Mary Lucia: 'The Sad and Beautiful World of Sparklehorse'


Mark Linkous photographed in water
Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse (courtesy Bo-Ho Films)

Are you familiar with the work of Mark Linkous? If I have anything to say about it, you will be familiar with it very soon.

Mark Linkous of the band Sparklehorse was a singular talent with a gentle heart and an ability to write songs staggeringly grainy and dark. An artist who "just wasn't made for these times" says as much about the person as it does about the world that surrounded a soul this delicate. Having an open heart can be someone's greatest strength — and also their ultimate demise.

In absorbing the documentary The Sad and Beautiful World of Sparklehorse, I was left with the familiar sinking feeling when so many artists who feel defeated by the lack of their commercial success are so often worshipped by their peers for that exact "shortcoming." What is that all about? Their music is too peculiar? Too good? Too challenging?

I really doubt Mark Linkous was writing songs with the sound or intention of someone clawing their way to the top of the charts. He just needed enough scratch to fix his brakes. Linkous's adapted vocal delivery stemmed out of recording demos at night while his wife slept. Out ofnnecessity, he had to be quiet.

As a kid, Linkous's parents took him to a child psychologist after he refused to get a haircut and instead, kicked out the windows of the family car outside the barber shop. The young Linkous wanted hair like Alice Cooper. I don't think there is anything I don't love about that. In the aftermath, Linkous was shuttled off to live with his grandparents, where he got himself involved with some hooligans, naturally.

A member of the 1980s indie band the Dancing Hoods, Linkous moved with the group from his native Virginia to New York City and later, Los Angeles, in hopes of achieving mainstream success. By 1988, the Dancing Hoods had failed to land a major-label deal, so they disbanded and Linkous returned to Virginia, where he began writing songs under various monikers. By 1995, Linkous created a project named Sparklehorse, in which he would remain the only permanent member.

While Sparklehorse were on tour in Europe in 1996 opening for Radiohead, Linkous accidentally overdosed on Mexican Valium, anti-depressants and booze. Found in his hotel room, alive but with his legs buckled under the weight of his body, the road to recovery looked a bit daunting. Several operations on his legs left him unsteady, but Linkous pushed on to perform part time in a wheelchair.

Mark Linkous
Mark Linkous (courtesy Bo-Ho Films)

Clearly he didn't see his worth the same way others did. Linkous expressed concern that people only wanted to interview him not for his music but that he was "that guy who almost died." But it's no surprise the list of artists who relished working with Mark Linkous included David Lynch (whose vocal debut can be found on "Star Eyes"), Grandaddy, Portishead, David Lowry, Tom Waits, Danger Mouse and PJ Harvey. Those closest to him characterized Mark as his own imaginary friend.

Linkous found a kindred spirit in Vic Chestnutt, who himself had been a touring musician for years with limited mobility, having been paralyzed from a car accident. Inspired, Linkous thought if Vic could do it, so could he. Linkous attempted to collaborate with Chesnutt on the 1998 Sparklehorse album, Good Morning Spider; however, Chesnutt was unable to contribute in person on the record. Instead, a recorded voice message Chestnutt left Linkous to apologize for his inability to appear in person was used on the song, "Sunshine." (Their friendship would be profound throughout the years, but ultimately prove to be heartbreaking to Mark — more on that later.)

Having lived in both L.A. and New York, Linkous settled back into the country life he was most comfortable with, in Virginia. What may be "living in the middle of nowhere" to some of us may in factnbe the center of EVERYTHING for someone else. Country people, as Linkous describes his "kind," have to improvise given the lack of accessibility. To make ends meet, Linkous worked briefly as a chimney sweep whose company's motto was, "We may not be good, but we sure are slow."

Eventually retreating to a cabin in the Smoky Mountains in North Carolina, Linkous created a remote and untouched life. His new surroundings were so high up, he describes the clouds being actually beneath him. The charm of Linkous describing being trapped in his house because a bear was sitting on his truck — thus preventing him from getting outside — is priceless.

Interviewing him back in 2007, I was so grateful as I had been such an admirer for so long. It's always been a draw for me when a musician's roots are firmly planted in punk rock, and yet they ultimately make some of the most ghostly, quiet music. Talking to Mark was like having a butterfly in the studio; his fragility and tender manner of speaking made me instantly want to protect his feelings and secrets. He was very sweet but clearly broken. We discussed Mark's desire of working with Daniel Johnston, but shyness prevented him from actually reaching out to Johnston, so he had his mother phone Daniel's mama for him. I'll never forget that session; it still stands as one of my all-time most meaningful.

Oddly enough, the only other time I felt that way about a guest was with Elliot Smith, and god knows we all know how that turned out. In many ways, there are a lot of parallels between Elliot Smith and Mark Linkous. Both casualties not of "music" but perhaps of "the music business."

It took five years for Linkous to complete 2006's Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain. Brian Burton, aka Danger Mouse, sent his isolated friend other people's records he felt might inspire Linkous. Curiously, it was Jay Z's The Grey Album that provided the right jolt.

On Christmas Day 2009, Vic Chestnutt died of an overdose of muscle relaxants. Linkous was gutted. Already in a downward spiral himself, he understood living with chronic pain. Sadly, Linkous's one-time mantra of inspiration, "If Vic can do it, so can I," played out in a tragic reinterpretation. On March 6, 2010, Linkous fired a shotgun into his heart in Knoxville, Tennessee.

My favorite Sparklehorse tune, "It's Not So Hard," with the chorus of, "Come on, come on, come on / It's not so hard," has been buzzing in my head for days.

Obviously he didn't believe that and felt otherwise in his own sad and beautiful open heart.


The Sad & Beautiful World of Sparklehorse - official site

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