AMERICAN MUSIC CLUB – CALIFORNIA
American Music Club rank alongside Big Star as one of the great-lost treasures of American music. The glowing press that they received was the kind that the likes of U2 can only pray for. Despite all the accolades, bandleader Mark Eitzel once won the Rolling Stone songwriter of the year, they never managed to convert their critical acclaim into sales.
Formed in San Francisco in 1983, from the remnants of Eitzel’s art rock band The Naked Skinnies and various local musicians that the new guitarist Vudi handpicked for Eitzel. The bands debut "The Restless Stranger", a turgid new wave mess, offered no hints of the wonders to come. By their sophomore effort, The Engine, the band had started to find their sound. The songs were becoming stronger and the lyrics had added bite. American Music Club, at this time sounded like an above average US indie rock band cast from the same mould as Thin White Rope and Husker Du.
When the time came to record California, Eitzel’s personal circumstances had changed. He had moved to one of San Francisco’s less salubrious areas. A down at heal neighbourhood of bedsits, bars and strip joints populated by the lost, broken, drunk and lonely. Perfect grist to the mill for a songwriter with Eitzel eye for the dispossessed.
Eitzel had also changed his listening habits in a conscious attempt to strip the traces of "rock" from the songs he was writing. Overdosing on Nick Drake records, the demo’s that he brought to the band where radically different from anything he had preciously attempted. Many where not "songs" at all, in the conventional sense, just tiny fragments of despair, lacking choruses or even chord progressions.
The recording of the album was an arduous and fraught affair. When composing the demo’s Eitzel had used a series of strange open tunings on his guitar and he struggled to convey the sound that he heard in his head to the band. The producer Tom Mallon pushed the band to breaking point, recording and re-recording everything from the simplest guitar break to the smallest drum beat until he felt that he had perfectly captured the essence of the songs. Often Eitzel’s throat would bleed after repeated attempts to find the vocal performance that Mallon was seeking. Mallon even resorted to cutting up hundreds of strips of the master tapes and piecing them together in an attempt to bring one of the tracks into time. As the recording wore on the tension between the band and their producer increased. The problems stemmed from the fact that Mallon owned both the studio they recorded in and the record label. As Mallon allowed the band to record for free and they all had day jobs, the arrangement placed all the power in his hands. Mallon felt that because he was investing so much of his own time, money and energy into the project he should have total control. The band increasingly believed that he was abusing his position and was pushing them to hard.
Despite the tension of the recording sessions the finished LP was astounding. From the moment that Bruce Kaplan’s mournful, elegiac, pedal steel guitar ushers in the opening bars of Firefly its obvious that the hard work had paid handsome dividends. California fused Eitzel’s stories of loss, regret and loneliness to a sound that echoed his obsessions. The album reverberates to the haunting sounds of empty spaces, brooding silences, quite eddies of feedback and washes of pedal steel guitar.
Mark Eitzel was a born in Walnut Creak California but spent the majority of his life in transit. His father was in the US Navy. As a result the young Eitzel spent time living in a variety of locations, including a period of his youth in Southampton just as punk was exploding in the UK. Eitzel’s vision of California is far removed from the picture postcard ideals of Baywatch, The Beach Boys and Disneyland. Having moved back west, to California from Ohio, Eitzel found it as barren, sallow and unforgiving as the Joad family in John Steinbecks Grapes of Wrath.
In the opening "Firefly" Eitzel uses the insect, of the title, as a metaphor for his view on the flitting nature of love. Built around a sonorous pedal steel riff he sings "Just a flash and then its gone/…here an gone/Firefly..". Kaplans wonderful playing is all the more remarkable as he turned up at the sessions only as a favor to Vudi. When he arrived he hadn’t ever heard the song and improvised the haunting melody on the spot.
Following "Firefly" the songs start to unfold in a myriad of images with drinking as a central theme. Not drinking as celebration but as desperation, as the only way to deaden the pain, the only way to make life barable. The protagonists of "Lonely" and "Somewhere" seek salvation in cocktail bars and anywhere that there is alcohol and "people living".
Between the relatively conventional sounding country rock of "Lonely" and "Somewhere" is "Laughing Stock". The songs wide-open spaces and oppressive pauses are the first indications of the oblique sonic palate that the band where now employing. When Eitzel’s burnished golden voice sings mid way through that your "just a couple of strangers in a bar giving me the chance to explain myself away…" you can hear the sound of loneliness echo out through time. The track comes to a false end and hangs in silence for seconds before a ghostly coda of muted feedback and strummed guitars finally close it out.
The first side of the LP concludes with "Pale Skinny Girl", the tale of a loner who takes her "first walk out into the wasteland" and "never sees daylight". On "Blue and Grey Shirt"; a weary Eitzel is seeking an explanation of a failed affair before moving on, because "there’s nothing to keep me hanging around here / from now on…"
The raging, drunken "Bad Liquor" is the sound of closing time made flesh. A weazy mouth organ and huge Dwaine Eddie riff blasting out 1:57 of ugly, demon drink vented bad spleen. The pathos in the lyrics tempers the misanthropic feeling of the track. Eitzel’s self-depreciating wit is evident in lyrics throughout the LP, raising the songs above self-indulgent misery.
The drunken barrage of "Bad Liquor", is followed by the hungover "Now Your Defeated". The song starts at a gently pace, an acoustic guitar ushering in Eitzel voice as he sings" Well I thought there’s more to life than finishing a drink", but you know he doesn’t think there is. The song gradually builds, Dan Persons bass provides a melancholy undertow until Tom Mallon’s cymbals’ crash in like sharp sunlight invading a hangover and Eitzel mumbles the payoff line "now your defeated baby / your worth more to me than gold…"
California closes with a quartet of songs as spell binding, beautiful and bleak as anything ever recorded. Over a gentle finger picked guitar refrain "Jenny" is the sound of Nick Drake relocated to Edward Hoppers lonely American hinterland. Eitzel stuck at "another stupid party again/ celebration of nothing ". Sick of the party, afraid to go home, afraid of his own company he pleads in weary whisper "Jenny don’t go home now, please don’t go home now…" Vudi’s accordion then shades the track with the briefest of murmurs it sounds like Eitzel’s heart breaking.
The majestic minor key grace of "Western Sky" follows. The song opens with the lines "Time for me to go away/ I’ll get a new name/ I’ll get a new face/time for me to go away/no I don’t belong in this place…" Like Bruce Springsteen’s "Dancing In The Dark" refracted through a shattered empty whiskey glass. Once again Bruce Kaplans pedal steel, shadowed by Dan Pearson’s base, provides a shimmering vibrant refrain to Eitzel’s longing for escape. Eitzel knows that the prosaic nature of day to day living can wring all the pleasure out of life that treading water saps your inner strength. This is reflected when he sings "All the beauty’s has left your face/That’s such an easy thing to give away/ That’s impossible to replace." With life passing them by, hope is the only thing left to cling onto but hope is always just over the horizon, "Shining forever in the western sky…"
California’s bleakest track is the remarkable Highway Five. So distilled are the sentiments of despair and anomie that the song could slot onto Joy Divisions "Closer" or The Manic Street Preachers "Holy Bible". "Highway Five" is the main road that runs through California like a spine. Eitzel had traveled down it on his return to the sunshine state. Instead of finding the utopia that he was seeking in California, Eitzel found his personal Sodom and Gormora. After the whispered intro, Vudi’s guitar starts to menace the song like a growing storm, whipping up vapor trails of melody that are drenched in feedback. The track rises on the burgeoning cacophony. Then abruptly the guitar disappears from the mix and claustrophobic silence rushes in. Over the void Eitzel cries, " To the left the beautiful California landscape dead ends in the sky/ To the right the beautiful mountains rise high and dry/ Another futile expression of bitterness/ Another overwhelming sensation of uselessness…" Vudi’s guitar starts to build again from stratch, the songs rising as Eitzel sings "Make pretend that the lover ain’t so barren/but in Los Angeles things like that don’t matter..", the track then begins to dissolve amongst Vudi’s giant distorted riff like a plane heading for a crash landing.
The closing track on the LP, "Last Harbor", was inspired by a rain lashed Christmas Day, that Eitzel spent wandering the streets of San Francisco, alone.
The specter of Nick Drake is audible in the songs fragile guitar motif. The track offers a brief glimpse of hope. Eitzel, optimist, that despite his loneliness he may have finally found some consolation and a final resting place. "A Last Harbor" at the very edge of the world. The intimate vocal draws you slowly in. Eitzel sense of relief is tempered by his restless nature as he wonders " Failing I can’t see the bottom/Are you gonna be/My last harbor/Harbor…". The solace that he has found maybe temporary, as he is only too aware of closing time desperation. A night with anyone is better than another night alone and he knows "She’ll make it real easy for you/ all you have to do is remember her name/ she’s almost your passport to the world/she’s almost your ticket back out again.." The sensitively picked guitar melody slowly disappears into silence and Eitzel voice drifts away to a faint whisper.
The American Music Club LP’s that followed California all contained killer material. The bleak "United Kingdom" (1989) housed "Kathleen", Eitzel paean to his long-term muse, Kathleen Burns. Somehow the LP lacked he bruised humanity of California but it is still classic American Music Club. The band then spilt from Tom Mallon and the subsequent records would never sound the same. The post Mallon LP’s contained some of the bands strongest songs but they where lost in a mire of overproduction; a series of misguided attempts to turn them into a straight rock band. Eitzel thought that "Everclear" (1991) made them sound like Bon Jovi.
The band split after the half-hearted compromise of "San Francisco ", in 1996, when the lack of success and dearth of money finally killed them off. Mark Eitzel has pursued a varied solo career, his jazz flavored debut "60 Watt Silver Lining"(1996) the highlight. Some of the remaining members of American Music Club formed Clodhopper who released their debut LP, "Red’s Recovery Room" in 1999. The record proved the American Music Club dynamics where still there but they lacked killer songs. Eitzel has a record ready for release but cannot find a label. Someone do they world a favor and let as hear a little more of his genius.
TONY HEYWOOD FEB 2000