Evelyn McDonnell walks and talks the streets of San Francisco with Mark Eitzel and American Music Club
CAPP STREET is a small residential road in the heart of San Francisco’s Mission District. At all hours, but especially at night, Capp Street prostitutes with scarred faces and cheap clothes get cruised by Johns in vans and sedans, or plead, screaming, with pimps on corners. Often there’s gunfire. Sometimes there are deaths: murders, ODs.
The Mission’s sizable artist contingent, drawn by the cheap rents in this expensive city, walk past scenes of depravity and deprivation every day. No one knows how to deal with it. Many try to vent their rage in political statements that, ultimately, change nothing. The slackers bury themselves in apathetic obscurantism. It’s delusional to disassociate yourself from the violent misery, deceitful to romanticize it, debilitating to bear silent witness.
Capp Street is an underwater cave/That’s filled with crutches and canes/And faces that were washed away/Away from innocence and pain.
— ‘Over and Done’
“YOU LIVE there and you absorb that vibe,” says 33-year-old American Music Club singer-songwriter Mark Eitzel, who had an apartment on Capp Street for two years. “I had trouble writing, I had trouble thinking, I had trouble sleeping. You’d get up in the morning and there’d be some girl, makeup streamed down, crying, beat up, and quivering behind the door. You’d say, ‘Are you okay?’ She’d say, ‘Fuck you, fuck you’.”
For nine years and six albums, American Music Club have been the Bay Area’s bards of loneliness and decay. Playing the gay bars-turned-rock dives south of Market Street, or among the faded beauty of the Great American Music Hall (a former bordello), Eitzel became infamous for performing an exorcism of abuse onstage, trying to evoke tension with his confessional and confrontational performance style. While the band played minor-key country ballads or purgatory rock anthems, Eitzel wailed with devastating accuracy about the dashed hopes and lovers’ laments of young Americans stuck in the Reagan era. Expurgating his pain in a public arena, Eitzel seemed acutely embarrassed and absolutely unabashed.
“If you drink too much you’ll drown,” he could’ve been singing to himself in ‘Gary’s Song’. “And the shame of my life is watching you drown.”
His songs were Nick Drake melancholy, but his performance was Iggy Pop pathetic. The legends are legion: The time Eitzel kicked a bottle into the audience, pissed off a woman who ran out of the club, and followed her out to entreat her forgiveness; the time he crawled, naked but for his underwear, through the tables of the Paradise Lounge, while the band played ‘Highway to Hell’.
“He used to be physically wild on stage,” bassist Dan Pearson says, “where he would hurt himself really bad or hurt someone else. He’d walk over and push you against the wall while you were trying to play a difficult part. Then he’d be groveling on the ground, and you’d give him a good kick. He always wanted something to happen.”
Outside this bar, there’s no one alive/Outside this bar, how does anyone survive?
— ‘Outside This Bar’
MERCURY, AMC’s major-label debut, is its first real chance to broaden its devoted cult following. Produced by Mitchell Froom (Los Lobos, Suzanne Vega), Mercury‘s varied atmospheres and busy arrangements veer sharply from the spare openness and somber moods of California or Everclear. But after the initial shock, it works: Vudi’s guitar is captured in all its lonely noise glory, Bruce Kaphan’s slide adds touches of country desolation, Tim Mooney’s drums scrape and skitter, and Pearson’s harmonies give the songs a warm humanism. The only element that seems to have suffered in a big-buck recording environment is Eitzel’s voice, which rarely breaks into its customary dramatic extremes.
Mercury also shows AMC breaking out of the conceptual dead end of its “pathetic aesthetic.” Eitzel’s mood swings, from sorry simp to mean drunk, were becoming a manic-depressive caricature. Eitzel went publicly sober a couple of years ago. Now he’s publicly drinking again. “I’m different than I was then,” he says without apology. “I want to demystify myself all the time.”
On the album’s first cut, ‘Gratitude Walks’, Eitzel does just that, fretting about martyring himself for others’ amusement: “Drunk on the kind of applause/That gets louder the lower you sink.” Having built a reputation on manic-depressive angst, he now mocks despondent tendencies: “Take a number for your big lament.”
With the piano-bar blues of ‘Gratitude’ and the Dickensian synesthesia of ‘Over and Done’, Eitzel uses the acute empathy he’s honed in drunken pledges of camaraderie to relate the humanity of people outside his world of downwardly mobile aesthetes. On ‘Gratitude Walks’, he pictures himself washed up on San Francisco’s Sixth Street, a Bowery-style antecedent to Capp Street’s ’90s indigence. Like everyone else these days, he’s emerging from the self-absorption of the ’80s to realize that it’s not just him: The whole world is fucked. “With Clinton’s election, I feel like a dark cloud has been taken away,” he says. “During the Reagan-Bush years, you hated things just a little bit more, because you knew that great evil was looming over you.”
The peculiarly politicized agony of watching people die of AIDS was the catalyst for Eitzel’s political conversion. Several AMC songs were written for sick friends: ‘Western Sky’, ‘Rise’, and on Mercury, ‘Johnny Mathis’ Feet’. “When you die of AIDS, it’s like your life is worthless and you’re worthless, because society at large has stigmatized you,” he says. “And I can’t stand the idea of somebody’s life being without worth.”
Why do you say everything as if you were a thief?/Like what you stole has no value/Like what you preach is far from belief.
— ‘Johnny Mathis’ Feet’
‘JOHNNY MATHIS’ Feet” was written for a dying friend, but it’s also about stardom, Hollywood, Las Vegas. In it, Eitzel shows the king of schlock his old punk-rock posters, and Mathis tells him, “You were on the right track, but you were a lamb jumping for the knife… a real showman knows how to disappear in the spotlight.” Mercury reverberates between these two poles: the grim social realism of daily life, and the superficial nightmare of American fame.
But it’s a longing for something grander that keeps AMC, and Mercury, going. Increasingly, its best songs are its slow-dance numbers, where Eitzel sings for the lover who is rejected again and again, but keeps coming back for more. In the appropriately titled ‘I’ve Been a Mess’, he ponders, “Was there still hope and desire, hope and desire, left in his heart,” repeating Mercury‘s emotional mantra. “My biggest thing this year was the word desire, because desire is a beautiful and sacred thing. You’re supposed to write a song to make art or some kind of beauty,” Eitzel says with great passion and ardor. But then, pathologically incapable of believing in himself or anything for more than five minutes, he scoffs. “I don’t know, I’m crazy. I’ve decided that in all interviews I come off as being insane. Maybe when people interview me they get to the truth. But I don’t think so. Because I know what the truth is, and,” he starts to laugh, “I can’t put my finger on it.”
© Evelyn McDonnell, Spin, June 1993