IF YOU’VE EVER walked down a big city street and narrowed your vision to exclude everything except the garbage, savouring the contradiction between wealth and filth, then you should hear American Music Club.Similarly, if you’ve ever felt so bad about something, or nothing, that the weight almost crushed you before the feeling seemed beautiful, hear American Music Club.
Engine, AMC’s second album on the San Francisco Grifter label, operated by the band’s bassist Tom Mallon and available over here through the offices of Frontier/Zippo, stands as one of last year’s foremost American releases. After a stretch playing The Restless Stranger (their first album), AMC have realised that transformation of their sound into a tingling, inconsolable human machine that is so palpably the stuff of grief and wisdom that it sends acid down your spine.
Mark Eitzel, AMC’s vocalist and songwriter, is a nervous combustible man, a soul singer whose battles within his straitjacket of flesh and fear informs his music with a too-human honesty. Engine is the sticky bar he seeks to lean on while he repeatedly plies you with stories of middle-American mediocrity pushed to the verge of beauty.
Raised in Britain, “army brat” Eitzel did time in Columbus, Ohio for three years where “bitter memories” of his English private schooling paled before the flat desolation of the Midwest.
“You wanna see people who look like hell? I think that’s why I write about Columbus a lot. I walked down the streets and it’s like, I don’t know where I am, anywhere, I’m a piece that would never fit.
“It seemed to be a fugue to return to Columbus every year. Three years ago I returned to see my father die and the next to see my mother die. The year after that it was to see miserable things happen…always a fugue.
“After my mom died I wanted to write songs to give people hope, to make them want to live. Basically, my whole goal now is to give people a balm, to put in their pockets and take like aspirins.”
Eitzel is a great songwriter, perhaps one of a clutch who has actually contacted through his work the essence of America. Its inherent beauty and ugliness and the antagonistic interface between them that gives the place such tremendous energy one moment and entropy the next.
“It’s Stupidville,” he says. “It’s obvious that it’s a big garbage pit that’s immolating itself. It’s the soul of capitalism destroying itself. I’m not political at all, but it’s just…suicidal, it really is, it’s horrifying. It’s a pretty terrifying place but I couldn’t live anywhere else and write.
“California’s weird. I couldn’t live anywhere else in America. Because, like, see this sky,” says Eitzel, pointing to the expanse outside the window, “it’s always like this, terrifying to me, pitch blue.”
While Eitzel’s constant self-deprecation borders on the absurd at times, his live persona has accrued plaudits in the West Coast press consistently.
One such review, in the LA Times’ “Calendar” section, describes how he “stands with his arms folded across his chest, a frightened but determined smirk on his face; slowly he begins to dance, like a bear, like a shy Polish boy at the dance on a Friday night”.
You get used to Eitzel’s inverted self-image eventually, even enamoured of it, as he refers to himself as a “balding, no-neck geek” whose solo project, currently in production, “stinks”. His endless negativism masks a belief in and dependence on his work that keeps him permanently intimidated by the strength of his own vision.Yet Eitzel is no pat ‘rebel’ or ‘artist’.
“I don’t know what I’d do if everyone loved what I did. I see transcendence through songs as a possibility, even though it sounds really stupid.”
“The kind of stuff I’m writing now, it’s influenced by Nick Drake a lot; it’s quiet and slow and folky. I’d rather not have a band at all. I’d rather just sit there with a guitar, but nobody wants to hear that…it’s hard to take it. People want to be entertained. Well, OK.
“What does it take to be a rebel? I dunno, maybe to be alone all your life, or like Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, that might be a rebel stance. D’you want the ultimate pretentious statement on what I do? God, I give bad interviews,don’t I?” he says, digressing again, self-conscious to a fault.
“You can’t reach Heaven until you’ve been to Hell. I’m not living on the edge – bullshit, no! – I seen the edge, I don’t want to live there!”
AMC is aptly named. Engine contains songs of consummate Americana, for instance ‘Outside This Bar’, where Eitzel spells out poetically the shortcomings of the fast-imploding American dream and the toll of exploitation and loneliness on people.‘At My Mercy’ is Eitzel at his brilliant best, a forlorn verse giving way invisibly to a swelling chorus of gilted quality.‘Gary’s Song’, played as a bluegrass-derived ode to mindless imbibing, pushes the point further.
“The song started out to be about summer in Columbus; and then it started being about sitting on a porch drinking beer with a friend; and then it started being about…like, Cleveland has really bad areas where everything’s falling apart. I’ve always written really sad songs…I think that way.
“Nick Drake, now there was a prophet. I started listening to him two years ago. That and Husker Du are all I listen to…”
Eitzel speaks of being “doomed to sing, that’s all I can do. Which is a shame, cos most of the time I hate it, we stink. I hate it like I hate an orgasm, same thing”.
The future of AMC is not much on his mind. Nor need it be; Engine will propel this special American band beyond their dreams of themselves and, quite possibly, into the dreams of many others.
© Ralph Traitor, Sounds, 16 January 1988