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March 8, 2010 | HARMLESS UNTRUTHS

Requiem æternam (a lengthy tribute to Mark Linkous)

One of my few goals in life is to someday have a house in the woods — maybe in West Virginia, near my roots in Appalachian Maryland — where I’d have a creaky porch, some humble supplies, and a basement with a piano and some old recording equipment. This would be a place I could take sabbaticals from urban life, drinking whiskey, playing guitar, writing strange pop music and recording it. I’ve talked about this modest dream lots of times, but I never realized until now that basically what I’ve always wanted is to live the life of Mark Linkous .

It’s not so often that one of your musical idols commits suicide. It’s left me a little sad and contemplative, but I spent the past day or two listening to Linkous’s musical project Sparklehorse, and my sadness is balanced out by appreciation for what he left behind, a strange and lovely body of work that’s had a deep impact on me over the course of my whole adult life. Linkous’s frail work was so tinged with mortality — and he famously already died once, only to be revived — that his suicide isn’t surprising or even exactly tragic. (Though it’s tragic in the sense of Greek drama, I guess, where you know from the prophecy at the beginning that someone is going to kill her children or stab his eyes out.) I’m still deeply affected, though, and I’ve rarely felt stranger than I did walking around yesterday on the first blue-skied sunny spring-like day of the year, listening to sad Sparklehorse albums on my ipod while taking in the beauty of a world shaking off winter.

Nowadays I can’t remember what prompted me to buy the first Sparklehorse CD at a used CD store on Main Street of my hometown — I probably read about it, a review in Spin or something. This would have been around 1996, and I would have been 18 or 19 and in college. The album, Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot was, well, weird . It certainly didn’t sound like the alternative rock that I might have expected from the typewriter-font album cover and band name (“Sparklehorse” doesn’t sound that different from, say, “Candlebox”). At the time, it was probably the most experimental music I’d ever really listened to, with its twisted distorted pop, sound collages, literary allusions, and elegiac tone. I liked it, and it grew on me, though of course in those days I used to listen a fair amount to every CD I owned. Nobody else I knew really got into it, but I kept returning to it from time to time.

I followed the music news (and emerging internet) enough to learn a little about Mark Linkous. He was from Virginia, from some rural area that was something of a parallel to the area of Maryland where I grew up. As I listen to Vivadixie… all these years later, the most striking moment of the whole album is an answering-machine message that plays in the background during the song “Spirit Ditch.” It’s the sound of a middle-aged woman with a notable Appalachian accent telling someone she loves (her son?) about a dream about him as a child; it’s sad and makes me wonder who’s speaking. Linkous’s mom? A friend’s mom? Someone completely unrelated?

Sparklehorse: Spirit Ditch

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Anyhow it reminds me of Appalachia and my own roots. I went a different direction from Mark Linkous — where I turned into a snobby urbanite, he seemed to retreat even further away from modern civilization. I spent my 20s walking city sidewalks and haunting loud rock clubs instead of going the moonshine-and-piano route that still sat in the back of my mind. But I remained interested in Sparklehorse.

I didn’t pick up the second Sparklehorse album when it came out, though I was interested, having read all about Mark Linkous’s death-and-resurrection experience. I did pick up a free promo videotape at some record store that had videos for 4 or 5 of the songs on Good Morning Spider , including “Sick of Goodbyes” which startled me (I had never read my Cracker liner notes carefully enough to notice that Linkous co-wrote the song with David Lowery).

So I didn’t listen to much Sparklehorse for several years, until the third album, It’s a Wonderful Life , came out in 2001. The record got a fair amount of press and publicity, probably because it was chock-full of big-name guest stars, but maybe because it was such a stunning album. I must have listened to the CD hundreds of times in the first few months I had it — it was so pretty, so lush, so weirdly out-of-time. It contrasted neatly with one of my other favorite records of the time period, Unwound’s Leaves Turn Inside You , and together those two albums, both hazy masterpieces, kicked off a strange decade with mystery, wonder, and quiet sadness.

Eventually my copy of Wonderful Life got too scratched up and scuffed to play very well, and to this day my mp3 rips of it are full of skipping and other problems. So listening to it now is more mysterious than ever — I am stuck with spectral versions of ghostly tracks, songs I know by heart but haven’t properly listened to in years. It’s both aggravating and satisfying — maybe the songs in my memory are better than any new versions I could buy from amazon.com.

Following up my obsession with It’s a Wonderful Life , I finally tracked down a copy of Good Morning Spider and proceeded to fall right in love with that album, too. Over a couple of cold, tough winters in remote regions of eastern Europe, I lived and breathed Sparklehorse songs, learned them on guitar, stared out of windows into the dark evenings with Good Morning Spider playing in the background. It’s even a sadder album than Wonderful Life , but I was impressed by Linkous’s simple life goal: “All I want is to be a happy man,” he sang. I could relate. This seems like something that ought to be possible to attain, like a fair thing to demand from life.

A few years later, during a more mundane phase of my own life, I made sure to buy the fourth album, Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain . (This is actually one of the last times I bought a new CD — I was in a transitional phase towards buying only cheap used CDs or else going for cheap downloads.) Dreamt for Light Years , from 2006, is a really good album, too, though I never went through a phase of obsession like I had for the previous two. With its David Fridmann production it sounded kind of similar to contemporary Flaming Lips albums, and I was already on my way to getting tired of Wilco and Flaming Lips types of bands. Or maybe I was less enchanted with the album because my life was so much less turbulent than it had been during the previous two records. Who knows. Listening to it now, I find it better than I remembered — compared to earlier Sparklehorse it sounds pretty peaceful. Maybe this was the sound of Linkous accepting middle age? Maybe he wasn’t really going to teeter over the edge after all? Here and there he even sounds happy, though it is a desperate kind of happiness, hinted at by the album’s single, “Don’t Take My Sunshine Away.”

In recent years Sparkehorse has been in the news occasionally, mostly from the DangerMouse/David Lynch collaboration that hasn’t been officially released yet. Dark Night of the Soul is interesting too — I have listened to it a bit, though I can’t say it sounds too much like Sparklehorse. There is also a collaboration with Fennesz which has been sitting in my eMusic “save for later” section for a while:

save for later

But I find I don’t need these later efforts, even if they are impressive. The four albums alone (especially the middle two) are enough legacy for Mark Linkous to ultimately leave me grateful and even kind of overwhelmed. And the collaborations on It’s a Wonderful Life seem distracting to me now — I don’t really want to hear PJ Harvey and Tom Waits intruding on Linkous’s songs, though I really like the more anonymous female background vocals on Spider .

I prefer to ignore the collaborations and stick with his most basic work, because it is so rich and complex and leaves me with plenty to digest. I can’t think of any other musician who really captures the same type of atmosphere as Linkous. He was inspired by the poetic songs of Tom Waits, the simplicity of Daniel Johnston, and the country tinge of Neil Young, but had few contemporaries who matched his sense of vision . His songs are cinematic, or poetic, or mystical. He went back repeatedly to natural symbols and themes — ghosts, pianos, dogs, spiders, sparrows, teeth, sunshine — that almost add up to a coherent mythology.

I’m always fascinated by artists who develop their own symbols or entire mythologies . I love to hear about people who leave behind apartments full of obscure writing or drawing, or “outsider” artists who obsessively return to particular themes that nobody else can entirely understand. Mark Linkous’s songs have a lot of that same feeling, like hints of a supernatural world that only he could see. (There are traces of this in a handful of other latter-day musicians, particularly some of Phil Elverum’s Microphones/Mt. Eerie songs about wind and moon and sand.)

I think my fascination with these vague mythologies has some sort of complicated connection to my Catholic upbringing — I wouldn’t say we were “strict” Catholics but maybe the right word would be “staunch.” Growing up Catholic meant that there was this system around, a complicated but definitive one, that we slowly pieced together over time. There were rites and rituals, symbols and prayers. Certain colors in a mass meant one thing, others another — and this stuff wasn’t obvious. You wouldn’t know why a priest was wearing red one day, or why those candles were removed, or whatever. It required training and the ability to piece together various hints into something coherent. (Well, ok, you can argue about the coherence of Catholicism, but that’s a separate issue.) And trust me — everything about Catholicism and its rituals is carefully plotted, well thought-out, it’s all very deliberate. They don’t do random in Catholicism.

Since Mark Linkous shot himself in the heart two days ago, I have somehow found myself thinking about all the years I spent at Catholic funerals as a kid, serving mass and absorbing the symbols and ideas of a vast, complicated system. I don’t know if Linkous was religious — he mentions things like praying once in a while, but it is not at all obvious what he means. His religion seems far more likely to have been a construct of sunshine and woods than anything Christian. Ultimately, though, the symbols of Christianity have the same function as symbols built of leaves, and I think maybe it is appropriate to borrow some of the beautiful language of Catholic funeral masses.

The Catholic funeral mass uses words like this:

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord,
and let perpetual light shine upon them.

This seems to be exactly what Mark Linkous would have wanted. Rest and light. Those aren’t symbols, they’re concrete parts of human existence, things we can all get from time to time even if happiness (or a house in the woods) is harder to find than it should be. Requiem æternam, Mark. Eternal rest.