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"He's happiest by himself," adds Ken Friedman, who signed the 6ths to PolyGram-distributed London, and considers Merritt the best songwriter in America. The 6ths' brief tour with the Tindersticks ended in San Francisco, and was marked by a "crazy, insane party," Friedman saysbooze, drugs, and cute boys. But Friedman found Merritt in his hotel room, alone, contentedly watching an old movie. "He doesn't think of smiling and saying, 'How are you?' He doesn't care how you are."
Fellow staffers at Spin recall him as a punctilious copy editor who would not countenance the usage of "like" when "as" was correct. "He's not the most pleasant person. I fully felt he hated me," says a former Spin elder who adores 69 Love Songs, and also admires the record reviews Merritt writes for Time Out New York. Again and again, like the chorus of a bad song, I hear people say Merritt hates them.
"I have a low voice and a sad facial expression, and I'm not enthusiastic about anything," Merritt explains unenthusiastically, "and I prefer honesty in conversation. That combination drives some people crazy. Almost everyone in California thinks I hate them. I relate well to the English; they understand that I don't hate them." The emotions detailed on 69 Love Songs, he says, include many unknown to him, likeer, such as ecstasy, joy, jealousy, and boredom. All are "emotions I don't actually feel," he says, because his own moods range only "between delight and agonizing depression."
When we meet at the East Village café where he spends most afternoonshe asks me not to name itI see why people suspect him of haughtiness. Merritt, who won't give his age but is about 34, speaks with great deliberation and long pauses, the better to respond with terse, Wildean wit and grammatical precision. As Harold Pinter has shown, pauses can feel menacing. He shows little interest in the polite rituals of conversation. He doesn't smile, not even at his own quips, which you could attribute to a sense of superiority, unless you believe he's hiding his nicotine-stained teeth. "I reject people before they can reject me," he told Rolling Stone a few years ago.
He reserves his delight for Irving, his chihuahua, whom Merritt pets, kisses, feeds, and scolds ("You be quiet, or I'll speak to you in my death metal voice") throughout lunch, holding him under his sweater. Named after Irving Berlin, the dog was recently fixed. "Want to see?" Merritt offers, briefly brightening.
"I was conceived by barefoot hippies on a houseboat in St. Thomas," he says with the practiced air of someone reciting a fable. An epileptic baby, he was raised by his mother, an English teacher to whom he is still close; he has never met his father, the obscure folksinger Scott Fagan, who recorded for RCA and Atlantic in the late '60s. In the hippie style, mother and son were "sometimes very poor." They lived in 33 houses in his first 23 years, mostly in the Northeast, including a stint in West Berlin when she briefly married an Army officer.
At 14, with a guitar, a synthesizer, and a four-track tape deck, he began recording. He preferred music and reading ("Other than sports, I can't think of anything I don't want to know more about") to socializing, and was regularly threatened with violence in school. To escape bulliesand to dodge mandatory sportshe went to the Cambridge School of Weston, outside Boston, a "leafy prep school for bohemian kids. The people who didn't seem different were looked down upon."
The school had a good music program, where he studied theory, augmented by a Berklee tutor. He was, he hints, a prodigy. "I'm a professional musician because that's what I've had the most success in. I was told I had promise in several other areas: poetry, acting, science." After seeing a TV program on tracking junk mail, he devised multiple spellings of Stephen, his given name, for different aspects of his life: "Stephin" was the musician, and the spelling stuck.
He never had to come out, he says, because "no one thought I was straight." Friends kept telling him he was gay, "and finally I said, I guess you're right." His mom gave him a book called The Gay Mystique, and he followed the author's advice on how to find sex: He went to New York and struck up a conversation about Fassbinder in a West Village bookstore. "But I hadn't read the part about what you're supposed to do," he laughs, "so it wasn't all that satisfying."
His college education was interrupted by a "crippling" bout with a fatigue virus, and he was an itinerant student: some NYU Film School, some art school in Boston, and several years at Harvard Extension School, where he fell one statistics exam short of graduation. He studied film and the history of the built environment, a discipline that applies semiotic theory to highways, suburban planning, and other artifacts of industrial culture.
At first, a female singer fronted the Magnetic Fields, partly because Merritt was opposed in principle to singer-songwriters (Freudians can read a rejection of his father here), partly because he was "a terrible singer, very graceless and out of tune." Since then, he's honed a unique style, delivering his froggish baritone with a lethargic air, as though from a fainting couch. And TMF have expanded to include Gonson, a Harvard College grad now studying with queer theorist Eve Sedgwick at City University while pursuing a Ph.D., plus two of her college mates, Chinese American cellist Sam Davol, a Legal Aid lawyer, and Korean American guitarist John Woo, a graphic designer.