Just a little more than three years ago, Mark Linkous and Sparklehorse were on the verge of something good.
The Richmond-based band was in the middle of a well-received European tour, opening for the acclaimed British quintet Radiohead. Sparklehorse's promising 1995 debut album, "Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot," was being hailed by critics. Its home, the Virginia Piedmont's Fluvanna County, seemed very far away.
But by himself in a London hotel room, Linkous--and everything he dreamed of for his band--almost perished.
A dangerous combination of Valium and antidepressants sent him tumbling to the floor, his legs pinned under his torso. He would not be discovered for hours.
When his legs were pulled straight nearly 18 hours later, the accumulated toxins that were released caused him to suffer a heart attack.
He almost died; there was doctor talk of amputation. The stay in London's St. Mary's Hospital was 12 weeks. Seven surgeries on his legs were performed.
For Sparklehorse's next tour, he played guitar and sang from a wheelchair.
Now Linkous is back on his feet, albeit with leg braces he will need for the rest of his life, and Sparklehorse seems again on the verge of something good. "Good Morning Spider," the band's second release (Linkous plays most everything on the record) is winning the same type of accolades received by the first.
Again it's the British press that is leading the way, with "Spider" selected as a record of the year by the London Times, as well as prominent music magazines Melody Maker and NME. Of late, the band has routinely filled 1,500-seat halls in the U.K.
Ears are pricking up here as well, and Sparklehorse has been receiving some local airplay. Tonight the band plays the 9:30 club in a show sponsored by WHFS.
Before his fall and recovery, Linkous, 34, grew up "all around Virginia," the son of a coal miner. He discovered punk rock and, after high school, moved to New York for four years and then to L.A., hoping to get signed by a major label. After a band he had on the West Coast disintegrated, he found himself "bored with the music and ready to give up." He was, at one point, living in a van.
But if St. Mary's Hospital saved his legs, then the music of the legendarily low-tech Tom Waits saved his soul, providing the inspiration for what became Sparklehorse. An introduction to Waits's dystopian cabaret, especially the albums "Swordfishtrombones" and "Raindogs," gave Linkous another perspective.
"Waits really inspired me to forget everything I knew about how to make records," says Linkous. "All my songs are pretty poppy and traditionally constructed. Now I deconstruct them so they sound interesting."
Sparklehorse's music is a surprisingly fecund combination of crunchy guitars and fill-the-room jangle, all narrated by Linkous's often technically manipulated carnival-barker voice and interspersed with various outtakes, answering machine messages and hum.
Linkous records his music where he lives, in the Virginia countryside between Charlottesville and Richmond. His home is in Buckingham County, where he is less famous than he is in England. He's not all that famous here, either. At least not yet: This past November Sparklehorse played to a disappointing Monday night crowd of maybe 35 people at the Black Cat.
Linkous calls that dog show "the worst we ever had," but he insists that his lack of success (so far) in the States doesn't bother him much. "A lot of my favorite bands and singers"--like the low-fi Palace and the neo-traditionalist-country Golden Smog--"are more well-known over there," he says.
He's frequently reminded of what he learned during his hospital ordeal. "So many people wrote to me then, that even during the most depressing gigs like D.C., I know that there's at least one person who appreciates the music. I just play for that one person."
Most of the time he is playing for one person--himself--in his country house outbuilding, dubbed Static King Studios, which is where "Spider" was put together.
"Having a home studio, I'm able to do one or two songs at a time. It works to my advantage. I like for some songs to sound the way a Wim Wenders movie looks and then sound like Atari Teenage Riot," he says, referring to the blisteringly loud German techno/hard-core band. The references can be obscure and dissonant, adjectives that could be applied to the music of Sparklehorse. "Spider" and its predecessor run the gamut from the angry I-want-my-body-back screed "Pig" to "Hundreds of Sparrows," a charmingly haunted ode lifted from Luke 12:7.
Some have tagged Sparklehorse "new country." Linkous likes that music, but dislikes the comparison. "My music has very little to do with country," he says.
No, perhaps it doesn't. But it does have the feel of a drive down a four-digit road through Nowheresville with a short detour onto the Beltway at rush hour: placidity into adrenaline and then back again.
Sparklehorse will soon have a new EP out, and this time Linkous's hero Tom Waits, with whom he now trades phone calls and four-track tape recorders by mail, is contributing vocals for one track.
For now, Linkous is happy to be working on his other pastime, motorcycles, as well as his music, and "exploring back roads I haven't been down before."
As if all roads aren't precious.
CAPTION: Mark Linkous and his band Sparklehorse play the 9:30 club tonight.
CAPTION: Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse.