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Mark Eitzel – Cabaret Voltaire, Edinburgh

Mark EitzelFor the truly great American bands of the 80s – R.E.M., Húsker Dú, The Replacements, Black Flag, Uncle Tupelo, The Pixies – success (or a relative of it) shined upon them at some stage, be it in those incarnations or for some of their members after the fact. For Mark Eitzel, it didn’t. American Music Club were as great, as cult and as important as anybody from those days, but no matter what he’s done he’s just found it that bit out of reach.

He’s never been an easy man to love, of course. Borderline alcoholic, gay and self-loathing for it, his songs have a vituperative honesty which make them more than a little unsettling. There is no varnish at all with Eitzel, yet tonight as he sings unadorned and accompanied only by sparse piano, his astonishing voice acts as a balm as his words simultaneously score your soul.

He opens with ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco’, which becomes as tremulous and dark as it ever was when Sinatra sung it. He’s in a good mood, which isn’t always the case. That calm is threatened when keyboard player Marc Capelle won’t let him place his water bottle on the piano, but thankfully passes. It’s a reminder, though, of how fragile everything is here tonight. He inhabits a world right on that note of tension, that sense of nothing lasting forever and we are here briefly for a fleeting life in which pain will be an almost ever-present. He exudes glass half-empty like, well, a half-empty glass. It’s not John and Edward, no.

But God, if he ever did go on one of those shows, they’d have to put him through. His voice is just a beast of a thing, a beaten, booze-soaked holler one minute, a Broadway showstopper the next. He swoops and flies and dances the thing all over the room, captivating his audience as they focus in on what has just happened. He shambles around in between songs, almost embarrassed by the power of it all. It’s fair to say he doesn’t always seem comfortable with all of this.

‘Windows on the World’ tells of taking cocaine in the restaurant at the top of the Twin Towers, boring the barmaid as he does it and looking around later for something to make sense of it all. ‘Nightwatchman’ tells of him watching over his dying mother, achingly beautiful and regret almost pouring over the audience. But it’s the astonishing ‘Patriot’s Heart’ which is the centerpiece of it all. Telling the story of a forty-year old gay stripper offering extras, the bleakness of bought love and the cruelty inherent in it are laid out in front of us.  It’s a real tour de force, almost suspending breathing in the room as it lurches from one line to the next. It’s powerful and it’s frightening and it’s stunning.

And it ends, and it’s been moving, yes, but it’s also been strangely fun. Be grateful for people like Mark Eitzel – he lives this life so you don’t have to.

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7 Responses

  1. Great review, I loved the gig I saw in Bristol. Eitzel was on fire and his voice has always been something of real beauty. It is so wine and whiskey bruised, full of ache and wonder, joy and regret. Like an aspirin dissolving in a glass of vodka. The songs really shone, Mark is such a wonderful songwriter, I can’t see anyone of his peers being able to showcase their back catalogue in such a beautiful way. An amazing gig and musical highlight of the year!

  2. It was a stunning show Highway, dazzling in intensity but still really enjoyable. It could be harrowing or, worse, overwrought in someone else’s hands but when he gets it right – and the last time I saw him, he didn’t – it’s just incredible.

    Gig of the Year? Well, it will be a tough one to shift from first place!

  3. Saw Mark in Manchester. The bloke’s a genius. He writes with such honesty and sings with such passion. He draws you into his world of wonky love, awkward self deprecation and untramelled sadness – and lays it all bare for you. He’s a rare gem indeed.

    Did I mention that he’s a genius?

  4. I’d agree Jim!

    terrific songwriter. Undervalued.

  5. “… gay and self-loathing for it”

    I find this offensive and inaccurate. EItzel has long been resistant to being a gay poster boy, but nothing he has ever said or written indicates any kind of self-hatred because he’s queer. Since he came out around the time of his first solo record, he has never hidden his sexuality. And he has written quite openly and often about the gay experience, and while his songs acknowledge the difficulties of being gay (because of homophobes and ignorance, not because of his own problems with it) it’s never hinted at any self-loathing (see “Steve I Always Knew”). But I don’t buy the whole “self-loathing” bullshit anyway, no matter what its source. It’s simplistic, and sells the man short. EItzel simply is honest about his foibles — it’s his great theme; sure, he’s fucked up, but who isn’t; he just “celebrates” it in his work. A self-loathing queer would have long ago killed himself form drink or disease, or at least damaged himself enough to prevent him from being able to continue to create art. EItzel is more prolific than any other artist I know, and that’s a sign of integrity, not self-hatred. But he can speak for himself. Here’s his own words from his own blog about being gay, written in the aftermath of Prop. 8 in California. If anything, he sounds proud to be gay:

    In America I have always endured this endless stream of anti gay propaganda. They always say being gay is a choice. No. Having gay sex is a choice. Everyone does everything – and so what. What they resent is the modern idea that one has no control over who they love. That love is a personal revelation. How sometimes things just click. The churches used to control this. You couldn’t make a move without the bastards. There was a great documentary (called “The Power Of Nightmares” by Adam Curtis) that talks about how the Modern Hatechristians and modern Hatemuslim movements started in the 1950’s because they were shocked how american teenagers danced together to rock and roll. They were not looking to the church for their good time. This is a modern idea – like the cure for polio – and it all but eliminates their franchise. Gay people have to fight all kinds of battles just to express what is in their hearts and THEY don’t give a shit what any church member thinks. It all starts with the modern idea of not being afraid of God. Proposition H8 was NOT a moral crusade – it was a death rattle. Look how much money they threw at it. I hope I can help fight to have this repealed.

  6. Sorry Steven, but I have to disagree. On stage he introduced a song with the phrase ‘cos I was gay and didn’t want to be’.

    We can interpret it how we do, but I don’t think actively fighting against something – which he has admitted to doing – indicates you are entirely comfortable with it.

    As for your struggle, i absolutely back you and hope you are successful. I have seen the ludicrous anti-gay prejudice of American Conservatives and you have my sympathy and support. But I can’t in good conscience say Eitzel has always been laid back about his sexuality because I don’t think he has.

  7. Some wonderful footage of eitzel in Bristol from the excellent Highway Five site – http://highwayfive.blogspot.com/2009/11/mark-eitzel-bristol-november-2009.html

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