Taking Sun Kil Moon at Face Value
“He just liked to play guitar and he never hurt anyone.” It’s a line that glistens for me from “Micheline” off Sun Kil Moon’s 2014 album Benji. The stories in “Micheline” twist you up. I have found myself wondering what became of the people he sings about in them. When Sun Kil Moon opened this night with that song, there was naïve soft piano, and tick-tick drums, and frontman and songwriter Mark Kozelek’s creaseless voice.
That line, about the man playing the guitar, reminds me of a dear old friend that I hadn’t seen for 35 years. Then I heard he was dead. For me, those words describe him – “He just liked to play guitar and he never hurt anyone.”
But it turned out he wasn’t dead; he was nauseatingly alive. When we got back in touch, the only thing that annoyed him about his ‘death’ was the fact that people could have given more of a shit about it. Still, of the myriad stories and characters that Kozelek musters in “Micheline,” these 10 or so words, mixed with the sentiment of the song and the irony of it all, bring my friend to mind every time.
That’s Kozelek’s gift – summoning the familiar, making himself kindred, so he can layer on the detail that proves he is singing what you know. Then, with your permission, he can break himself open and pour out his pain. And you recognise it. Maybe not all of it, but enough.
Kozelek kept us captured from the very first happy-to-be-here introductions. He talked to us in his songs; he talked to us about his songs. Sharing the stage with musicians from the band Desertshore, Kozelek sang as he added percussion with one hand on a strategically placed tom drum and cymbal. His other hand was circling, following rhythms, emphasising words.
I checked three times that my phone was turned off. Not down – off. I wasn’t going to be the person in the room who interrupted a song at its deepest, saddest, gentlest, with a Casio plinky plonky ringtone. The War on Drugs debacle and the crass behaviour with a female journalist have shone the light on another side — a nasty side — to a man who writes songs that know the difference between right and wrong, that contemplate life’s grey areas.
Songs like “Jim Wise” from Benji, about an old man, a good man, mercy-killing his wife. When the band played it here, it had a light country soul guitar touch, and they closed it with a quiet country twang. Then there was “Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes,” about Ramirez the serial killer, and about going back home, and about James Gandolfini, which is interesting because when Kozelek first walked on stage I could have sworn I heard him say “how you doin” to the audience in that special Tony Soprano way.
Kozelek was good at choosing who would be a good foil to select from the audience. The Paul Weller look alike in the front row took a lot of stick. During the encore he allowed the floor to decide through cheering whether he would sing “Caroline” or “I Got You Babe” with “some random person”. “I Got You Babe” was democratically elected and he called up the perfect partner who could sing, handle an audience, was entertaining and likeable. It was light and warm, and Lord knows, by the nature of Sun Kil Moon’s material, that was needed. The following loud applause proved how much people enjoyed it. I didn’t really, but who cares.
We were an attentive, reverential audience. Indeed he had us in the palm of his hand, but he couldn’t read us. He couldn’t make out our accent and he couldn’t decipher us as a body. He would ask if we were enjoying the show and commented on how he simply couldn’t tell how it was going. He couldn’t tell the time apparently either. On being told there were 40 minutes left of the set his response was “40 fuckin minutes!” The night had several of those classically timed comedy greats.
“Carissa” is about Kozelek’s second cousin who died in a garden fire accident. The room recognised it; a cheer rose up as he introduced it. This didn’t faze him of course; he spun out the unfolding tragedy for the once again attentive room. Then he asked us to repeat “Gonna go to Ohio, where I was born” and we were only OK at it, and then he started repeating “bad sex, boring sex” and the mood was lightened way up and people were laughing. However, I wonder about the people in the songs too much, and I wondered about Carissa.
He erred on the side of embarrassing uncle a few times with his comments about sex, but nobody seemed to care. I asked myself is he simply one of those blokes who make those comments? Who never learn? We all know at least one of them. But then he would sing again. He would create on stage a flow of insight and reaction. The note-perfect band would provide all the props, they’d hold up the back-drop. And as the songs unfolded, any notion of him being clueless would disappear.
Eventually the question disappeared too, because the music and the atmosphere and the hallmarks of a great gig were unfolding, and I simply needed to take it at face value. They did a cover of Thin Lizzy’s Jailbreak for which they got a young fan to take over Kozelek’s drum. It looked like Kozelek was speaking to him like a kind uncle. I’ve never seen Jailbreak performed to a seated audience before. There was plenty of nodding heads, but a lack of swinging from the hips.
They also gave us a version of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ “The Weeping Song” which Kozelek dedicated to Cave and his family, after talking touchingly about meeting them in a hotel and seeing Cave show his son how to use the hotel room card. This dedication resonated. Over the course of the night, Kozelek proved masterful in leading the room from highjinx to sincere warm thought. He was a Pied Piper, and we followed him willingly wherever he went. We wanted him to like us. By the end I think that was mutual.