It’s A Sad And Beautiful World

It’s been a year since Mark Linkous, one of my favourite musicians, took his own life. At times such as those people always write what an immense talent the world has lost and how their music will always live in their hearts. These eulogies are sincere and empathetic but they often miss the fact that the deceased has left behind friends, family and loved ones who must carry on whilst shouldering the weight of questioning why such a thing had to happen. I found myself questioning this thorny issue, the same issue I had contemplated when Elliott Smith killed himself way back in 2003 and when Kurt Cobain did the same in 1994. Musicians whose work did indeed live in my heart and brought me many moments of joy and soul-searching through my school and university years.

Suicide has always been a taboo subject, particularly amongst Christians, as many believe it is an affront to God and the destruction of the gift of life he has freely given. Whilst I do not doubt that I have sympathy for those who find themselves perched on an emotional precipice staring down into the receding depths of the void. Normal, everyday people who for whatever reason have been pushed to the very end of their tether and can see no way back, out or forward. Of course I have had my own moments of doubt and melancholy but I am a long, long way from knowing how insidious such poisonous thoughts can be.

Therefore, it was with great regret that I read of the passing of Mark Linkous one year ago. As is often the case in our modern age I found out via a friend’s post on Facebook and then by trawling the music blogs I occasionally peruse. I immediately thought of the occasion I interviewed Mark over the phone. It was during the intermission at a Glen Hansard gig in Lisburn. Mark was genial throughout, even when talking openly about the darkness which continued to regularly cloud his thoughts. I have always found that the best material for interviews arise from a casual chat and that was certainly the case here. I’m not foolish enough to believe that I made a new friend that night but I was touched that a complete stranger would open his door to me, metaphorically speaking, and ask me to sit down in his favourite easy chair. Not that long after that Sparklehorse, the band that was effectively a stage and studio name for Linkous himself, played a fantastic gig in Belfast. The room, downstairs at the Empire Music Hall, was packed and the mood was buoyant. If I knew then that it would be the last time I would see the band play live I would have held onto the memory more tightly. After they finished I wanted to go and introduce myself to Mark, tell him I was the guy he had spoken to on the phone and hand over the piece I had subsequrently written about the new album, Dreamt For Light Years In The Belly Of A Mountain. I didn’t. There’s truth in the maxim that you should never meet your heroes. You’ll always be disappointed. Maybe I should have done, if only so I would now know that I shook his hand.

Last March I was asked to write a piece on Linkous’s death and the history of the band. It was one of the toughest articles I have ever done, not only because of its emotive content but also because I wanted to strike the right balance between critical distance and personal engagement. I don’t know if I pulled it off. Anyway, here it is… 

Earlier this month, independent music suffered yet another blow with the tragic passing of Mark Linkous, the reclusive genius behind Sparklehorse. For many, the band’s name will trigger nothing but a vague rattle in the back of the mind, a twinge that you probably have heard their music but can’t recall exactly where or what it sounded like. The limited inches of copy devoted to the singer’s death signify just how well kept a secret the Virginia-born writer truly was. The understated and deeply pitiful nature of his exit stage right is at odds with the immense beauty and bountiful vitality of the work he left behind him. It’s a sad end to a life which, by all accounts, was a long slog out of the mire up towards the light. Linkous might never quite have reached it, but every sour bubble in his back catalogue is burst by a spark of pure joy.

For some, making music is as easy as breathing. Or at its most difficult, walking in a straight line without pulling a stitch. Those who are blessed with spontaneous inspiration can pluck songs or albums entire out of thin air like fruit. They arrive fully formed, chorus, middle eight and all, and the musician simply receives the music as effortlessly if they are tuning a radio to the right channel. They hear the song waltzing through the frequencies, write it down, and then take the rest of the day off. For the less fortunate, making music is a painful, messy business where every note is an uphill struggle, every bar a marathon, every verse a session of stretched limbs and splintered shins on the torture rack. For those for whom composing is an addictive blend of catharsis and masochism, writing a song is akin to pulling a wire strung with razor blades out of their throat – and not the rubber props which ersatz magicians use, but the stainless steel kind which rip your heart and lungs apart on the way out.

Mark Linkous very much fell into the latter camp. Releasing just four proper albums during his fifteen year run in the guise of Sparklehorse, he was hardly what one might call prolific, but that’s because the yawns of time between each release were blotted by darkness and crippling self-doubt. One wouldn’t like to imagine what inky-eyed, rusty-toothed demons haunted Linkous, but you can’t listen to his work without knowing that they’re there, scratching around between the notes like a tarantula in a margarine tub. Equally influenced by Tom Waits, William Blake and Daniel Johnston, the songs sound as if they are forged in Freddy Krueger’s workshop, glued together from bits of other songs, and wound onto a waterlogged reel to reel tape recorder. By turns melodic, hypnotic and frequently teetering on the cusp of chaos, they are little symphonies of broken biscuits, where one bite is so sweet it will sting your teeth, and another lemon squirt sour.

Sparklehorse first came to prominence supporting Radiohead way back in 1995, around the time the latter released The Bends and were perched on the brink of universal acclaim. To shirk critical distance for a moment and sidestep into my own history lesson, I caught the tour when it hit a tiny venue in Glasgow. Skinny, dressed entirely in black and standing like a crooked shotgun barrel, Linkous cowered at the front of the stage and sang about spirit ditches, gasoline horseys and rainmakers. The songs – pretty, fractured things – alternated between cat sneeze quiet and gamma bomb loud. Looking back, it probably wasn’t the ideal performance for a roomful of Scotsmen tweaking on Buckfast who just wanted to hear ‘Creep’. Linkous, as would soon become the norm, seemed embarrassed to be there. As awkward as a teenage boy holding a chess set at a bus stop, his vocals, brittle and reedy, were largely cloaked by a distorted microphone.

The effect, however, was mesmerising. Sparklehorse were promoting their debut Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot (1995). You can imagine how much of a pain in the posterior it was writing that on the spine of a cassette tape. Some critics labelled the music therein psychedelic trip hop, others Appalachian folk slop – not that a pigeonhole really matters. The record inhabited a dark papier-mâché fairytale world where few artists have trod. Dense and mystical, the lyrics, which could well have been written in gasoline on tree bark, were filled with references to snakes, rooks, blooded hands, rusted motorcycles, acetylene torches and great keyboards made from horse’s teeth. The resultant clatter was like nothing else around at the time. In fact, Radiohead’s Phil Selway has often said that without the Sparklehorse ‘Saturday’, a lament so fragile it disappears in the mouth like rice paper, there would have been ‘No Surprises’. Such is the regard with which Linkous was viewed.

As it turned out, that tour was to be fairly disastrous. The incident has been well documented: in a London hotel room, Linkous overdosed on Valium and anti-depressants, the singer keeled backwards, trapping his legs beneath his crumpled body for fourteen hours. When he was finally discovered, and the paramedics started to work their magic, the shock to his system was so great that his heart stopped beating. Linkous was technically dead, until he was sucked back out of the plughole again, but he emerged a battered man. The incident ravaged his body, particularly his legs, which were thereafter supported with callipers. One can understand why Linkous grew bored of continually being asked about it – who wants to be perpetually reminded of their most colossal screw-ups? But it was clear to see just how great the crater it made on his heart.

Whatever black dog which was hunting Linkous grew closer with Good Morning Spider (1999), named for an actual arachnid which terrorised the smoke-shack in which he had set up his home studio. The album opens with ‘Pig’, surely the most low down dirty thing Linkous ever recorded, but the aggression was counterbalanced by gentler tracks like ‘Sunshine’ and ‘Junebug’. On ‘Saint Mary’, he gave thanks to the nurses who coaxed him back to health in the hospital of the same name, and in ‘Painbirds’ he spoke of the depression which continually pecked at his nerve endings. The one thing that tied the songs together with old, withered twine was a yearning for something that this physical world can not offer. It would be too tempting to scrutinise the back catalogue for signs that Linkous’s internal compass was pointed towards the grave, or to paraphrase Emily Dickinson, the horse’s head was aimed towards eternity. There is no doubt that his words, as with those penned by Elliott Smith, Johnny Cash or whichever troubled artist you might choose, swelled with a profound and tangible sadness, the quivering and chill of this temporary life. However, to do this is to miss the other side of Linkous’s work: just because the visible side of a planet is blanketed in night does not mean that the other side is too. Many critics observed erroneously that the title of It’s A Wonderful Life (2001) was meant to be ironic. If anything, Linkous was at his most content and creative. By collaborating with Dave Fridmann, Polly Harvey, Nina Persson and Tom Waits, he unlocked parts of himself which previously remained untapped. The dissonant chime of guitars was largely usurped by the flickering thrum of a selection of keyboards, mellotrons and optigans. The jumbling, tumbling metaphors to fat babies, ocean-bound bees and, yes, horses were still present, but the prevailing mood was fitter, happier, more productive.

Sadly, the following years were not kind. After a glacial wait, during which Linkous paid the rent by producing albums for Daniel Johnston and A Camp, Dreamt For Light Years In The Belly Of A Mountain was finally released in 2006, and co-produced by – of all people – Danger Mouse. Perhaps it was the weight of expectation, and perhaps it was the fact that several of the tracks had been released in one form or another before, but there was no denying that this reel around the fountain was disappointing and less coherent than anything Linkous had done before. It seemed that the static in his head was taking over, that the fire in his belly was dying out.

Linkous’s real swansong, however, is Dark Night Of The Soul (2009), a further joint effort with Burton and anyone who is anyone from the indie rock community. It’s a startling, richly textured piece of work, which makes it all the more tragic that Linkous never saw it released. Originally caught up in a treacly web of legal wrangling, it is due for a proper outing this summer, and serves as a testament to the man’s talent and overflowing heart.

Linkous once sang plaintively, “All I want is to be a happy man”. One can only hope that he has found his peace.

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One Response to “It’s A Sad And Beautiful World”

  1. events in nyc Says:

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