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Mark Kozelek's Words Drown Out His Music 

Wednesday, Jun 10 2015
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In theory Mark Kozelek should be a point of pride for San Francisco. The prolific singer-songwriter and San Francisco resident has garnered consistent critical acclaim over the last two and a half decades, first as frontman of Red House Painters and, now, for his solo work and as Sun Kil Moon's main man.

But last week, Kozelek unwittingly sparked a debate about sexism in the music industry, and the double standards that female rock critics face, when he verbally degraded a music journalist from the stage in London, prompted by nothing more than her audacity to try to interview him in person.

"Laura Snapes totally wants to fuck me," Kozelek sung over and over again, encouraged by cheers and laughter from the sold-out audience. "Get in line, bitch. ..."

The incident immediately prompted a backlash from fans and critics alike, with Snapes writing an articulate and powerful response to the incident for the U.K.'s Guardian newspaper.

"[Kozelek] can use sexually violent language to reduce female critics to the status of groupies," Snapes wrote, "knowing that while male musicians' misogynist acts are examined for nuance and defended as traits of 'difficult' artists, women and those who call them out are treated as hysterics who don't understand art."

Given that Kozelek had been called out by Perfect Pussy frontwoman Meredith Graves, in a Pitchfork article last September, for being the devotee "of a dangerous patriarchal herd mentality," there was a disappointing predictability about Kozelek's most recent bout of sexist behavior. Least surprised of all were other female journalists.

"There's something compelling and unsettling about a woman who knows her stuff," says legendary Creem journalist Jaan Uhelszki, one of the earliest female rock critics. "It's not that I haven't had problems with rock stars over my career — one answering the door in only a towel, a manager once offering me the 'services' of his blue-eyed soul duo, Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page only consenting to speak to me through an interpreter, even though we both spoke the same language. The overt and not-so-overt passes over the years," she continues, "but that all comes with the territory, I think. Sometimes just to throw you off your game, the other times to attempt to control/manipulate the interview."

However, when Uhelszki worked with Kozelek on promotional materials for Sun Kil Moon's Benji album last year, she had a very positive experience.

"Mark Kozelek has always been decent to me," Uhelszki says. "I was impressed by his big heart and dedication to being understood — although he'd hate me to say that, I know ... He has an eccentric sense of humor and I'm sure he thought it was funny to dedicate that song to Laura Snapes."

One of the things that has marked Kozelek's career from the beginning is the unflinchingly honest songwriting style he has always employed. The ongoing development of this trait culminated in 2014's Benji, a startlingly confessional and sometimes painfully raw record that, on its release, SF Weekly called "one of the most stunning albums of the year" and "a rare and searing, important work of art."

But Kozelek's behavior in recent months undoubtedly goes beyond a lack of filter paired with a quirky sense of humor. Reports have been swirling for some time that he harbors resentment toward the people (of all kinds) who pay to see him perform. In April 2014, James Skinner reported in The Quietus that Kozelek had challenged "a guy to meet him outside the venue after the show to settle a disagreement with their fists." The following September, at Raleigh, N.C.'s Hopscotch Festival, he called the entire audience "fucking hillbillies" before he'd even played a note.

That same month, Kozelek started an almost entirely one-sided, borderline obsessive, battle with The War on Drugs, a band that had committed the crime of being audible from another stage while Kozelek performed at the Ottawa Folk Festival. Onstage at the time, Kozelek called the Philadelphia quartet "beer commercial lead-guitar shit," and then, later, recorded a song titled "The War on Drugs, Suck My Cock."

Later still, after Adam Granofsky, War on Drugs' vocalist, referred to Kozelek as a "douche," Kozelek recorded a rambling, somewhat incoherent, laugh-laden retelling of the entire incident, on "Adam Granofsky Blues." It is the sound of one man reveling in his own bitterness and sense of superiority to a practically maniacal degree.

In addition, while Sun Kil Moon's just-released Universal Themes remains as unfiltered as Benji was, this time there are flashes of the condescension we're seeing in Kozelek's live appearances. "Cry Me a River Williamsburg Sleeve Tattoo Blues," for example, spends its first verse berating audience members' attention spans, style choices, and personal priorities. The title itself is a swipe at the fashionable Brooklyn neighborhood where Kozelek, back in 2010 — according to Stereogum's Michael Nelson — told a sold-out crowd at the Music Hall of Williamsburg that "Williamsburg is a town of clones."

Examine all of these factors at once and Kozelek isn't simply one in a long line of rock dudes being shitty to women because that's what happens in rock 'n' roll; his problems go way deeper than that. Kozelek is going out of his way to belittle and abuse a whole cluster of people he feels threatened by — younger artists, a new generation of fans he doesn't relate to, as well as tenacious journalists. ("He was probably just trying to pay her back for traversing his firm, and almost impenetrable boundaries," Uhelszki notes of Kozelek's attack on Snapes.)

Kozelek has a skillful knack for knowing the sharpest way to wound with words. He's really good at it, the same way he's really good at writing lyrics. But with this rash of self-indulgent and, frankly, childish behavior, he's doing himself and his music an enormous disservice. If he keeps it up, pretty soon no one will even be able to hear the songs over all the yelling.

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