There are certain words that commonly creep into descriptions of Mark Eitzel: "brilliant," "tortured," "honest" and "poetic" are among the often-used adjectives. These may all be fitting descriptions, but isn't everyone a little brilliant, a tiny bit tortured and even honest sometimes? It's more accurate to describe Eitzel by explaining what he isn't: a bullshit artist. He tells stories from his viewpoint, and he doesn't care whether or not others think they're depressing. Eitzel is less the tortured musical genius than the sad clown making us laugh through our tears.
Eitzel began his indie-rock tenure way back before it was called "indie." In 1983 he formed the San Francisco-based American Music Club, an eclectic quintet that garnered a cult following over its eleven-year run. That era was plagued by Eitzel's tumultuous relationship with drink. While the booze made for some compelling and provocative songwriting (there really isn't a bad AMC record), it also turned Eitzel into a volatile and erratic bandmember with an unpredictable stage presence. He quit the band on several occasions, and accounts of his rambling, wrenching between-song banter at AMC shows abound. Old interviews provide interesting snapshots of the Club's life as a band: Eitzel is fed up with touring; the rest of the band has forbidden Eitzel to play guitar during the shows; the group has hired a new bassist, but Eitzel can't remember her name. Despite their cult following, AMC's members still had to work day jobs and often played to near-empty houses. Shortly after releasing its seventh album, 1994's San Francisco, the American Music Club disbanded, and Eitzel struck out on his own.
Eitzel released 60 Watt Silver Lining, his first proper solo record, on Warner Records in 1996. Silver Lining made it clear that he hadn't lost much of his clear-eyed view of life as we know it -- and he was unafraid to paint a sometimes ugly picture. In 1997 he recorded West with REM's Peter Buck, and many critics say that Buck's pop influences failed to support the weight of Eitzel's lyrics. The album brought his relationship with Warner to a close. He soon signed to the smaller, more hip Matador Records, and he released Caught in a Trap and I Can't Back Out 'Cause I Love You Too Much Baby in 1998. It came out just in time to be slapped with the newfangled label of "sadcore," although he could probably be considered a forefather of that indie-rock subgenre. Then came last year's Invisible Man (which featured AMC guitarist Vudi), yet another showcase of Eitzel's dark, poetic sensibility that inspired Spin to write: "He started as a drunk with a poet's ear and evolved into a dramatist with a drunk's cosmology."
"Americans think that if you do things that are happy, it's part of personal growth," says Eitzel from his hotel room in Boston. "Americans don't like things that aren't absolutely positive; if you don't do anything positive in America, you're obviously a failure. If you make something artistic, it's like you're expressing what your vision is; you're not reflecting your personal growth. It's funny that happiness equals 'good art.' I just don't think that what I have to say is depressing." Americans do have a tendency to look at life and art through rose-colored glasses. The truth hurts, and many Americans would prefer to see themselves reflected in Britney's radiance than in the jaded, unibrowed visage of a troubadour like Eitzel. "Yeah, because they're terrified by what the truth is," he kvetches. "It's too sweet to eat. It's food that will eventually kill you."
These themes of truth and sickening sweetness run through Eitzel's new record, Music for Courage & Confidence, a one-off for New West Records. A low-key affair, the album is a shadowy collection of covers spanning sixty years of bubbly pop songs that celebrate -- and bitch about -- love. Featuring guest musicians Joey Waronker (drums), Justin Meldal-Johnson (bass), Björn Olsson (guitar) and Marc Capelle (organ, piano), Music treats the sublime (Bill Withers's "Ain't No Sunshine"), the classic (the Flamingos' "I Only Have Eyes for You") and the cheesy (Culture Club's "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me") equally -- with a wry sense of humor lurking beneath the external layers of pathos.
"It wasn't my idea. It was the idea of [co-producer] Johan Kugelberg," explains Eitzel. "I tried to choose songs that were fun, not the most obscure, 'interesting' tracks; I wanted hits." Included is a languid, shimmering version of Andrea True's disco hit "More, More, More." If that's not comedy, then Trent Reznor is only sorta depressed.
The truth is, Eitzel's work has always been marked by subtle humor, from his publishing title ("I Failed in Life Music") to his lyrics (witness American Music Club's "All Your Jeans Were Too Tight": "I can understand liking Barbra Streisand/But I'm not sure about the soundtrack from Diva/And what was up with the tanning salon/I'm sorry I said anything about the tattoo") and his on-stage banter. (Eitzel kicked off his 2000 SXSW showcase in Austin with, "Hi, I'm Mark Eitzel, and all my songs are about jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge.") Spectators at an Eitzel show are more likely to be giggling than sniffling, and Eitzel likes it that way. It's all about building rapport.
"If I can, I love to talk to people, because it makes me happier," he explains. "I try and get people involved in the song and have them listen, and so it's sort of a welcoming thing, and you do that by talking to people." Quite a different vibe than that of the man who, fueled by booze, would tear himself apart emotionally while on stage.
It's probably a good thing that Eitzel is tuning out the siren call of sex, drugs and rock and roll. He's 43 now, and nothing lasts forever. What does the future hold? Is there a day job somewhere down the line? "I wish I had another skill," he says. "If I did, I would retire, but I have no other skills besides songwriting. There's nothing else I can do...nothing else I want to do. I might try to go to business college to learn a skill."
For now, though, Eitzel has enough on his plate to keep him from worrying about retirement. He's touring the world in support of Music for Courage and is also working on a new record of his own material, to be released on Matador. American Music Club fans might be happy to hear that the members are hoping to get together to do another album. But the most interesting upcoming project is one that Eitzel completed last year, far away from his home base in San Francisco.
"It's American Music Club songs by a traditional Greek band. I don't know if it's coming out in America, but it's called The Ugly American," Eitzel says. "It was kind of colored by the fact that the week after I arrived in Greece last October, there were 17,000 people demonstrating against America in front of my hotel. Everywhere I went, it was like, 'Fuck you, and fuck your country.'" Anyone who has been abroad knows that this is a distressing experience, albeit not all that surprising, even after September. "People felt bad about 9/11, but at the same time, they felt we deserved it. If America actually exported something to the world more interesting than Jerry Springer and car-crash films and Britney Spears, I don't think they would have hated us so much. So Ugly American is sort of like, 'Well, sorry!'"
Mark Eitzel, ambassador of sad-will. Though he is sometimes prone to ranting about the current "state of things," Eitzel contends that there's no Bono-like activism brewing within. "I can't really write political songs. And I find that people who are activists are just as sadistic as the people in government; I hate it all."
Newcomers to Eitzel's world shouldn't be misled by his cynicism. While it might be easy to agree with his assertion that "all I am is entertainment and a background for people's lives," a closer look reveals that sadness tinged with laughter can heal -- a secret he's known for a long time.
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