The evening’s hush had been invaded by a screaming maniac, and no one knew what to do. It was January 1998, and a last farewell concert had gathered at a stuffy venue in Cambridge for Lou Barlow, who was defecting later that week to LA. What was likely a bittersweet moment for those who cared to attend, filled with whatever conflicted sense of loss and well-wishing a fan’s allowed in regard to personal space, was immediately shattered by this—this maniac, screaming.
The scream was despotic—nearly deafening—and as it happens all too often in a cram of wintercoat bodies, a rustle of uncomfortable laughs emerged, a few uneasy sniffles were sleeved, and an aside by the performer, who had just taken stage, was all but expected. This, after all, was not a night for spotlit screams. This night was for Lou, and on some levels his special guest, Elliott Smith, who had arrived by train from Brooklyn only hours prior to finding himself behind that microphone, on a creaky metal chair, a fan himself. It was a time to respect the nature of occasion. It was time for Smith to say something. But how, and what?
We aren’t taught to be cruel. The impulse is tolerated, at most, by the fact that cruelty exists, is televised and perpetuated in forms both visible and not. Why attention to certain kinds of cruelty seems to materialize at certain times is not a mystery but a product of years, if not thousands, of struggle and work against it; work that takes place invisibly, one might add, to the eyes of our society’s gatekeepers, who are more often than not the perpetrators of such cruelty, and most shocked when its opponents arise. Who I’m referring to is men.
Until recently I had admired, and even considered writing about, Mark Kozelek, frontman of the sleepy 90s sadsack act Red House Painters and more recently, Sun Kil Moon. Kozelek has always been a man of his word, willing to own the sometimes-troubling things he’s said and done, to a fault if possible. The mid-40s Gen-Xer has done his share of unfaithful loving, which he describes in (what I imagine he’d refer to as) generously crafted lyrics, devoid of shame, doubling down on the trials of a man who’s taken advantage of the system he was given. He’s also done his share of namecalling and trampling of the Other, which he admits to as a child might, having learned his lesson, thus earning his dessert. In some ways Kozelek’s lyrical delivery had led me to forgive him, to forgive the details, at the expense of personal space (and his numerous victims), because I tend to give strangers the benefit of the doubt, especially in tones of confession. I took his word, just as he asked, for more than a decade.
As a man myself I’m no stranger to the confessional format. I’ve used and seen it used countless times, and the reader is always expected to listen. That’s how it works, especially in the case of a male writer. This tone of male confession asks to be taken for granted as the voice of truth, presumably, under the guise that the confessor is aware of the circumstances that have awarded him this privilege, and that he’ll respect the agency he’s been given thereof. But that writer can’t presume you’ve considered his guises, and ultimately doesn’t have to, wherein lies the problem: a man could expect you to listen without any consideration at all, and most likely, it would still work. Someone would listen. I consider Kozelek one of these latter confessors.
Kozelek rarely checks his privilege while patting himself on the back for fessing up in his songs. I know this because, over the last couple months he’s repeatedly lashed out at audiences and fellow acts, creating what I’d like to call, under the least problematic scrutiny, a marketing scheme. The format is as follows: say something damning and out of touch, very publicly (on stage); say these things to those who are most likely to react and be affronted (fans); wait for outcry or attention in the form of a blogpost or article (hype); capitalize further by extending such damning incidents the next opportunity you get, not only by refusing to apologize, but by expanding the array of people you wish to disparage. It’s a simple attention machine, and it’s been done throughout history to various degrees of success. Unfortunately, it still works because people are still willing to listen.
What I know is that I’ve seen Kozelek in concert before. He was a pouty asshole who expected more of the crowd, made his disappointment clear, and appears to do that everywhere he goes, like a shitty uncle nobody likes. But Kozelek isn’t a shitty uncle nobody likes. People love him, and part of that dynamic relies on the way he treats his fans, who he’s more likely to insult than thank. Somehow the abusive melancholic survives through distorted enigma, a glaring embodiment of domination in action; a spectacle. The hypocrisy is two-fold: his public actions go against the grain of his lyrical confessions, and the fans seduced by that same forgiveness-come-hither lyrical brand allow him to do the unforgivable, over and over. Or do they?
This week feels refreshing to me because I sense the act is no longer working. Things are changing, and the signs are everywhere. Kozelek’s options moving forward are narrowing, to say the least. He could apologize, admit wrongdoing. But what weight would that carry? It’d be one thing to admit he’s out of touch (which he probably won’t do), but I don’t believe there’s a credible excuse in ‘old age’ either, which is the excuse I hear most often, typically from my parents’ generation. What I’d like to tell Kozelek is this: you’re not that old. Stop pretending nothing applies to you.
Lyrics, for instance, come with a responsibility. Whether that responsibility is to his own set of personal beliefs, to the subjects in his songs, or to the listener, Kozelek’s accountable to those words. Those words may represent a fiction, may be viewed through the lens of art—but in the case of confessional realism, which he’s demonstrated over the last two decades, they don’t. They’re not just hot air. I’m willing to be held accountable for the words herein because I’m not presenting them as fiction. I’m presenting these words as confession, essay, personal thoughts and ideas, and I’m willing to back them up through discussion and example, because I’m not simply throwing out slurs and threats. Which brings up an important point: slurs and threats come with accountability as well.
Kozelek’s hype machine took its most-and-least predictable turn when he dissed The War on Drugs, a popular band whose concurrent set at a recent festival bled heavily over his own. Kozelek decided that, on top of shouting some sloppy insults toward the crowd that night, he’d also like to record a song called War on Drugs: Suck my Cock, which he in fact did, and released days later to the sound of a thousand palms meeting foreheads. Meredith Graves wrote a brilliant article for Pitchfork about the language of male violence, in reference to Kozelek’s use of public coercion and manipulation. In her article she insists that his actions be labeled what they are—emotional abuse—while also humiliating him in so many ways, by so deftly calling out his gag as petty, childish and anything but laughable. The fear of becoming obsolete, and the weakness in attacking targets unlikely to fight back (nods to The War on Drugs), are the least of Kozelek’s problems.
For one, I doubt he’s worried at all. His influence is admittedly notable within the musical scene he calls home (yes, the same one he’s constantly barraging with insults) but it doesn’t have to remain that way. He seems to make a living doing what he loves, and if there’s a higher form of privilege as a human, a white man in America, no less, I’m not sure what it is. Perhaps that doesn’t amount to privilege in his mind, or perhaps he doesn’t think he makes enough money, but honestly, no one should have to explain his situation to him. Traveling, being desired, and having people listen to you is not a baseline everyone’s given. Confessions don’t amount to reconstruction in action. What am I supposed to suspect he’s learned from mistreating women when he writes lyrics like “some spoiled bitch rich kid blogger brat”? Who exactly am I to supposed think he’s insulting when he tells the War on Drugs to suck his cock? No one should have to explain to him that he’s speaking the language of rape, but here we are.
In a word, he’s lost.
My main fear is that he’ll choose not to learn or listen. My secondary fear is that he’ll continue to sustain himself doing what he loves, which would be a disgrace to a music community so ripe with variety and opinion. This moment wouldn’t have been possible without the attention writers and publications were willing to give this kind of abuse in the first place, and I hope, as a first step, that it will stop. Labeling Kozelek as part of an inconsequential fringe seems at once unhelpful. Giving such people a platform excludes another voice from existing, from mattering. It doesn’t seem like we can afford to operate that way any longer. Tolerance for this type of abuse is outdated.
I connected most with the theme of redemption in Kozelek’s songs. The fact that a circumstance can seem so bleak at once but then so quickly become hopeful, even if that hope is distant, is seductive. That feeling at the lowest juncture, where up becomes scientific almost, more real than hope, more tangible: that’s what I fell for. When and if I decide to listen to those songs again—and there are hundreds—Kozelek’s words will no longer carry authority. The ones that do, I’ll have claimed for my own, and good for me. There’s your redemption. Whether or not I choose to listen, I refuse to follow the public pattern of abuse any longer, and I don’t expect a pat for that. It’s one basic movement in the right direction, for which applause is unnecessary.
The question I’m most miffed by is this: Why do we only catch on to this type of behavior when the man in question is older, slightly pathetic, and of shitty uncle age? When I asked a friend to read this piece her initial thoughts were: It seems acceptable and even attractive to be young and abrasive in our culture. This thought is disappointing because it immediately sounds correct. Perhaps at a certain age this behavior can no longer be construed as ironic, or sarcastic, at which point it seems acceptable to confront the perpetrator. Our comfort zone in these circumstances has grown painfully lenient, and needs to change. We need to catch on earlier. We need to confront ignorance where it surfaces, and we need to speak in a way that is productive. Mid-forties is far too late.
That maniac screaming during Smith’s set in 1998 was neither a maniac, nor a problem. She was, for all intents and purposes, a person executing free will, free speech. Like Kozelek, she was holding the audience captive, but unlike him, her distraction did not carry violence. She could’ve been of any age, gender, or inclination other than violent, and such an episode would have and could have been resolved so simply as it was that night. What it is about our society that cringes in these moments is the fear of confrontation, and the how dare you mentality of breaking common law. We’re afraid of being uncomfortable, and we need to stop doing that. We need to start calling out the Kozeleks and letting the screamers know how we feel.
What Elliott Smith did, in that rough silence following the scream, was allow himself to empathize rather than resort to cruelty. In that moment he, and no one else for that matter, knew exactly what was inspiring this person to scream in such a way, but it wasn’t much of their business to presume, either. People do strange things. People are allowed to fuck up, or maybe some people aren’t in a position to control themselves.
I’d like to believe the man in Smith’s songs would do the same, but what I’d really like to believe has to do with the man in the flesh, the person who, without much hesitation, found it easy to choose an option other than cruelty or violence. As his mouth inched toward the mic, a strange comedy made itself available. The comment encouraged itself into dead air, with such grace and sense of humor. When he said it he was on the brink of a laugh.
He said, “Well. There’s always that to consider.”