Returning to Sun Kil Moon, Red House Painters, and all things Mark Kozelek
By Charlotte Deaver
I'm sorry, but I can't wait until May 24th (Bowery Ballroom) to write about Mark Kozelek.
Every few months or so (sometimes less) I get into a listening groove that carries only the music of his various bands and solo efforts. It wasn't even very long ago that I got into his stuff, for years not having listened to much new music that wasn't radio-friendly. Tim, who usually prefers other kinds of music (e.g. salsa, gospel, renaissance choral music), came home with "Songs from a Blue Guitar" one night, having fallen for it hard at his yoga class. I was pretty dismissive at first (something he never lets me forget!). Such boy bands as Incubus, Chevelle, Vertical Horizon, John Mayer, Nickelback, and Tool had been holding my attention at the time. (Now, to an Indie lover, I have just outed myself BIG time. But I continue to stand by my pop and adolescent sensibilities. A good song will always be a good song, indie or otherwise, and I've never claimed to be hip. Just passionate.) I finally gave Red House Painters another listen, and this time, the floodgates opened quickly and furiously.
We tracked down just about every recording we could find, and saw Sun Kil Moon play an amazing show at Bowery Ballroom for the "Ghosts of the Great Highway" tour. Already melancholy, swooning music, at least three guitars and two other stringed instruments would hold on to the same chord, with subtle variations, to create a heartbreakingly lush sound. They played until all hours of the night, and as snarky as Mark can be, he was not in too bad a mood. Sure, he threatened an audience-member who was taking pictures, and snapped caustically at us when he felt like it, but he also twinkled with wise-cracks and played just about every song the audience requested.
The next time I saw him play solo, though, he was quite the kvetch. He told us that he had thought he wouldn't have to do madcap solo gigs like this to earn a living anymore, and that he really had hoped he'd be famous by now (a sentiment he echoes in this interview and impromptu performance, video-taped by Culture Catch). I kept thinking, wait, you're complaining about filling up the Bowery Ballroom with people who adore your music? Huh? He seemed to be doing almost everything he could to alienate us, and ended up walking off stage a little irritated.
It was a little bit of a let down, especially after having seen him be both ornery AND so good in the past. But part of the appeal of Mark Kozelek's music is that there is something disturbing about his particular melancholy, his darkness. And you don't want to "fix" that. You want to leave him alone and hope that he keeps moaning into the microphone and playing those alternate tunings on his guitar, "until it sounds the way [he feels]," as he says in the opening lyrics to "Void":
Find another corner of the house
When you need to get away
Her guitar leans against the couch
Sometimes I pick it up and play
Loosen and stretch its ancient strings
Until it sounds the way I feel
Mark Kozelek is not, of course, alone as a performer who resists, resents, and disparages his audience. Punk rock is defined partly by its anti-fan attitude, and who can forget Nirvana's "stupid and contagious" fans with guns, demanding to be entertained, in "Smells Like Teen Spirit."
Indie audiences, on the other hand, seem to be all about the joy. This is the ecstasy generation. Some of the very sensibilities that punk rockers were reacting to, including the '60s hippies' love-in attitudes, have returned, reshaped, of course, by the specific influences of the current moment in time and history. Where the music industry worships the false idols of orgiastic corporatism and a ruthless bottom line, independent labels try to make money too, but without completely selling their souls (although, I wouldn't overestimate such a romantic view of independent labels). Bands do it out of love of the music, the life, and the performance. (And, of course, to get laid.)
As I am relatively new to the world of indie music and to small, intimate live music experiences (read here for an explanation of this trajectory), I have found the lack of cynicism in this band-audience bonding refreshing, if not inspiring. My own gigs (back in the day) were often nightmares, with the industry breathing down my back, offering no sense of sincere support and camaraderie. A sycophantic, "kiss-kiss" culture, the music business was all about "career" (not unlike my academic life, now!) and image, and it terrified me. Liberation from the painful emotional vestiges of the industry world I was involved in years ago must be, therefore, one reason I find the energy, openness, and passion of indie and other contemporary music circuits so appealing.
Part of the success of indie music now is that it gestures toward, at least ideally, a sense of community and abundance. Music-sharing, live performances at small venues that encourage intimacy (yes, of all sorts), and the mass of music bloggers who support the music they love as well as each others' sites connect people, rather than alienate them. And it always seems as though there's plenty of good music, great shows, great photographs, and different tastes and to go around. I don't get an overt sense of protective stinginess or brutal competitiveness, of "that's MINE!" It's not like academia, a world often driven, because of so little money and so few new ideas and brilliant minds, by pettiness.
Popular music is a derivative art form, and does not hold itself to the standards of originality that academia (hmmm...) and the fine arts do (hmmmm...). What IS required, rather, is an intensity of experience. Sure, there is some cool music out there that you wouldn't want to dance to, but that you could talk about and sound smart and critically distant. But that's not the kind of music that fuels this sub-culture.
Although Mark Kozelek's live performances do not arouse the same kind of group-happiness that other mostly younger and less gifted musicians do, his music satisfies the criteria of all the best rock and roll, I would say, because of the emotional potency it generates. Think of what it was like listening to Neil Young, for instance, in your basement or bedroom, over and over again, so that even to this day you remember every word of every song. No matter whether you were a part of the early or late generation of Neil Young, or of any other fierce band, you were changed by that music. Everyone's life is shaped by adolescent and early adulthood experiences: family relationships, the charge of blossoming individuality and newness, a first love, high school insecurities, and maybe even college manias. These experiences are so profoundly forged into your biological and psychic being during adolescence that all later experiences are marked by what happens to you at this time. It's a phenomenon Mark Kozelek tries to never let you forget:
When we were kids
We hated things our parents did
We listened low
To Casey Kasem's radio show
That's when friends were nice
To think of them just makes you feel nice
The smell of grass in Spring
And October leaves cover everything ("Have You Forgotten")