The first thing Sparklehorse songwriter
Mark Linkous wanted to do after he died was ride
one of the four motorcycles he keeps at his farm in rural
Andersonville, Virginia. Well, that’s not exactly true. The *first*
thing he wanted to do after he died was to learn how to live again,
and (here’s the really scary part) to see if he could still write a
“For awhile there,” Linkous says, “I was really scared that when I
technically died — which I guess I did for a few minutes — that
the part of my brain that allowed me my ability to write songs
would be damaged.”
In 1996, an overdose of Valium and anti-depressants in a London
hotel room very nearly cut short Linkous’ career before it had
really even begun. Sparklehorse had been finishing up a European
tour in support of its debut,
Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot, when Linkous keeled
over in his hotel room. It was fourteen hours before the singer was
discovered unconscious, his legs pinned underneath him with their
circulation cut off. When medics attempted to straighten his legs,
the procedure triggered a heart attack. A three-month stay at St.
Mary’s hospital in London and no less than seven operations were
required to save Linkous’ legs, which doctors initially told him
would have to be amputated. Even so, the singer says he was in a
morphine-medicated state for two years after the accident.
“I don’t even remember flying over there to London,” says Linkous.
“I just remember waking up in the hospital with tubes coming out of
my nose.” Though he’s understandably reluctant to rehash the
episode, Linkous knows he has little choice but to talk about it.
For one thing, despite having to wear braces on his legs, he’s
getting ready for a two-month U.S. tour that begins in March with a
band that includes cellist Sophie Michalitsianos,
multi-instrumentalist Jonathan E. Segel, drummer
Scott Minor and bassist Scott
Fitzsimmons (the band just finished playing a series of
dates in Australia and New Zealand). For another, much of the
material on Sparklehorse’s just-released second album, Good
Morning Spider (Capitol), is in large part a product of the
accident and its torturous aftermath.
Linkous’ introspective, impressionistic songwriting style reaches
new heights, or depths as the case may be, on Spider.
Tracks like the cornet-laced “Painbirds,” the gathering storm of
“Chaos of the Galaxy/Happy Man,” and the nursery rhyme prayer of
“Saint Mary” all examine the fragile, fleeting quality of life, and
the tangle of emotions — frustration, resignation, wonder, and
gratitude — that wrestled for position within Linkous’ helpless
physical state. But even during his darkest days, Linkous held out
a hand to hope. He didn’t have to reach very far. “My walls were
covered with cards and letters from people who said how much the
first record meant to them, and that got me through it,” he says.
“It was amazing.”
Jonathan E. Segel, who’s been tapped by Linkous to
play guitar, keyboards, violin and glockenspiel on the tour, first
met Linkous a decade ago when his employer’s old group, the Dancing
Hoods, was opening for Segel’s band, Camper Van
Beethoven. It would be years, however, before Segel heard
about the strange outfit called Sparklehorse from his ex-Camper
bandmate, David Lowery (now of Cracker), a frequent Linkous
collaborator. In fact, one of Lowery’s and Linkous’ songs, “Sick of
Goodbyes” (which first appeared on Cracker’s 1993 album,
Kerosene Hat), has been tapped by Capitol as
Spider‘s first U.K. single.
“The thing that’s so great about Mark’s music is that it’s got this
timeless quality,” Segel says a couple of days after the band’s
return from Australia. “There’s definitely an old-time sound to it,
but at the same time I think the sonic nature of what Mark’s doing
is very forward-thinking. The way Mark puts things is very poetic,
and there’s a universality to his songs.”
Besides Linkous’ way with words, Spider is rife with the
clutter of peculiar, improbable sounds that, when placed next to
each other, conspire to create a kind of restless dreamscape that
flickers in and out of focus: pockets of shortwave radio static
(Linkous hasn’t called his home studio “Static King” for nothing)
and whispered asides bump up against toy instruments and symphony
hall strings. Sparklehorse’s music is as old as it is new, as bare
as it is busy. For every buzzing burst of mid-fi pop, there’s an
ancient Appalachian echo or a woozy detour into what might be
described as a kind of rustic, art-damaged folk.
It’s a strangely beautiful world that even Linkous couldn’t have
possibly imagined when, as a teenager, he left his home in
Richmond, Virginia, and headed out to New York City and L.A. with
dreams of punk-rock stardom dancing in his head. But it didn’t take
long, he says, before “I was as bored as shit with the idea of
trying to make a rock record and getting signed. And then somebody
played me a Tom Waits record.”
That was all he needed to hear. Linkous moved back to Richmond,
joined a band that played nothing but “300-year-old Irish songs,”
and basically discarded everything he thought he knew about music.
“That period was about abandoning a lot of things and just starting
from scratch and learning how to write again — learning how to
make art out of pain or clay.” Linkous says he hears an honesty, an
innocence and a purity of purpose in those old-fashioned sounds
that’s missing in much of so-called modern rock.
The same might be said for why he eventually left the hurtling
highways of the cities for the winding dirt roads of the country.
He and his wife recently bought a farmhouse at the outskirts of a
town that he says boasts little more than a post office. Perhaps in
a sense, Linkous himself had to first lose the qualities he talks
most about — honesty, purity of purpose — before he could,
ultimately, reclaim them. For all its haunted reflections, Good
Morning Spider sounds not like the work of a man who’s fallen
down to die, but rather like a man who somehow, against all odds,
has gotten to his feet to live.