January 30, 1958– Mark Eitzel seems like the sort of guy I would spot at The Eagle, my neighborhood gay watering hole, sitting alone in a shadow, a guy who shows up in the afternoon and sticks around until last call, sipping his beer, sadly staring at the porn playing on the TV monitors over the bar, muttering to himself, or mouthing the words to an ABBA song playing on the stereo system. As I imagine it, I am there being louche in a corner reading Dashiell Hammett & we sneak peeks at each other.
He is a gay guy who sang “Ain’t no sunshine when he’s gone” when he covered the famous Bill Withers song. Eitzel is a man who claims that he works at staying away from being labeled as a “gay” artist, and yet he composes songs about Cleopatra Jones & dedicated tunes to Barbra Streisand.
Eitzel has made a career out of being sorrowful. He famously was once the lead singer/songwriter for the Country-Pink-Alt band American Music Club (1985-1994) with 7 albums, and he has released 15 solo albums since. He is a songwriter of stunning talent, but his sadness is inescapable, inextricably intertwined into every line of his lyrics. Eitzel’s miserable musings give off a kind of torchy vibe. He composes emotionally eviscerating, elegiac, sometimes furious music.
Rolling Stone Magazine voted him Songwriter Of The Year in 1991. He has been described as “The American Morrissey” and NME called him “America’s greatest living lyricist”. However, commercial success never followed and Eitzel blames himself entirely and doesn’t begrudge similar artists like Rufus Wainwright elbowing in on his possible success.
He sings in a unpretentious, sloppy, richly textured voice. The most heartbreaking thing about Eitzel is that his songs are often tinged with just the slightest sliver of optimism:
“Forgot there was such a thing as good people left
Can’t you just save my life
I got a fresh screwdriver right before closing time…”
His reputation as critics’ darling came about during the early 1990s, as American Music Club released album after album to critical acclaim only to be shut out by a commercial neglect. American Music Club’s heart-wrenching songs of love and anger, which pulled country and punk music from their roots into an iconoclastic reinvention of the American roots musical, were a perfect vehicle for Eitzel’s bruised, barbed lyrics. His staggeringly emotional live performances were noted for an emotional Eitzel storming off the stage, with rough relationships within the band and a propensity for heroic amounts of alcohol consumption.
“There are a lot of songwriters who play quietly and look at the floor and they become huge stars. I always try to put on a show at my own expense, instead of commanding any kind of seriousness. People call me class clown so much and it’s kind of true. At the same time, though, you want to put everything you have into every moment on stage and not everyone does. You rely on magic and luck to get you through and I’ve been so lucky, but I’ve also been a complete fool. It’s the way I had to do it.”
Eitzel’s father was in the US Army and he was brought up in Taiwan and Britain. He claims that as a child he was “very sweet and shy, but so terrified of the world”. Eitzel moved back to the USA when he was 19 years old, landing in San Francisco and forming American Music Club in 1983. In 1985, he came out of the closet in a magazine interview.
“I didn’t get a good reaction. The record company wasn’t happy and they wanted to put out that I was bisexual, not gay. It was the 1980s and a completely different world. In the Rock N’ Roll world, even, in San Francisco, it was not really acceptable to come out. 20 years on, it’s completely changed, thank goodness.”
After American Music Club disbanded, Eitzel began a solo career. He collaborated with REM’s Peter Buck on West (1997) my favorite of his albums. It was recorded at Ann and Nancy Wilson’s (Heart) Bad Animals Studio where I was recording a series of voice-overs and we passed in a hallway and briefly checked each other out. He is ruggedly handsome.
American Music Club briefly regrouped for a couple of albums in the last decade but they have not regrouped since 2008. Eitzel suffered a heart attack and American Music Club drummer Tim Mooney died suddenly in 2011. The heart attack left Eitzel broke and the loss of his friend left him broken. For a man whose songs distilled sorrow and misery, you might expect this run of bad luck to have further fuelled Eitzel’s descent into abject introspection, but instead he recorded his best album yet, Don’t Be A Stranger (2012).
I like to drink whiskey and listen to his music a dark,dreary rainy winter day.
Eitzel left expensive San Francisco for LA, where he now lives in Silverlake with his boyfriend. He continues to tour.