Archive material revisited

Southern gothic – A brief encounter with Mark Linkous

This is Sparklehorse is a new feature-length documentary that celebrates the life and music of the hugely revered musician Mark Linkous, the main man of the US band Sparklehorse. Linkous was one of the brightest lights of the alternative music scene before committing suicide. With the release of the documentary, I am taking the opportunity to republish my account, from a couple of years ago, of my meeting with him. Please read on below.

Much-loved creative anchor of US alt-rock band Sparklehorse, Mark Linkous, would have been 58 today. One day in 2010, after an argument with his estranged wife he exited the premises, walked down an alleyway, and shot himself through the heart with a rifle.

A trip to the lake for Mark Linkous.

Dark Night of the Soul: a constellation of collaborators

He had recently completed a critically acclaimed album, Dark Night of the Soul, with Danger Mouse and the film-maker David Lynch, which featured guest appearances by an impressive roster of artists. It is reported that, as well as the estrangement, he was very low because the record company was hindering the album’s promotion.

Daddy’s Gone featuring Nina Persson.


London Borderline

Mark Linkous has been through life-threatening times: drug overdose and nearly having his legs amputated.

Perhaps he has reflected on that episode as his new It’s A Wonderful Life album is more melancholic than before.

Not that the rapt onlookers feel blue. Rather, his band – with cello, pedal steel and viola – make a sound so beautiful that the healing properties of music are brilliantly affirmed. For both the audience and Linkous. 9/10

View from the Void by Andrew McCulloch

This review won Channel 4’s Planet of Sound’s live review of the week. I never did receive the tenner prize money.

A true Southern gentleman

In quickfire fashion she rattled off: “Your music has so much about animals in it and you sing about animals all the time and I really love animals do you love animals too?” 

 “Well I am surrounded by them all the time, so I guess I do!” replied Mark Linkous, with a bashful smile, in that Virginia drawl, shortly after the Borderline gig.

Esther, now my wife, who remains a devoted supporter of animals rights, had been questioning Linkous about the animal imagery, in his lyrics and artwork, and, indeed, the whole sparkle horse ethic. 

Think: ‘Cow’, ‘Painbird’, ‘Good Morning Spider’, ‘Gasoline Horseys’ (but a few titles in his canon) and you can see she had a point. 

She had bumped into one of his backing band (which included members of Portishead) in the ‘loo and, having received due encouragement from the backing band member, had dragged me over to talk to Linkous. Not one for meeting heroes, I took the pillion position in their prattling. Although getting a word in edgeways was proving difficult anyway as Esther chatted all things fauna. 

In the presence of greatness

Standing there before me it was difficult to imagine how such a quietly spoken, unassuming – shy – guy, with his trucker’s cap pulled down low and his lank jet-black hair straggling out, could make such affecting music, so laden with vivid imagery that drew comparisons with poets such as William Blake. (Indeed, Sparklehorse had recorded Blake’s poem ‘London’ a few years previous to our chat.) 

The ballad ‘Saturday’ is a case in point. He took familiar, mundane objects “You are a car/You are a hospital’ and, in this song, conjured up that happy/sad longing for love that most will experience at some time in their life. What is he yearning for ‘on Saturday’. A child, a lover, or his prized automobile, who knows? Check out ‘Pig’: “I want to try and fly/I want to try and die/I want to be a pig/I want to fuck a car”. 

OK, so there are quite a few references to automobiles and suchlike in Sparklehorse music too. Listen to ‘850 Double Pumper Holley’, which has a weird tape recording of an autospares store assistant running through a shopping list.

In his hands, everyday life was rendered strange and macabre; he could see something that was nasty or brutal and present it as a thing of beauty.

Mark Linkous poses with gasoline horsey.

A man grappling with his own existence

Clearly, however, not all was well with Linkous. A near-death experience (alluded to in my Planet of Sound review) was testament to that. He had collapsed in his hotel room after overdosing. When resuscitated, after 14 hours, all the pharmaceuticals pooled in his legs came rushing up, causing a massive heart attack.

However, Esther, who has a preternatural gift for sussing out another person’s emotions picked up something at the Borderline. For her, it wasn’t an innate sadness, for instance. 

He certainly made an impression on her. And not necessarily a favourable one. Some time after the gig, I mentioned that Linkous was due to collaborate with the Irish singer–songwriter Gemma Hayes. Esther was pretty dismissive. “Yeah, that wouldn’t surprise me,” she said. What do you mean? I said. “It wouldn’t surprise me that he would work with young women.” 

I am not here to cast aspersions on a person’s character. Certainly not somebody who I happen to hold in the highest regard as an artist. For example, the Sparklehorse show I witnessed at the Hackney Empire was one of the most beautiful live music experiences in my life. Utterly mesmerising. Besides he is not alive to defend himself. I am just reporting Esther’s opinion, which I happen to profoundly disagree with.

Conclusion: The Sad & Beautiful World of Sparklehorse

To fill out the details about Linkous’ life, check out the captivating film The Sad & Beautiful World of Sparklehorse. I understand the film-makers were having difficulty getting permission, from industry types, to get a widespread release. This was long before the lockdown.

If you don’t know much about the band, you are urged to give it a listen. I mean, Nina Persson, Tom Waits, PJ Harvey, David Lynch, Danger Mouse, Fennesz, et al., who all have collaborated with Mark Linkous cannot all be wrong!

PS. So the producers did get to release their brilliant documentary. Extra footage is included compared with The Sad & Beautiful World version mentioned above. Ben Stanbury has kindly written a review of the updated film for this blog. Watch this space!

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