Covering Up

Mark Kozelek, on hiatus from Red House Painters, takes on John Denver and AC/DC

The dichotomy is almost paralyzing. But for Mark Kozelek, singer-songwriter for Red House Painters, it's a badge of courage to fess up to a love of vintage AC/DC. He feels perfectly at home singing elegant, unplugged versions of "Up to My Neck in You," from Powerage, "Love at First Feel," from Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, or "If You Want Blood" from Highway to Hell. Similarities between the two acts are difficult to locate: The Australian heavy-metal rockers are as power-chord crunchy as the Red House Painters are folksy and featherweight. Both bands adhere to bare-bones, low-frills mannerisms -- albeit originating from different poles -- but the disparate parties are set to be forever linked following the release of an upcoming Kozelek solo album. Will his fans, who fell in love with his sadly beautiful and introspective songs, embrace his love of party animal, petty criminal, death-by-whiskey metal legend Bon Scott?

Born in Ohio in 1967, Kozelek was caught up in prescription drugs, pot, and alcohol by his early teens. By age 18 he'd gone virtually straightedge. Relocating to Atlanta, he met drummer Anthony Koutsos and began a band called God Forbid. In 1988 the pair moved to San Francisco and recorded some starkly confessional, moody, acoustic-folk tunes with guitarist Gorden Mack and bassist Jerry Vessel, adopting the Red House Painters banner after a mythical labor union.

Those early demos curried the favor of Ivo Watts-Russell, head of England's 4AD Records. At the time the label had its hands full with collegiate staples such as the Pixies, Cocteau Twins, and Dead Can Dance. These initial Red House Painters recordings were compiled as Down Colorful Hill in 1992, marked by long, wandering, diary-draining novellas. Two self-titled LPs followed, the second ushering in what has now become a Kozelek hallmark: odd cover songs, in this case Paul Simon's "I Am a Rock" and a painfully re-arranged "Star Spangled Banner."

Back in bleak: Mark Kozelek tames '70s-era AC/DC 
songs, Red House Painters-style
Back in bleak: Mark Kozelek tames '70s-era AC/DC songs, Red House Painters-style

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But what followed was stranger yet. Red House Painters had begun performing a slow, melancholic revision of Ace Frehley's "Shock Me," originally found on Kiss' 1977 album Love Gun. The Painters released an EP in 1994 with two versions of the song; both were utterly unrecognizable. Only a slim crossover crowd caught the lyrics, which gave the game away.

By 1995's Ocean Beach, Kozelek and Watts-Russell no longer saw eye to eye, a situation that worsened when Kozelek submitted what was to be his first solo album, Songs For a Blue Guitar. (Although Koutsos, Vessel, and Phil Carney -- who'd replaced Mack a year earlier -- don't play on the album, it's still credited to Red House Painters.) It included Painted versions of Yes' "Long Distance Runaround," the Cars' "All Mixed Up," and Wings' "Silly Love Songs." But the album's centerpiece was a ragged Crazy Horse­ish original called "Make Like Paper," containing a blistering guitar lead that Watts-Russell found incongruous with the tidy 4AD aesthetic. He instructed Kozelek to excise the solo and trim the song from 12 minutes to a more manageable three or four.

Says Kozelek: "I grew up listening to fuckin' Jimmy Page and Neil Young. If I wanna play some fuckin' guitar leads, I wanna play a guitar lead. I don't need some guy from England telling me what I can or can't do."

After the group parted ways with 4AD, the Blue Guitar album was released in 1996 through Supreme Records, an Island subsidiary owned by director John Hughes. The band toured relentlessly and prepared another album, for a 1998 release. But the Island/Polygram/Seagrams merger complicated that, leaving the record and the Painters in limbo.

Finally Old Ramon, the first RHP album in five years, will be in stores in February, Kozelek reports. Although there's a touch of frustration in his voice, he also displays some Zen wisdom.

"It sucks," he admits, "but things could be a lot worse. I'm not dying of any horrible disease that I'm aware of. The record will finally see the light of day, but it'll be really old when it comes out. And it really sucks that the record's coming out so late, but whatever. People are getting killed and stuff around the world. What am I gonna do -- cry because my record's coming out too late?"

He's barely had time for tears. Last year Kozelek landed a movie role, appearing as the bassist for the fictional '70s band Stillwater in Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous. "I guess I can sum it up by saying it was the seven months of my life where I had absolutely nothing to worry about," he says. "Everything was taken care of. If I had a hangnail, five people would come over and make sure I was OK."

He compiled and produced a John Denver tribute project called Take Me Home, featuring three Red House Painters songs and contributions from the likes of Mojave 3, Low, Tarnation, and Will Oldham. "I don't think it sold tons of copies," Kozelek reports, "but I think it turned out nice and represented him in a good way."

The band also added four songs to the AIDS benefit Shanti Project Collection CD -- two originals plus covers of the Stephen Stills/Neil Young obscurity "Midnight on the Bay" and Genesis' "Follow You, Follow Me," answering observers who wondered when he was going to get around to Phil Collins.

"Hey, I did a Paul McCartney song, and I hate him," Kozelek says with a chuckle. "All the cover songs I do are all flukes. I'll hear a Ted Nugent song and think it'd be funny. I have a knack for taking a ridiculous Ace Frehley lyric and turning it into something of my own. That's how I approach covers. And the people I cover I'm not necessarily a huge fan of. I don't own a Kiss record. With a lot of this stuff, they're like my own songs to me."

He extended that sentiment earlier this year when he released his first (or second, depending upon how you look at it) solo record, a seven-song sampler called Rock 'N' Roll Singer. The title track, of course, is the AC/DC tune from the High Voltage album. Kozelek's reworking blows warm with billowy chords, chiming with Byrdsian appeal, plodding along as lazily and melodically as Red House Painters' tearjerkers. It's one of three Bon Scott/Angus Young/Malcolm Young mutations on the record. With the inclusion of a John Denver song ("Around and Around"), Rock 'N' Roll Singermarks the first instance where covers have outnumbered Kozelek's originals, of which there are but three.

Live, Kozelek has long enjoyed eschewing his own songs in favor of twisted takes on REO Speedwagon's "Keep On Loving You," Blue Öyster Cult's "Don't Fear the Reaper," Neil Young's "Albuquerque," or John Denver's "Leaving on a Jet Plane." His fans should expect no respite with the release of his next solo record -- a ten-song compendium of more tenderized AC/DC covers. Each is stripped to the core, stretched out, and feather-bedded. For example, on "You Ain't Got a Hold on Me," Kozelek drapes a pristine falsetto atop his taut, sparkly acoustic fretwork. It's bound to be anathema to AC/DC followers, with the only missing sound being Bon Scott and his subterranean rotisserie.

"The other night we were playing a song," Kozelek relates, "and for the first time in two or three years of playing AC/DC covers my bass player said, "Are we playing "Riff-Raff"?' 'cause he recognized the lyrics. But that's the first time anybody's ever done that. No one has ever, ever said to me at a show that they've recognized it."

On the surface it's the strangest thing imaginable: John Denver and AC/DC compositions so transmogrified they become interchangeable, indistinguishable Red House Painters songs. All cut from the same Kozelek cloth, they pass by like autumn trees on a road trip. Nothing sounds out of place. Kozelek needs to cloak himself in the classic rock aroma of the '70s like a well-worn concert T-shirt, and the cover songs pay homage to the car-radio nostalgia of his youth, a recurrent theme. Plus, they afford him some emotional distance, since so many of his early songs dealt with interactions with friends and lovers.

But a few recent Kozelek-penned songs hold a glimmer of the days of old: The gorgeous "Ruth Marie" from Rock 'N' Roll Singer is a touching nursing-home deathbed narrative from the perspective of a friend's elderly grandmother. In a cracked voice as fragile as stained glass, Kozelek sings, "Remember me when I'm gone/You know I love you even though I can hardly say/And I hate it when you see me in this way." As always, printed lyrics are unnecessary: His voice is so far out in front of the mix each word is unmistakable. Old Ramon's "Smokey," for instance, is marked by this classically typical Kozelek line: "I'm staying up, waiting for you like a fool." And in "Kavita" he addresses a girlfriend with "My friends call you stupid/But I think you're cute."

Before the release of Old Ramonand his new solo album, Kozelek is taking a European holiday -- after playing a solo set in West Palm Beach next week. The vacation will give him time to do something he does well: worry.

"Well, I guess I'm getting older," begins a list of his concerns. "I'm almost 34. I'm starting to have back pain, and my right knee doesn't work. I guess I just hope everything is OK at this point in my life, you know? Because I don't know how to do anything else. I've never touched a computer or a mouse or whatever. I just hope there'll always be some guy willing to put my music out. And I just hope I'll be able to go to the doctor when I need to or get my teeth fixed when I need to and I won't have to stand in line for food stamps or whatever. I just want to know that it's gonna be OK, you know?"

Back in the band's early years, Kozelek's on-stage persona was nervous and pained, and insecurities like those outlined above would often surface. "I couldn't wait to get off the stage," he says. "I really wasn't comfortable." Shows would teeter on the edge of catastrophe, as sound problems, personal issues, the toll of the road, or any number of intangibles could wreak havoc with his emotional equilibrium, and it showed. At times Kozelek appears to relish a tragicomic role: perennial mopester, the ne'er-do-well with a guitar in his hand. Does he do it on purpose?

"I don't think so," he answers. "If I'm having a bad night and I'm tired, maybe I wear it on my sleeve and talk about it a little bit. I've had some really good shows and some really bad shows, but I wouldn't say it's a routine. I've had times where I just felt like I've played beautiful music. And that's what it's all about."

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