Remembering the late Mark Linkous and his existential classic
It’s easy to forget that Sparklehorse, born from the ruins of Mark Linkous’ failed “alt-rock” act Dancing Hoods, who, described by Peter Buck, a longtime supporter of Linkous as “a great live band that didn’t capture that sound on record,” were initially greeted with a shrug upon their Capitol major label debut, 1996’s Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot.
At least in the US. The UK loved the album, and it charted highly on nearly all its publication’s year end lists. But aside from the limited run the album’s single “Someday I Will Treat You Good” had on the Billboard modern rock tracks chart, the album barely registered a blip on the radar of the then “indie” community that should’ve embraced it. Serrated folk-rock that, in the words of a friend at the time, “sounded like an indie album released on a major label.” This was back when that distinction meant something. Fans of Palace and Smog would’ve obsessed over the album in droves if Drag City had released it. Therefore a now recognized as brilliant album was ignored by most upon release, and Linkous and co. seemed cursed. His US tour supporting Radiohead was derailed by an accidental Valium/anti-depressant overdose when he was clinically dead for minutes, but miraculously survived. Months at St. Mary’s hospital in the UK nursed him back to health, albeit in a wheelchair for months, as chronicled on Good Morning Spider’s scarred, opiated ballad “St. Mary.” When he inexplicably headlined over Mercury Rev in Detroit in 1999 in support of the album, the crowd left en masse following the Rev’s set, as Sparklehorse just didn’t hold the same cache with a US audience then. It was painful to witness.
But germane to the album itself, which history has judged very, very well, Good Morning Spider did largely allude to Linkous’ brush with death and subsequent recovery, opening with “Pig,” a thrash-punk vent that found Linkous spleen-venting, “I want to try and die/I want to try and fly.” “Painbirds” followed, one of Linkous’ finest songs, all glockenspiel see-saw nauseated beauty, redolent of Radiohead’s “No Surprises,” upon which Linkous masochistically wished for the arrival of the painbirds, so as to assuage his acknowledgement that, “goddamn it’s so very hot/wish it would come rain but it’s not.” Fighting problems with bigger problems was a recurring motif in Linkous’ music, and existed in spades throughout Good Morning Spider.
The album’s peak was found on “Hundreds of Sparrows,” a plaintive love song rendered devastating by the sheer poetic minutiae Linkous imbued within it. Singing over a tasteful baroque arrangement, he confessed with abject sorrow, “I’m so sorry/my spirit’s rarely in my body/It wonders through the dry country/Looking for a good place to rest it’s head upon your chest.”
This song cut to the marrow of Linkous’ conundrum. He was a man who couldn’t live at home in this world, as we’d discover in 2010, after he brutally took his own life in an alley in Knoxville, TN, shortly after receiving a text message, source and content still unknown. And they should be. The man and his family deserve their privacy, and Linkous was a very private individual.
But it’s still haunting to recall interviews circa Good Morning Spider when he revealed that he vowed to take his own life if any part of his body were amputated post-accident in ‘96, even a toe. He was a man torn by extremes, and they were evident like supernovas in the alarmingly bipolar nature of Spider, which vacillated between furious rockers and forlorn ballads, beholden not only to musical heroes Tom Waits and Neil Young, but also literary favorites such as Cormac McCarthy, Pinckney Benedict, and Breece D’J Pancake, all masters of crepuscular southern gothic imagery Linkous conjured so vividly on Good Morning Spider, an album that was the aural equivalent of plumbing the depths of the ocean floor with your eyes open, phantasmagoric imagery abounding.
Patti Smith was one of many famous musicians to write eulogies for Linkous, and her words perhaps resonated the most, as she compassionately and empathetically suggested, prior to quoting “Hundreds of Sparrows,” “Who can know why one leaves us by their own hand. Perhaps it is despair meshed with cold clarity. Perhaps one is merely done on earth and needs to travel elsewhere. We can only appreciate his work and imagine him sailing away on a vessel composed of the very sparrows of which he sang.” Yes, Linkous’ suicide was foreshadowed often in his albums, but was nonetheless jarring for all who appreciated his music and certainly those who knew and loved him personally. Good Morning Spider wasn’t Linkous’ best album by any stretch, but it was the one that provided the deepest glimpse into “the dark night of his soul,” to paraphrase his final released recorded work, a collaboration with Danger Mouse featuring a litany of indie luminary guest vocalists.
Has Linkous been forgotten in our age of digital inundation? It doesn’t seem so, given recent covers of his songs by the likes of DIIV and Field Mouse. And that’s a wonderful thing, given how short attention spans are in 2018 and how quickly bands become silt on the ocean floor, detritus not even half-recalled.
But would he have wanted to be remembered, or cared to have been? Likely not. I imagine Linkous perhaps wanting those who he loved to respond in a manner akin to the ending of Touch of Evil, as Orson Welles’ character Hank Quinlan floats down the sewer as Marlene Dietrich’s Tanya, his non-judgmental defender, pragmatically opines, “He was some kind of man. What does it matter what you say about people?”
And what does it matter, ultimately? But he was also a man morbidly allergic to the trappings of compromising his sound for the sake of success, and was known to self-sabotage many potential “hits” so this didn’t become a reality. Yet he touched those who dared to listen to his music closely deeply and irrevocably, which is largely an anachronism in 2018. And Good Morning Spider is perhaps the finest exemplification of why that was, in all its bitter truths, at times difficult to listen to in light of his tragic demise, yet conveying what every songwriter likely seeks to impart—an awareness of our universal connectedness in both its sweetness and sorrow. But Linkous’ darkness was inexorable, and his suicide was serious and disquieting. I wish Mark were still around. But I’m grateful for what he gave us, and hopeful that young people will discover his music, the work of yes, a genius. He was one of the greats of my generation, and I fervently hope he’s recognized as such.