This review is adapted from a paper I just wrote about “witnessing” and first-person POVs in songwriting, so it’s a little up its own ass but it still means something. It dealt with Mark Kozelek, Phil Ochs, and Billy Bragg, and how they used their positions as songwriters and “witnesses” to tell political and personal stories. I’m posting it here because we need a review of Kozelek’s newest album Benji. If you guys want, I’ll post the Ochs and Bragg parts, too, and we can talk about our favorite first-person songwriters.
I began this semester obsessed with one Mark Kozelek song and I end it obsessed with another. Though Kozelek, an Ohio-born songwriter and guitar player, has been releasing music for over twenty years, I only encountered his work this February upon the release of his album Benji, under the moniker Sun Kil Moon. Felled by his intense and sincere lyrics about the death of his second cousin, his love for his mother, his reflections on the Led Zeppelin film The Song Remains the Same, the meaning he drew from “Night Stalker” Richard Ramirez’s death and the Newton Massacre, and his delicate, devastating guitar melodies, I worked my way back through his discography until I smacked into a song that intersected stunningly with my life. (I also found out he acted in one of my favorite movies, Almost Famous.) Considering the breadth, patience, and persistent insight of his work, it was probably only a matter of time until I found such a song—in my case, “Hey, You Bastards, I’m Still Here.”
The song starts with a story about young Kozelek reading The Satanic Bible and later meeting its author Anton Lavey shortly after moving from Ohio to San Francisco. Lavey invites Kozelek to a party at his house, but Kozelek doesn’t attend for one reason or another. Later in the year, Lavey dies, and every time Kozelek walks by Lavey’s old black Victorian house he thinks of his move from the Midwest to the West Coast and the effect that Lavey’s charismatic male/writer/musician role had on him. That story frames further memories of Kozelek’s male role models, specifically his father, and his own maturation:
We watched a lot of TV / Kung Fu and Baretta / Robert Blake wore a cockatoo on his shoulder / And you couldn’t help but to love David Carradine / Kicking the white man’s ass in every scene / Oh, I can help but to think of my father and me / when I see old movies with Steve McQueen / Oh, I can help but to think of my father and me / when I hear the name David Carradine.
The song provided me with a way to understand my father and the relationship choices he’s made with me—that when he tracked down bootleg Mannix DVDs on eBay to watch with me, when he got excited that the WB started showing Kung Fu reruns, when I felt compelled to buy him the official Baretta DVDs for his birthday one year, it wasn’t because he had watched those shows as a kid in some contextless vortex, it was because he had watched them with his dad or he had wished it was something he’d watched with his dad, or because I reminded him of himself at a time when he had watched these shows. All of which I’m sure he’s tried to tell me himself, but I probably wasn’t listening. Woody Guthrie wished to be known as “the man that told you what you already knew,” and it is to that end that Kozelek’s song succeeded for me. Like most good memoirists, Kozelek makes meaning from the materials in his own life, rather than relying on established metaphor, and through his first-person perspective lets the listener in on the new meaning-making process. The listener feels regret along with Kozelek about Lavey and conflict along with Kozelek about “hearing the name David Carradine,” which at the point this song was written likely had more to do with the details of the actor’s death than his work. The sharper the memoirist-songwriter’s memory, the more relatable the material. Or the more fertile the acutely remembered material for signification. The more personal, the more political—either defying governments like Guthrie or defining relationships like Kozelek. The less you mourn the absence the recycled metaphors.
A few Fridays ago I got a call from my mother saying that her brother, my uncle, had died of a heart attack at 56-years-old. I decided to fly home to Florida the next weekend. This is when the second Mark Kozelek song became profound to me. “Carissa” from the new album Benji is about Kozelek’s second cousin who died in a freak accident at the age of 35. Kozelek writes the song from his own perspective—a writer going home to witness his family’s grief and try to tend to it—meaning that he eschews the possible songs about a child coming home to find his/her mother dead from an aerosol can explosion in the trash can, or about what a mother of two thinks as she takes out the trash one day and suffers a sudden death, or protest songs about the working poor. He opts in favor of his witness perspective, which includes lyrics wondering about those subjects as a survivor, and then about his role as a witness, and then his meaning-making process as a writer and relative. For example:
Everyone’s grieving out of their minds / making arrangements and taking drugs / But I’m flying out there tomorrow / because I need to give and get some hugs / ‘Cause I got questions that I’d like to get answered / I may never get them, but Carissa I gotta know, how did it happen?
Carissa was 35 / You don’t just raise two kids, and take out your trash and die / She was my second cousin, I didn’t know her well at all / But that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t / Meant to find some poetry, to make some sense of this / to find a deeper meaning / In this senseless tragedy, oh Carissa, I’ll sing your name across every sea
The song is about pursuing an inquiry—“I gotta know, how did it happen”–as a memoirist, but also finding poetry, sense, meaning, and then acting by witnessing through song—singing her name across every sea. Kozelek champions the role of the individual in the midst of tragedy—he doesn’t ask an ungodly amount of himself—rather, he’s going out there to give and get hugs, to listen to the people who need listening to, and empower their stories by sharing them with people who need to give and get hugs.
In the songs and songwriters we talk about at Ninebullets, metaphor doesn’t exactly win the day. And it shouldn’t. Though metaphors are great and necessary, we listen to bar music because it retells stories about our day and it doesn’t need airs of poetics. The alcohol is the airs and the metaphor. The songs are everything that’s left that we have to sift through and figure out what we share and what we don’t. If anything, the most metaphorical figures in our discussions are the folksinger and the folk song itself. The witness. Perhaps the folk song, or a basic version of the folk song, is the result of the stripping of metaphor. Once an artist embodies the power of the metaphorical folksinger, the writing can stand to be less metaphorical, more direct, more memoiristic. The writer can afford to turn away, confront, and testify, the writing itself is able to juxtapose, pontificate, declare, dream, spiral.
I’ve spoken of Kozelek’s personal songs, or at least the songs that feature a personal event at their core and stick relatively close to that subject throughout. Now, I will speak briefly of two songs from Benji that feature a social current event at the core and how he tells stories around that event. The former are his versions of love songs, the latter are his versions of folk-protest songs—they all operate through his memoirist style.
“Pray for Newtown” refers in its title to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings of December 2012. But the song functions to encapsulate Kozelek’s experience witnessing of the litany of public shootings that had happened in the preceding couple of years—which was exactly the discourse surrounding the Sandy Hook shooting, except that Kozelek handles it through attention to personal detail, self-witnessing, and storytelling. The portal into the subject matter for the listener is the Sandy Hook reference in the title, but for Kozelek, it is the James Huberty McDonalds shooting of 1984. Kozelek relates that Huberty was from his home town; after the shooting everybody in town talked about it for a day and then went about their lives. Kozelek lists through a handful of mass-shootings, each story following the same pattern—where Kozelek was when he turned on the TV and learned about the killings, how fast the world moves on. The change comes as Kozelek transitions from a verse about the December 11, 2012 Clackamas Town Center shooting in Portland Oregon to the December 14, 2012 Sandy Hook shooting:
I was down in New Orleans, at the Model 0 / Enjoying some time all to myself when I turned the TV on / There were shootings in a Portland mall / It was everyday America and that’s all / It was just another one walked down Royal Street / The rest of the world was out having fun.
December fourteenth, another killing went down / I got a letter from a fan he said Mark say a prayer for Newtown / I ain’t one to pray, but I’m one to sing and play for women / Children and moms and dads and brothers and sisters and uncles and aunts.
December twenty-fifth, and I was just laying down / I picked up a pen, I wrote a letter to the guy in Newtown / I said I’m sorry bout the killings, and the teachers who lost their lives / I felt it coming on, I felt it in my bones and I don’t know why.
As in “Carissa” Kozelek responds according to his role as a singer and songwriter. He’s not going to pray, but understands the need to bear witness on behalf of the victims, their survivors, and the rest of the world who need help articulating how to address the atrocity-producing situations that enable mass shootings while also moving on and resuming their lives.
In “Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes” Kozelek again takes a headline and combines it with his own life in a way that positions the songwriter-memoirist as a witness-participant while not being sentimental or overly aggrandizing of the role. Kozelek begins the song by running through a few details of Ramirez’s 1984-85 crimes and then brings the song into the present by talking about Kozelek’s reaction to the news of his death:
Had a flight today from Boston to Cleveland / Got a death in the family, gotta do some grieving / Lost a relative and it’s eating me up / And I’m aching real bad and I need a little love
Richard Ramirez died today of natural causes / These things mark time and make us pause / Think about we were kids scared of taps on the window / What’s under the bed and what’s under the pillow.
Kozelek is presumably traveling to Cleveland to attend to the death of his cousin Carissa; the death of Richard Ramirez helps him tell his own story because Kozelek is able to identify how his perspective on one issue informs his perspective on other issues. The song continues by listing some of Kozelek’s friends from Ohio who had been in and out of jail and people from his neighborhood who had scared him as a child. He next spirals into another public death that marks time in Kozelek’s life:
Make a record this summer / fix my kitchen up and hire a plumber / The headlines change so rapidly / Came to the studio to work on something pretty / and I saw the news on James Gandolfini / While I was eating ramen and drinking green tea / The Sopranos guy died at 51 / That’s the same age as the guy / Who’s coming to play the drums / I don’t like this getting older stuff / havin’ to pee 50 times a day is bad enough.
As a combination of Kozelek’s concerns about the stories of violence in the media, the deaths of his own family and friends, “Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes” enforces Kozelek’s role as a witness to his own life and the national events that intersect with it.
That’s what he’s been selling for 20+ years, that’s what he’s getting better and better at. This album is a treasure and it belongs in the ears of every appreciator of great songwriting and guitar playing. Essential Listening.
To top it off, the album’s called Benji after the dog movies, Kozelek says he wanted to counterbalance all the death in the record–but Benji at Marineland and Benji the Hunted were my favorite movies to watch with my late grandma. It puts me in a weird position of feeling like 1) would I be so affected by his music if he weren’t specific enough to collide with specific things in my life? 2) obviously, I’m not the only person who has this general range of specific references, so how many people actually share them with me? 3) is it, then, beneficial as a songwriter to seek that specificity in hopes of colliding with an audience? 4) do you have to be at peace as an artist with the fact that it probably takes decades of your career to reach that audience? 5) how does the internet play into the relatability of cultural minutiae? Kozelek is old enough to be my father, yet I share a lot of his references from similar positions as how he experienced them–how will that situation change when everybody in the conversation, artists and patrons, have all been raised in this wide-access world of internet-enabled cultural exchange? Or is this all just a trick of great writing? I think we’ll be fine.