WHAT Mark Eitzel “Songs of Love Live”
WHEN The Borderline, London - 17 January 1991
This was the first time I'd see Mark Eitzel live and I had no idea about the legend that would grow around this gig. It's one of the very few times I can say ‘I was there’ and even rarer to say that the experience was as good as its mythic status.
The Borderline is the essence of a music venue - 200 people in a dark room with a small stage, a working bar and no frills. You can find an endless supply of them around the world. This one’s timely policy of programming alt-country/Americana in the early 1990s and the Central London location got it into the habit of hosting legends like R.E.M. (as Bingo Hand Job) and Crowded House. Right place, right time.
It was a strange day. That afternoon I'd seen Carter USM start a minor riot in the HMV on Oxford Street and now was about to see a guy who was already had a cult-like aura growing around him. A lot has been written about the gig by better writers than me and there’s no point in repeating it here (the liner notes by Andrew Smith nail it and there’s an interesting description of how the recording came to pass in Sean Body’s book “Wish the World Away”). It was a raw, harrowing confessional that became part therapy session, part high wire act. He just let it all hang out. There was tears, there was laughter, but mainly there were just desperate, desperate tears. If you start songs with lines like “The hospital wouldn’t admit you” or “When no one cares for you, you’re made of straw”, you kinda know there’s little chance of an emotional U turn.
So, 20 years on, why is this a great recording that’s worth listening to and not just voyeuristic rubbernecking of one man’s public breakdown? It’s difficult to quantify but I think you can still feel/hear something very powerful between the artist and the audience. There’s no background chatter, no mobiles, no heckling. There is reverence. There is trust. There is compassion.
Mark Eitzel and American Music Club definitely did not become pop legends, regardless of how many of their gigs I travelled to see them play. You’d think that the big label money and blanket critical praise of The Greatest Living Songwriter should have turned them into mega stars but sometimes that peg isn’t going to fit that hole (NB my spell check is hellbent on turning ‘Eitzel’ into ‘Outsell’… oh, the irony). Then - as now - they seem to be a cult interest. I last saw Mark Eitzel live in October 2013 in another blacked-out room with about 200 people. I keep seeing him because it's based on habit, community, history, faith, heart. I go there because that’s where I go.