TVD Live: Mark Eitzel
at the Black Cat, 12/4

Wanna guess who’s the finest singer-songwriter in the U.S.? Kurt Wagner of Lambchop, you say? Close, but no cigar. John Mayer? I’m going to try to forget you said that. Neil Peart of Rush? FYI: you must be 14 years of age or older to participate, and besides Peart’s Canadian. John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats? An excellent guess, but try again. Jon Bon Jovi? I’m a cowboy and on a steel horse I ride, and the horse says no. The guy who wrote “Gangnam Style”? Now we’re getting somewhere.

No, the answer is former American Music Club singer/songwriter Mark Eitzel. I first discovered Eitzel by way of a 1993 AMC song called “Johnny Mathis’ Feet.” It takes the form of an imaginary dialogue between Eitzel and Mathis in which Eitzel places all his songs at Mathis’ feet and implores him to tell him what’s wrong with his music. “Johnny looked at my songs and he said / “Well, at first guess / Never in my life / Have I ever seen such a mess / Why do you say everything / As if you were a thief? / Like what you stole has no value / And like what you preach is far from belief?”

As “Johnny Mathis’ Feet” illustrates, Eitzel can be an amusingly self-deprecating guy. Leave it to him to call a 2005 solo album Candy Ass, and to charmingly entitle a 1982 self-released cassette Mean Mark Eitzel Gets Fat. Or to entitle a song “In My Role as the Most Hated Singer in the Local Underground Music Scene.” Eitzel takes a perverse delight in playing the straight man in a comedy act; “Superstar! Superstar! Superstar!” runs the sarcastic chorus of “Hello Amsterdam,” a song written about an ill-attended show AMC played in the city of canals.

But Eitzel isn’t primarily known for his humor. Rather, his reputation is based on his gloomy songs of alcoholic desperation and loneliness—chiefly his own. Eitzel’s tunes make your average Morrissey song sound like “Walking on Sunshine.” He primarily sings about love, and how only it can save you, but won’t. As for his lovers, they tend to be as damaged and despairing as he is: “The price of your soul is worth less than the cab fare / That gets you home before the living end / The dead part of you leaves me with a blessing / From a destruction of your beauty / Your self-hatred, your self-pity.” Eitzel is also known for his takes on the drinking life, a subject he knows first-hand. “C’mon let’s waste another thousand years / Sitting around your kitchen table / We’ll turn the brandy into beer / Later they’ll say / “What a miracle.”

American Music Club broke up permanently in 2008. As for Eitzel’s solo work, I’ve long been ambivalent about it. His penchant for torch songs—“I really love being a crooner, I really do” he told the audience at the Black Cat—has gone largely unchecked without AMC’s rich instrumental palette, which not only undercut Eitzel’s predilection for phlegmatic tempos but actually managed to produce a body of songs that could be filed under the heading “rock.” Unfortunately, Eitzel’s new one, Don’t Be a Stranger, is yet another crooner’s delight. It features the usual number of slow burners with sparse instrumentation, a discouragingly few medium tempo numbers, and two, count ‘em, two songs about unhappy clowns.

To support it, Eitzel made a stop at the Black Cat on Tuesday, December 4. Eitzel was accompanied only by David Nagler on electric piano, and the tempos ranged almost exclusively from the purgatorially slow to the dirgelike. Was I disappointed? Extremely. But I was soon captivated by Eitzel’s powerful voice and humorous stage banter. “A gay singer singing about an actress is kinda corny, but there you go,” he said before launching into the lovely “What Holds the World Together.” “What holds the world together / Is the wind that blows through Gena Rowlands hair” went the chorus, and it was as beautiful an homage as you could ever hope to hear.

He followed it with “I Love You But You’re Dead” off Don’t Be a Stranger, which recounts Eitzel’s encounter with singer Niagara of “anti-rock” band Destroy All Monsters at a rock show. “I wanna get messed up / And give up / And end up somewhere else,” sang Eitzel. When he asks Niagara to sign his poster, she writes, “I love you but you’re dead”—a macabre inscription until you learn it’s the title of a Destroy All Monsters song.

“I want to sing a series of songs about love, about which I know almost nothing,” Eitzel said before slipping in the surprise of the night, a cover of Calexico’s “Chanel No. 5.” Then came “Apology for an Accident,” a classic example of self-mortification: “I’m an expert in all the things that nature abhors / Your look of disgust when I touched your skin / And I try to figure what the world needs me for / So I replay the scene again and again.” Along the same lines was the wonderfully titled “Why I’m Bullshit,” with its chorus of “All I know is I betrayed you / By not dragging Hell to find you.”

Probably the most beautiful song of the night was “Firefly,” about the death of Eitzel’s mother. What begins as simple suburban idyll (“Come on, beautiful / We’ll go sit on the front lawn / We’ll watch the fireflies as the sun goes down / They don’t live too long / Just a flash and then they’re gone”) soon moves into darker territory: “Tell me why you don’t sleep anymore? / Tell me what you sit up all night waiting for? / Are you waiting for loneliness to paralyze? / Are you waiting for Sister Midnight to unleash the tide?”

I suffered through the funereal-paced “Lament for Bobo the Clown,” a sympathetic ode to the dunk tank clown at a state fair: “You’re the clown that can’t be drowned / You’ve got to stay high and dry / The world turns its face away.” Less lugubrious was “Hollywood 4-5-92,” a song about alcoholic dissolution that begins, “My revenge against the world / Is to believe everything you say / Balanced as you are / On a pile of empty bottles.”

“The Decibels and the Little Pills,” the story of a woman who makes a spectacle of herself at a heavy metal club, followed. “And you pull off your blouse / Wet girls gone wild / For a crowd that just didn’t want to know / And it’s not your scene / Everyone is mean / Your eyes they say / “I don’t want to know” / And how sad is that / Your rebel cowboy hat / All it says is you’re tonight’s casualty / Oh, and the crowd is proud to look away / Like they’ve never been desperate or lonely.” In a similar vein was “Patriot’s Heart,” about a male stripper. “If you wanna see something patriotic, there’s a stripper / He don’t look that good, but he’s got an all-American smile / That fills his underwear with all the lonely dollars / From all the lonely men who no one ever suffers.”

For an encore, Eitzel played “Gratitude Walks,” with its opening lines, “Why don’t you be good for something / And draw down the shade/On a sign that sat up all night shivering / On a sign that sat up all night afraid.” Then he concluded the evening with “We All Have to Find Our Own Way Out,” about a friend in despair: “You talk of suicide / Well Hooray / And yeah that used to be me / But now what do I have to say / Everyone needs a hand to help them down / You know what I’ll hold your hand / But I won’t drown.”

All-in-all, the show proved that Eitzel has the pipes to be the lounge singer he so wants to be. It may be too late—crooning may well be Eitzel’s fate—but his love will be our loss. And here’s one guy who hopes he someday gathers around himself the kind of band that can resurrect the rocker in him.

Photos: Erica Bruce

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  • meitzel

    Ugh – Well thanks – I hear you, baby – I wish I could have afforded to play with a band – but yeah thats not your problem. In my defense all i can say is 1) have Merge send you the lyrics so you can quote them accurately whilst demonstrating how miserable they are (and while also upping the word count in the article.) 2) I wrote Chanel #5 – not Calexico (whom I love for playing it) 3) If I’m as down as you say I am – then what gives you the right to kick me 4) I think critics should be banned from ever speaking in the 3rd person – its a just so royal.

  • meitzel

    and then you can’t even delete stupid comments you make.

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