Being an avid fan of Sun Kil Moon, I had heard much about Mark Kozelek’s on and offstage antics. With regard to the former, I heard that he often publicly disparaged people if he thought they were inattentive (aka talking or slouching) while he was playing, that cell phone usage of any kind was prohibited, and that the lights were usually dim on stage. Most recently, his insistence on audience engagement coupled with an aesthetic of silence during performances sparked a little on and offstage hubbub with The War on Drugs. Now’s not the occasion to discuss said hubbub, but all of this is to say that as the four of us walked into the West End Cultural Centre (WECC) on November 11th to see Kozelek, I was preoccupied with what he’d be like more than I was interested in hearing his songs.
When we entered, there were “No Cell Phone” signs and the auditorium was populated with chairs. In other words, no one was going to be standing during the show. On one side of the stage was a classical guitar on its stand, and on the other was an electric guitar on its stand with an amp behind it. There was no opening band and promptly at 8.30pm someone walked onto stage, explained the cell phone/no photography policy, and then introduced Mark Kozelek. We all clapped and in he walked from stage right. That’s when it finally dawned on me that I was about to hear someone whose music I have loved since I heard “Carry Me Ohio” in 2003. Someone who’s formidable album “Benji” is without doubt one of my favourites of the year.
The lights didn’t change and Kozelek said a few words, including some priceless commentary – coupled with appropriate posing which highlighted the profile of his belly – on how photography wasn’t allowed because he didn’t want to commemorate his unflattering figure. We all laughed at his self-deprecation but I wouldn’t say the audience was at ease – the only thing that mitigated our silence in the venue, really, was the sound of his shoes as he walked around on stage. He later addressed our uneasiness, saying that he felt we were “scared or something” and assured us that we needn’t be.
The show began with the electric guitar player playing “Micheline.” Kozelek sang the entire song standing up, with one hand in his pocket. He paced aimlessly around stage and seemed nonchalant about the whole thing. It was entirely unpretentious and devoid of showmanship, which allowed the sheer power of the song, the lyrics, and his unparalleled voice to knock you in the teeth. The result was transcendental. Few things compare with music’s ability to so wholly absorb; it became clear why Kozelek was so insistent on “forbidding” anything that would dilute this ability: it had little to do with antics and everything to do with a genuine deference for the gift and power of music.
Kozelek played his classical guitar for several songs and each seemed more haunting than the one previous, with several of “Benji’s” best featured (“Carissa,” “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love,” “Dogs,” “I Watched the Film the Song Remains the Same,” and “Richard Ramirez Died of Natural Causes”). At one point he enlisted the vocal services of a girl from the crowd for a duet of Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe.” He was genuinely charming and exuded none of the douchebaggery of which he’s so often accused. On the contrary, though it goes without saying that his songs portray humanity faithfully and without embellishment (many of the songs on “Benji” are about the deaths of friends and family members), I was struck by his own fragility and emotional transparency. He seemed both at home and unapologetic with regard to his own need for human connection. At one point in the show he actually asked for (and received) a hug.
Kozelek has a song (which he sang on the night) called “I Know It’s Pathetic But That Was the Greatest Night of My Life.” It’s barely two minutes long – short by his standards – and in it he rehearses the details of meeting a girl backstage at one of his shows in Moscow. They share a few intimate exchanges, part ways, and later that year he receives a letter from her in which she says that she spent all her phone minutes trying to track him down at various hotels that night. “I know it’s pathetic but that was the greatest night of my life,” she confesses.
I won’t dilute the sanctity of the experience any further with language, but my evening with Mark was definitely one of the greatest shows of my life.