SAN FRANCISCO -- The last thing I expected to see walking up the
aisle of a supermarket was a rock star.
All the same, that's where I came across ex-American Music Club leader Mark
Eitzel, who has been pursuing a solo career for the past few years. Eitzel is the
kind of guy who is often lost in thought, so when I quietly said a word of
greeting, he answered me with a deer-caught-in-the-headlights expression,
which gave way to a somewhat wary "how've you been?"
Eitzel, who I consider to be one of the great living songwriters (check out his
work on Engine and California) seemed embarrassed, and I felt
awkward. I don't know what he was thinking. I quickly told him that it was great
to see him, and I moved on down another aisle. I wanted to give him his space,
his privacy. It just felt, well, wrong, invasive, to be seeing him in this place.
You're not supposed to find rock stars in markets, or walking down the street, or
at the Laundromat. It breaks the spell, if you know what I mean.
I think of Mark Eitzel sitting in an old Victorian flat somewhere in San Francisco,
writing songs in a well-used notebook. Or in the studio, behind the board,
meticulously overseeing the recording of a track. Or onstage, at the Great
American Music Hall or the Fillmore.
Not in Bell Market. Not holding a bottle of juice, or some detergent. Not wasting
time dealing with the mundane stuff of everyday life.
Punk was supposed to change all that. You know, "anyone" with some attitude
and something to say could pick up a guitar and make their stand. Punks were
supposed to be, well, everybody. Only part of what captivated us was that punk
rockers were as iconic as the rock royalty they wanted to destroy. Anybody
could be a punk rocker, but only some punk rockers could become stars.
Johnny Rotten at Jack in the Box? Joey Ramone at Office Depot? I don't think
No, I think of Joey and his bandmates, dressed in their now immortalized black
leather jackets, T-shirts, jeans and tennis shoes, sitting around a swimming pool
at a San Francisco motel, answering questions with one, maybe two words. The
Clash's Joe Strummer banging on a pinball machine at the studio where he
and Mick Jones were finishing up "Safe European Home." The Minutemen
sitting cross-legged in the back of a van. Paul Westerberg, in the Replacements'
Let It Be days, snorting coke in a backstage dressing room.
In other words, I think of rock stars in rock-star settings. Even when those
settings may, in reality, be mundane, in my mind they've taken on larger than life
Thus, it seemed completely natural, in the artists compound at the Tibetan
Freedom Concert last weekend, to find Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and Kim
Gordon hangin' out outside their dressing room tent, close to where Sean
Lennon was standing with Wyclef Jean. R.E.M.'s Peter Buck and Michael Stipe
and Radiohead's Tom Yorke were bopping in and out of their respective tents,
as mega-producer Rick Rubin walked by. At one point, Pearl Jam's Eddie
Vedder arrived, as did the Red Hot Chili Peppers. And former Jane's Addiction
leader Perry Farrell. And Blues Traveler.
Rock stars in a setting where you expect rock stars. Rock stars looking like rock
stars or anti-rock stars, looking like the photos that have helped turn them into
One expects rock stars to, well, live different lives than the rest of us. Their
homes are supposed to be larger than life. I remember visiting Lindsey
Buckingham, post-Fleetwood Mac, at his Bel Air, Calif., abode, which was
complete with an indoor "rain room" -- as well as a pool table and a multi-track
Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead, back when Jerry Garcia was alive and the Dead
were still a happening band, lived in a roomy house up a winding road on Mt.
Tamalpias -- nearly all of the walls were glass windows, so it almost felt like you
were in an enormous tree house, with trees and other vegetation visible from
every room. Normal people don't live in places like that.
I remember Mark Eitzel telling me, one time, that he rented an office where he
went to write songs on a computer. This didn't seem very romantic, nor very
rock-starish. In my head, I imagined an empty room with a sparse desk, a
computer and Eitzel, typing. But then, as time went on, I thought about this over
and over, and pretty soon this seemed offbeat, unusual, arty. A fresh and unique
approach to songwriting. I had romanticized the ordinary, I made the most
ordinary of scenes feel special. Mark Eitzel, at work on a song, in the rented
office where he went each day. How out-of-the-ordinary. How unique!
Already, that image of Eitzel in the supermarket is changing, evolving. I see this
lone figure, this artist, standing there -- a tragic figure, perhaps. And though he
actually was just standing in that market, in my mind he now seems removed, as
if he had been beamed down, for just a moment, and would soon be
transported back to that place where rock stars and other artists dwell. Far from
the likes of you and I.