Live anywhere long enough and you’ll start to hate it almost as much as you love it. American Music Club singer Mark Eitzel has called San Francisco home since 1981, and much of his identity as a songwriter seems inextricably linked to the city by the bay. In 1994, AMC released an album titled simply San Francisco, and the band’s most recent collection, The Golden Age, includes two songs bearing the California city’s name: “All the Lost Souls Welcome You to San Francisco” and “The Grand Duchess of San Francisco”. The former—a laid-back number with a hint of classic soul in its electric-piano groove and woozy brass—paints Eitzel’s chosen home as a haven for “pimps and thieves who can’t believe their luck” and “saints who are only holy when they sin”. Sounds like a hell of a place, but how does the singer really feel about it?
“I like San Francisco,” Eitzel states, reached at a friend’s house. “It’s a good place.” Do you feel a but coming? Here it is: “But”¦ It’s funny—I’ve kind of aged myself out a little. I’ve kind of peaked, and all the cool hipster bars I used to go to have no appeal anymore. And I’m becoming this cranky old guy who thinks, ”˜How can you kids afford to live here?’ This city is so incredibly expensive. I don’t know how anybody pays their rent. I’ve been here forever, so I’ve got a place that isn’t that expensive, comparatively, and I see all these people wearing Gap hipster clothing and I’m just like, ”˜This is not my city anymore. I cannot sing about these people.’ ”
There must be something about San Francisco that keeps the 49-year-old tunesmith there despite the scenesters. After all, it would be easy enough for Eitzel to pack up and head down Highway 101 to Los Angeles, which is home to the rest of American Music Club: founding guitarist Mark “Vudi” Pankler and new recruits Sean Hoffman (bass) and Steve Didelot (drums). Mind you, the most affecting song on The Golden Age had its genesis in another part of the country entirely. “The Windows on the World” tells of a debauched evening Eitzel spent cadging free beer at the restaurant and bar that occupied the top floors of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. The track is spare and haunting, all acoustic picking and swelling slide guitar. After the final chorus, however, the song slowly devolves into feedback-ripped chaos, a sonic evocation of the skeletal girders and smoking rubble of 9/11.
The frontman says “The Windows on the World” is not a political song, but rather an attempt to reclaim the humanity of the deceased from those who would turn innocent victims into martyrs in some grand conflict between the forces of good and evil. “They’re always talking about ”˜the heroes’, you know?” says Eitzel. “And I thought, ”˜The heroes? They’re people. They’re just normal, workaday people.’ That was the real tragedy about it. All these religious fuckers think that they can kill, Christians and Muslims alike. I hate them all. God is not on your side; God doesn’t give a flying fuck. I despise it. But all I can do is write about the bar, and about being yet another asshole in yet another asshole’s bar.”
The resulting song—and indeed, all of The Golden Age—bears the hallmarks of Eitzel’s best work, the careful balance of humour and tragedy that mark him as one of his generation’s most gifted lyricists. If this is what comes of living in a city that gets under his skin, then long may he suffer.
American Music Club plays Richard’s on Richards on Sunday (April 6).