Tuesday, 9 March 2010

RIP Static King: Mark Linkous (1962 - 2010)

On Saturday, March 6th, in an alley off Irwin Street, Knoxville, Mark Linkous shot himself in the heart.

Writing for Popmatters on Monday, Mehan Jayasuriya lamented the loss of “one of the most distinctive American songwriters of his generation”, singling out that vein of “surrealist imagery of near literary quality” that ran through his songs, evoking “both the pastoral beauty and expansive loneliness of the American Southeast.”
Today, tributes from collaborators such as The Flaming Lips and Radiohead have begun to appear, with Colin Greenwood recalling Linkous as a kind of rural gentleman, “softly spoken, with an Old South courtesy I had never heard before”, and his last producer Steve Albini reflecting that “he was as open, sincere and unaffected a person as I've ever encountered”.
David William Sims, of The Jesus Lizard (from Austin, Texas) wrote that he was "crushed to hear that Mark Linkous took his own life Saturday. I had the great honor of playing with Sparklehorse on a 1999 European tour… That tour will always be a highlight of my career. His songs have an aching emotional intensity that still leaves me gasping. I love the way he sang, tuneful but free of ornamentation. Our world is sadder and less beautiful without him."
These tributes, and more are sure to come, are a fitting reminder of the high regard Linkous’s peers held for himself, and for his Sparklehorse project, which had occupied him since 1995’s Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot. That album remains (as Jayasuriya rightly points out) “ one of the greatest, most overlooked alternative records of the 1990s”, but also represents a very conscious return on Linkous’s part to a locale and an aesthetic he had left behind him during the 1980s. In many ways, his all-too-short artistic career describes again and again this embrace, and abandonment, of an imagined Virginian coal-mine, from which his ancestors hailed. The ‘heart of darkness’ in nature, to which he was continually drawn.
Generation after generation, the Linkous family had laboured in the coal-mines of Arlington, Virginia (still today the site of the US Government’s Coal Mine Safety and Health Administration), and in 2006 Linkous told Verity Sharp (on the BBC Culture Show) how his father, brothers and uncles “would come home from the deep mines, and everything was black from the soot, except for their eyelids, or their teeth. I knew I didn’t want to do that, and thought it would be a great way to stay out of the mines, if I tried music.”
His first ‘escape’ was with the early-80s underground NY band The Dancing Hoods, who boasted an urban post-punk sound that made them a great favourite with influential admirers The Replacements. The opening track of their debut LP 12 Jealous Roses demonstrates the poppy escapism of the band:
The song seems well-suited to the NY club scene, offering ironic references to Johnny Cash’s Wild West murderer (“I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die – you think this is pain, well honey this is pleasure…”), and a great scoop of New Wave pop thrown in, reminding us, for just a moment, that one of Linkous’s first loves was, in fact, Blondie. The Dancing Hoods released two albums and one EP between 1984 and 1988, before imploding, at which point the 26-year-old Linkous (reluctantly?) returned to Virginia, moving into a rented farmhouse at Bremo Bluff.
A tiny rural community 130 miles south-west of Arlington, much deeper in the 'sticks', Bremo Bluff was another escape from the coal-mines, but in exactly the opposite direction. With just a tiny village post office, the community was far removed from the titanic metropolis he had just abandoned. The wooden buildings, dating back to the time of Herman Melville, have little in common with the glass towers of Gotham City...
In one of these small farms, Linkous constructed his own shed-studio, in the scrub. Christening the building ‘Static King’, he set to work on his own music, entirely his own, this time (devoid of the assistance of the Hoods’ Bob Bortnick), playing all instruments, layering piece after piece down on multi-track tape, a lo-fi process indebted to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, and to Daniel Johnston’s renowned early recordings, yet more texturally ambitious than either.

In early 1995 (seven years after his return to Virginia), the first of Linkous’s Static King experiments was released on vinyl, by Slow River Records – Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot. The album’s cover, a grainy nightmare of a clown-face, was the kind of image that would crop up in Harmony Korine’s Gummo two years later, or even in his Trash Humpers (2009). Here, combined with the hilariously expansive title (a one-word summary of a fever dream), it was enough to provoke the interest of the American underground and, fortunately, of John Peel, who played the mesmerizing ‘Spirit Ditch’ on his BBC show on Saturday 1 July, 1995.
The lyrics of this song, filled with such apocalyptic, southern gothic imagery (“the moon it will rise with such horse laughter, it’s dragging pianos to the ocean”), belie Linkous’s whispered, melodic delivery, and organic, rotting sound. The depth of the sound-world is unlike any prior lo-fi music, and the lyrics are hauntingly poetic (“the owls have been talking to me, but I’m sworn to secrecy”), whilst also remaining wittily parodic. Where Neil Young wakes up “in a burned out basement, the full moon in his eyes”, Linkous wakes up to find, with quiet horror, that he has “metal hands”…
This fusion of literary (and popular) parody with sonic depth is present from the opening lines of the album, as he mimes Shakespeare’s Richard III, desperate to escape from his battlefield. For Linkous, inevitably, the horse is a machine, and it rambles “on magnetic fields”. After all, in this mechanical wilderness, what is a ‘Sparklehorse’, if not a motorcycle?
The whole album was a triumph, and showed Linkous's rediscovery of the rural roots that were either mocked or obscured in the Hoods’ songs... a slow return to the mossy heart of darkness.
In 1996, thanks to Peel’s interest, Parlophone released the album in the UK, and Linkous was promptly invited to tour with Radiohead. It was at the start of this tour (at the very moment he should have been celebrating the ‘big-break’ that had always eluded his Dancing Hoods), that Linkous took a massive overdose of Valium, collapsed with his legs beneath him, and clinically ‘died’ upon being discovered found 14 hours later (the potassium released stopped his heart). In what is now a difficult read, Linkous was asked by the Guardian’s Amy Raphael whether he “was trying to kill himself.” “I don’t think so,” was the reply.
Hospitalised in St. Mary’s, London, then wheelchair-bound for over half a year, Linkous wrote and – immediately upon returning to Static King – recorded his awesome follow-up album, Good Morning Spider, named for the gigantic arachnid that lurked in his studio-shed (and would run and hide from him each morning). With these sessions, Linkous began to dig deeply into the folk-traditions of the South (claiming to be a distant relative of the banjo-player Ralph Stanley), and, more importantly, waking up to the unnerving density of the natural world in a place such as Bremo Bluff. Listening to the album as a whole, it is worth reflecting that it was recorded in the very same rural Virginia that Terrence Malick would film years later for The New World (2005)...
Indeed, looking at an image of the James River at Bremo Bluff, it is easy to imagine that one is looking at a still from Malick's transcendental film:

Good Morning Spider, captured in the heart of this landscape, remains one of the most original recordings of the decade. For me it was a singular, life-changing disc, introducing a rural aesthetic like none I had ever encountered, with its wonky baroque lo-fi arrangements, gargling drum machines, and broken microphones, overflowing with lyrical imagery far richer than that of (rivals-for-affections-in-1998) Thom Yorke, Spiritualized, Mercury Rev or Neutral Milk Hotel. The entire record seemed to be situated at a threshold, on the graying margins between Linkous’s joy at survival, and a hypnotic fear of what was glimpsed beyond: between numbness, terror, and the burning desire to be back in the woods. The disc remains today the only musical equivalent to the modern folk-art nightmare that was The Blair Witch Project, released only six months later.
The weird glam rock glimpsed here (and elsewhere, on tracks such as 'Cruel Sun') is no longer an attempt to endear Linkous to NY audiences. It is an explosion in the backwoods, a faintly camp hallucination of Blondie and Bowie from the rotting forests of Virginia, by an injured man who “wants to be a shiny new baby with a spongy brain”… And before that strange joke, prioritizing his collapsed physical health over his mind, sinks in, the song ends.
'Saint Mary', on the other hand, is a vision of the London hospital as Kubrick's 'Overlook Hotel', from which Linkous desires to be set free, to "taste the clean dirt in my lungs, and moss on my back..."
Following this masterpiece, Radiohead again came calling, and in 1998 Thom Yorke and Mark Linkous collaborated on a cover of Pink Floyd’s Syd-elegy ‘Wish You Were Here’. Thus began a long string of collaborations, in which Linkous again 'left the sticks' behind (as he had with The Dancing Hoods), and attempted to impact the mainstream. As well as singing with The Flaming Lips, he produced tracks for Daniel Johnston, Beck, TV on the Radio, Teenage Fanclub and Mercury Rev.
This eclectic resumé, an impeccably tasteful who’s-who of ‘alternative’ music in the 90s, extends even into the belated follow-up to Good Morning Spider; 2001’s It’s a Wonderful Life. In 2002, Linkous told Alexander Laurence (at The Portable Infinite) how "the guy at Capitol who had signed me left. The new guy came and wanted me to work with a producer. My studio is literally a one-room shack... I didn't want to get tunnel vision, so I agreed to work with other people." In its released form, the first half of the album is filled with collaborations: featuring Tom Waits, P.J. Harvey, Adrian Utley (of Portishead), and Nina Persson. Inevitably, the resulting disc is far less focused than its predecessors; even if ‘Piano Fire’ is better than anything on P.J. Harvey’s contemporary album, and ‘Dog Door’ (subsequently included on Orphans) turns out to be the most experimental Tom Waits track for years. It is very hard, despite the quality of the music, not to miss its predecessor's underlying otherness. The title track, at least, attracted the attention of Guy Maddin:
None of this disc, it is worth noting, was actually recorded at the original Static King studio/shed. Linkous had been forced to move to another rented farmhouse, in nearby Enon, Virginia, recording a few tracks at 'Static King II' (the "one-room shack"), and the rest at Dave Fridmann's Tarbox studio in Richmond, VA. The new project was intended to be a much more adventurous affair than the released version, expanding on the instrumentals, drum machines and distorted vocals of Good Morning Spider, an album that had anticipated R.E.M.'s Up, and inspired Kid A. The nameless "new guy" at Capitol Records disagreed, however, and (in addition to pushing forward the collaborations in the sequencing order, and attaching a 'featuring P.J. Harvey' sticker to the front cover), insisted that the most unconventional tracks were removed. As a fatigued Linkous remarked a year later: "the American label thought [the original version] was inappropriate. By that time I was tired of arguing."
Just thirty-four days after the release of this uncharacteristically 'compromised' album, the World-Trade Center attack plunged him into a second bout of depression, physical sickness accompanying the recurrent image of people falling from the towers. This inability to forget the mass suffering of others, even though it occurred many miles away, recalled a lyric from the third album's title track: “I’m full of bees, who died at sea…”. Diagnosed with a chemical imbalance in his brain (a condition that perhaps explained his reluctance to fight with Capitol), Linkous disappeared from the limelight for almost six years, only emerging for occasional brilliant experiments. Particularly memorable were his live soundtrack to Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari at the LA Film Festival, and his bass-playing on MF Doom's hip-hop album The Mouse and the Mask (2005):

During this period, Linkous moved house once again, transporting the conceptual 'Static King' studio even deeper into the wilderness: Theseus's ship disappearing at last into the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. Here, on the shores of Lake Chatuge, he was (on at least one occasion) unable to leave the recording shed for a whole day, as a bear prowled about outside it… Like Don Van Vliet, perhaps, he had at last found a cave, and was talking the bears into taking him in.
The first album to be released from Static King III was, like its predecessor, not entirely recorded there. Dreamt for Light Years was a grab-bag of material from various sources, with four already-released tracks dating back as far as 2001. At its best, however (i.e. the eight new tracks, a 27 minute E.P. Linkous originally intended to title Fear of Pop), it offered a further glimpse of Linkous as the Brian Wilson of the sticks, evidenced by the gorgeous haze of the opening track:
In December 2007, having recorded the backing tracks for the as-yet officially un-released Dark Night of the Soul (an eclectic disappointment featuring David Lynch, Iggy Pop, Frank Black and The Shins), Linkous travelled to the Netherlands with Christian Fennesz. There, they visited the village of Nederhorst Den Berg (outskirts pictured below), and spent 48 hours recording an inspired album for the Konkurrent label.

In the Fishtank, the final Linkous album to be released in his lifetime, turned out to be his strongest album in almost ten years. Hinting that the 2000s were just a quiet decade, this album-length improvisation opened up a new sound-world for both himself and Fennesz, a wintry decaying landscape that recalled the Ghosts in the Machine that had made his first two Sparklehorse albums (and the extended, original version of the third) such masterpieces…
Saturday’s tragic news inevitably cuts short this newest development, and ends an artistic career that seemed to be barely midway. The Anti label reportedly holds the tapes to his final record, and it has already been suggested that there are plans to release the album at some point in the future… In what seems to be his final interview, he described the tapes to Pitchfork's Dave Maher:
Mark Linkous: Well, I'm working on what I hope will be my next record and writing a lot of new songs that are sort of atypical of a lot of Sparklehorse stuff we've been doing. I've been trying to write really simple songs to make them sound like they're coming out of a satellite that's crashing into a gas giant or something.

Dave Maher:
[laughs] Where did that image come from?

I don't know; I tried to imagine if you were in another satellite or if you were floating in space and you heard these amazing pop songs that were short and really simple, not unlike Buddy Holly songs, but you wanted to fuck 'em up in a way, but not gratuitously. So I don't know, you know those sort of suicide probes that absorb as much information as they can before crashing into the sun or some kind of other unfriendly atmosphere.
With this, we reach the final post on his gradual trip west, a thirty year journey into an open space, encompassing the 1960s coal mines of Virginia, New York City, rural Virginia, the Netherlands in winter and, finally, the Smoky Mountains. These tapes, the last to hail from his sad and beautiful world, were also the first to be recorded entirely at Static King III. Out there, among the bears, by the shores of the Lake Chatuge: the sound of Buddy Holly disappearing into a gas giant. One last beginning.


  1. I just want to say this was beautiful.

  2. Thanks for a wonderful look at Mark's career. I was honour to have collaborated with Mark in 2007 & 2008. Mark will be sadly missed by many. He was a generous man of a multitude of talents.

  3. Thanks. Good to hear from someone who had the privilege to work with him. And I was moved by your own tribute too, Sean - that 'Sparklehorse' album is very much in the spirit of Linkous's own art.

  4. still hope we'll get to hear the music he was working on when he died.

    lovely article.


  5. The article is wonderful ...

    I also really hope we'll someday hear the music he was working on for the new album...

    Cheers from France

  6. Hi Rob Turner - such a moving piece of writing which I am only just discovering now. How you summarise the depth & impact of Mark work & it's effect on people but also, even now, almost 6 years on, is remarkable in it's tenderness & eloquence. Thanks. :)

    I'm a musician myself, performing as 'The Mad Dalton'. I'm just about release my first album, well an EP.

    Here's a piece I wrote a few years back after Mark's death.