It's a Wonderful Life

Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse dead at 47.

Mark Linkous, the leader of the modern rock band Sparklehorse, has died. According to, which first reported the story, the 47-year-old Virginia native shot himself in the chest on March 6 while visiting friends in Knoxville, Tenn.

The acclaimed songwriter-musician-producer, who lived in Richmond for a time and employed numerous area musicians in his touring band, was often paralyzed by personal demons.

 “I had depression for a long time…. It just got really bad,” he explained in 2007. “I just quit.  When you get that bad, you canA1t do anything except sleep. I lost interest in working, in doing anything, really.”

No stranger to despair and self-doubt, Linkous had passed out in a British hotel room in 1998 while on tour with the band Radiohead, severely injuring his legs. He healed physically but the psychic scars from depression and early battles with drug addiction remained.

 “I still like going to my studio with my guitar and writing a song,” he confided. “But I just lost interest in recording them. When you get like that, you convince yourself of a lot of things. I didn't think I could record what I heard in my head.”

Linkous climbed out of that particular hole by connecting with Brian Burton, better known as DJ Danger Mouse. “I had totally isolated myself, stopped talking to my musician friends and my friends, with anybody. My manager sent me Danger Mouse's ‘The Grey Album' [a controversial 2004 release that remixed Beatles songs with vocals by hip-hop artist Jay-Z]. I thought it was amazing. Out of desperation, I started going back to what I consider the pinnacle of pop, the late ‘60s Beatles stuff. I was listening to the Beatles to kind of save me, and inspire me.”

The disc that Linkous and Burton eventually cooked up would be called “Dark Night of the Soul,” a stark, expressionistic affair that would utilize an all-star cast of indie rockers (from Black Francis of the Pixies to the Flaming Lips to Julian Casablancas of the Strokes). It would also become mired in legal hassles with its intended label, EMI. “Dark Night of the Soul” — never released but heavily downloaded — was meant to accompany a book of photographs by the film director David Lynch and is due to finally be issued this summer, according to EMI. 

Born in Arlington in 1962, Linkous was raised by his paternal grandparents and grew up in Dickenson County — home of Ralph Stanley. He spent his formative musical years in and around Charlottesville and Richmond, and claimed to have been a member of Charlottesville's first punk band, The Sinners. He formed the Dancing Hoods after briefly moving to New York City in the mid-‘80s; he released two records with the fledgling band, which was featured on MTV's “120 Minutes.” Another of his early groups was the Richmond-based Johnson Family (later Salt Chunk Mary), which also included his brother Matt. After starting Sparklehorse in the early ‘90's, he moved to Bremo Bluff, and later Dilwyn, where he built home studios.     

Sparklehorse, under Linkous' direction, released four CDs in all, including such acclaimed discs as “Good Morning Spider” and “It's a Wonderful Life.” 1995's “vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot” was the group's critically-acclaimed debut; it was one of the first records recorded at Richmond's Sound of Music studios. Linkous' respected status in the music world was reflected in the artists who gladly appeared on his albums — a list that includes Tom Waits and P.J. Harvey.

A few years ago, Linkous moved to western North Carolina. “I found this place by accident, a house on top of a mountain, surrounded by forest,” Linkous said in 2007. “A friend of mine had some property down here and I visited and fell in love with it … over the mountain range, in another town. I rent a warehouse where I have my studio.”

His last public appearance in Richmond was in January 2006, at a Byrd Theatre memorial service for the Bryan Harvey family, who were tragically murdered on New Year's Day. Bryan Harvey was something of a mentor — Linkous got an early boost by performing with Harvey's group, House of Freaks (he appears as a guest on the band's final disc, 1993's “Invisible Jewel”). Drummer Johnny Hott, Harvey's close friend and Freaks bandmate, would later become a constant in the Sparklehorse live band. 

At press time, numerous collaborators and colleagues were paying their respects to Linkous. “He was always gentle and pleasant,” The Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne told National Public Radio. “What made it more pronounced was that I knew he was in pain. He struggled to stand there and sing those gentle, crazy songs.”

“I was very sad to hear the news that Mark Linkous has died,” Radiohead bassist Colin Greenwood posted on the U.K. group's website. “He and his band toured with us in Europe … and they were great every night. His first two records were very important to me, and I carried his music from the tour into my life, and my friends' lives too. He was softly spoken, with an old South courtesy I hadn't heard before: he introduced me to Daniel Johnston's music, and the West Virginian writing of Pinckney Benedict. Mark wrote and played some beautiful music, and we're lucky to have it.”

Punk music icon Patti Smith paid her own respects in an online post at her website: “Mark Linkous gave us so many dark and beautiful songs. They were dark like coal compressed into diamonds and they sparkled in the deep night like spattering morning stars. One can not fathom the degree of torment this gifted fellow may have experienced. Nor can we know the circumstances that led him to willingly take his own life.”

“I had the great honor of playing with Sparklehorse on a 1999 European tour,” David Sims of the band Jesus Lizard wrote on his blog. “Mark was always kind and gracious and that tour will always be a highlight of my career. His songs have a aching emotional intensity that still leave me gasping, the kind of songs that make you feel you'd been confided in, that someone has left themselves nakedly vulnerable to make you understand what they are trying to say. I love the way he sang, tuneful but free of unnecessary ornamentation. Our world is sadder and less beautiful without him.”

The musician's family has released a statement: “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.” A memorial service will be held for Linkous on March 20 at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden.


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