Mark Kozelek – Rocky Mountain Highway To Hell
It’s also possible that mainstream pop music 25 years ago was just as disposable as what saturates the airwaves today; Kozelek’s aforementioned Peter Frampton may have simply been a Third Eye Blind of his era. Still, it’s different when you’re a kid. Whatever music makes that initial connection during those impressionable years will inevitably stay with you, whether it’s generally considered to be “good” music or not.
Which brings us back to John Denver. In addition to covering Denver’s “Around And Around” on Rock N’ Roll Singer, Kozelek also recently compiled a tribute album to Denver, Take Me Home, released in April on Badman. The 12-song disc is of a piece with the Red House Painters’ oeuvre, featuring such acts as the Innocence Mission, Tarnation, Low, Sunshine Club and Bonnie Prince Billy delivering moody, ethereal readings of songs by the late country-folk balladeer. Kozelek turns up on three tracks, dueting with Mojave 3’s Rachel Goswell on an alternate take of “Around And Around” and performing “I’m Sorry” solo, while teaming with his Red House Painters bandmates for an anthemic instrumental reworking of “Fly Away”.
Denver, of course, is typically a punching bag for critics and alt-scenesters who consider his material simplistic and sappy. Still, he has his supporters, even in hip circles. Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ singer Kevn Kinney has been known to pull out “Rocky Mountain High” and “Leavin’ On A Jet Plane” in his acoustic sets, while “Take Me Home, Country Roads” has been recorded by the unlikely likes of Ted Hawkins and Jason & the Scorchers. In 1996, a dozen-plus members of the Twin Cities pop underground (including the Honeydogs, the Hang Ups, and Marlee MacLeod) acknowledged their affection with a tribute disc titled Minneapolis Does Denver.
“I think he’s a really good singer, and I think he wrote a lot of really great songs,” Kozelek says of Denver, who died when his experimental lightweight aircraft crashed into the ocean off the California coast on October 12, 1997. “I can relate to a lot of his music. A lot of it is about being away from home, missing home — you know, ‘I’m sorry that I cheated on you’ [laughs] — that kind of thing.
“I wouldn’t say that I love his music more than I love Neil Young or James Taylor or Simon & Garfunkel. But I feel like he’s somebody that’s been made fun of, and I think he wrote a lot of great songs that nobody knows about. They don’t really know that there’s some more depth there, and that there were some pretty interesting songs that I think a lot of people would relate to, if they got beyond the surface of that image.”
Not much new light was shed on that image by a network-TV movie about Denver that aired in May. Kozelek tuned in but wasn’t impressed. “God, it was horrible,” he says. “I just thought it was typical overacting — a guy who doesn’t know anything about music trying to play a musician. It was pretty corny.”
Coincidentally, Kozelek recently found himself in the position of being a musician who doesn’t know anything about acting thrust into the first film role of his career. Fortunately, he’s playing a musician. “I play the bass player in a band,” he says, explaining that the movie is a semi-autobiographical project by director Cameron Crowe about Crowe’s early-’70s experiences as a teenager writing for Rolling Stone.
“I got that part because Cameron and some people over at his production company were fans of our music,” Kozelek says. “They just had me in mind for this part in this movie; it was a completely random thing. I’d never, ever talked to anyone about being in movies, or had any interest in being in movies.
“So they got in touch with me and said, ‘Do you wanna audition?’ And I said okay. So they faxed me some lines, and I was like, ‘Oh my god, I can’t do this.’ But then I talked to a friend, and my friend said, ‘Why don’t you just go down there, just blow off the lines, and just meet ’em and improv or whatever.’ So that’s what I did. I met him, I didn’t use the lines, we just improv’d, we had a conversation, and I thought, there’s no way I’m ever gonna get this part. And then months later, I was in Sweden, and they called and said, ‘You got the part.’ I was really kind of shocked.”
It’s not a starring role by any stretch, but it was a significant enough part to occupy several months of Kozelek’s time last year. That turned out to be a welcome diversion from record-business problems which were stalling the Red House Painters’ plans. The group recorded an album titled Old Ramon over an eight-month stretch in 1997-98 that was supposed to be the follow-up to Songs For A Blue Guitar on the Island imprint Supreme, which had signed the Red House Painters after they parted ways with 4AD in 1995.
Supreme, however, lost its deal with Island, leaving Old Ramon entangled in typical record-company red tape. The band recently bought back the rights to the album and is shopping it to other labels, in hopes of getting it released before the end of this year.