Listening to My Life: Mark Kozelek’s Wayback Machine

Music Features Mark Kozelek

The reference to Tangier’s wins me over every time. Tangier’s is a West Akron, Ohio restaurant and concert venue, and it shows up in a Mark Kozelek lyric on the new Sun Kil Moon album, Benji. There’s nothing particularly unusual about that. Kozelek, born and raised in northeast Ohio, drops very specific references to his childhood haunts in almost every song. But this one happens to register personally. I wasn’t raised in northeast Ohio, but my wife was, and I know Tangier’s. We’ve eaten there too, taken in a couple shows. There’s nothing especially memorable about the place, unless it happens to have some personal connection. It’s just an old restaurant, a bygone relic of the 1960s that still happens to be in business. But apparently everything about Mark Kozelek’s childhood is memorable. And eventually he writes about it.

Kozelek has been visiting the wayback machine for more than 20 years now, first as the leader of the San Francisco slo-core band Red House Painters, and more recently as a solo artist and as the leader of Sun Kil Moon, which features members from previous incarnations of Red House Painters and likeminded band American Music Club. His voice has the high-pitched resonance of a slightly more tuneful Neil Young. He plays winding electric guitar solos that recall the Godfather of Grunge in his Crazy Horse mode, and he writes drop-dead gorgeous ruminations on loss and yearning and mortality that remind me of the suicidal geniuses Nick Drake and Elliot Smith. Don’t come looking for feel-good anthems. But those who appreciate a melodic approach to melancholy will find much to love.

It’s worth noting that in these music reveries Kozelek can’t follow a narrative worth a damn. On his latest album he writes a song that starts off in Ohio and ends up in New Mexico, and he doesn’t necessarily connect the dots in between. He starts to tell the tale of a young, mentally handicapped girl in Akron but winds up, in his convoluted, inscrutable fashion, reminiscing about his grandmother in L.A. He’s also inordinately fond of his dick, and he’ll tell you stories about its adventures, and name the names attached to the female genitalia with which the dick has cavorted from coast to coast and on several other continents. There are a few aspects about the man that I find questionable if not distasteful.

But what Kozelek does especially well—better than any other contemporary songwriter, in fact—is plumb the melancholy depths of memory and loss; lost relationships, lost childhood, lost innocence, lost life. He particularly focuses on lost life on Benji, which is a nearly unremitting chronicle of quick, unexpected death; slow, lingering death; plane rides to funeral services; the funeral services themselves; the post-funeral meals and the shattered lives of surviving loved ones and relatives. No less than seven of these 11 songs deal directly with death and funerals. Three deal with worrying about death—one’s own and one’s parents’. The 11th is about the history of the exploits of his penis. Welcome to the life of Mark Kozelek. It’s unfiltered and, frequently, startlingly lovely.??

I suppose it’s also worth noting that sometimes life— complex, convoluted, shocking and surprising life—can’t follow a narrative worth a damn either, and perhaps Kozelek simply travels the meandering stream to see where it leads him. Witness what he does on a long, winding 11-minute song called “I Watched the Film the Song Remains the Same.” In the song, Kozelek the teenager goes to a mall in Ohio, watches the Led Zeppelin film named in the title, and is caught up in the wonder of the music. That, in turn, calls to mind the memory of friends and classmates who have died tragically young and the melancholy that has followed him all his life. Those memories then conjure the memory of the death of his grandmother. That news inexplicably caused him to laugh, and he is still haunted by the incongruity of that response. That incongruity triggers yet another recollection, the memory of being a non-aggressive kid who was baited into a senseless fight on an elementary school playground, of feeling remorse, of wanting to apologize to that poor, unfortunate, beaten kid with the broken glasses, wherever he might be. And that memory in turn causes him to return to the present day, to recognize the storehouse of melancholic memories that has contributed greatly to his musical career, and to look forward to a visit with the man who first signed him to a recording contract, to shake his hand, to simply thank him for the assistance he’s rendered. It’s an utterly melancholy song suffused with regret and sweetness.

??I would venture to say that there is not—could not possibly be—another song like that one. On one level it’s convoluted, meandering, nonsensical, full of non-sequiturs. But this is the way memory works, is it not? And Kozelek has simply captured the synaptic jumps that take place, often more or less instantaneously, and translated them via a long, winding folk song. It’s a remarkable accomplishment. He does it over and over again on Benji, just as he’s done it over and over again throughout a career that now stretches back more than two decades. He’s Marcel Proust with an acoustic guitar. He’s unstuck in time, awash in memory and loss, and he’s pulling at the disparate strands to weave something lovely. I’m thankful that one of those strands includes Tangier’s.

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