As Hundreds Cheer

The Glum Triumph of The Magnetic Fields

Stephin Merritt was having a bad night—though, bundled in layers of brown corduroy and topped by an inapt red hunting hat, he showed nothing more extreme than his perpetual glumness. The sound was echoing through U Penn's brick-walled Harrison Auditorium, hurting his ears.

When he lit one of his cherished Camel Lights, a security guard told him smoking was forbidden. And the stage lighting was erratic and dim, because a child of about nine was at the board. Every time he looked at the front row, he noticed a guy cleaning his glasses. And the 750 collegians who'd turned up for the Magnetic Fields on a Sunday night in November were attending the set with a respectful silence their professors would surely envy.

At least they were polite. At TMF's previous Philadelphia gig, club patrons briefly considered the quartet's odd instrumentation and studied, low-affect vocals, then threw bottles and shouted "Go away, faggot!" Here there was even a ripple of titters at a few funny lyrics. So the first time the drum-machine intro misfired and he had to abort "Let's Pretend We're Bunny Rabbits," the most carnal song from the three-CD opus 69 Love Songs, Merritt apologized glumly. A few minutes later, when it happened again, he was driven to an uncharacteristic show of spontaneous emotion, snapping, almost shouting, "Cut!"

The best-reviewed album of the year, 69 Love Songs spills facility and wit over its three hours, as Merritt and three other singers celebrate or condemn romance in its myriad guises, from boy-girl to less common permutations, bending gender roles with cantankerous glee. But even reasonably smart audiences don't know what to make of Merritt and his music—in a hometown NYU crowd at Irving Plaza 11 days later, the student next to me couldn't get over the absence of a rhythm section.

With a few exceptions, triple studio records have capped long success or at least a commercial breakthrough—George Harrison's All Things Must Pass, the Clash's Sandinista!, Prince's Crystal Ball. In six previous records on the North Carolina indie Merge, Magnetic Fields have narrowly achieved cult success, with average sales of about 10,000 copies. Since its September 7 release, 69 Love Songs has already surpassed that figure, even though the box-set version (the discs are also available singly) was out of print for several weeks; Merritt reports bitterly that Merge manufactured only 2500 copies, which sold out instantly.

In assembling what he calls "a backward manifesto for the 20th century," Merritt alludes to nearly every musical genre: Gilbert & Sullivan and OMD, the Carter Family and Leonard Cohen, John Giorno and war propaganda, often combined. It sounds as if disgruntled elves in Santa's factory are recording late at night, with a drum machine Kraftwerk discarded in 1975. Pure bravura, with an emphasis on musical theater's passion for clever rhymes, 69 Love Songs is Merritt flaunting his scholarship and skills. It's almost what the dictionary calls an idyll: "a long narrative poem on a major theme." "That's half the point; it's a stunt," he concurs. "It's audacious, and you think it would be awful, but it isn't. It's too big to be silly. If it were 40 love songs, that would be silly. Sixty-nine is grandiose."

But as an appeal to an indie generation that suspects grandiosity and lacks Merritt's faith in artifice, it's also a masterpiece without an audience. Here is Merritt giving his natural constituency the cold shoulder: "I have no interest in remaining in the indie-rock ghetto. I don't listen to indie rock, per se, I don't see myself as connected to indie rock, I don't have indie rock friends. I think indie rock is over." Oh yeah, this masterpiece is also his farewell, he claims. "I certainly won't make any more records that have anything to do with indie rock—or with rock, actually."

Stephin Merritt is a gay east villager who has recorded mostly for indie labels but has little affinity with indie culture, an introvert who spends many of his nights in a gay bar, not socializing, but writing songs in a notebook while listening to a jukebox. Although he was never closeted, and on the Magnetic Fields' 1990 debut Distant Plastic Trees called his publishing company Gay & Loud (the other half refers to his manager, drummer, keyboardist, singer, and close friend Claudia Gonson), his poker face keeps emotions closeted. For all the press about TMF—plus Merritt's synth-pop Future Bible Heroes, "absurdly sad and gloomy" Gothic Archies, and guest-star-fronted 6ths—little has been written about his life. You would never know from his press clips that he's more than glum—he's severely depressive.

Many people—gay, indie, or both—are baffled by Merritt. "I don't know him particularly well, even though I've spent a lot of time with him," says one indie luminary who praises Merritt's sense of humor. "He's odd, and dour, and a bit unsocialized."

A few years ago, in the heyday of indie crossover, he met with the staff of one major label, where an employee boasted that artists retained full control over album art. Ever the skeptic, Merritt asked, "So it would be OK if I put child porn on the cover of my record?" Needless to say, the label passed. "He's totally negative, impossible to deal with, but he's one of the smartest people I've ever met," says a witness to that meeting.

"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 says—booze, 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, like—er, 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 afternoons—he asks me not to name it—I 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 bullies—and to dodge mandatory sports—he 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.

No one, Merritt says, believed he could write 69 good love songs. "It was clear they were humoring me." It took him a full year, "working whenever I was awake. I had no life. I sat around all day writing songs. Which is often what I do all day long, anyway."

One of the grandest of the 69, "A Pretty Girl Is Like . . . ," is a deconstructive answer song to Irving Berlin's "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody." Merritt had been reading Ulysses, and considering how writers objectify women in metaphors. In the lyrics ("A pretty girl is like a violent crime/If you do it wrong, you could do time"), he celebrates, mocks, and critiques song similes, adopting "an exaggeratedly sexist, male point of view. It's a lot of baggage for one song," he acknowledges, "but that's part of why it's funny."

He still listens to 69 Love Songs, and reconsiders his choices. For instance, he regrets not assigning "I Don't Want to Get Over You" to another singer. "My voice always says, 'I Don't Want to Get Over You,' " he grumbles. "I could sing 'Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah' and you'd remember it as 'I Don't Want to Get Over You.' "

He doesn't even delight in the record's acclaim, which routinely labels him a genius. "I prefer 'whiz,' " he deadpans. It's not fun to be called a genius by The New York Times? "Well, if it's in The New York Times, it must be true."

Next, Merritt is writing a musical with novelist Daniel Handler, in which the entire plot is carried by songs. The conceit may remind you of Evita, unless, like Merritt, you're familiar with an earlier precedent, Michel Legrand's score for the sappy 1964 hit The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. And, frustrated that musicians have recycled "the same old goddamn thing, decade after decade," he vows to invent entirely new styles soon.

It's hard to gauge his sincerity when Merritt says, "I would like to be as successful as God. And as rich." He bristles at indie, but suspects the majors, who aren't leaping to sign him anyway. ("He's not exactly Kid Rock," says one A&R honcho, who considers the indie-rock experiment an expensive failure.) Given his British-identified distance, Merritt's view of himself comes clearest when he lists the people he identifies with.

First he names avant composer Harry Partch, "for his spunky iconoclasm and insistence on novelty," and Cole Porter, "for being a writer of light verse who has a facility with words—a big showoff." (Both were gay, he notes, "but that's not really why I identify with them.") And he cites Irving Berlin, "for being an artistic hack, but making a show of hackdom."

Next, he mentions the Buddah Records producers Kasenetz-Katz, "for inventing bubblegum pop, and doing everything themselves while pretending to be different people," David Bowie, for hiding within stage personas, and Annie Lennox "for making the subversion of one cliché the entire idea of a song."

Lastly, he names two folk artists: Grandma Prisbrey, a California senior who built "stained-glass windows from the junkyard," leaving behind a full village, now a registered landmark, created wholly from discarded objects; and Henry Darger, a Chicago loner who "had no life," and whose Byzantine writings and watercolors were discovered and celebrated only after he died a pauper.

Together, this motley comprises Stephen Merritt's self-portrait: visionary and crank, genius and charlatan, highbrow and lowdown. Music so encompasses his day, his mind, his identity, that he's become a human medley.

Magnetic Fields play Irving Plaza December 2.

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