American Music Club Biography
American Music Club was one of my favorite bands. Needless to say, it sold no records. From the mid-80s to the mid 90s when AMC finally called it a day, it had recorded seven albums, two of which landed on Reprise, a division of Warner Brothers. Singer Mark Eitzel had been named Rolling Stone's 1991 Songwriter of the Year and the band's fifth album Everclear was named among the year's best albums alongside efforts by U2, REM and Guns n' Roses (remember them?).
The going gets weird
Now you can imagine my surprise (I'm not even imagining yours) when I found that SAF Publishing in England published a biography about American Music Club. Don't you have to be famous for something like this?
But there he is, Mark Eitzel staring out from the book's cover: Wish the World Away, Mark Eitzel and the American Music Club by Sean Body. Even comes with a quote sure to sway you into purchase: That Eitzel is one of the greatest living songwriters is beyond question. Heck, I agree. But I still can't figure out what he's doing with a biography.
Can you imagine the guys cooking the books at this publisher? Hmmm, he sells few records, which means fewer books. Should lose money. Sounds good. Do it. I guess a tax write-off is a tax write-off.
The book itself is a solid piece of journalism. Body went around and found a few key people to give him the dirt. The band emerged from the punk rock scene in San Francisco, eventually pioneering a sound that combined the vibe of the blues with the musical clash of country, folk, ambient and angular and even angry post-punk. But what makes the book a worthy read has nothing to do with the band's music.
Music, of course, is music. It doesn't need a book. But the personalities that made the music are such a dysfunctional, co-dependent (you add the self-help book of the week here) group of guys that watching them helplessly flail around first at each other and, eventually, the music business is like watching a car wreck, a cat fight or emotionally stunted brothers repeatedly throwing wet toilet paper at one another.
The sociological approach you've come to count on
The band believed in the romance of the musicians' life. Joe Carducci, author of Rock and the Pop Narcotic and former part owner of SST Records, once discussed with me how people moved to different cities for different reasons. You write screenplays, you go to LA. You got attitude, you go to New York. You got an impulse to live the artist's life, you go to San Francisco. And that's what these guys did. Eitzel came in by way of Ohio. He never lost that middle America honesty streak.
First reason to like this book about a band you've never heard of...
The first half of the book centers on the difficult relationships between the band members. Producer and sometimes musician Tom Mallon comes off like a real creep, an anal retentive who fashioned the records his own way regardless of the wishes of the band (and made some nice albums along the way). He prods them into accepting his wife as their manager (not like they had many offers at that point) and, in turn, creates great difficulties with their label head, Lisa Fancher.
Fancher loved the band unconditionally. But it was near impossible to convince the world (screw the world, just the insulated and trendy scene of indie rock) in the late 80s that a band not playing loud distorted guitars, but rather a quiet, almost meditational music were important enough to stop talking over.
Second reason to like this book about a band you've never heard of...
Difficulties with labels and expectations take over the second half of the book and that's where this book really takes on the ol' Kafka-esque mantle. For an unexplained reason, the band seem determined to do everything within its power to misrepresent itself. Once it land on a major label after years of schlepping it, AMC immediately set out to record their major label debut with producer Mitchell Froom.
Body's assertions aside, the album they made -- 1993's Mercury -- was their masterpiece, a dense, difficult collection of beautiful songs thrown slightly off-kilter by Froom's intrusive producer's hand. But in major label terms, Body is right when he explains that most bands would've waited to make their arty, experimental album once they'd had a bit of commercial acceptance to help their bargaining position.
But this is American Music Club and it did everything the hard way. The members get into fights with producers over mixes and then reward the difficult relationship with another production job, as if once wasn't enough. Joe Chicarelli divided the band with his work on Everclear only to be brought back for what became the band's final album San Francisco. It's here that things turn comical.
Now, the band knows after Mercury's failure that it has to have something resembling a hit so it begins tarting up the sound here and there. Having the support of the guys in Pearl Jam, AMC agreed to open a few shows for the grunge gods, stupidly deciding to try and impress the potential hostile audience by altering their sound to more closely reflect the hard rock Pearl Jam represents. So you figure the few folks in the audience who weren't pelting them with shoes and garbage eventually ran out and bought an album only to find that none of the music sounded like the band they saw.
Their videos were even weirder. The band decided that maybe it can get played on Beavis and Butthead if it makes the videos stupid enough. So instead of moody cinematography or at least something resembling the flavor of the band's sensibility, the videos are send-ups of the band's outsider status and feature lots of cute jokes that are great if you know the guys in the band. (The Wish the World Away video, in particular, features Baywatch-like guys and babes playing volleyball on the beach drinking a beverage called American Music Club' -- as if it weren't a bad enough band name to begin with -- while the band sulks.) As a British journalist, Body holds out hope against hope that Eitzel will rebound in his solo career and make an impression on America. But as the years pass and Eitzel shows no signs of writing material that might transcend his cult status (Body admits that Eitzel's latest tunes seem to lack just that, tunes), Body is left only to ponder what if....
Losing is winning and other bogus strategies And so are we. Success stories are a dime a dozen. Joe Jackson told me upon the release of his book A Cure for Gravity that he wasn't interested in recounting his successes. He felt that it was the trials and tribulations that merited a closer look. With American Music Club, that's all there ever was. There was no pot of gold at the end of the recording session, just more great reviews and a small, loyal audience who couldn't keep the band together.
So do your part. Pick up this book and have a great laugh. Wouldn't it be a kick if it were to sell more than one of their records? It would be the doomed poetic justice the band always sang about and knew was its prime motivation all along.
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