American Music Club

TrackAlbum
FireflyCalifornia
Blue And Grey ShirtCalifornia
Big NightEngine
NightwatchmanEngine
KathleenUnited Kingdom
Ex-GirlfriendEverclear
Sick Of FoodEverclear
I've Been A MessMercury
Apology For An AccidentMercury
FearlessSan Francisco

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American Music Club photo 1

American Music Club, 1993 (l to r): Danny Pearson (bass), Bruce Kaphan (pedal steel), Tim Mooney (drums), Mark Eitzel (guitar, vocals), Vudi (guitar) Photo: Rick McGinnis

 

Contributor: Tracey Bowen

It’s 1989 and I’m sitting in my new friend Cath’s tiny bedroom in Dudley, West Midlands. She asks if I’ve heard of a band called American Music Club. I haven’t. She plays the opening track Firefly from their latest album, California. Is it a cliche to say that those two and a half minutes changed my life? From the plaintive opening notes of Bruce Kaphan’s lap steel, I was besotted. And the achingly beautiful lyrics; how could anyone not be captured?

“Come on, beautiful / We’ll go sit on the front lawn / And watch the fireflies as the sun goes down / They don’t live too long / Just a flash and then they’re gone / We’ll laugh at them and watch the sun go down.”

Cath taped California and the preceding album Engine for me and I fair wore that C90 out in the years that followed. I’m a sucker for a pedal steel and a heartbreaking lyric and that started with American Music Club and this song.

“You’re so pretty baby / You’re the prettiest thing I know / You’re so pretty baby / Where did you go.”

Life is short and the beauty slips through our fingers all too soon and this song makes you wonder at that sad fact.

Blue And Grey Shirt from the same album is more beautiful pedal steel played over delicately picked acoustic guitar. And oh the hopeless pining right from the opening lines

“I sat up all morning / And I waited for you / With my blue and grey shirt on / Yeah, I thought that’s my lucky one.”

To me the song seemed full of such endless yearning and waiting. A paean to a failed love that makes your “tired heart sing”…

But if Firefly and California was my first love, another was vying for my affections. The opening song on Engine, Big Night is underpinned by a melancholy cello but there’s something about Mark Eitzel’s voice that has the quality of a cello too; low and eerie.

“The more I lose the more I find you / I lose track with every kiss / We shouldn’t be isolated like this.”

His words make sweeping and mournful notes like a bow drawn across strings. And this song contains what is possibly my most favourite lyric from any song ever:

“When time peels off your statued skin / I’ll still be fooled by what remains / Yeah whatever’s left of you will be my dream.”

There’s a sense of such unrequited longing. Eitzel’s voice seems suspended, my heart with it.

The song Nightwatchman also on Engine has always felt like a companion song for Big Night somehow. It has a similar tone. Maybe it’s just a shared tempo but they just work well together for me.

“And the nightwatchman / Yeah he’s asleep / Nightwatchman / I can’t wake him up / Watchman / Oh c’mon tell me what’s wrong / Nightwatchman / Is the night too long.”

At the end of the first chorus (“is the night too long”) I love the way the last word suddenly drops half an octave straight into the next verse (“Is that the same line you gave me before”) rather than resolving to the more natural note when the chorus comes round a second time. It adds a certain unpredictability and unease. Choruses, though, aren’t Eitzel’s thing. There are few American Music Club songs with a traditional verse/chorus structure. They mainly seem to be a collection of wandering verses and loose bridges.

I’ve meandered a haphazard path through American Music Club’s body of work, starting with California, their third album, then back to Engine their second. I didn’t hear anything from first album The Restless Stranger until many years down the line. Didn’t hear album #4 United Kingdom until after #6 Mercury and didn’t pay much attention to #7 San Francisco until after #9 The Golden Age. Album #5 Everclear I stole from a boyfriend when we split up (it’s the only album I took and I’m not sorry, he didn’t like it anyway). And I’ve barely listened to #8 Love Songs For Patriots at all since its release. But none of this matters; chronological career retrospectives aren’t my thing. Neither are dry biographical detail and historical lineage. I care less about the line-up changes, record company fall-outs and production techniques. Vocals and lyrics have always been key to my response to music. Of course melody and instrumentation are important, but it’s the voice and the words that provide the emotional hold for me. There’s something about Mark Eitzel’s voice that can completely disarm me. It often breaks up or falters and can reduce me to tears easily.

Speaking of vocals that make me cry, Kathleen on the album United Kingdom is one such song. Kathleen is the most famous of Eitzel’s many songs to his muse Kathleen Burns and it’s just over two minutes of raw distilled emotion. He’s not a straight man but he declared Kathleen was the only woman he ever loved. No studio recording of this song exists. Only this live take on United Kingdom and another live version on Eitzel’s solo magnum opus Songs Of Love Live. United Kingdom was an album pieced together from bits and bobs in between California and Everclear. It was done largely for the UK audience, although its moniker owes more to the fact Eitzel lived in the UK until his teens than the intended audience. This number has long been dropped from his live set but I was lucky enough to see it performed once in 1993. I’m numbed by this song, rendered incapable of all rational feeling. His voice cracks as he delivers the lines “When no one cares for you / Honey you’re made of straw / You’re living on borrowed time”. And when his voice ascends at the end of final declaration “Your love Kathleen is for someone that I swear I could have been”, it hurts like nothing else. The delivery is devastating.

It’s only recently that I’ve come to know many other American Music Club fans. So my response to their music has largely been an isolated and isolating experience. Now though, through the power of the internet, I know quite a few and have been especially surprised to find males with the same emotional response to Eitzel’s lyrics. To borrow a phrase from a (male) friend, their songs are like gut-punches. I can’t disagree. In fact the next album, Everclear, is full of such gut-punches.

Eitzel once said in an interview that Sick Of Food was about Karen Carpenter. I’m not entirely sure if that was true or if it was an attempt at a joke. On a Karen Carpenter note, though, American Music Club appear on the 1994 Carpenters tribute album If I Were A Carpenter. Their cover of the song Goodbye To Love is their most played track on Spotify. Seems weird, huh? Well, not so much when you realise that their first four albums aren’t available on Spotify or iTunes let alone in any good record shops. Problems that still exist to this day with their first label Grifter have prevented reissues or any streaming presence which sadly stops people from being able to delve into their wonderful back-catalogue easily. It’s a crying shame and is one of the reasons, I think, that their profile has always remained so low. It’s also the reason that the spotify playlist that accompanies this piece has only five of my ten Toppermost choices. But, back to Sick Of Food. To me, the song is about the emptiness of wanting someone who isn’t there.

“Now I wake up and I don’t have any gravity / Now I wake up still walking in my sleep / Now I wake up feel the world drawing away from me.”

Vudi’s guitar adds a rumbling disquiet in the background and by the end of the song, Eitzel’s voice has risen almost to a shout, the lines delivered with such force and feeling. Another song on Everclear, Ex-Girlfriend, continues along a similar theme of helplessness set against a low unsettling guitar line.

“But it’s not even closing time / And already stars are falling out of the sky / You’re all lit up, you gotta do something / I’ll help you try.”

The protagonist of this song was apparently furious upon hearing it. But someone appreciated his words; this album earned Eitzel the accolade of Songwriter of the Year from Rolling Stone and the album was placed in the top 5 albums of 1991 (along with R.E.M.’s Out Of Time, U2’s Achtung Baby, Nirvana’s Nevermind and Guns N’ Roses Use Your Illusion I).

Eitzel, though, wasn’t convinced of the award’s merit and quipped “Yeah I’m songwriter of the year … and still no-one comes to see us play”. But the attention did get them a major label contract and the next album, Mercury, was their first to come out on Virgin. The songs on this record are the pure essence of American Music Club. On I’ve Been A Mess, Eitzel’s vocals are so fragile, so broken. A slightly distorted guitar solo at the end of the second chorus emphasises the rawness and desolation of the song. When he sings the line “I can barely tell you just how pale I get without you”, there’s a pause before the words “without you” and I swear you can hear him fading away in those few bars.

And on Apology For An Accident, Eitzel’s vocals flit up and down the scales, changing from soaring sliding notes to a lethargic drawl to spitting the words.

“Well, I’ve been praying a lot lately / It’s because I no longer have a TV / Just a fluorescent hangover to light the way / Between the things you say and the things I see.”

Mercury was the record that should have sent them stratospheric. And yet still commercial success eluded them. But until the tour for this album, I hadn’t actually seen them live, so made up for lost time by going to three dates. I even persuaded them to give me an interview for a friend’s fanzine. Sadly the interview was a car crash; I was woefully unprepared and no match for Eitzel. My heart broke that night. Never meet your heroes; they have too far to fall …

American Music Club photo 2

Tracey with Vudi (left) and Mark Eitzel – a gig at Edwards No.8 in Birmingham in 1993

But of course, the heartbreak is what it’s all about. On the opening track, Fearless, of the next album, San Francisco, we’re back to that achingly beautiful pedal steel with the addition of some high backing vocals from Bruce Kaphan (something of a rarity on American Music Club songs). This is a song I could almost literally drown in. In the middle 8, Eitzel sings:

“A stubborn heart can stay broken forever / But someday the tightrope’s gonna break / Will I fall into a cool cool river / Or will I fall into a frozen lake?”

The drums and bass drop away for the penultimate bar and after the last line a descending and reverberating guitar note has you plummeting into that cold water, beneath the surface, right down to the bottom. The whole of the pedal steel solo finds you holding your breath and struggling underwater in slow motion, finally resurfacing with the first line of the next verse “Saved again / Am I saved again?” and taking a grateful gasp of air. Yes, I’m saved again.

And that’s the thing about American Music Club songs. Yes, they’re hope-less and yes, they’re bleak but there always appears to be the chance of redemption through love. And that’s why these songs will always both break my heart and soothe my soul.

After San Francisco failed to sell in expected numbers, Eitzel quit the band. It was over. And while Eitzel released solo albums (starting with the beautiful 60 Watt Silver Lining) his solo output has somehow never captured my heart in the same way that the band output did. Some ten years after their split, they reunited to record Love Songs For Patriots. It wasn’t a classic American Music Club album but it did have some beautiful songs including Another Morning (one last last song for Kathleen). This was followed four years later by The Golden Age which to be honest felt more like a solo Eitzel album with only Vudi involved from the previous line-up. Sadly it was to be the last one. Eitzel continued to release solo albums to almost no-one until last year in 2017 when he collaborated with Bernard Butler and recorded Hey Mr. Ferryman. This album is a soaring masterpiece and could almost be a long-lost American Music Club album. For me, it feels like we’ve come full circle.

Looking back to that night in 1989, I can still feel the tingle down my spine and the ache in my heart on hearing Firefly for the first time. I’m forever in debt to my friend Cath for my love of American Music Club but she’s long disappeared off the face of the earth. Where did you go?

 

 

Tim Mooney (1958–2012)

Tom Mallon (1957-2014)

 

Rick McGinnis photo used with kind permission from this blog post

Official Site of Mark Eitzel & American Music Club

American Music Club archived website

“Wish The World Away: Mark Eitzel and the American Music Club” by Sean Body (SAF Publishing 1999)

Danny Pearson bandcamp

Bruce Kaphan official website

American Music Club biography (iTunes)

Tracey Bowen is a podcaster, procrastinator and occasional music reviewer. American Music Club was the subject of We Dig Music podcast series 2, episode 1 (released 24th June 2018). All other episodes can be found at WeDigPodcasts.com. Links to her other reviews – including a heart-breakingly bitter one of a Mark Eitzel gig from 2017 – can be found on the same site at Writings and Additional Stuff. Tracey can be found on Twitter, usually in the middle of the night, at @INeedDirection.

TopperPost #730

4 Comments

  1. Keith Milne
    Jul 7, 2018

    Wonderful band. Superlative writing. Your ending is genius by the way.

  2. William McAlpine
    Jul 10, 2018

    I’ve not really listened to AMC before, but when I do it’ll be because of this cracking piece of writing. In fact I feel like I have after reading it, so well does it convey how much you obviously love them. Take a few bows. And then a few more.

  3. David Collins
    Jul 11, 2018

    Oh wow – superb evocative writing Tracey. A big thumbs up from me… I first heard of AMC via a very good Uni friend/band-mate, back in the early nineties. He asked me to accompany him over to Birmingham in (I think) October 94 – to the Irish Centre in Digbeth… I was a bit dubious but as I really liked the support act (Strangelove) I agreed to go. Here I witnessed a rambling, unshaven chap with a pork pie hat and a rather curmudgeonly demeanour – who had the audience in the palm of his hand from the first song. I thought he was actually rather amusing, yes he appeared cantankerous and occasionally quite pissed off for some reason but WHAT a voice.
    Mr Eitzel – I can’t possibly imagine the personal demons you must have battled – but selfishly, for me it’s worth it just to hear the whiskey-soaked and heartbreaking lyrics that pour from your soul. Topped off by Bruce’s gorgeous lap steel, Danny’s mellow upright bass and Vudi’s totally immersive and atmospheric soundscapes – that night really struck a chord for me. I rushed out and bought Mercury and San Francisco soon after… (and a very lovely lady recently gave me copies of their early albums for free ❤️).
    Tracey – Your lovely heartfelt writing makes me want to go back and listen to it all again… but maybe I’ll pour myself a glass of single malt first. x

  4. David Tanner
    Jul 17, 2018

    Great article. I only discovered them via “San Francisco”, but then worked backwards through a glorious series of albums.

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