And all I want is to be a happy man
All I want is to be a happy man
-Sparklehorse, “Chaos of the Galaxy/Happy Man”

When it started. A man I loved introduced me to the music of Mark Linkous, better known, if not known widely enough, by the name Sparklehorse. Soon, by my choice, he was everywhere we went. Driving through upstate New York on a June Tuesday, Sparklehorse was playing, playing through homemade dinners in the man’s cramped Park Slope kitchen, playing as we laid around in those first few months of not caring about anything else but the Thing, playing as I drove out of the city hell-bent on reaching Maine, space, Linkous bridging the quiet of a remote cabin on a farm owned by a lone woman with her two pre-pubescent boys, playing on the trip down to New Orleans with enough clothes for more than just a few weeks, playing in the car to pick that man up at the airport, playing in the shotgun shack that echoed with Linkous alone.

Good morning my child
Stay with me a while
You not got any place to be
Won’t you sit a spell with me

Sparklehorse is one of the great under-appreciated acts of the late 20th century. Not enough people know him. He’s not as popular as his 90s and early aughts contemporaries, never reaching the popular status of Nirvana or Pearl Jam. But all the same, Linkous had bigger indie names attached to him. Tom Waits. David Lynch. Radiohead. The Flaming Lips. PJ Harvey. I don’t quite understand why he isn’t everywhere, dominating indie movie soundtracks and your hip friends’ Spotify playlists.

When someone new and I talk music, I bring up Sparklehorse. Sunshine. You have to listen to Sunshine. And Painbirds. And Hammering the Cramps. It’s not a test. But it is. If you can’t feel what he’s feeling, what I’m feeling, I’m afraid we won’t be friends.

I wander through each chartered street,
Near where the charter’d thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe

New York City is a place I associate uncompromisingly with despair. Having grown up in Virginia, as Linkous had, I’ve never been able to embrace the city’s field of skyscrapers, the blanket odor of garbage, the crippling solipsism of the subway. For the brief time that I lived there, I worked a range of less than stimulating book-related gigs, interning at a fashion magazine and boutique publishing house, temping at a world-class art book publisher, clerking at a bookstore.

I’d stay up and write because I couldn’t afford to go to a bar and buy a beer. I’d wake up and write because I couldn’t afford Brooklyn’s effete breakfast spots and cafes.

“If you’d like to me to show you around the neighborhood sometime, I’d love to.” A note taped to the outside of my mailbox, from my neighbor, who lived on the top floor of my apartment building, whom I’d run into once on the way to a show at the Bowery Ballroom.

I’d been casually dating a boy who was about to go off to Hopkins to study literature. We’d taken an impromptu trip to Centralia, that semi-famous burning Pennsylvania mining town, and slept in the back of my car.

There was a street fair that day. “Want to come with me?” I sent him a message.

You are a car
You are a hospital
I’d walk to hell and back
To see you smile
On Saturday

Between 1995 and 2009, Sparklehorse put out five full-length albums: Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot (1995), Good Morning Spider (1998), It’s a Wonderful Life (2001), Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain (2006), and Dark Night of the Soul (2009), a collaboration between the band and Danger Mouse.

After reading William Blake’s poem, “The Chimney Sweeper,” Linkous tried out the occupation. During the recording of Vivadixie, he was still working as a chimney sweep.

In a 2008 interview, Linkous said he’d been trying to write “really simple songs to make them sound like they’re coming out of a satellite that’s crashing into a gas giant or something…I tried to imagine if you were in another satellite or if you were floating in space and you heard these amazing pop songs that were short and really simple, not unlike Buddy Holly songs, but you wanted to fuck ’em up in a way, but not gratuitously. So I don’t know, you know those sort of suicide probes that absorb as much information as they can before crashing into the sun or some kind of other unfriendly atmosphere.”

You can be my friend
You can be my dog
You can be my life
You can be my fog

Dating someone who lives a staircase away can escalate a relationship quickly. He invited me to a performance of a John Cage piece—I discovered that this neighbor was a composer. We bought gyros from a food truck and ate as we walked, dripping tzatziki on my black skirt. On the way back, it poured. We huddled beneath my umbrella, our shoulders pressing together away from the wet.

You tell me yours I tell you mine.

Twenty-six years. That’s how much older he was than me. He told me he wouldn’t see me again. I knocked on the door. It wasn’t fair. He opened it.

The night comes crawling in
On all fours
Sucking up my dreams
Through the floor

 I’m so sick
I’m so sick
Of goodbyes

Daniel Johnston has a similar appeal, I think. Linkous and Johnston are connected more than just aesthetically; Linkous produced Johnston’s 2003 album, Fear Yourself.

In his manifesto, Reality Hunger, David Shields attributes Johnston’s appeal to the naked quality of his sound, the bare bones thrashings of a “manic depressive singer and songwriter whose early songs were recorded on a sixty-dollar stereo.” Like Linkous, Johnston maintains a cult following. People are drawn to him due to what Shields considers his music’s raw, “unglamorous” production quality, which, as Shields theorizes, mirrors his fragile psychological state. “It’s as if Johnston’s music has found a way to hotwire his feelings directly into his tape recorder. He presents zero facade, only the inescape of his tortured self.”

The music videos for Sparklehorse’s songs are equally low-fi, gritty, and bizarre. Linkous in a checkered suit banging on a drum sprinkled with glitter. Linkous in a silver sequin suit and cowboy hat, face painted to match, sparks and fog emanating from his electric guitar. Linkous donning an inexplicable sartorial combination, the rubber head of a white horse and a black suit, attempting to tee off from a sand pit. A sense of humor must live inextricably with pain.

In the videos in which Linkous isn’t starring, whose warm home video quality creates an intimacy any artist would covet, you can imagine Linkous holding the camera, whatever he’s shooting an extension of his interior world. It’s a magical and aching place to be.

I’m the dog that ate
Your birthday cake

One month, I told him. Just a few months. I need some time away. In the summer I’d come back to New York and we’d be together. That summer, we spent a few weeks in a beach house in the Outer Banks. I went back to New Orleans. We drifted into October, November. We fell apart. We put it back together. In the spring, we ate crawfish on a Mexican blanket spread out on my back patio. What about June, he asked. What about June?

The grounded fireflies are little stars that are dying
returning to the earth, I can hear them crying
The Christmas bulbs that are swallowed,
slept in a tree that’s gone hollow
Never a brittle wintertime, baby you are my sunshine, sunshine,
please don’t take my sunshine away

Why is it that we are drawn to the art of the tortured? The artists I love are gone by their own hands: Linkous and Johnston, Wallace and Hoffman and Williams. I try not to think that there’s a connection between great art and personal misery, but there’s so much evidence for it.

If you go to Sparklehorse’s website, an introduction page provides a dedication:

From the Linkous Family: “It is with great sadness that we share the news that our dear friend and family member, Mark Linkous, took his own life today. We are thankful for his time with us and will hold him forever in our hearts. May his journey be peaceful, happy and free. There’s a heaven and there’s a star for you.” – March 6, 2010

In an alley outside of his friend’s house, Linkous shot himself in the heart.

Oh yeah
Here come the painbirds
Oh yeah
Here come the painbirds
Oh yeah
Here come the painbirds
Oh yeah

On a road trip from New Orleans to Austin, we visited the Rothko Chapel. I told him the space made me feel claustrophobic. Something about the place made me feel uneasy. I went outside and sat by a simple rectangular pool of water, a design by Philip Johnson, the air and light putting me at ease. He stayed inside. I waited for him.

We stayed the night at his friend’s house, a violist who studied with him at Yale. She said that sometimes she went to the chapel and felt that way, constricted, but at other times she felt an openness, a sense of calm, possibility. What she felt inside the chapel depended on where she was in her life at the time.

With rocks in my dress
And smoke in my hair
I walked into a lake
To get some sleep down in there

Won’t you come to comfort me?
Won’t you come to comfort me?

Recently, I sent my friend the song “Star Eyes,” one of those collaborative songs between Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse. It’s a quieter track, a xylophone playing a simple phrase over scratchy sentenceless words left to float in the space. 

Blue
Sky
Sun
Shine
Be
Mine
Star
Eyes.

Love
Please
Come
Back
Send
You
Cry
Gone

Please
Please
Sun
Shine
Be
Mine
Come
Back

He said it was the perfect rainy day song.

I listened to it on repeat until the sun shone. Then I kept on playing it.

May all your days be gold my child
May all your days be gold my child
May all your days be gold my child
May all your days be gold my child

“William Blake died doing the only thing that I think he knew how to do, that kept him sane and able to deal with the world. That’s what I’ll continue doing until I go. That’s the only thing I know how to do.”

Words by Lee Matalone
See more of Lee’s work on her website.