The love songs of the middle-aged mope
by Gordon Campbell
Unfortunately for him, Jackson C Frank was a perfect example of that old line about “If it weren’t for bad luck /wouldn’t have no luck at all.” The guy’s life seems to have been a litany of disaster. At age eleven, a furnace exploded at his school, killing 15 other pupils and leaving him with 50% burns over his body. During his convalescence, he was given a guitar and by 1966, he had released his only album, called Jackson C Frank. He married, but his infant son died from cystic fibrosis, triggering a deep depression and related mental problems. By the early 1980s, Frank was living on the streets in New York. While receiving help, he was accidentally blinded in one eye during a trip to the beach, by children firing a pellet gun indiscriminately. “ He was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” one report put it. In 1999 Frank died of pneumonia, aged 56.
On that sole 1966 album, the standout track was the aptly titled “ Blues Run The Game”. Down the years, a stream of performers have recorded the song : Simon and Garfunkel, Nick Drake, Bert Jansch, Counting Crows, Laura Marling, Robin Pecknold (of Fleet Foxes) and Colin Meloy (of the Decemberists) among others. In Frank’s orginal version you can clearly hear in his inflections the influence of Fred Neil. The Bert Jansch version available here is tougher, while still faithful to the song’s spirit. No real surprise though, that Jackson C. Frank’s best interpreter should have been that other doomed soul, Nick Drake. Ultimately, “Blues Run The Game” is one of those songs so good that its virtually impossible to sing badly.
If you thought the teen angst years were rough and old age seems like a chilling prospect… then whatever you do, don’t turn to Mark Kozelek for consolation about the bits in-between. On “ Ben’s My Friend” (from his terrific new album Benji) he’s hard at work trying to sound quasi-normal. For him, that involves finishing the album, buying a pair of $350 lampshades, and having lunch with his (younger) g.f. at some place in San Francisco that’s “ cluttered with sports bar shit.” His eye for detail is deadly. He, distractedly, eats his crab cakes ( “blue crab cakes”) she, irritatedly, eats her eggs Benedict. Its a middle age thing, he says to her, by way of explanation/appeasement.
Later in the same song he sings about how he and the g.f, had gone to a concert a few nights before headlined by Ben Gibbard ( of Death Cab for Cutie and Postal Service fame ) and that becomes the focus for more dark grumbling, as follows:
Ben’s my friend but getting there was the worst
Trying to park and getting up the hill
And find a spot amongst the drunk kids staring at themselves
Standing at the back with the crowd of eight thousand
I thought of Ben when I met him in 2000
At a festival in Spain
He was on the small stage then and I didn’t know his name
Now he’s singing at the Greek and he’s busting moves
And my legs were hurting and my feet were too,
I called him after, said I’ll skip the backstage high five
But thanks for the nice music and all the exercise
And we laughed and it was alright…..
This offhand conversational/observational style – which Kozelek has perfected since 2010’s Among The Leaves album – is far, far harder to do than it looks. This is brilliant reportage, tossed off :
There’s a fine line between a middle-aged guy with a backstage pass
And a guy with a gut hanging around like a jackass
Everybody there was twenty years younger than me
At least this is not my fondest memory
I carried my legs back down and then I gave
My backstage passes to two cute Asian girls
I drove to my place near Tahoe
Got in my hot tub and thought well that’s how it goes
And it was quiet and I was listening to the crickets
And Ben’s still out there, selling lots of tickets…..
The short version is that Mark Kozelek (and Bill Callahan) are currently the best singer/writers in the business. The longer answer is that he probably doesn’t care all that much whether you get on his wavelength or not, despite occasional fits of jealousy/self-mockery when he contemplates the greater outreach enjoyed by the Ben Gibbards of this world. Be it Leonard Cohen or any other virtuoso of the sad, sad song, there is usually a point where the artist – no matter how artfully they’ve constructed themselves as an untouchable love object – will let the mask slip, and invite a human connection. After all, what’s the point of being super-sensitive if no one notices your exquisite suffering / attainment of grace?
With Mark Kozelek, not so much. If he’s alone – and believe me, no one is ever as alone as someone in the middle of a song like “ Admiral Fell Promises” – it seems only right and just that he should be. He knows that a lot of his problems are self-inflicted, and due to the fact that he’s such a half-there presence at the best of times. Love withers for Mark Kozelek because it seems as though….at some post-coital moment, a few hours, days or months down the track, he just seems to forget that she’s there. Then its back to black.
In other words, Kozelek is something of an arsehole – but in ways that mean it must also be a schtick, kind of. I mean, how can someone who prides himself on being such a grumpy lone wolf be so good at collaborating with other musicians ? The recent albums (a) with Jimmy Lavalle and (b) with Desertshore are among his best. Not only is Kozelek aware he’s problematic, he’s knows that he’s always been that way. Check the long track called “ I Watched The Film Song Remains The Same” for full biographical details of how his love of music has intersected since childhood with his abject melancholy – right down to a verse where he belatedly apologises to some poor kid whom he beat up at school about 35 years ago. For no good reason, that track reminded me of this amusing piece of fanboy writing about Kozelek, concerning an imaginary teacher/parent conference held years ago with his Mom:
I’m gonna give it to you straight: your son is an early onset nostalgic. Basically he’s always talking about earlier, happier times, except he does it all sad-like, like he’s lost something he can never, ever get back. And he’s only twelve! Just the other day he hands in his weekly reflection essay—fourteen freakin’ pages on a dissolved friendship! Now make no mistake, that shit was good: precise, unfussy, precociously Carver-esque. All I’m saying is: keep an eye on the kid.
Too late. Kozelek turned 47 a few weeks ago, and he’s made a 20 year career out of offering variations on The State of Loneliness. Not that the tiny variations aren’t important. Since his landmark Among The Leaves album in 2010, Kozelek has adopted a laconic’ Dear Diary” observational writing style that now pervades everything he does. His newer songs spar with solitude by mocking the quasi-failure that he sees in the bathroom mirror in any number of anonymous hotel rooms on tour. The results are funny, poignant, and – if you’re in the wrong mood – really irritating, if you choose to rise to his bait. On that Leaves album for instance there’s a track called “Sunshine in Chicago” that carelessly (deliberately?) gets the name of his opening act wrong : “ Julie Holland / think that was her name” and he notes the passing of time in this fashion :
Sunshine in Chicago makes me feel pretty sad
My band played here a lot in the ’90s when we had
Lots of female fans and fuck, they all were cute
Now I just sign posters for guys in tennis shoes
Very funny. In person though, his doleful misanthropy can be a challenge. At his Kings Arms gig in Auckland five years ago, Kozelek’s sourpuss side extended to stopping mid-song and offering two choices to a couple of nattering guys at the bar – either shut the fuck up, or be thrown out. Really? Even the bouncer looked nonplussed. This is a bar, Mark. People talk, so get over it. Eventually, the two middle-aged guys obligingly shuffled off to the exit, grumbling “ Hey Mark, we’re big fans of yours” as they went. Backstage, Kozelek was unapologetic, and more monosyllabic even than usual. Ultimately, a remarkably self-confident female fan whom he’d never met before swept in, told him to get his stuff together and mothered him off into the night. All up, it had been just another boring evening on the road for the lonesome genius. Did I mention that the Among The Leaves album has a track called “The Moderately Talented Yet Attractive Young Woman vs. The Exceptionally Talented Yet Not So Attractive Middle Aged Man” ?
In case you haven’t heard Kozelek before, here’s a sampler. Some of these songs were released under his own name, some as Sun Kil Moon – which is a hat tip to the former WBA world bantamweight champion, Sung Kil-Moon.
1. “Up To My Neck in You” “Salvador Sanchez”
In the mid 2000s Kozelek released an album of acoustic versions of AC/DC songs that did what good cover versions should always do : they opened up new facets in the source material, with “ Up To My Neck in You” being the classic example. Later, Kozelek tried the same trick with less success on an album of Modest Mouse cover versions. The first Sun Kil Moon album Ghosts of the Great Highway includes a couple of songs about boxers from the Third World who came to grief while chasing First World fame and fortune – “ Duk Koo Kim” was one, and boxers from Ruben Olivares to Benny “Kid” Paret to Manny Pacquiao and Ricky Hatton regularly crop up in Kozelek’s lyrics. In my opinion, “Salvador Sanchez” is the best of the boxing bunch. BTW, the historical reference in the lyrics is to the great Filipino boxer Pancho Villa who died in 1925, also in his early 20s. ( ie, the lyric is not a reference to the Mexican guerrilla leader of the same name. )
2. “Moorestown” “Admiral Fell Promises”
So, are we feeling sad yet ? Well, stop biting that pillow and ready yourself for a double shot of Kozelek in full blown nostalgic mode. I love both these mournful-as-fuck songs. “Moorestown” happens to be framed with one of the most appropriate fan videos I’ve ever seen. This live version of “ Admiral Fell Promises” is eight minutes of your life that’s well wasted – unless you were feeling strung out already, which would be one of the main reasons for listening to this song in the first place. “Admiral Fell Promises” is about the impulse to lock up happiness for safe-keeping, and the inexorable ways that people drift apart. Have fun.
3. “New Jersey” “San Geronimo”
These are a couple of early Kozelek cuts from the late 1990s/early 2000s and his days with Red House Painters, when he almost became a rock star. “New Jersey” is also available on Youtube in a fine acoustic version, but this arrangement really is the best. Stick with the lovely “ San Geronimo” – the main melody doesn’t arrive until the 2.30 minute mark, which may explain why Kozelek never did manage to become a rock star.
Finally, an example from 2014. As mentioned, Kozelek is becoming more and more inclined to put on record his notebook observations of what’s been happening to himself and people around him. Essentially, he’s working in the pared-down speak-singing style of reportage that Lou Reed talked about in the 1980s but never really managed to pull off. From his new album Benji, here’s a track called “Richard Ramirez Died Today from Natural Causes” which name-checks the deaths of Ramirez ( he was the serial killer aka the Night Stalker) and James Gandofini. Along the way, it acknowledges the resonance of his childhood terrors, and the randomness of fate. The Benji album deals a lot with death, including those of several friends and relatives of Kozelek.
In the opening track “ Carissa’ for instance, his cousin dies randomly after an aerosol can that she had thrown in the trash exploded, and she got burned to death in the subsequent fire. (Reportedly, there have been two aerosol-related accidental deaths amongst Kozelek’s immediate family.) There are songs about him growing up (“When I was five I came home from kindergarten crying ’cause they sat me next to an albino”) and songs about close relatives with cancer. Yet all things considered, it is also a pretty amusing album…given his worries about his bad back, and his dodgy prostate and all. Clearly, life isn’t getting any easier for him, as he told Pitchfork earlier this year, even on days that could qualify as being considered normal:
Right now, here is what’s on my mind: my ankle hurts like hell, I need a new mattress, I’m missing an adapter for a Roland keyboard, I’m hungry, my girlfriend was supposed to be here an hour ago, I can’t wait to see the new episode of True Detective tonight, and sadly, I just learned I’ll be in Helsinki during the Pacquiao/Bradley rematch.
Still and all, Kozelek is a good antidote to Leonard Cohen, for those days when ageing doesn’t seem to be making you wiser, but just more pissed off.