We reacted to the official announcement of an American Music Club reunion with muted enthusiasm.
"Holy fucking shit!" we shouted at the computer screen. "American Music Club is reuniting! And playing a show! Here! The Make-Out Room! Thursday night!"
The computer screen, of course, already knew this.
"Holy fucking shit!" we repeated.
"Oh, you like American Music Club?" asked the coworker who'd materialized in the doorway. "I had no idea you were so depressed."
Yes, the glow surrounding the band responsible for California's most insular and devout cult since Chuck Manson is more poisonous nuclear radiation than sunshine. Morrissey, Sylvia Plath, and Thora Birch in Ghost World spring to mind. But that'd be one hell of a pinochle game, and dourly devout fans of gorgeous pop melodrama still worship AMC frontman Mark Eitzel, a booming baritone sad sack who currently sits at the other end of the telephone line getting psyched for what threatens to be the Dorkiest Interview Ever.
Down in Front: "You're so cool! Talk about that!"
Actually, he's not brooding, and he's sick and tired of boneheads who assume he's always brooding, dammit.
"You know, that's always been that thing," he says. "I never really thought the songs were depressing, personally. I don't buy that. I think it's a way to just put it down, to say it's depressing. I find Christina Aguilera music much more depressing, because it's so cold and heartless. Or Metallica -- every single song is about death, and nobody says they're depressing. So fuck that shit!"
Yeah, this is going great.
Eitzel -- a longtime Bay Area resident who recently relocated to Chicago -- never sugarcoated much of anything. AMC rose to prominence in the mid-'80s with a jazzy, atmospheric West Coast take on REM's wimpy white guy pop, but his volatile vocals and loneliest-guy-at-the-loneliest-bar-on-earth lyrics ("The price of your soul is worth less than the cab fare/That gets you home before the living end") made him the instant focal point of a disturbingly familiar band career arc: massive critical acclaim -- Rolling Stone crowned 'em the "hot band" of 1991, Melody Maker declared Eitzel "one of the greatest living songwriters" -- coupled with very little commercial success. AMC finally disbanded after an unsuccessful major label tango that ended with '94's San Francisco.
At the time, Eitzel lamented that the band seemed to consistently play for the same three hundred people. But now that AMC is mulling over a reunion -- maybe a new record, maybe a tour -- he'll consider himself lucky if even those three hundred show up again. "I think the appeal's even smaller, you know? We don't know," he says. "There's gotta be some interest for us to tour -- otherwise we won't. This could be the only show we ever play."
Don't count on it. If obsessive fans alone can't power AMC's rise to reprominence, Eitzel plans on filling that nasty protest-singer vacuum we're currently contending with. The album he's now masterminding with fellow bandmates Dan Pearson (bass), Vudi (guitar), and Tim Mooney (drums, plus he owns Closer Studios, the SF spot the band is recording in) is tentatively titled You Better Watch What You Say, featuring the tunes "Team USA," "Brothers in Arms," and "Patriot's Heart." Sarcasm is detected. Lee Greenwood will probably not approve.
"I really don't understand being a songwriter, or any kind of artist now, and not commenting on the increasing tendency in this country toward fascism," Eitzel explains. "If you don't comment on it, what the fuck? I don't trust songwriters that don't include it, you know? Fuck that shit. They're scared to in the same way Jews were afraid to walk down the street during the Third Reich. It's just because most of the population calls you 'unpatriotical' if you have a comment. I love how the Dixie Chicks are put down for saying their views -- artists should not have any views -- but now Schwarzenegger's running for fucking governor. I'm not voting for that son of a bitch."
Let's pause here to note that Eitzel isn't always in profane flamethrower mode -- his style of humor is dry as the Sahara but just as vast, and even back in the early days of AMC he'd occasionally toss out a bizarrely juvenile line or two: "And I think I just came in my pants/Ohhhhhh baby do you wanna dance?" (Which challenges this column's strongly held theory that any song that rhymes "pants" with "dance" is fundamentally great, but we digress.)
But what'll pull people to the Make-Out Room Thursday more than anything else is Eitzel's legendary onstage persona, a hyper-intense blast of emotion that often boils over to anger that Eitzel often directs right back at himself. "I'm a perfectionist" is how he puts it. But during his quiet but scarily formidable post-AMC solo career, he's become known for performances where the only person in the room not in awe of Eitzel is Eitzel himself -- you feel like you almost have to beg him to keep playing when he wants to quit in disgust. Kinda like Cat Power, but he actually delivers eventually, and the payoff -- a brutal, mind-blowing show when he finally convinces himself he's capable of it -- is unbelievable.
Whenever a long-dormant band reunites, the operative question's always "Why?" and the operative answer is always "The economy, stupid." But AMC will be the first to admit there's little money in this. Eitzel insists it's the music, that's all. Maybe one more shot at glory is a motivator here. But then again, playing old songs with old friends might be the best way to calm down a songwriter so intense he's often on the verge of setting himself on fire onstage. "It means that I'm gonna have a bunch of people onstage who don't get freaked out by me," Eitzel says. "People who don't care. I remember once, I was in LA, and I was really frustrated by a song. Vudi was in the crowd. And at one point I took the guitar I was playing and smashed it against the back wall. And the whole crowd was dead silent except for Vudi, who was laughing. They don't care. They kinda understand that sorta shit."
American Music Club is back. Get mutedly enthusiastic.
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