‘Mandolin Man’ Reflects Thoughts From the Heart of Ex-Lone Justice Rocker

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<i> Steve Appleford writes regularly about music for Westside/Valley Calendar. </i>

Late 1985 may have seemed a strange time for Marvin Etzioni to leave the band Lone Justice. After all, the local roots rock act was experiencing broad critical support for its debut album, and looked poised for some degree of pop stardom after tours with U2 and Tom Petty.

Etzioni was grateful for all that, he says now, but he already had other ideas for his songwriting. And Lone Justice just didn’t fit into them. “It’s an instinctive thing,” he said.

Now, after several years working largely behind the scenes as a songwriter and producer for other acts, Etzioni has just released “The Mandolin Man,” his first solo record. It’s an understated collection of songs that mine the emotional events of the singer-songwriter’s last few years.


Among those tracks are “My Ultimate Home” and “Can’t Cry Hard Enough,” both of them raw and acoustic-based documents on personal loss. The latter was co-written with David Williams of the Williams Brothers, who released their own version on an album last year.

“It’s a very, very personal record,” Etzioni said of his album. “It reflects some inner feelings and thoughts that have been going around my heart.”

And yet, Etzioni could just as easily have released a much different sort of collection, titled “Bone” and more in the high-volume rock traditions of the New York Dolls and the Rolling Stones. Both “The Mandolin Man” and “Bone” were essentially finished when Restless Records agreed to sign Etzioni, who originally hoped to see both albums released simultaneously.

For now, “Bone” will have to wait on the shelf, along with plans for the next three albums he’s already got mapped out. Those include a record incorporating Middle Eastern elements, and another called “Marvin Country,” to be recorded in Nashville. “It will take a few years to get them all out,” he admitted.

One common line in many of the songs on all these albums is Etzioni’s current fascination with the mandolin. But the musician’s vision of the instrument goes well beyond its more traditional uses.

As he talked in his Los Feliz home, a monogrammed, double-necked electric mandolin leaned against a living room wall. “I like the real mandolin players,” Etzioni explained, but his own approach more often incorporates the rock guitar licks of Bo Diddley, Jimi Hendrix, the Who’s Pete Townshend and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones.


On a recent tour supporting Toad the Wet Sprocket, Etzioni closed his sets with a Hendrix-style “Star-Spangled Banner” on the electric mandolin. “You can use it for anything,” he said with a proud smile.

He’s not really a fanatic about the instrument, he insisted. “It’s a song first, and if the mandolin works, that’s great. And if the horn is better, that’s fine too. But there’s no boundaries.”

Etzioni is still writing songs for other artists. His “Little Gods” will be the next single from Voice of the Beehive. And for the next album he’s hoping to work on a couple of songs from Maria McKee, the former Lone Justice vocalist, while she’s in town recording.

“I’m really grateful for people who liked what we were doing in the early stages of Lone Justice,” Etzioni said. “But it doesn’t really change that much in your personal life. The sheet of paper that you turn is blank, and you’ve got to work on a new tune. Whether the club is packed or empty, it doesn’t change that.

“The song is first. Everything else will follow: the records, the bands, the producers, everything.”

In the nearly seven years since leaving that band, which finally broke apart after a disastrous turn toward a more patently commercial sound, Etzioni has made a sometimes painful transition into the age of digital recording and the compact disc. Last year, he said, “I was literally in tears. It just hit me that vinyl records are dead when I was mastering this record. And I’d known it for years now.”


That lifelong preference for the warm sounds of his vinyl record collection finally drove Etzioni to add an unorthodox step in the recording process: He pressed a vinyl copy of “The Mandolin Man” and then played that into the Sony digital machine. So, greeting the beginning and middle of the new CD is the now-archaic sound of a diamond needle falling into the grooves of an LP.

“If I’m forced to go digital, for me this works,” Etzioni said. “I’ll do it again on ‘Bone.’ I’m not preaching to anybody else on how to make records, but I’m happy with it.”