American Music Club: Godlike genius, or what?

Mark Eitzel’s got something. Caitlin Moran, for a start

IT’S AN almost empty house — just two beds and a card table. An echo-haunted home since his lover left. Down the road there’s his local bar. He’s their resident “half-famous” person; he gets free drinks in exchange for being pointed out to tourists.

His friends drink here — Kathleen, to whom he wrote an elegiac symphony which “pissed her off” because he didn’t think to make up a pseudonym for her. In the corner is another friend, a millionairess who buys marijuana and gives it to Aids sufferers. “I pay for her parking and beer,” Mark Eitzel says. “She never has change.” San Francisco’s endless twilights and haunted, dark corners inform every word or note Eitzel has ever sung; his friends become songs, their deaths become songs (Aids has hit hard).

Everclear, Eitzel’s fifth album with his band, American Music Club, documented that slow deterioration with painful honesty and an arc-light genius (not a word to be used lightly). Rolling Stone magazine made it Album of the Year. Things became strange after he got that award. The previous four albums had been greeted with critical hyperbole and sold around six copies each. After Rolling Stone stepped in, American Music Club got a major-label deal, and Kurt Cobain became his biggest fan. Cobain’s manager now manages Eitzel.

“Apparently Kurt and Courtney [Love] really liked the album,” Eitzel shrugs. “We got signed to Virgin. But the other members of the band became like dazed cows when we got the money. They were like ‘Mark, write pop. Write pop songs. We’re gonna be the next R.E.M.’ And I’m not the next R.E.M. Nowhere near. I write these little songs.”

Little songs like ‘Ex-Girlfriend’, which starts off in the middle of a nervous breakdown, all wildly writhing guitars and Eitzel’s racked lowing. He was crying as the song finished — it was too raw, too much of the moment when all reason caves in and all we’re left with is grief to cling to. Little songs like ‘The Hopes and Dreams of Heaven’s 10,000 Whores’, where Eitzel’s voice buckles as he sings: “Just waiting for my prescription to come, because every second dissolves more of me.”

Eitzel’s artistic stomping ground is the area razed and cleared by Nick Drake — the song that hangs suspended in an other-worldly bubble of its own, subject to its own storms and seasons. That he is one of the top five songwriters of the 20th century is something only waiting for some kind of celestial poll to confirm.

Of course, Eitzel doesn’t see it like that. He is the biggest Mark Eitzel critic and cynic around. His publishing company is called I Failed in Life Music. He broke up the reverent atmosphere of American Music Club’s London Forum gig by putting a My Little Pony down his pants. (“It seemed like a good idea at the time,” Eitzel moans, head in hands.) He wants the Hair Club For Men to sponsor his next tour.

“They’re fantastic,” he enthuses, his soft, brown-eyed face broken up by a grin. “They put these metal poppers in your head, and you clip the hair on. You can cycle, run, swim and dance in complete hair-security.”

So you’d actually have metal poppers implanted in your head? “Are you kidding?” Eitzel yelps. “You have to understand that to have hair when he has none, a man would do anything. He would paint a shed with his tongue if necessary.”

It’s Eitzel’s black humour that makes his songs ache with a poignancy that some lantern-jawed rock-god in shades could never aspire to. While artifice is all well and good, it’s when songwriters give themselves, as they have nothing else to give, that the white-hot fire of genius burns itself onto records, and puts a wobble into the orbit of stars.

There have been a lot of comets puncturing the sky recently. There is a new Mark Eitzel album on its way. It’s a simple equation.

© Caitlin MoranThe Times, 29 March 1996

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