“His chest was like Christ’s. That’s probably who he was. I could have followed anybody off that train. It would have been the same.” –Denis Johnson, Jesus’ Son
I’m a relative latecomer to the music of Mark Eitzel and American Music Club. When I was still more avidly consuming new music and reading music blogs in 2009, I read a post written by John Darnielle saying that The Golden Age was one of the best albums of the ’00s. It didn’t take me long to seek it out, and I became obsessed. It’s rarely left my iPod in the last five years. The lyrics, the acid humor, the arrangements, the pacing, Eitzel’s voice—it’s a treasure trove of elements that I most reliably look for and respond to in music. “The Sleeping Beauty” sat at the heart of my Best of 2009 mix.
By the time Eitzel’s solo album Don’t Be a Stranger came out in 2012, I was a year into a relationship with someone who knew and adored Eitzel’s work as much as I did. We were both immediately overwhelmed with how good the album was. When we found out Eitzel would be playing a show at the Beat Kitchen here in Chicago the day after Thanksgiving, we immediately bought tickets, and I started obnoxiously Twittering at him, inviting him to spend the holiday with us in the event he was in town a day early and didn’t have anywhere else to go.
I never heard back from him online, but when we got to the venue the day of the show, I almost literally ran into him as I was coming back upstairs from the bathroom. “Mark!” I accosted him. “I was the one who kept Twittering at you!” He immediately, reflexively folded me into a hug.
Eitzel sang that night accompanied by an extremely talented piano player, with no other percussion or guitar or bass. And it was one of the most achingly lovely shows I’ve ever seen. I’ve hesitated to write about it for the past two years because I’m still wary of breaking the spell—and of not doing it anything close to justice. Would I ruin the memory, the effect it’s had on me, by trying to put it into words?
I grew up in a house with a musician who never seemed to suffer from any self-doubt or crisis of confidence. But, perhaps because of the not-so-subtle insinuations from family, friends, and his colleagues that I should be his protégé, I’ve always been afraid of, well, sucking. Being a disappointment as a musician would reflect badly not only on me—for not being sprung from his forehead fully formed and ready to jam—but also of course on him for not getting the kind of firstborn everyone figured he was owed, karmically. So, I lived in a constant terror of playing any wrong notes on the piano, or singing out of tune, or succumbing somehow to having bad taste. Despite the inescapable pressure of expectation, I continued to make music in multiple capacities for pretty much my whole life, in musical theater productions and choirs and jazz bands, and truly had as much fun with it as I could reasonably be expected to have.
Yet, finally joining a full-on rock group in my early 30s was the thing that really threw me into a crisis of confidence. Surrounded by guys who’d had years of experience playing on stage at major venues like CBGB’s and Chicago’s Metro, I found myself doubting my talent, doubting my contributions to the band, feeling like I probably didn’t deserve to be on stage with them at all. I believed I was dead weight and that if I was going to have the audacity to sing at all, I should at least make an effort to play some tambourine and other miscellaneous percussion so that it didn’t seem like I was taking up so much space. I even forced the songwriter to teach me how to play his Gibson SG so that I could borrow it to (badly) play a secondary guitar line to fill out the sound on one of the songs.
Imposter syndrome would be an easy and obvious explanation for the self-doubt that was transforming me from a mostly joyful performer into a more hesitant, unsure one. The narrative would probably go something like, “now that I’d finally achieved my dream of being an adult playing rock music in the city of Chicago alongside a group of extremely talented musicians, I was waiting for someone to discover that I didn’t know what I was doing and, worse, that I was taking up space as a chubby, not very attractive girl in a role that should rightly be filled by either another dude or by a bombshell like PJ Harvey.” And, that all might be true, and might be folded somewhere in my psychology, but I think it was actually a more acute fear of vulnerability.
In all my musical experiences up to that point, I could hide behind sheet music (in band or choir), behind a character (onstage in a musical), or even behind my father’s legend as a musician in Northwest Indiana (when I sat in with jazz groups in the area). But suddenly there was no sheet music and no script and no one who knew or gave a shit about my dad’s performance history. Suddenly, being required to sing as myself felt like the most impossible and terrifying task I’d ever been faced with.
What did I have to offer anyone? What did I have to say or contribute musically? Why should anyone listen to me?
And, assuming I would be able to figure any of those questions out internally, how would I go about communicating it in performance? How would I allow those answers to become visible or hearable when I sang?
Watching Mark Eitzel on stage that night in late 2012 was an incredibly profound healing on all those questions that had been roiling inside me for years. Everything in me released its tension and went, “ohhhh. So that’s what a singer can do onstage.”
He showed up with an openness that was so complete that it shifted from revelation to command. He wasn’t merely vulnerable so that the audience could gawk at his flaws and idiosyncrasies. He was transparent, irreducible, a 1:1 correlation between who he was being and what he was doing, moment by moment. His heart was not hidden from us.
Often you’ll hear people describe an artist or performer as being a channel, as if it’s somehow more impressive for that person to disappear so that angelic or cosmic information can be transmitted. But Eitzel’s performance wasn’t a gate for heavenly glory; it was the gift of pure presence. He was saying hello to us by offering us the deepest, truest, most graceful parts of himself through his voice. It was the kind of soul-bearing greeting that one usually only receives when falling in love—but he was giving that energy, so intimately, to an entire roomful of people. It was a gift. He gave us his humanity.
As an audience member, I was moved to my core. As a musician, I knew I was there to learn from this master. How did he do it? How could I do the same?
I suddenly started to understand my role as a singer in a whole new way. I knew that I wanted to start inching myself toward the kind of performance that could be about so much more than the music, that could be about love and spirit and connection and emotional intelligence and wisdom and a 100% lack of hedging or compromise or bluster. I knew that I needed to find a way to choose that degree of integrity in my own practice as a performer, paying tribute to his example every time I get onstage myself.
And not only that — I have to reach beyond the desire to see someone else reveal him- or herself onstage, and even past the mere wish that I could do it too, and into the realm of pure potential where I can actually tap the strength needed to burn away the bullshit that keeps me stuck in questioning my ability to contribute anything worthwhile and pull incredible beauty forth in my life and my art.
Is this a tall order to fill? Of course. Is there any way to avoid it now that I’ve seen what I’ve seen and heard what I’ve heard and know what I know? No.
Music, even in my greatest moments of triumph, has never felt effortless to me. Playing or singing has always felt like walking through a minefield, like any minor misstep I made would be catastrophically destructive to my fellow musicians, to the audience, to the piece of music itself. So, I’ve always approached performance with a studied seriousness, as if my sincerity would at least earn me brownie points in case I ended up being responsible for something going horribly awry.
It’s cliche, but, a guy like Eitzel makes it look easy. Of course he’s had years of experience and preparation to get him to the level he’s at these days, but I think the greater truth he’s showing me is that it really just is easy. It’s much more difficult to hold back and pretend and apologize. The energy it takes to maintain those competing anxiety narratives directly detracts from the energy of healing that is able to be transmitted in turn to the audience.
More than anything, though, I see it as a perspective shift. I’ve come around to the conclusion that everyone can see everything about me when I’m onstage anyway, so I might as well make the choice to show up as the singer of the song without letting the static in my own head drown out the melody. The vulnerability is in the hiding, not in being seen.