Mark Eitzel is 58 and, I guess like many of us who’ve managed to be alive approximately those many years, heading day by day towards the next milestone, 60, he thinks sometimes (if not often) of mortality. Eitzel is what critics nowadays call a ‘singer-songwriter’, those who write and perform their own songs in popular music. I find that label intriguing because, heck, unless it’s someone who performs only what other people have composed, nearly everyone is a singer-songwriter! But Eitzel does write the songs he sings. And they are bitingly trenchant; he’s critical of many things, and often melancholic too. But he has a voice of a commanding quality and it is easy to like his songs the first time you hear them.
I played Hey Mr. Ferryman, Eitzel’s latest album, last week after getting a headsup from a few places about it. Mr. Ferryman makes an appearance early in the album. The album opener, The Last Ten Years, addresses Mr. Ferryman, presumably Charon, the ferryman of Greek mythology’s god of the underworld, who ferries the dead across the rivers to cross over from the world of living to the other side. Thoughts of death are never happy, but The Last Ten Years can get a wry smile out of you. It begins innocuously with Eitzel singing: “The ferryman who takes me to my rest/ He don’t give a damn/ Who’s cursed or blessed/ Anyway I give him all my cash/ Unlike some tragic hero/ Oh lightning flash followed by a million zeros.” And then it gets nicely twisted when you realise that the character that the mythological ferryman has come to take away is an alcoholic who is resigned to his fate but has concerns. He asks the ferryman: “Do you party where you’re from?/ Do you know where to go/ When the party’s all done?” And just to be sure, he informs him of his drink of choice – bourbon and Coke.
The dry humour apart, Eitzel’s songs are dark and brooding but they are thoughtful. Characters such as the bourbon and Coke drinker appear in other songs on Hey Mr. Ferryman. On Mr. Humphries, Eitzel sings: “Try and be kind/ To Mr. Humphries in Room 5/ Because he gets grumpy trying to keep hope alive.” The protagonist, we learn, is presumably an ageing television star who, though “the world has dried up won’t give a shout out”, but keeps hoping. On La Llorona, the character is La Llorona, a woman who, in Hispanic folklore, lost her children and whose ghost still searches for them and brings ill-omen to those around.
The lyrics are the best part of Hey Mr. Ferryman’s songs (as they are, I discovered, on Eitzel’s earlier albums), but the music is fulsome too – electric guitars wail even on occasion. They aren’t so on many of his earlier albums. I sought out 2012’s Don’t Be A Stranger on which songs are similarly enigmatic and melancholic but the music is sparer; it’s more acoustic than electric. But the lyrics are unmistakably Eitzel. The first song on Don’t Be a Stranger is I Love You But You’re Dead with a band and its female singer as the central characters. “It’s a plywood stage and the carpets are rotten/ The band is so loud, they’re lighter than air. The music is blasting and I couldn’t hear what she said/ Oh, but when she signed my poster/ She wrote I love you/ She wrote I love you/ She wrote I love you/ But you’re dead.”
It’s not fair that Eitzel, a San Franciscan, has such an unwarrantedly small following. In the 1980s, he fronted American Music Club (AMC), a band that he founded; many think it never got its due and had to move from label to label. The name of the band struck a bell and I rummaged among my old files to discover that I indeed possessed a copy of Everclear, AMC’s 1991 album, which in a perfect world ought to have become a chartbuster. On it is the tender yet painful Why Won’t You Stay where he sings: “Will this night fulfill all the promises/ And bury us in peace?/ Will it leave us free and forgetful/ Or at least bring some sleep?” On Sick of Food, Eitzel, a gay musician whose brush with the peak years of the AIDs epidemic in the US influences the album, sings with anger and despair from the point of view of a victim: “I’m sick of food/ So why am I so hungry?/ I was sick of you/ But I don’t mind seeing your little face/ I was sick of love/ So I just stopped feeling/ But I couldn’t find anything to take its place.”
Every now and then you discover (or rediscover) a musician often quite randomly and you sadly realise that not everyone gets the acclaim that they deserve. Eitzel is one such. Writing in Slate.com about Hey Mr. Ferryman, music critic Carl Wilson says Eitzel could be today’s Leonard Cohen. I agree. He should.
From HT Brunch, February 12, 2017
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch