Mark Kozelek – Rocky Mountain Highway To Hell
For all the time spent writing and rewriting, learning and relearning, searching and researching, endlessly following that long and winding road traveled by those whose lives are mesmerized by music…it is, ultimately, a matter of the moment. Craft and practice have their place, but only to serve the call of inspiration, which strikes of its own accord.
Some artists heed that call more than others. Few contemporary musicians are as committed to it as Mark Kozelek, for ten years leader of San Francisco band Red House Painters. Tracking Kozelek’s trails can be either enlightening or frustrating, depending on what one values of the musical experience. Those preferring players who have aced their repertoire and can render it flawlessly upon demand need not apply. But for those willing to accept a song as inherently open to reinvention based on the mood of the moment, Kozelek and the Red House Painters offer a rich and rewarding landscape of possibilities.
Kozelek discusses a typical case in point from a recent show in Bellingham, Washington. “I hadn’t played the song ‘Shadows’ forever, and I when played it up there, I started to strum it, because I almost always strum when I play live acoustic,” he relates. “I’m not really good at fingerpicking-and-singing. But I thought, ‘Oh, I’m just gonna try this,’ and I fingerpicked it, and I thought it ended up sounding really, really nice. So I found something that night with it. But if I did it again tomorrow night, it might not come off the same, and I might have to find a different way to do it.”
Mind you, not everyone is equipped with the ability to adapt songs into enlightening reincarnations as effectively as Kozelek does. Interpretation, like songwriting, is an innate sense, and Kozelek realizes it’s one of his gifts. “I just feel like I’ve sorta got a talent for hearing good lyrics — hearing something in, say, a really bad song like ‘Silly Love Songs’ — and knowing, ‘I know how to do this. I know how to turn this song around.'”
Which brings us to the other side of the interpretive equation. Just as Kozelek is constantly looking for new ways to express the emotions lurking within his own songs, he’s also proven to be quite adept at recasting classic cover songs in his own image. The old Wings warhorse Kozelek mentions was tackled on Red House Painters’ 1996 album Songs For A Blue Guitar, stretched into an 11-minute dirge with an entirely different melody and howling guitar solos that tapped into a pathos Paul McCartney could never have imagined. The truth: A song ultimately belongs not to its writer, but to those who hear it, and it is free to travel wherever the listeners choose to take it.
Other highlights on Songs For A Blue Guitar included similarly innovative reinventions of the Cars’ “All Mixed Up” and Yes’ “Long Distance Runaround”. Thus, it’s not particularly surprising that Kozelek’s solo debut, a seven-song EP on Badman Records titled Rock N’ Roll Singer, features three AC/DC covers. None of which sound remotely like heavy-metal headbanging anthems, of course.
“Well, the first thing you gotta know is that, basically, as a rule, I only cover songs that I don’t like,” Kozelek explains. “There’s a few exceptions, but, if people say, ‘Oh, there’s that beautiful song, you should cover that’ — I’m like, well, it’s already really beautiful.”
That’s not to say he doesn’t have a fondness for AC/DC, who are represented with “Rock N’ Roll Singer”, “Bad Boy Boogie”, and “You Ain’t Got A Hold On Me” on Kozelek’s new EP. “I love AC/DC, but these three songs that are on this record, I don’t really like,” he says. “I don’t listen to those songs. But I think the lyrics are great.”
With the exception of the title track, which features a drummer and bassist, Rock N’ Roll Singer consists solely of Kozelek’s voice and acoustic guitar. The three AC/DC songs are supplemented by three new originals, plus a rendition of John Denver’s “Around And Around”.
If covering AC/DC and John Denver in the same breath seems incongruent, well, welcome to Kozelek’s world. In fact, it’s quite consistent with his interpretive pattern over the years: In addition to Wings, Yes, the Cars, AC/DC and Denver, he’s also tackled the catalogs of KISS, Simon & Garfunkel, Genesis, and the Stills-Young Band.
In short, this guy was obviously raised on 1970s radio, in all its gloriously mutant forms. He confesses as much in a line from “Have You Forgotten” on the Blue Guitar album, when he reminisces how “We listened low/To Casey Kasem’s radio show.” The songs may come out sounding completely different once they’ve been filtered through Kozelek’s aesthetic — twisted by his later phases of appreciation for such bands as the Smiths and Minor Threat — but they all trace back to a time that remains ingrained in Kozelek’s brain.
“I just think there was something about back then; the bands made great music and they lasted a long time,” he contends. “I mean, I’m sure there was probably some crap going on too in the ’70s, but all those bands back then — you know, Peter Frampton and Led Zeppelin and the Doors and all these bands — really took their music and their albums seriously, and I think made great music.
“But now, as far as stuff on a bigger level and shit that’s on MTV, it’s like, I know 16-year-old kids that love Third Eye Blind, but if Third Eye Blind falls apart, they won’t care the next year, because there’s gonna be some other stuff that MTV is feeding them that will suffice.”