Mark Kozelek, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down
Mark Kozelek has never cared about his fans.
All right, maybe that’s not fair; I can’t say how the guy feels. He probably cares but he just expresses it poorly or something. Let’s put it this way: Mark Kozelek has always treated his fans like shit. In any case, it’s an abusive relationship, and it has always been.
To be clear: I don’t mean this to be read as an accusation — rather, it’s an explanation. The “All you fucking hillbillies” thing? That’s just who he is; that’s how he is with every audience. You talk at a Mark Kozelek show — you take a picture, request a song, whatever — you’re gonna get the stick. Hell, you don’t have to do any of those things. The last time I saw him was in 2010, at Brooklyn’s Music Hall Of Williamsburg, which is a pretty big room — and it was totally sold out — but the crowd was silent, motionless, reverent. And he still trashed us! “Williamsburg is a town of clones,” he said from the stage, between songs. “Like they just cloned themselves from everyone who just walked by.”
By “they,” of course, he meant “you.” That is: us. Anyone who cares enough to actually turn out to see Mark Kozelek is, in his eyes, deserving of mockery. He’s sung about it! It’s in the song “Sunshine In Chicago,” from Sun Kil Moon’s 2012 release, Among The Leaves. He was comparing the crowds who came out in the ’90s for his old band, Red House Painters, to his crowds today: Back then, there were “lots of female fans, and fuck, they all were cute/ Now I just sign posters for guys in tennis shoes.”
For the record, I mostly wear skateboard shoes, and I’ve never asked Mark Kozelek to sign a poster. I mean, I’ve thought about it, but let’s be real here: Which poster would I even choose to have him sign? I could never decide! I have the original label-issued promotional posters for every single Red House Painters album, plus ones for the first two Sun Kil Moon albums, plus ones for All Virgos Are Mad (a 1994 compilation that included a Red House Painters song), Shanti Project Collection (a 1999 compilation that included four Red House Painters songs), and Take Me Home (a 2000 compilation of John Denver covers, curated by Kozelek, that included two Red House Painters songs, plus another track on which Kozelek duets with Slowdive’s Rachel Goswell). I have others, too; I’m sure I do. I stopped collecting the posters years before I stopped going to his shows, but in one of these boxes, somewhere around here, I have a couple more that I’m just not recalling right now. I have everything. I spent a little more than a decade tracking down and obtaining pretty much every shred of Mark Kozelek-related esoterica in the world: old 4AD promotional materials; zines in which he was interviewed; the Mojave 3 song “Krazy Koz“; the records he produced for Hannah Marcus in the late ’90s (which, by the way, are devastating). Heck, in 2003, I visited San Francisco for a week — my first time ever seeing the city — and I spent more or less the whole vacation just finding places called out by name in Kozelek’s songs: Grace Cathedral Park, Priest Alley, Golden Gate Elementary, the place “where Mission Street bends,” Telegraph Hill (home to “Lily & Parrots”) …
Oh hey, wait a sec — I had totally forgotten about my favorite Kozelek poster of all! That one is behind glass, though, and as such, it is un-signable. It’s one of those expensive hand-screened gig posters; it was a Christmas gift, given to me in 2004 by my then-girlfriend, Jenn. In the same batch of presents, actually, was a copy of Nights Of Passed Over, a beautiful hardcover book collecting the lyrics to every song Kozelek had written to that point. That was our second Christmas together, and Jenn knew how much I loved Mark Kozelek. I think that’s why, seven years later, she was so receptive to my request that the first dance at our wedding be set to a Mark Kozelek song. (Well, a Genesis song, as covered by Mark Kozelek.)
Yes, footwear aside, I am exactly one of those people Mark Kozelek so casually dismisses with such sardonic indifference: a devoted, deeply indebted fan.
I first heard Mark Kozelek in 1993, when I bought Red House Painters’ self-titled sophomore album (the “Rollercoaster” album, as it’s known by fans), after reading Jim Greer’s review of the record in Spin Magazine. I clipped that review, and I still have it — folded up and hidden inside the CD insert — but I’ve read it so many times that I know lines from it by heart: “obsessional work that demands obsessional listening”; “Kozelek’s lovely voice floats like a particularly melancholic angel”; “what My Bloody Valentine might sound like if the band could sing or write songs.”
I loved that album, but I loved a lot of albums that year, and “Rollercoaster” was but one of many. It took another two years for things to get obsessional. That happened in early 1995, after attending an autograph session with the late Peter Steele, of Type O Negative, at the now-defunct None Of The Above Records, in Centereach, Long Island. Someone in the room asked Steele if he’d heard any good new bands, and he told us, those days, he was listening to nothing but Red House Painters.
That endorsement caused me to go back to “Rollercoaster,” and its companion, “Bridge,” and RHP’s 1992 debut, Down Colorful Hill — and suddenly, I too was listening to nothing else. A couple months after the Peter Steele event, Red House Painters released their third album, Ocean Beach. Since that day, Ocean Beach has been my go-to, absolute, unequivocal, default Favorite Album Of All Time. And for the better part of the last 20 years, whenever anyone has asked me to name my favorite band, my answer has been Red House Painters, or Sun Kil Moon, or Mark Kozelek, under whatever moniker he chooses.
That means I have spent a wildly inordinate percentage of that better part of the last 20 years listening to and thinking about and worrying about Mark Kozelek. In the ’90s, Red House Painters were not a commercially or even critically successful band. (Spin didn’t review Ocean Beach at all; Rolling Stone gave it four stars, but more notably, four sentences.) I saw the band play twice, and honestly, I don’t remember either room being packed primarily by “lots of female fans” or packed at all — as I recall, they were held in three-quarters-full mid-sized venues, and attended by the same ratios and types of tennis-shod men and women who come to see him today. Red House Painters were dropped by 4AD after the release of Ocean Beach; they spent the next six years in label hell. In 1998, Kozelek’s bank account was levied by the IRS because he hadn’t paid his taxes in two years. As a fan, I was sincerely concerned about Kozelek’s wherewithal, and frustrated that his brilliance was going unnoticed. I was convinced he would be discovered posthumously, and eventually recognized as one of the greatest songwriters of his generation, maybe one of the greatest songwriters in the history of American rock music. He certainly wasn’t being recognized in the moment! Red House Painters’ final album, Old Ramon, was completed more than three years before finally being released. From 1996 – 2005, Kozelek released music on seven different labels, under three different monikers.
Over that same span, I interviewed Kozelek on three separate occasions, for three different publications. (For a good percentage of my adult life, I considered it something of a mission to eventually write Kozelek’s biography.) I did a fairly substantial feature on him in 2004 (it was one of the last in-person interviews he’s granted), some months after the release of his first album under the Sun Kil Moon handle, Ghosts Of The Great Highway. And in that exchange, I spoke to him at length about his financial stability and his legacy. Among other things, he told me this:
I spent four years in remedial reading classes. I didn’t go to college. In some ways I feel like I was just completely designed to fail in life. Completely fail. I love my parents, but my parents and my sister, they live a very, very simple life. And for me to have come on this journey … I mean, my friend Richie, who I grew up across the street from, he just got out of prison. These people I know, that I grew up around, for the most part, they still live there. They work at the grocery store.
This thing that I did was not easy. And I don’t have any tangible success from it. I don’t own anything. But I have this incredible journey. This whole thing has unfolded, and I’m very humble about it, I’m grateful. I’m really, really grateful. Because I have reminders every day of where I could have been. What else would I have done? There’s no other option I have. There’s no other option I have, so I’m really glad that this thing happened for me.
I stopped going to see Mark Kozelek after that Williamsburg gig not because of the “clones” crack, but because his shows seemed to me increasingly sadistic in other ways: He was playing for well over two, sometimes well over three hours, which I found to be a physically punishing experience when I could neither sit down nor move in any way to the music. He refused to play large chunks of the Red House Painters catalog, and the songs he did play were reworked to the point of being unrecognizable, often stripped of their melody and sometimes, seemingly, any melody. (I was stunned and delighted when I saw him do an album-esque version of “Mistress” with the Roots on Fallon.)
I’m not saying these are objectively bad things, but I had personally ceased to be moved or excited by them. I felt like I was going to the shows out of loyalty, not enjoyment. And frankly, I don’t connect with his new records the way I did the old ones. Again, this is a personal thing. For me, Benji is one of his lesser albums, and I’m puzzled when I hear other critics (pretty much every other critic) call it his best. But I’ve been enormously heartened and oddly relieved by that reaction, too. Benji is a breakthrough for Kozelek — a universally celebrated and beloved album-of-the-year contender — and at age 47, it’s been a long time coming. It has made me a little sad to think that Benji will (probably) be the album on which his legacy rests (it should be Ocean Beach, dammit! It should be “Rollercoaster”!), but that’s nothing compared to the happiness I feel knowing that his music is being discovered, and discussed, and loved, and that he is finally making some money.
Now, though, I’m beginning to wonder if he isn’t altering his legacy even further. For Mark Kozelek, 2014 should have been remembered as the year of Benji, but I believe it is being rewritten as the year of “The War On Drugs can suck my fucking dick.” As I said, the banter is nothing new. But Kozelek’s decision to publicize that banter? To take it viral? To monetize it? Knowing Kozelek’s background, it’s hard to fault the man for clinging to, and wringing dry, every bit of media attention and every dollar that comes with it, but I wonder if he’s lost sight of the long game. I wonder what he’s thinking, period. I can’t tell if it’s opportunism or boredom or neediness or sheer insanity, but Kozelek’s new troll persona is absolutely my least favorite thing about music in 2014, and it’s rapidly changing my feelings about my favorite musician.
Actually, you know, it’s going a long way toward making him my not-favorite musician. It’s honestly pretty embarrassing! I mean, for Kozelek himself it’s a disgrace, but I’m starting to feel embarrassed for me. Last week, Scott wrote that Kozelek’s persistent, truly uncalled-for public needling of the War On Drugs “isn’t a feud so much as cyberbullying,” and I agree. And who the hell roots for cyberbullies? Who wants to claim fan-ownership of a 47-year-old jerk who pushes around other musicians without provocation? Especially when the pushed-around musician in question — Adam Granduciel — was, not long ago, working maintenance, unclogging toilets and cleaning rodent corpses out of filthy basements, to keep the lights on, to pay for studio time and guitar strings? Perhaps most tragically, most selfishly, Kozelek has also done some damage to the War On Drugs’ legacy: For Granduciel and his band, 2014 should be remembered as the year of Lost In The Dream, itself a universally celebrated and beloved album-of-the-year contender. And instead … this.
Kozelek has promised that a song titled “War On Drugs: Suck My Cock” will stream tonight, which might represent the lowest moment of his career (and I’m including his role in Shopgirl in my calculus here). I have no doubt the song, if it emerges, will be beautiful and elegant and even funny. For the sake of spiritual harmony, I hope the song comes with Granduciel’s blessing, if not his assistance. I’ll be a little disappointed, though, if he joins in. I mean, honestly, I think Granduciel should just ignore this whole thing the way you would a drunken asshole on the subway. Maybe by ignoring it, he will put an end to this chapter that never should have been written in the first place. But maybe it was inevitable. I mean, given Kozelek’s history, I guess I can kind of understand — not justify, but understand — why he’s digging in against the War On Drugs. It’s all in this tweet, via Granduciel, offered in confused response to Kozelek’s initial tirade against the War On Drugs:
Seems like it might have been at least partially in jest so whatever. Just upsetting to me as a fan that's all. We're just doin' what we do
— The War on Drugs (@warondrugsjams) September 15, 2014
You see? He’s a fan. And for that, he gets treated like shit. Just like the rest of them. You. Us.