American Music Club: Join Our Club

“I SAY A lot of stupid things,” Mark Eitzel stares directly into Boy George’s eyes and for a moment is very sombre.

George gazes back. Silence. Then, without warning, Mark guffaws and starts to wave his hands around excitedly.

“But that’s OK! It’s the only thing about rock that I’ve ever liked, that the really great singers would just say stupid shit! Patti Smith or Van Morrison or Iggy Pop or Johnny Rotten – there used to be great singers around. Even Boy George. Especially Boy George! A great singer.”

Even in the face of such fulsome praise, the esteemed Mr O’Dowd maintains his mute, neutral stance on proceedings. Which befits a man whose prescence in this room amounts only to a framed glossy photograph.

Yet Mark is all too aware of his debt to the once pre-eminent Brit-pop harlequin. For George’s benefactors at Virgin Records have decided that, after making five albums of the purest, most beautiful and emotionally charged pop music of any era, and earning little more than consistent critical acclaim and entrenched cult status, Eitzel’s band are to be given the opportunity to touch the lives of those people (which is most people) as yet unaware of that precious thing called the American Music Club.

From ‘Karma Chameleon’ to this crumpled thirtysomething man with the pot-belly, sprawling a little bemusedly in his new corporate surroundings, is an unlikely journey for Virgin… But then American Music Club is not a band you would hitch-hike with for an easy ride.

From their early years on the San Francisco club circuit, when Mark Eitzel’s abusive behaviour towards the audience and himself quickly earned them a dubious notoriety, through a brief – and less successful mid-’80’s relocation to Germany, up to a managerial/record company imbroglio at the end of the last decade, the AMC story has been blighted with the sort of hard luck that would have long since scuppered the resolve of lesser souls than these.

Indeed, by the advent of their last album, it had all but done for them too. Released by the small San Francisco indie Alias, Everclear was critically garlanded with an extravagance that surpassed all previous outings – Rolling Stone went so far as to name Eitzel as their songwriter of the year – but the band remained the preserve of a devoted few. Broke and battleweary, the club decided on one last push.

“We resolved that we’d either get a major deal and a pay cheque or start playing accordians and violins in the street cafes of San Francisco,” recalls Mark. “We wouldn’t be a band. ‘Cos what it’s worth, after ten years? I’ll do it forever. I’m a diehard, I’m an ageing rocker and there’s nothing else I can do. But I know Bruce wouldn’t do it, I know Tim wouldn’t do it, I know Danny wouldn’t do it – they all told me this in no uncertain terms. You have to make decisions. I don’t need to make another indie record. Nobody buys it, nobody knows about it. “

The legal stalemate between Leslie Mallon, the band’s manager and wife of then-producer/guitarist Tom Mallon, and their US Label Frontier meant AMC as a band were unable to work throughout 1990, without a doubt their lowest period. Frustrated , Eitzel lept at the offer of a one-off solo gig at London’s Borderline in January ’91, which the UK indie Demon recorded as Songs of Love. Mark sees this as a turning point of sorts.

“When I did Songs of Love I did it, basically, to make a statement to my manager – I’m getting opportunities, people are asking me to do things. She was going, ‘No, don’t do it, why do you wanna go to England, you egotist’… It was difficult because I didn’t know where my loyalties were. And I kind of decided my loyalties were to myself, towards my music. Because nobody else gave a shit. “

“Our manager hated the music and she hated me going to England. ‘Mark, he’s crazy, he’s an alcoholic, he’s an asshole’… I mean, she had good reasons and I understood them – which was the trouble. But of course I’m an egotist, of course I want an audience to applaud, of course I want to go to England for a free trip. Naturally! It’s stupid to expect me not to be an egotistical prick.”

Mark shifts uneasily, perhaps aware he’s just said something that might possibly be construed as stupid, and takes a mouthful of Virgin coffee. He professes ignorance as to just why any label, let alone any major, should have decided to sign his band now – “nine months ago no one would spit on us”.

Across the room, beneath Boy George, sits Vudi, AMC’s guitarist and, along with Mark and bassist Danny Pearson, the only constant component in a line-up that since 1982 has changed as regularly as the weather.

“When we first got together,” muses Vudi, “we were saying to each other, ‘This has got to be top of the charts’. And ten years later we’re like, ‘Oh, we’re doing something wrong, we’re still lumped with underground bands’. It’s not the idea. We try our hardest to make it accessible, we really try.”

If you’ve never heard American Music Club, if you saw their name billed on a on a flyer and assumed – as some have – that here was a club that played American music, then you may be wondering what heinous racket this bunch of losers have been peddling unrepentantly for so long in the vain hope of attracting more than just a diehard following…

Well, for the most part, this Club plays folk-rock, with countryfied embellishment courtesy of Bruce Kaphan’s pedal steel and some occasional doom-filled dissonance thanks to Vudi’s expertly Marshalled feedback. For sure, Eitzel’s songs are nakedly personal at a time when clear narrative expression has become unfashionable, but AMC’s massive commercial potential renders their dogged struggle all the more poignant and makes their marginalisation thus far all the more outrageous and in explicable. It seems inconceivable that, in an earlier, less commercially rapacious era, American Music Club would have struggled as they have.

“I think you get what you want,” says Mark. “It’s only recently that I got out of my shell and went, ‘Wait a minute, I don’t have to scream every song, I don’t have to fall over, I don’t have to go on a complete self-distruction kick – I should just sing my songs and write more’. Ultimately, we’re not trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. Take it or leave it. We polished our turd – here it is, clinging to our hands. Clinging to our pants. It’s all over our face.”

One suspects Mark Eitzel might subscribe to Groucho Marx’s famous dictum, whereby he wouldn’t want to join a club that would have him as a member. This stinging line in self-depreciation is his trademark, familiar to anyone who’s seen AMC live and witnessed a man at the end of his tether. It’s a product of his decision to walk the emotional precipice in his songwriting, the result of voicing the inner fears and dark, unpalatable truths most of us prefer to conceal in order to deal with everyday life. The price of such unflinching honesty is acute embarrassment, and hence in public Mark often gives the impression he’d rather be elsewhere.

This love/hate affair with the ramifications of his art is brought to bear on the first fruits of AMC’s new business relationship. Titled Mercury – for various possible reasons, the simplest being that Eitzel uses the silver poison as a euphemism for alcohol in one song, the least (but not completely unlikely) that it’s a tribute to the late Freddie – their major label debut feature the Club at their most stylistically idiosyncratic.

For a single, they’ve chosen ‘Johnny Mathis’ Feet’, wherein Mark lays his life’s work before the svelte-larynxed star and demands his verdict: “Johnny looked at my songs and he said, ‘Well at first guess/Never in my life have I seen such a mess'”. As the hammy orchestral theme soars around him, Eitzel voices Johnny’s advice that a “real showman knows how to disappear in the spotlight.” Surely this is a meditation on the perils of The Songwriter, who yearns for and is repelled by public approval?

“Sort of,” considers Mark. “To be honest, a lot of these songs are about friends of mine who died of AIDS. You’d never know that, but you have to support people, and I’ve known so many people who suffer. It’s not an easy death. So anyway, ‘Johnny Mathis’ Feet’ was for a friend and I wanted to make him happy. I wanted to make him laugh. And all the songs I was writing were these horrible, creepy, romantic, sentimental things, goofy shit, and so it ended up as ‘Johnny Mathis’ Feet’.

“All my songs end up being about things other than I intend, and that song now I guess is about me starting out being a punk rocker and ending up a crooner. Unfortunately, Mathis got chosen. I’m sorry he got dragged into this. I’m not a big fan, but he’s a good, clean, honest person, and he’s not a phoney like a lot of these red, white and blue Vegas singers are. He’s not as evil as Neil Diamond.”

There are some lines on Mercury where AIDS references are obvious. On ‘The Hopes and Dreams of Heaven’s 10,000 Whores’, for instance: “Believe me if you can said the pile of bones/I think that this is all there is left to see/Just waiting for my prescription to come…”

“That’s exactly what happened,” Mark whispers. “But then I had to screw it up with ‘And all of heaven’s 10,000 whores/Are on a party line to his big toes…’ Why did I sing that?! Because it just fitted and I know it was the most honest thing to put there, for me. So I did it. And that’s a bad justification for anything, because I’m sure Hitler would have had the same justification. Now there’s a stupid thing to say.”

Mark Eitzel laughs, Vudi shakes his head and Boy George just stares. We’ll never know what the former star might have said if the singer from American Music Club had laid his songs at his feet, but the chances are Mark wouldn’t listen anyway. He’s been doing this too long to change and, providing there’s even one person willing to listen, he’ll be up there, trying to dsappear in the spotlight.

“It’s kind of sinister, but I can always tell if I’ve entertained somebody and they’ve had a good night, or if they’ve brought the love of their life to the show and had the chance to make that go a little better and drink some beers and I’m the background to it. That’s my job. To be a backdrop to people’s lives – that’s what I wanna be.”

© Keith CameronNew Musical Express, 13 March 1993

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