Time To Go Away: On The Beauty of Mark Eitzel Rev

The late, great Joe Strummer once penned a song (“Diggin’ the New,” from 1999’s Rock Art and the X-Ray Style) celebrating the emergence of new sexual identities, admitting that he was a bit slow to catch on to the changes that were taking place around him. “Oh, took me a long time to get it,” he sang, “but when it’s taken time, you think and don’t forget it.”

It doesn’t appear that Mark Eitzel will be forgetting any time soon. Until recently, Eitzel seemed relatively content to continue on the solitary, Nick Drake-esque path of the tortured singer-songwriter. He had very little to say about his sexuality, preferring-much like Bob Mould, the former lead singer of Hüsker Dü and Sugar-to employ gender neutrality in his intensely personal songs of love and loss. A self-described former “army brat,” he had even less to say about U.S. foreign policy.

Now, however, he is waist-deep in politics with no end in sight. He is tired of losing friends to AIDS. He is angry about the Iraq war and convinced that the U.S. is turning into a living nightmare. Most painfully, he is thinking about leaving his beloved San Francisco and moving to Europe because his Italian partner is currently being threatened with deportation from the U.S. “I just want to be able to be with my boyfriend,” Eitzel admitted at a recent concert in Atlanta.

What happened? George W. Bush happened, signalling the consolidation of a right-wing revolution that was nurtured during the Clinton years in conservative think tanks, in evangelical churches, and on talk radio. And out of the resulting blur of militarism, homophobia, and collateral language emerged Love Songs for Patriots, the triumphant return of Eitzel’s band, American Music Club. A fascinating piece of social commentary from an unlikely source, the album finds Eitzel using his considerable lyrical skills to create a warning against the contemporary American drift toward a unique form of post-modern fascism.   

As the full extent of the Bush revolution has become clear, many on the Left (most notably Michael Moore in Bowling for Columbine) have addressed the culture of fear that grew stronger after 9/11 and provided the foundation for Bush’s 2004 electoral triumph. Others have turned their attention to the culture of ignorance that famously leaves U.S. students unable to locate Mexico on a world map, let alone recall anything about the history of Afghanistan. Love Songs for Patriots is an extended commentary on what is, in effect, the third leg of the Right Triangle on which the America of Bush, Rove, and Co. is balanced: the culture of denial. Almost every track on the album explores some form of personal or collective denial. True to his own songwriting roots, Eitzel generally filters this master trope through the twin lenses of love and loneliness, but his attention to the deteriorating political climate around him leaves him asking provocative and far-reaching political questions. How does one sing about “love” at a time when we are all potential targets of the “war on terrorism”? And how can we resist the culture of fear, ignorance and denial when we are all lonely?   

As Stanley Cohen has demonstrated, human beings have a remarkable facility for screening themselves from information that they would prefer not to confront.   Having grown up in apartheid South Africa and later moved to Israel shortly before that country’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, Cohen is well placed to analyze the corrosive effects of denial. The current U.S. tendency to rip 9/11 from its historical context is only the latest example of this corrosion. It is denial that covers Americans like a thick blanket, keeping the faithful warm and allowing them to believe that it is unpatriotic, even treasonous, to explore the historical roots of anti-American violence. When it comes to asking the tough (but obvious) questions raised by 9/11, the Right seems to have taken a page from Bill Clinton’s book: don’t ask, don’t tell.

That 9/11 is the origin of Eitzel’s intervention is clear from the bracing opening of “Ladies and Gentlemen,” the first track on Love Songs for Patriots. AMC always made a habit out of starting their albums with calm, often haunting numbers, but there is nothing calm about the words that Eitzel defiantly pronounces over Dan Pearson’s fuzzed-out bass:

Ladies and gentlemen it’s time
For all the good that’s in you to shine
For all the lights to lose their shade
For all the hate that’s in you to fade

Eitzel has described the song as the speech he wished George W. Bush had given after the al-Qaeda attacks, the speech Americans were denied.   

The culture of denial, of course, began long before 9/11. How many Americans really knew about what was going on in Central America during the 1980s? How many gave serious thought to the long-term implications of our addiction to cheap oil when the automobile industry was taking off after World War II? How many stop to consider, even today, the genocidal violence that lies at the root of the country’s founding? It is as if the U.S. were a two-dimensional place, a flat sheet of (decidedly white) paper, and 9/11 was the equivalent of a pencil punching its way through the page. When the first plane hit the tower, it came from another dimension, and all we saw was the hole in our reality.

Slavoj Zizek summarized the implications of 9/11 by quoting Morpheus’ famous line from The Matrix: “Welcome to the desert of the real!”   Others, such as Ariel Dorfman, argued that Americans now had an opportunity to reorient themselves in relation to the rest of the world and to understand the global nature of violence and our role in it.   Yet what happened, with alarming speed and efficiency, was a determined effort to paper over the hole and keep the third dimension at bay. As Eitzel derisively noted when introducing “Ladies & Gentlemen” at a May 2004 concert in London, Bush’s response was steeped in equal parts denial and cynical manipulation: “He said, `we’re gonna get `em!’ Oh, and he said, `Buy more stuff!'”

Longtime fans gathered at the Queen Elizabeth Hall could have been forgiven for wondering whether Eitzel’s body had been taken over by Molly Ivins. While AMC were arguably the unacknowledged geniuses of the country’s late 1980s and early 1990s alternative music scene, they were never known for making political statements. They were known for being hard to pigeonhole, for being pathologically unable to capitalize on their critical success, and for being the vehicle for the man once labelled “the world’s greatest living songwriter.” Formed in San Francisco in 1983, the band constituted a genre-defying repository of American music channelled through the compelling combination of Eitzel’s lyrical confessions, guitarist Vudi’s starkly beautiful electric soundscapes, the sensitive rhythm section of Pearson and drummer Tim Mooney, and the haunting pedal-steel guitar of occasional contributor Bruce Kaphan.

Eitzel grew up in Europe and central Ohio, flirted with evangelical Christianity as a teenager, and briefly fronted a punk band before creating AMC in 1983.   From the band’s hit-and-miss debut album (1985’s The Restless Stranger) through a series of masterpieces (Engine, California, United Kingdom, Everclear, Mercury) and the 1994 swansong San Francisco, he honed what one reviewer has described as “a harrowing vision of life seen through the bottom of a shot glass.” After the band’s dissolution he launched a solo career that has seen him make engaging journeys into jazzy lounge-pop, low-fi electronica, and stripped-down melancholia. Most recently, his legendary crankiness landed him a spot in Allen Zweig’s 2004 documentary, I, Curmudgeon.

Many of the finest songs from AMC’s heyday (“Western
y,” “Firefly,” “Sick of Food”) treat the time-honored the
mes of memory and lost love, while others (“Outside This Bar,” “Gary’s Song”) provide wrenching auto-ethnographic accounts of the lonely alcoholic life. Regardless of the subject matter, what always distinguished the band’s work, and what never fails to arrest listeners even now, is the marriage of raw beauty and stellar musicianship. A recent interview with Eitzel published in the Seattle-based webzine Fear of Speed suggests that beauty is perhaps the defining characteristic of AMC-and its dangerous albatross:

FOS: Can I be honest with you?
Eitzel: Sure.
FOS: I have this feeling AMC is never going to be super popular.
Eitzel: I agree. I never thought we would be.
FOS: I think the problem is that the music is just too beautiful. I was reading an interview with Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse, and he was wondering why his songs, even the really pretty ones, never get on the radio.
Eitzel: Hey, welcome to American, man.
FOS: And he was telling this to Tom Waits, and Waits said something to the effect that the beauty in it was too raw for the radio. He said “we’d have secretaries listening and crying in their cars on the way to work, and you know, we just can’t have that.”
Eitzel: I don’t know about that. I think the problem is America. It’s over.
FOS: Over?
Eitzel: Over as a force that transcends the world. And of course it doesn’t acknowledge its own artists.   

Until recently, politics for Eitzel meant the (usually tortured) politics of relationships, particularly relationships that were either deteriorating or gone altogether. “Western Sky,” perhaps the quintessential song of AMC’s early years, is a stunningly beautiful document of his love affair with Kathleen Burns. This affair, which preceded Eitzel’s decision to come out of the closet after the band’s breakup, provided the subject matter for a number of fan favorites. The song’s aching first line, “Time for me to go away,” signals Eitzel’s desire to reinvent himself even as he consoles his beloved that their love is still “shining in the western sky.”

Still a staple of AMC’s live shows, “Western Sky” uses the wide-open vistas of the western US to signal both the vast emptiness of the lonely life and the endless possibility that lies at the core of American cultural mythology. Eitzel’s introduction of the song at a 2004 concert in Pittsburgh, however, shows the singer infusing the song with an urgent political message. In a soaring performance captured on the recently-released live CD A Toast To You, Eitzel’s “Time for me to go away” suddenly emerges as the reaction of an angry, gay Northern Californian (Eitzel came out after the band’s breakup) to policies that have made everyone a suspect. Before launching into the song, Eitzel opines that he and his fellow residents should declare an independent republic. “You’re all welcome-all the border guards will be, you know, leather guys and dykes on bikes,” he jokes. “NorCal!”

This subtle reworking of “Western Sky” opens up the question of patriotism in a powerful way, not by ridiculing the whole idea (as the Left often does), but by implicitly asking what “love of country” might mean when your country is an empire seemingly bent on devouring itself. In the original song, the singer’s decision to “go away” is an act of love. In 2005, one wonders whether some sort of collective secession from the Bush project might be the most loving thing Americans can do for their country.

Love Songs for Patriots finds Eitzel returning to his lyrical obsession with Burns, who died in 1998, and bidding her a beautiful and determined farewell that has broader political implications. “A broken heart might bring you to heaven, but it will not bring you another morning, another morning with Kathleen,” he sings on “Another Morning,” the album’s second track. In concerts he has referred to it as the last song he will write for his former lover and muse. In the context of the album, he is also calling on listeners to resist the temptation of falling prey to the trap of victimization wherever it may emerge. The second chorus signals the broader lesson: “Justice will only bring you a prison, a prison, and it will not bring you another morning…..” In the era of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, the warning couldn’t be clearer.

In his conversation with Fear of Speed, Eitzel discusses his opposition to the Iraq war (“all these Iraqis are dying because of one crazy man’s political dream”) and makes it clear that for him, the personal is now very political:

And for me, being a gay person…George Bush has made me come clean in a lot of ways. I can’t write the kind of songs I want to write and not talk about these things. Because it’s affecting my future. I don’t even now if I have a future in America anymore. It’s a future without social security or healthcare, where the very rich are in protected camps and the very poor are desperate and dying. What kind of future is that? I went to Brazil, to Sao Paolo, and I saw it there. The future of America. Everyone who’s semi-bourgeoisie has a fence around their house and a security guard.

In painting such a bleak picture, Eitzel echoes the trenchant analysis of Paul Virilio, the French urbanist and theorist of speed. According to Virilio, the U.S. has been a “suicidal state” for some time, with the State carrying out a systematic process of “endocolonization” symbolized by the withdrawal of social services and the diversion of resources to the military and other parts of the national security apparatus.   Meanwhile, thanks to the shrinking of the world brought about by the accelerating pace of travel and communication, we are experiencing a generalized process of confinement. Everyone is confined and scared: the rich in their SUVs and gated communities, the poor in their shantytowns, the jet-set in their world of “real time,” the desperate refugees and migrants who suffocate in tanker trucks and die while trying to swim to Europe.

All of this, of course, is precisely what is being denied at a time when TV networks lead their newscasts with Michael Jackson, Martha Stewart, or Terri Schiavo. Other songs on the new AMC album explore just how widespread the culture of denial has become. In “Job To Do,” for example, Eitzel admits his own shame at his pattern of crossing the street to avoid making eye contact with a woman (homeless? sex worker?) he sees every day. As the song alternately simmers and thunders, the double meaning of the title emerges: on the one hand, there is dignity in work, and no one should be shunned because they do a job that others might find demeaning; on the other hand, the whole system perpetuates itself in part because all of us-factory workers who build bombs, teachers who train the next generation of middle managers, advertising executives who peddle anorexia and rampant consumerism, politicians and journalists who fail to ask critical questions-can hide behind the clichéd claim that we are “just doing our job.”

The album’s most straightforward political statement, “America Loves the Minstrel Show,” finds Eitzel sounding a lot like Elvis Costello (who set the pop standard for the critique of fascism) as he exposes the illusion of freedom that props up our “democratic” system. If politics is theater, and politicians are actors, then our role becomes a passive one of laughing, expressing shock at appropriate moments (as Gil Scott-Heron once noted wryly, “America leads the world in shock!”), and making the occasional “choice.” The task of the critic, now as ever, is to remove the curtain and reveal the inner workings of the system. When Eitzel looks behind the scenes, he sees a President whose megalomania manifests itself as projection:

It’s the thief who’s the first to accuse others they steal
It’s the fake who claims to always know who is real
And millions all wanna bathe in his glow
America loves the minst

rel show

The culture of appearances, of course, cuts in e
very direction. If the President is a fake, then who is to say that the critic (or the songwriter) is not? “My life is a sham, I pretend that I’m me,” sings Eitzel as the song opens. “My life is a sham, I pretend that I’m free.” Add self-doubt to the already formidable list of barriers to social change.

Indeed, AMC’s new album suggests that the culture of denial functions hand in hand with a paralyzing culture of loneliness. The road to fascism, as Hannah Arendt has taught us, is paved first with isolation (which does leave people with some “private” sphere of autonomy) and then, decisively, with loneliness. The fact that so many people can experience loneliness, even in a “mass” society, helps explain why totalitarianism can arise in the first place-and why it can arise again.   

Three of the album’s strongest tracks treat the dilemma of the isolated individual who seeks small comforts in the midst of a lonely life. In “Myopic Books” (named after a bookstore in Chicago, where Eitzel lived briefly and unhappily), the singer takes solace in a bookstore where the “super skinny and super unfriendly” workers play Dinosaur Jr. Irony aside, the shop offers a chance to get out of the house and reconnect with his late mother, who was the subject of the harrowing AMC song “Mom’s TV” (from Engine). Why does he remember his mother fondly? “She understood how to be alone, all alone.” Outside the bookstore, however, the world is cold and unfriendly, a reminder of the winds of change that have blown through the country since 9/11.

Loyal fans will remember Eitzel’s classic “Outside This Bar” when listening to “Myopic Books.” An even stronger connection emerges in “Home,” the sweeping anthem that lies at the center of Love Songs. Looking back at his life, the singer concludes: “My only sin, my only sin: I started hating my own skin.” As the music swells, he offers the simple prayer of the lost and lonely: “Home, home, home, I hope I make it home.”   

In a September 2004 interview with The Guardian, Eitzel explains that the song emerged out of an encounter-in a bar, of course-with a young “deep psychedelic house DJ” who pestered the solitary songwriter by saying, “You know what your trouble is? You have to live with more love in your heart.” Eitzel, furious and not in the mood to chat, told his interlocutor to take his “post-ecstasy revelation” and “fuck off.” The story’s coda provides the key to the song:

And I left, and walked home, and I felt kind of bad, because he was just trying to make conversation at a bar, and I thought, the only thing left in this whole world that even bothers to hate you now is your pride, which was the start of the song. And I made it home. I stumbled home.

If “Home” holds out at least the possibility of transcending the gulf of loneliness, “Patriot’s Heart” reminds us of the stark, even obscene reality that lies beneath the culture of loneliness. “America, like Hitl–like Nazi Germany, was a leader in the fight against terrorism,” Eitzel deadpanned in London. “And I wrote this song because I think it’s time for the gay stripper to be acknowledged as a warrior in the fight against terrorism.” He may well be the only songwriter who could decide to portray his country as an aging male stripper. In other hands, such a comparison would be mildly amusing and that would be that. In Eitzel’s hands, the effect is absolutely devastating. As the song sways drunkenly, held together by Mooney’s booming drums, Eitzel delivers blow after scathing blow against a decaying nationalism that survives by exploiting people’s fear and insecurities:

It is so red white and blue the way he works the bar
Selling his embraces like Mr. President, or a fallen star
And he don’t care, babe, if you’re worldly or wise
He’s just looking for men with sin in their eyes

This is the pornography of nationalism, Bush-style, a pornography that feeds a co-dependent relationship between the individual and the collective.

Eitzel’s sympathetic portrayal of loneliness takes a tragicomic detour in “Your Horseshoe Wreath in Bloom,” whose rollicking tin-pan-alley style recalls earlier AMC tracks such as “Crabwalk” and “Gary’s Song.” Lyrically, the song enacts a miniature theater of the alcoholic absurd. The desperate protagonist of “Outside this Bar” has morphed (or decayed) into a pitiful and aging class clown, “a funny red nose, Rudolph jokes, memory fading.” He passes his time sitting in a hotel bar, uselessly scratching off lottery tickets, a ubiquitous facsimile of hope. Singing a song that would be right at home on Costello’s 1989 Spike album, Eitzel strikes an appropriately sarcastic tone:

If you buy a lottery ticket, you’ll win someday
A pile of dead scratches with the gold and silver scratched away
And your horseshoe wreath, it’ll surely bloom
If you wait in the hotel bar all afternoon

“Horseshoe Wreath,” which is peppered with references to the mundane details of a vacuous American culture (lottery tickets, Ed McMahon, frozen margaritas), might’ve even brought a smile to the face of Theodor Adorno. The song joins “Patriot’s Heart” in portraying a society that is collapsing in on itself, awash in the twin plagues of denial and loneliness. As Eitzel demonstrates in “Mantovani the Mind Reader,” a wry homage to the king of elevator music, paranoia (you can’t even trust the music!) also plays its role in maintaining the surveillance culture of Homeland Security.

If the album is brutally honest in its assessment of the problem, it also points to a central idea (love) that can provide the starting point for a culture of resistance. The understated “Love Is,” while perhaps the album’s least interesting track from a musical standpoint, nonetheless contains what is arguably its most beautiful line (“We’re so small compared to our hearts”). As Eitzel repeats “I’m sorry I made you cry” over delicate fingerpicking, one is reminded of the importance of forgiveness in love-and the absence of forgiveness in the practices of American politics.

Commentators on the Left often shy away from such themes. Many of us, perhaps, given our training in the world of Marxism and secular criticism, fear that we might be mistaken for (gasp!) religious folks. Others of us, enamored since our youth with the punk ideal and the politics of rage and nonconformity, don’t want to sound like lounge singers. This kind of progressive, highbrow shame, however, has never been an issue for Eitzel, who has always dared to make beautiful music and who once wrote a song posing an existential question (“can you tell me how to live?”) to none other than Johnny Mathis. So it’s not surprising to hear him deliver one of the album’s strongest messages via a song titled “Only Love Can Set You Free,” whose opening lines take direct aim at the macho presumptions that lie at the core of current U.S. policy:

You say that weakness is only
A way to give your heart to the enemy
But if the blow that knocks you out’s the one you don’t see
Then why are you fighting?
Listen, before you lose the ocean for your tears
Listen, before your fists are carved out of stone
Listen, before they finally force you to your knees
Only love can set you free

Vulnerability, listening, openness to the Other: the Bush Doctrine will fail because it is built on a denial of the very things that lie at the heart of any successful relationship.   

In terms of entering a public discussion about love, Eitzel is undoubtedly swimming against the tide. Ours is a culture, after all, in which the most deeply social aspects of love are routinely ignored in favor of its most trivial aspects. Romantic love is idealized, and often commodified, while an ethic of love-that is, an ethic that would require reaching out to the world instead of bombing it-is ridiculed and offered no place in t

he realm of public discourse. In the absence of such an ethic, we are trapped in a destru
ctive (and self-destructive) process of national decay. Small wonder that since 9/11, scholars have paid increasing attention to the question of whether, and how, the American empire is declining. “You can see him fade like the dawn in a pile of Washingtons,” sings Eitzel in “Patriot’s Heart.” Indeed.

If there was any doubt about the nature of this decline, the album’s penultimate track dispels it definitively. “Song of the Rats Leaving the Sinking Ship” finds Eitzel almost whispering the news that others (think Ward Churchill) have shouted with considerably less subtlety:

Once you rode a tide, it was always floating out towards the sky
It was like a dancer who followed your step
It was like a lover who could take you to the dawn
It was like a history you could throw away
Now the sea is throwing back all the voices who don’t want to drown
Every wave is like a soldier who will fade back into the fear where the soldiers are made
Trapped with your first class papers on a lonely dock
Where the future is luxury to mock
You can laugh, you can cry, you can even bitterly grieve
But you can’t deny that it’s time to leave

It’s a song that haunts. Denial, loneliness, decline. The realities that are reflected in the cracked glass of AMC’s latest work help explain why the US, like a defiant but increasingly isolated dictator, continues to take actions designed to paper over the hole in its two-dimensional world.

All of this leaves us with a stark choice, a choice that Eitzel, with the aid of his favorite metaphor, formulates in the album’s opening track:

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time
the bartender is looking you right in the eye
he says, “I’m gonna replace all your weak blood with my wine,
If you can’t live with the truth, go ahead-try and live with a lie”

And in the end, as AMC signs off in a fading cacophony of instruments at the end of “The Devil Needs You,” there are only questions-about love, about love of country, about the stories we tell ourselves when we want to “live with a lie.” Love Songs for Patriots raises all of these questions with anger, grace and beauty, and its most fundamental question is also the most dangerous: What are we denying?


John Collins is Assistant Professor of Global Studies at St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY, where he teaches courses on Palestine, nationalism, media analysis, cultural studies theory, and the global politics of violence. He is the author of Occupied By Memory: The Intifada Generation and the Palestinian State of Emergency (NYU Press, 2004), an ethnographic study of the relationship between nationalism, memory, and generational identity in the context of the first Palestinian intifada. He is also the co-editor, with Ross Glover, of Collateral Language: A User’s Guide to America’s New War (NYU Press, 2002), a collection of essays critically interrogating the rhetoric used to justify U.S. military action after the September 11 attacks.

This entry was posted in Miscellaneous. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
  • Pages

  • Categories

  • Issues