The Gates of Hell Swinging Open: Mark Eitzel, 60 Watt Silver Lining

By Daniel Garrett

Mark Eitzel
60 Watt Silver Lining
Producer: Mark Eitzel
Warner Bros. Records, 1996

“Your toy balloon has sailed into the sky, and now it must fall to the ground. Now your sad eyes reveal how badly you feel, and there is no easy way down,” sings Mark Eitzel, lyrics from a Gerry Goffin-Carole King song he refers to in his liner notes as “a better song than I could ever write,” a song Streisand sings on her album Stoney End. Mark Eitzel’s voice is broad and deep without being loud, and his intonation is sensitive. “The view from the cliffs must have been exciting, and up to the peaks you were bound. Now you’re stranded alone, and the past is unknown, and there is no easy way down,” he sings, substituting “past” for “path,” before continuing: and the song captures aspiration, struggle, and spiritual reversal. I had found it to be a song that spoke to anxieties and pain I had intuited as a boy of fifteen or sixteen, to difficulties I suspected, and expected, and to hear Mark Eitzel take on the song years later on his album 60 Watt Silver Lining is to be confronted with several facts: I was right and wrong—right about the difficulties that existed in the world, but possibly wrong in assuming they were inevitable (belief in them may have been what made them inevitable as personal experience); and the song is a good song—it can bear the weight of personal and spiritual reflection: and “you know in the end, when it’s time to descend, that there is no easy way down.”

In his own song, “Sacred Heart,” Mark Eitzel recounts a rambling walk through an unknown town, feeling like “a dime a dozen, a worthless tourist, a walking target,” before giving himself to contemplation of sorrow and sex, thinking “I don’t need to see you, I just need to feel you when we make love, feel you in the dark, feel you in the future” and sighing “here in the city of love, no one wants me here, but I remember the sweet things we did together, when we made love.” The song has a sprightly rhythm, and Eitzel’s inflections are light, a tone that is more speculative and practical than dour. The song is a reverie of erotic bliss. Eitzel refers to his heart as “my pomegranate heart, my throwaway heart,” and ends the song—passionately, mournfully—singing, “I’m always alone, I’m always alone, and I don’t want to be always alone.” I find the song moving.

In “Always Turn Away,” Mark Eitzel creates a scene of nature, of intimacy, of tenderness, and though his singing could not be more modern, in his lack of excess, his precision, I think Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday would recognize an heir; and in “Saved,” which his liner notes claim Eitzel would like Streisand to sing, Eitzel begins “Your warm embraces thrill me in your arms,” and while exploring that pleasure he acknowledges that “there’s no safety in this world, I have no time for good luck charms,” but insists “I know that I’m saved in your arms,” thinking that “without love, nothing grows.” The song “Saved,” which opens with a solitary horn, is a romantic confession to which a piano adds refinement and sobriety. (Eitzel’s colleagues for the recording of the collection are Bruce Kaphan on piano and organ, Mark Isham on trumpet, Daniel Pearson on bass, mandolin, and drum, and also Simone White on drums.)

One of my favorite songs on the album 60 Watt Silver Lining, a collection I have loved for a little more than a decade, is named “Cleopatra Jones,” after a 1970s black cinema heroine. Uptempo, and sung at a fast pace, it starts, “The people I was with said you were nothing but a fag hag and a dope fiend/ but the song of your eyes/ was of the loneliest woman I’ve ever seen./ We talked drunkenly at the bar./ I thought, there’s a sweetness here the world is missing./ You just got fired and now you’re out high and drunk and celebrating.” What a great opening scene! Mark Eitzel creates a sense of a character that is confident and watchful, strong and vulnerable; and the listener is convinced when Eitzel sings, “Cleopatra Jones, if they don’t see her then they’re blind.” Eitzel even alludes to the film legend: “Cleopatra Jones, Kung Fu just like Hercules./ Cleopatra Jones, teach me how to leave evil men on their knees.” The song adds something eccentric, even heroic, to the collection. “Cleopatra Jones” is a song of imagination and sympathy and some wit.

In “When My Plane Finally Goes Down,” an original and subtle piece, Eitzel considers the possibility of his own death, and the consoling memory of love.

“Let’s go upstairs and have a drink at the Mission Rock,” sings Eitzel, before remarking, “it’s sad when you try and manipulate me, it’s sad when it doesn’t work anymore./ You’re worried if you remembered to use bleach to clean your needle,/ so what, so what, so what, so what,” instantly bringing the listener into what seems a very personal drama: casual, gesturing, edgy. The song has a slow pace, as if to emphasize the depression and meandering quality of the life described. What does one make of the lines, “Hey, how’s your Margarita?/ You won’t be around very much longer./ Now our talk is always useless./ It only makes us seem clever, while nothing changes, nothing changes, nothing changes, nothing changes, not ever”? (His repetitions convey the exhaustion and meanness of the situation.) There is a blues quality here: the quality of staring at brute facts without illusion. Mark Eitzel’s lines create the sense that they were torn out of a life: that is admirable work. When Eitzel sings, “If I could talk it out of you, I would./ If I could beat it out of you, I would, but all I can do is follow stupidly behind and watch you,” the song is almost scary.

With a plenitude, if not an excess, of poetry Mark Eitzel performs a similar magic—of conjuring; of truth-telling—in “Wild Sea,” in which he describes someone who is “a head filled with shopping lists and politics and a hollow eggshell kind of frailty, pulling himself back together, with desperate wishes into wild sea that moans and boils with old ghosts, and a whole other language, uncoiling forever indecent and foreign.” Eitzel gives birth and slays with his language, as he sings of this person whose “fear was just a 60 watt silver lining calling from the edges of his crying, teaching him its frozen prayers.” We often say that life is complicated, and we often say that love is complicated, but Eitzel finds words that could be cited as evidence. “You think your heart is without hate for a while, and you think your soul is without hate for a while”—the “for a while” the damning phrases, the moments of peace.

“Why does such a cheap thing always hide the real thing?” he asks in the song “Aspirin,” before offering a few more paradoxes, and declaring, “My hate is like the sun in the heavens./ There’s nowhere to run and no way to get even” and “My love, though all you had was stolen, will your heart always be broken?/ Relax my love, it’s just the gates of hell swinging open./ I hope your heart won’t always be broken.”

“Some Bartenders Have the Gift of Pardon” is Eitzel’s tribute to a favorite bar, a song in which Eitzel sings “You enter the world alone and that’s the first and last thing,” and I imagine it’s possible to hear some of these verses as depressing, but I think that there can be something strangely exhilarating about facing one’s worst suppositions about life—and seeing acts of care, of hope, of insight; and in “Southend on Sea” Eitzel, after another one of his eccentric observations—in which human oddity shows itself—and before a litany of accusations and possibilities, advises, “Either you laugh at it baby, or you hit a brick wall.” In “Everything Is Beautiful,” which was written for a friend’s musical interpretation of Peter Handke’s Left Handed Woman, Eitzel sings, “Everything’s beautiful, but babe not you or me.” What a beautifully devastating artist Mark Eitzel is. Is 60 Watt Silver Lining Mark Eitzel’s masterpiece?

Daniel Garrett is a writer of journalism, fiction, poetry, and drama. A graduate of the New School for Social Research, and an organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, Daniel Garrett is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, AIM/America’s Intercultural Magazine, AltRap.com, American Book Review, Black American Literature Forum, Changing Men, Cinetext.Philo, The City Sun, Film International, Frictionmagazine.com, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse-Apprentice-Guild.com, Offscreen.com, Option, The Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, The St. Mark’s Poetry Project Newsletter, 24FramesPerSecond.com, UnlikelyStories.org, WaxPoetics.com, and World Literature Today. Author contact: dgarrett31@hotmail.com

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