Mark Eitzel: Invisible Hero

Knitting Factory, New York

January 23, 2003

The other night I thought of “Nightclub Jitters” by Paul Westerberg. I had them, those jitters, when I went to see Mark Eitzel. I was nervous to see people I knew, nervous in many stupid ways. I didn’t take a drink before I hit the town, but I took one as soon as I hit the bar.

Westerberg was brave enough to write about those irrational nerves that attack you in fairly benign social settings. It’s people like Westerberg and Eitzel who sing about weakness and fear, and who attract people who are attacked by weakness and fear. Ironically, there we all were at a Mark Eitzel show trying to act like we didn’t feel weak or frightened. It’s only Mark who will admit it. He’s our spokesman.

I first saw Mark Eitzel in Seattle in 1997, when he was touring for “West,” the album he recorded with Peter Buck of REM. I knew Eitzel was famous and had been the leader of a raved-about rock band called American Music Club, but I’d never heard him sing. So when he started playing airy, open-sounding chords on the guitar and singing in these emotional but not really melodic ascensions, I thought, Hm. I don’t know. I don’t really like this slightly jazzy guitar sound and these melodies all seem kind of the same and – but suddenly his singing penetrated my monologue of resistance. With strings of colorful images and delicately handled metaphors, he was pouring out amazingly complicated songs about loss of faith, attempts to love, fear of love, the nightmare of “never really ever loving anyone.” He was like a naked soul, spilling his guts for us, keening over the microphone that he sometimes just sang into, Pete Buck handling guitar. The whole room seemed to feel a protective love for Eitzel. When a few people left mid-song, he missed a few notes, tried to play on and then aborted the song, obviously devastated by the walk-outs. “It’s okay, Mark,” said someone in the crowd. A huge amount of affection and support flowed from the audience to the scruffy figure onstage, who was by turns self-effacing, cranky, funny, sarcastic and kind. What you ended up feeling was that he had so much heart it was a crime if you weren’t living fully, and in general, I think that’s how he makes you feel.

At the Knitting Factory on Jan. 23rd, he was much the same. Wearing a wool knit cap, his beard a little heavier and his overall physical presence somehow more solid, he still uses airy, open-sounding chords and sings about love, estrangement and dangerous apathy. “You took your name apart and put it together as someone you never wanted to know,” he sang in a song called “Bitterness,” off his latest album, The Invisible Man. “Now you’re just as helpless as those you attack… Bitterness poisons the soul.”

You still need to listen closely to his songs to get into them. They don’t grab you immediately with great hooks and choruses. Those are in there, but you have to follow the unconventional lines of the music to hear them. But you’re definitely repaid by paying attention to exactly what it is Eitzel is doing on guitar and how well his voice jumps into the groove of a song and drives it upward on those ascending lines. He’s a soul singer in essence – gets right inside a song and breathes it.

The atmosphere in the Knitting Factory’s Old Office was different from the Seattle club, of course. A reverent love was present, but so was a sense of jittery buzz. Maybe in response, Mark’s demeanor was more casual than it had been in Seattle. He put each song across with care and attention, but when they were over he joked easily with the crowd. “This one’s the winner of the one-song contest,” he introduced a song, referring to something from an earlier night (he played a month of Thursdays at the Knitting Factory in January). “Aw, it’s just something I wrote today. You wouldn’t believe, I’ve got all these songs just lined up here.” He gestured at the stage, looking bemused at his own prolificness.

He played the catchy “Can You See?” from the new CD, and also “Sleep,” a classic Eitzel number that goes at one point: “Altar boys look good in lace, but they’re not known for their guts or their good nature / Goodness is not some pretty picture you paint, it’s shaking your fist into the face of danger.” He also played a song that started: “The only time I felt patriotic was when I watched a stripper / and he wasn’t very tight or humble” (words approximated). Another one was about the distance you can feel from someone even when they’re next to you. Another one was called “Ladies and Gentlemen It’s Time” with the heart-cracking line: “The one who holds you when you die.”

Well, because of nightclub jitters I drank a lot, and there was a general drinking avidity that night among my friends (was it Eitzel’s songs, cutting so close to the bone?) who I was asking for titles of songs, so my note-taking was pretty ineffective. Afterward, I was standing behind Mark at the bar and I spoke to him – he’s the most approachable guy in the world. I told him how much I’d loved the show, and also “West,” and this one song from it, but I couldn’t remember the name of it. He was friendly, but he said he didn’t remember the song. So I sang part of it into his ear – a few of the best lines. “I don’t remember!” he yelled at me over the noise. “I don’t remember any of the songs I write!”

I found that so odd. But I nodded and smiled and we both bought more beer.

MP3 of “Proclaim Your Joy” available (via Matador).

13 thoughts on “Mark Eitzel: Invisible Hero”

  1. “I don’t remember any of the songs I write!”

    He should have been ordering a soda, not a beer. That’s not a good sign.

  2. I can see how that would be an odd comment coming from Mark Eitzel. You described him as someone who tries very hard to seek out feeling and meaning, to have the songs “say something”. Same goes for his audience, the way you described them.

    And then, up at the bar, Eitzel gives you this kind of non-sequitur, sort of a shrug and a “ah, the songs don’t really mean that much. I forget ’em.”

    It’s these kind of non-sequiturs that allow us feely types to keep our heads together and vent that pressure we sometimes put on ourselves to make things meaningful and “felt”.

    there’s a Velvet Crush song… “I need to feel it.. and know it’s felt.” That’s Mark Eitzel and his audience to me. Not surprising y’all would need a little beer to chase down that soul mining! Heavy stuff compadre!

  3. It’s difficult to tell from your reveiw if you have listened to AMC.

    But if American Music Club are still just a raved about rock band may I suggest that you go out and buy / steal / borrow Mercury which is one of the finest albums ever recorded. It walks over West and I envy you the joy of discovering it for the first time.

  4. I agree with Colin’s comment. In fact, to my mind West is the worst of Eitzel’s recent catelogue. (Buck seems to have forced the songs into his traditionally repetitive harmonic structures. REM could never have written Will You Find Me) It is still a fantastic record, but no candle to Mercury, 60 watt silver lining, caught in a trap, or Invisible man.

  5. Craig and Neil, I’m sure you’re right. I became fond of West because it was my first Eitzel experience, and because seeing him perform that material was so electrifying. But I know AMC stuff is said to be much better. At the risk

    of horrifying you both, I did buy Mecury years ago, but, gulp, didn’t get into it. But I’m convinced now that that was some irrational blind spot and I’m going back to it on your recommendation/s.

  6. WEST is probably best forgotten as a whole. Mark doesn’t even perform tracks off it now! It’s not a completely bad experience (“Helium”,”Live or Die”,”Move myself Ahead”, and “In your Life”) but there is too too much blandness on display. Eitzel seems to be writing from a more detached perspective overall. This approach might have worked better without the Buck arrangements.. It seems that Buck left his name off the product to avoid any kind of negativity that could be construed outside of the Eitzel circle.

    I prefer Mark working with Kid Congo Powers better!!!

    MERCURY is brilliant. “Apology for an Accident” totaly sums up the AMC/Eitzel appeal for me.

  7. So glad he moved you Kristy. You might be interested to hear that he has a new disc “The Ugly American” out this week (in the UK – March for the US). It’s a curious reworking of so many of his very best solo and band pieces. Normal sounding so far, until you hear that the backing band are Greek musicians playing their traditional instruments. Okay, there’s guitar and drums on there too but IMO the project breathes fresh life into the music with such a positive pathos (if there is such a thing). His voice is just wonderful on it – so controlled and precise. If anyone wants to check it out, it’s on Tongue Master Records and will ship internationally.

  8. Kristy, I too was present at the Seattle “West” show and to this day, still hold that performance as one of the most moving I’ve ever seen, Eitzel or otherwise. Though I am in agreement with others that “West” is an overall lackluster project, I can appreciate that your discovery album is the one you hold most precious. I think “California” and “Mercury” hold that spot for me. I’m looking forward to finally hearing “The Ugly American”, always appreciate a new work (new old work) from Mark. Thanks for the review.

  9. Well, I had the pleasure of listening to Ugly American and I can clearly state that those “old” songs sound so much better and fresher. This is “alternative country” without banjo for once, since Manolis Famellos (the producer and a well known and respected songwriter himself in Greece) has used a variety of Greek instruments (bouzouki, tzoura, mandolin etc) that offer a mediterranean flavour to those songs. Everyone with an open mind and with a good taste above all will understand how important for art such “match-makings” are. It seems that those greek musicians that participated have some remarkable talent…don’t miss this album!!! (even if you didn’t like Mark Eitzel before)

  10. The ” Ugly American ” is an exceptional album indeed. It is a very bold move by Eitzel, but it works. The (few) cynics argued that this is a sacrilidgeous move to cash in on past glorious. An unispired collaboration. But I disagree! This album is a glorious encapsulation of Mediterranean melancholic instrumentation and Eitzel’s songwriting. It would be hard for any doubter not be moved by some of the amazing interpretations. I just wish more artists had the guts to re-interpret their material. This album stands well by itself and hopefully will introduce the past & present songwriting of Mark Eitzel to a younger audience. There is a lot of money going around promoting young pretenders like Tom McRae or Damien Rice or Ed Harcourt etc and it is outrageous that a lot of punters are not aware of Mark Eitzel or American Music Club. It is a fascinating contrast of West meets East and ” The Ugly American ” just gets better and better with each listen. Eitzel’s voice is at its best. Support this album please. A welcome surprise…

  11. I first saw Mark play in a small record store on Broadway in Chicago. There were about 10 people in the store and I was there with my college sweetheart, who read about him in Rolling Stone; Hottest Songwriter…so we had to go. Seeing him that first time, I was immediately bound to those songs. I agree with previous comments; West does not touch Mercury or 60 Watt or California. But, you know, West is a pretty good album, too. There’s a song, on 60 Watt, that starts, “I’m out walking, on Saturday morning, without a direction…” It’s very suspect of our society that Eitzel’s not played on the radio much.

  12. I saw Mark Eitzel in Evanston at a bar this weekend. He walked off stage after a few songs because the sound was off. He tore a poster of West off the wall and stormed out. That was silly they had those West posters up anyway. Tragic.

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