“I liked my shirt a few hours ago, but now I feel bad about it,” Mark Eitzel said from the tiny stage at (Le) Poisson Rouge. He was smiling but not joking. He’d been forgetting lyrics and false starting songs throughout the set, and I thought the fringed shirt might be the last straw—that he might flee and vanish into Bleecker Street, just one more shuffling man in a porkpie.
Powers engage, I said and then unconsciously assumed the position: wineglass down, torso tilted ten degrees forward, my entire body utterly still. I turned all the life in me toward making Eitzel know there was love in the room—that from time to time, we all lose a word, trip on a cord, put on a cowboy shirt and bolo tie that we truly have no business wearing. He got through the song, then another. Once the crisis point passed, my body downshifted, but it didn’t fully clock out until after the encore—then I slumped like a B-movie medium after a séance that had gotten out of hand.
Propping up collapsing men is one of my talents. In a business meeting, I can produce boring data to bolster whatever shady-sounding claim the man next to me makes. If a guy asks, Am I ready to do this job / kiss this girl / give this speech? I can smile slightly and say, in a way that makes him think he believes in himself: I think you already know the answer to that question. I’m so good that I can even work remotely: via email, text, sext, DM, IM, marginalia, playlist, or windshield Post-its. But I’m at my best in the darkness of a club, twenty feet from the locus of disintegration.
I took to this work young, in a golden age for desolate men playing desolate songs. Sadcore, critics called it. Regular music was full of sad guys, too, of course; what set sadcore apart was its note of self-laceration. I rolled my eyes at musicians who blamed women for their problems, but if Elliott Smith or Mark Kozelek blamed his own basic unlovability for forcing a woman to leave him? That slayed me. And if one of those guys was ten feet away in a club, trying and failing to keep his shit together, I would have melted, if not for the stronger impulse to be stoic for him, to deploy my very being as protection.
My rescue of collapsing men might sound like compassion, but it was mostly borne of fear. My boyfriends were sleepy, diffident people; my father’s feelings were a black box. The first man I ever saw cry was Donald Sutherland in Ordinary People, and I cringed from the sight and then again at my own reaction. I was twelve—old enough to know intellectually that of course men and boys cried, even that the capacity for tears spoke well of them. The way I recoiled made me feel ashamed. It makes sense that within a few years I’d be both afraid of and pulled to those broken-voiced men with guitars.
Mark Eitzel was then the singer for the cult band American Music Club, which made music about grief and self-loathing and never knowing the right thing to say. They also made music about drinking, or maybe drinking was just the wallpaper in the room where the pain always seemed to happen. Eitzel sang in a baritone that could slide, in just a few bars, from Tenderloin lounge singer to a furious sputter. At his best, he made despair into something grand and prismatic, even radiant. Witnessing him live felt like being cleansed both by and of sorrow. Well, sometimes. Other nights, he might drunkenly rant at the audience or at himself or get only halfway through each song. He might even lam it midshow, tearing down the poster of his own face as he made his exit.
I never witnessed Bad Mark in those days, and from the safety of a CD player his moods sounded sublimely tragic and boozy. I loved other drinkers. Like me, they understood that beauty was pain and love was pain and pain was pain, too, but a beautiful, lovely kind of pain as long as you could fuzz it out with alcohol. I especially loved legendary drinkers like Eitzel, who let me feel like my own drinking was pretty chill by comparison. I was barely at the beginning, then; two glasses of wine could tank me for the night. But I already knew it wasn’t normal how closely I watched the level in the bottle, worried there might not be enough, or how impatiently I waited for my friends to drain their glasses so I could refill mine. But I was never a ranter or a stumbler. My drinking wasn’t the stuff of art. So why worry?
The other singer I fell for around that time was Peter Milton Walsh, the core of a woozily elegant and virtually unknown Australian band called the Apartments. Without an Internet to mine for details, the Apartments existed to me as just a handful of pricey import albums. It was worth the money to waft around in their world of smoke and gin and hazy regrets, all webbed together with horns and strings, like Leonard Cohen covering Sinatra’s “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning.” I believed that was how adult life felt, if you were lucky. I began to see myself as a woman from an Apartments song: jaded (which I was), damaged (yep), challenging (check), but adored (intermittently). I adopted the Apartments as a model for living, something I feel sure now that Walsh would have advised against. But who was he then? Just a voice so far away we didn’t even share seasons.
And by the turn of the millennium, he was even less than a distant voice. Three and then five and then seven years passed without a new Apartments record. Eventually, I could look online for news, but there was none. On a bare-bones fan site, a French user named Luc concluded that “it seems Mr. Walsh has simply gone underground.” Luc sounded resigned. But I was American, used to wanting more and getting it, and I felt a little angry that Walsh had cut me off.
The night I saved Mark Eitzel at (Le) Poisson Rouge was not long after Mr. Walsh went underground. I was braced, and wine-fortified, for volatility. But the shaky man onstage wasn’t the self-immolating Eitzel of legend. He was charming and comical, a sad clown with sweet basset eyes. It was an honor and even a pleasure to spend my energy on keeping him whole. It was gratifying to wake up the next day, hungover but knowing I’d done my job. Of course, I barely remembered the songs he’d played. Maybe I’d been too focused on being of service to hear them—or just too drunk.
When I finally quit drinking three years later, I worked hard for months to avert my eyes from anyone’s pain but my own, so that the small ugly things of the world wouldn’t send me running for a glass of wine. But as time passed and the daily grime crept in despite my efforts to keep it at bay, I started to notice that my feelings were subtly elastic. When flattened by pain, I didn’t bounce back in the fast-twitch manner of a bungee cord. But I had the slow resilience of Silly Putty and would eventually reassume my natural form.
I was still newly sober when Peter Milton Walsh returned from his decade underground, signaled by a post on the official Apartments Facebook page. I addressed a studiously restrained fan message to Walsh and then sent it into the ether. After I received a graciously wry response, we began an occasional correspondence about books and music we both loved. When the band released its first new song in twelve years, I told him how glad I was to hear it. What I really wanted to say was, Where were you? But I wouldn’t have dreamed of asking.
A new album followed, along with a handful of interviews. That’s how I learned Peter hadn’t “gone underground” or moved into an opium den or given it all up for a woman or any other Apartmentsish thing. No. He’d lost a child. He stopped making records when his toddler son died of a rare blood disorder. Walsh had been one thing to me in his songs, but the other 90 percent of him was a father upended by grief, and that person had existed for the entire decade I was periodically irritated by the withdrawal of the 10 percent I knew. Why did he start recording again? I don’t know. Why did I stop drinking? Why does anyone try the knob of that one door they’re sure is locked?
The new album was called No Song, No Spell, No Madrigal, and it had the same mood of three A.M. resignation as the old ones. But now the songs referenced children’s hospitals and small coffins, not love letters or old hotels. This album was too specific to be repurposed for my own seduction-oriented ends. It said: Look, while you were hazing around, my life was altered forever, and I’m going to tell you about it. It was hard to listen to—I’d liked hazing around in Walsh’s world, thank you very much. But what I’d seen hadn’t been the whole story any more than my drinking life had been the insouciant lark it looked like from afar. I could no longer ignore his reality any more than I could deny the years I’d spent drunk crying in beautiful shoes or waking up sick with no one to blame but myself.
Last year, Peter played his first-ever show on American soil at the Make-Out Room, the same San Francisco dive bar where Eitzel had made solo appearances since the late nineties. The audience was small and enraptured. All of us had waited decades not only for this show but also to be in the same room with others who’d been waiting. The sound was crystalline, every song the best song ever. Peter in his customary black suit and Ray-Bans was charming and urbane, in no need of propping up from me or anyone else.
The setlist was wide-ranging, and he didn’t play a song from the new record until halfway through the performance. It was “Swap Places,” about his son’s funeral.
If I could do your dying for you
You know I’d swap places in a New York minute
The wooden box would have me in it
Over time, I had integrated these songs into my love of the Apartments and my friendship with Peter. He wasn’t some bohemian concept anymore. He was a husband and father, a reader, a wit, a nice man. That summer, knowing I was struggling in the final weeks of writing a book, he’d sent a Nichita Stănescu poem that jolted me out of the quicksand:
You say to yourself:
Now I fly: Then say:
And it’s flight.
I thought of those lines as I watched him play. “Then say: / Flight. / And it’s flight.” How could that work? Except it did. I’d finally said: Sober. And now I was holding a Diet Coke. I’d said: Write, and finished my book. I’d said: Strong, to God knows how many men, and made it so.
Then came the refrain, a litany really, leading to the instrumental bridge: “Where’s the god in all of this?” Peter got to that bridge and played it. He played it again and again, the way a band vamps when its singer is a no-show. The old fear rose in me. He can’t get across, I thought. I got into position: Diet Coke set down, torso forward. Only this time—maybe because I was sober or maybe because the depth of loss was so huge and concrete and essentially foreign to me—I knew I had no spell to cast.
But what, then? I asked, because my brain is a dog that needs a job. The answer landed in my solar plexus: You just witness. You don’t look away. I leaned back in my chair. It felt strange, but I did it. I let my field of vision widen and diffuse. I took a breath for me alone, and for the thirty seconds it took Peter to bring himself back, I felt so sad and so free.
Kristi Coulter holds an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Michigan. She is a former Ragdale Foundation resident and the recipient of a grant from the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts. Her work has appeared in The Awl, Marie Claire, Vox, Quartz, and elsewhere. Nothing Good Can Come from This is her debut book. She lives in Seattle, Washington.