People don't normally get into drugs that young," Kozelek says. "But it happens. I was sitting around in meetings with guys who were forty years old when I was fifteen. It's one of those things I wish I wouldn't have talked about, because, like anything, it can become your identity. It's been this stigma that's followed me around for years. I talked about it with the English press when I was first signed. I was such a dumbass. I thought I had to answer everything they asked me, you know? I even asked the guy not to write about this -- and he fuckin' wrote about it. And it was such a long time ago that I don't know how relevant it is to things now. In some ways, I'm glad that it happened. A friend of mine says I've got the whole VH1 story in reverse."

Clean and sober for over two decades, Kozelek seems surprised and humbled by his own success. "I just sort of paved my own way up to where I am now from the time I was a kid," he says. "I mean, I never learned to drive a car like everybody else did. We're talking about a kid that was in remedial reading for four years and never went to college and never used a computer.

"I'm in a place where it's a little bit scary," Kozelek says, "'cause all I know how to do is sing and play guitar and write songs."

And act. In 2000, Kozelek distinguished himself as Stillwater's bassist in Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous.

"All you can do is hope -- hope that people like Cameron Crowe will call and say,' C'mon down and be in my movie.' I'm not a Hollywood personality, but it pays the bills and keeps the health insurance going."

With an amusing cameo in Vanilla Sky under his belt and an upcoming bit in a screen adaptation of Steve Martin's novel Shop Girl, Kozelek has plenty on his plate besides music. But songwriting comes first, whether it's turning his own psychic pain into poetry or just reinterpreting someone else's.

In the meantime, cue the clowns.

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