It’s the fate of the good work to belong to the public. It’s the fate of the masterpiece to be bent out of shape, to be reimagined, remodeled by its audience. It’s the fate of popular art to be scoured for clues, understood only in part or misunderstood, and this can’t be controlled by the hardworking artist who came up with the work in the first place. The way a book or record or painting or movie thrives in the face of this barrage of refractions indicates its long-term durability. Those endless new translations of The Odyssey and The Divine Comedy, for example. Or what about the film version of The Virgin Suicides, or The Hours? “The Star-Spangled Banner,” wrenched out of its casing by Jimi Hendrix. Joni Mitchell singing Mingus. If something works, it can stand a little misuse.
What about all those guys, and they are mainly guys, who have sat around winnowing The White Album down to a single disc? Well, first you get rid of “Revolution 9,” because it’s too long and too abstract, and then you get rid of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” despite the fact that one admires McCartney more as one grows older; out with “Bungalow Bill,” out with “Honey Pie,” “Martha My Dear,” because it’s about a dog, etc. Before long, you are left with a record that has on it “Dear Prudence,” “Julia,” “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Helter Skelter,” “Birthday,” “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide (Except for Me and My Monkey),” “Cry Baby Cry,” “Yer Blues,” and so forth. In short, you’ve got an unbelievably great rock and roll album. Does it do the Beatles a disservice? On the contrary. It indicates the bounty of material from which to choose. This is how some people pass an afternoon.
The subject of today’s surgery is 69 Love Songs by the band known as the Magnetic Fields. The Magnetic Fields, as I understand it, began, under various names and permutations, in the late Eighties, in the Boston area, and hardened, more or less, into a group when Claudia Gonson, one of its singers and now manager of the band, was studying at Harvard. The other principals were also living in the area, first and foremost, Stephin Merritt, singer, composer, guitarist, keyboardist, etc. The Magnetic Fields are the closest thing to a traditional band in the multiform career of Merritt, who has any number of other musical entities to which he occasionally turns his attention—the 6ths, the Gothic Archies, Future Bible Heroes. Much of the time Merritt records all the music himself, at home. The Magnetic Fields, however, unlike most of his vehicles, lists a little bit in the direction of the band-oriented idiom called indie rock. (A term I find somewhat repellent, and I expect Merritt would too.) The Magnetic Fields are not entirely electronic. They have two guitar players, Stephin and John Woo. They have a sort of a bass player in cellist Sam Davol. They occasionally have drums—Claudia Gonson can play the drums, that is, as well as the piano. Notwithstanding their denials, and there are many denials, the Magnetic Fields are sort of a rock and roll band. They occasionally play as an ensemble, and they leave their recordings somewhat unvarnished, in the tradition of bootleg, or in the tradition of low-fi, punk, folk, old time, early rock and roll.
Prior albums by the Magnetic Fields were theme oriented. As Merritt himself points out, “Usually we do short records with some theme like travel or escape or Phil Spector or vampires.” However, the concept on 69 Love Songs was much more basic: scale. Initially intended to be a hundred love songs, the album was winnowed down, perhaps in a kind of exhaustion, though Merritt argues that the number sixty-nine was graphically satisfying. Perhaps he ran out of subgenres in which to compose. Perhaps he is saving the other thirty-one songs (though he has said that there are as many as fifty leftover tracks) for an expanded edition. In any event, the album now fits on three CDs, which, as with Guns N’ Roses on Use Your Illusion, or those two Bruce Springsteen records, you can buy separately, if it suits you. The boxed version includes a lengthy printed exchange between Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket, who occasionally serves as an accordionist for the Magnetic Fields) and Stephin Merritt, which in some ways forecloses on all possible interpretive responses to the record:
DH: Do you expect people to make tapes of their favorite songs and whittle it down to a smaller size?
SM: I expect some people to hate particular songs.
I have taken these lines as an invitation, and before someone else does it, I now declare that I have made the definitive one disc collection of songs from 69 Love Songs. All others will now have to reckon with my version. I have done it because I love the band. I have done it because I love the album. I love the album as I have loved few pieces of so-called popular music in the last ten years. I love it so much that I am having one of the songs sung at my own wedding. I love it so much that I have given away any number of copies of it as gifts. I love it so much that I am still playing it almost four years later. I love it so much that I can remember the lyrics, the harmony lines, and even some of the text in the exhaustive accompanying booklet. All because I love it.
Before I get to listing the tracks, however, I should admit, in the spirit of a complete disclaimer, that sometime in the midst of my romance with 69 Love Songs, I got an e-mail message from Claudia Gonson herself, aforementioned singer and manager, asking if I wanted to open for the Magnetic Fields on a couple of tour dates they were about to undertake, in Philadelphia and D.C. Open for them? A total shock. Apparently, Daniel Handler had done it, too, on the West Coast, and, according to Claudia, it had gone “pretty well.” This ought to have been a red flag. I knew enough about reading in public to know that rock audiences, with their fickle need for spectacle, eat writers for breakfast; I knew enough to know that belittlement and heckling would be built in to this task, that not having a rhythm section up on stage with me would be the pinnacle of lunacy. And they wanted me to read for forty-five minutes, at first, a preposterously long time, and they wouldn’t put me up in a hotel suite where I could throw the furniture out the window, and they wouldn’t pay me much. I would be on my own recognizances. Like Victoria Williams, who nearly got shouted offstage opening a Neil Young show I saw. Because she was there. In short, it was a nightmare being proposed, probably in front of five hundred or a thousand people a night. I agreed.
It began this way: I walked into this old punk club in D.C., the 9:30 Club, home to many bands that I loved when I was younger. Everybody played there, I think: Black Flag, Big Star, The Replacements. Sort of nerve-racking to walk into an old punk club, and to hear Claudia Gonson approximating the synthesizer line from “You’re My Only Home” on the piano. Because I was already very involved with the record. I mean, there was an uncanny quality to it. And here I was, the only person in the audience, during sound check. Me and the guy up in the booth, the Magnetic Fields traveling sound guy. I watched them do their sound check for half an hour. It was great. They had huge ring binders with all the songs in there. There were a lot of songs, of course, so there was a lot of music. I loved the way they fucked with rock show nonsense. Everyone sat, for example. John, the lead guitar player, had to be one of the least demonstrative guitar players ever in popular music. He made Robert Fripp seem like Steve Jones.
When they were done running through things, I nervously made my way toward the stage. This is when I learned what many have noticed before me: talking to Stephin Merritt is one of the hardest things you will ever do in your life. Many assume that it is difficult to talk to him because Stephin is acerbic, laconic, does not suffer fools gladly, etc. And these things, I believe, are true. I was destined therefore to be uncomfortable in the first place. But there is another issue. Which has to do with the pauses. Handler, in the 69 Love Songs booklet, refers to this tendency as the trademark Stephin Merritt pause. Does it come from a youthful obsession with Harold Pinter? Is it neurological? Is it a leftover expression of Merritt’s childhood epilepsy? All I know is that Merritt takes longer to reply to a remark than anyone you know. He is two or three beats longer in reply than all your hardcore aphasics. You will be tempted to append further wasted verbiage to your initial remark. Do not do this. It will confuse things. Wait patiently. Then, at last, you will get the acerbic, laconic reply.
I was given a couple of minutes to test out the microphone, etc., and then we all went upstairs and ate backstage food. I don’t know what was in the Magnetic Fields contract rider, nothing about M&Ms or vegan fare, but there was some fruit backstage, and a lot of beer. I don’t drink or smoke, so I was in the minority there. I think Claudia is the only person in the Magnetic Fields who doesn’t smoke, so Stephin and John, and sometimes Sam, were all sequestered in the smoking room, so designated by general agreement, where for at least part of the time Stephin was curled into a kind of a fetal ball. Not because he was nervous. He just seemed comfortable that way.
The first night, I was so uncertain about what to expect onstage that Claudia and Stephin and Sam all followed me down the stairs to the very hem of the curtain, murmuring encouragement. They were as worried as I was. Apparently, “pretty well,” Claudia’s assessment of the Handler opening gigs, did not mean, “without difficulty.” I expected the worst. But the audience, when I at last stumbled out and mumbled an exploratory greeting into the microphone, listened pretty well. At least the front third did. Instantly, I was sweating like Richard Nixon during his farewell speech. There were more people standing and staring than I had ever faced down before. And they were there to hear music, pacemaker of contemporary youth, not some guy talking. I couldn’t find a way to recover from my own resistance to the arrangement that night: a reader warming up for a band. Didn’t matter if some of the people down front actually listened or maybe liked what they heard. The seconds passed at a crawl. The clock lurched to a halt. I read short things, but they seemed long; I could hear words coming out of my mouth, but they were muffled and half-hearted. I should have stood there and read like I believed in my form, the form of literature, like they were lucky to be hearing me. But this kind of confidence is not native to me.
And then to scattered applause my job was finished for the night, and I could go be in the audience like everyone else. That’s where lovers of a record belong, in the audience, not backstage.
The next night was Philadelphia. Stephin and Claudia were already spooked by Philly, before we’d even got there. They said they’d never had a good gig in Philadelphia, ever. One of my best friends lives in Philly, though, and my sister lived there for a while, and I know that Eraserhead was filmed there, and I know that Philly used to be the speed capital of the northeast. It has the Mummer’s Day Parade. How bad could it be?
Pretty bad, it turned out. First, the club we were playing was enormous. Called the Trocadero, it seemed to hold thousands, in the upper levels, especially near the bar. Why people would want to pay to come to a Magnetic Fields gig and then just go up to the bar and talk is a mystery. But this is what happened.
For the Philly show, I’d made use of a songwriter friend from the area, Marc Beck. He was my guitar and keyboard accompanist. We were scared shitless, fair to say, partly because of the night before, partly because of Claudia’s admonitions about Philly, partly because fear just seemed like good policy. But having an accompanist made the whole opening act role a lot easier. I didn’t care that the entire back of the room was now talking and drinking, was drowning out the p.a., because at least there was an electric guitar wailing. I wasn’t as naked as the night before. I wasn’t as innocent. And the Magnetic Fields didn’t get much more respect than I did. Claudia tried talking sense to the audience, offering the disclaimer that they weren’t a rock band, etc. And Stephin, who can exude a punk rock onstage irritability when he needs to, was pretty savage. But they played great, and even, as a kindness to me, performed “Grand Canyon,” one of my favorites on 69 Love Songs. By the end of the show, though, everyone was short-tempered. They’d never play in Philadelphia again, it was a hell hole, and so forth.
The experience, for all its terrors, sort of changed my life. There is nothing harder than trying to bring fiction, literature, words, to the mass audience, even as refined an audience as the one that comes to a Magnetic Fields gig. After you have done this, after you have stood in front of a rock audience that just wants you to get the fuck off the stage and shut up, you are never again nervous about a reading. Well, maybe a reading on television. Television is still pretty terrifying. But the Magnetic Fields tamed the idea of the public performance for me, once and for all. Which is not to say that the shows were fun. They were grinding, maddening, harsh. But I survived them, and I was stronger for it.
And maybe survival or something like it was part of the experience for the Magnetic Fields, too. Did Stephin want the audience to listen attentively because that was part of the traditional compact between performer and audience? Because the performer is vulnerable in this moment, is speaking for the audience in an entrusted oratory that is both frightening and burdensome? Was he simply saying that vulnerability merits respect, especially with work as literary as the songs of the Magnetic Fields? In Philly, once the general distraction had been set in motion, Stephin introduced “Book of Love” by saying, “Now I’m going to sing ‘Book of Love,’ and you aren’t.” And it seemed in the moment that he had been abraded, worn down, by the double-trust of performance, vulnerable on the one hand, wounded on the other; hoping, despairing, and then also hardened to vicissitudes, inured.
The first principle of reduction for the abbreviated 69 Love Songs we will refer to as the principle of the self-hating bisexual. To the uninitiated, it’s fair to say that one of the really joyful, wonderful things about 69 Love Songs is the fact that it is extremely complicated from the point of view of gender and erotic cathexis. There are songs here about boys loving boys, there are songs about girls loving girls, there are songs about men loving women, and women loving men, and these are sung, more or less, by whoever has the right range. Claudia Gonson and Shirley Simms hold down the upper registers. In the male range, there’s Stephin doing a lot of bass parts (some of these computer enhanced), and there are two other guys, Dudley Klute and LD Beghtol, in the upper baritone and tenor range, respectively.
As Stephin points out in the booklet, 69 Love Songs the album began as a contribution to the world of musical theater. You can feel the traces of this ambition in the finished project, in a number of songs that are closer to show tunes than to popular songs. I’m listening to one of these right now. It’s called “How Fucking Romantic,” from the first disc, and it’s the song in which Dudley sings along with finger snaps and no other accompaniment. The composition is clever, simple, and it rhymes moon with “Rogers & Hart tune.” Who can dispute the mastery of the form? Who can dispute the clean energy of its bitterness? Who can dispute how smart it is? Nonetheless, I resist the song (even though Dudley is devastatingly handsome, as many have observed). Another example? “Very Funny,” from Disc Two, another ditty in which my-lover-is-probably-cheating-on-me to an incredibly beautiful cello part. Dudley works with the upper end of his range, and he has a little of that Marc Almond sexiness. And yet the composition seems more of a genre exercise than, say, “Fido, Your Leash Is Too Long,” which deals with similar material, but which has an infectious groove.
The problem is that I hate show tunes. Not to mention musical theater. I don’t find the American musical charming and funny and full of musical brilliance. I find it embarrassing, overstated, and I resent all the old people filling the sidewalks in midtown on Wednesdays and Saturdays. I wish they’d go back to Long Island. I thought Rent was a debacle, especially the singing homeless guys. I don’t like the vibrato in the conventional show tune voice. I find it cloying. Bernadette Peters sends me screaming from a room. Liza Minelli is appalling, and so was her mom. In fact, I dislike opera too.
Having said this, I did have a past as a boy singer of Gilbert and Sullivan, and my first important experience with crossdressing and festishization of crossdressers occurred when, as a ten-year-old, I played one of the three little maids from school in a summer camp production of The Mikado. The guy playing Yum Yum was hot. Our silk dressing gowns were sexy. Etc. It’s more than possible that my disaffection as regards the show tune, even the arty, insightful, and postmodern show tune, has to do with an attempt to eradicate the legacy of Broadway and light opera from my personality. I’m not proud of this disclaimer, but it is mine. Accordingly, I knew that the tunes closest to the show-tune idiom on 69 Love Songs, the tunes largely sung by Dudley and LD, would likely be first to face elimination.
For some reason, however, Stephin Merritt, cannot sound like a show tune even when he lists in that general direction (on, e.g., “Let’s Pretend We’re Bunny Rabbits”). So there were fewer, if any, antipathies with his turns as lead vocalist. And perhaps this is because of his gruff, cigarette-enhanced bass-baritone, which is always funny and world-weary. My fiancée, Amy, dislikes a song called “Busby Berkeley Dreams,” because of its Hollywood excess (“I haven’t seen you in ages/but it’s not as bleak as it seems/We still dance on whirling stages/in my Busby Berkeley dreams”), but in this case I would make a strict critical division between the ballad and the show tune. I have no problems with ballads. Ballads are heartfelt and moving, no matter their lyrical content. Show tunes are over the top and sentimental. Stephin Merritt is one of the best ballad singers on earth.
No problems at all with the women singers. Shirley’s voice is incredibly sultry, with a faint Southern twang. And even when she’s singing something arch, like on “No One Will Ever Love You” (“If you don’t mind/why don’t you mind?”), she sounds earnest. Probably the faux-Fleetwood Mac guitar parts by John add to the perception. Or what about the catchy “Washington, D.C.,” where Claudia channels Up With People or the Bay City Rollers, but with an affectionate smirk? It’s hilarious and beautiful, and Claudia can rock as well as anyone in the band. Her voice has a touch of Grace Slick to it. Sort of seductive and hoarse at the same time. If one of the hidden influences here is bubblegum, the songs for women’s voices are the best examples.
However, I didn’t really make decisions on what shouldn’t be on the single volume version of 69 Love Songs. I just made decisions on what should. I just picked the songs I liked. I didn’t say, “Epitaph for My Heart” is just a little too much. What I did say to myself was how I loved certain other songs. It turned out there were a lot of songs I loved. So, at last, I append the list, with the songs stripped off of their original CDs and sequenced at random, in keeping with Stephin’s original design:
Though the organizing principle is nothing other than pleasure, it is possible, retroactively, to notice a few tendencies. Songs with really good piano parts: “I Don’t Believe in the Sun,” “My Only Friend,” “Papa Was a Rodeo,” “Busby Berkeley Dreams”; songs with live drums that repudiate disclaimers about how the Magnetic Fields are not a rock band: “A Chicken With It’s Head Cut Off,” “Punk Love,” “Sweet-Lovin’ Man,” “When My Boy Walks Down the Street,” “Washington, D.C.,” “Papa Was a Rodeo,” “Ferdinand de Saussure”; songs with John Woo playing guitar on them: “Reno Dakota,” “Come Back From San Francisco,” “Boa Constrictor,” “Time Enough for Rocking When We’re Old,” “Acoustic Guitar”; songs with really catchy synthesizer lines that recall the early Eighties, “I Don’t Want to Get Over You,” “Fido, Your Leash Is Too Long,” “Thing We Did and Didn’t Do,” “Grand Canyon,” “You’re My Only Home”; songs with a modernist ambition, “I Shatter,” “Experimental Music Love”; songs sung by Stephin; songs with incredibly inventive lyrics; songs that have a lot of space in them; songs that leave room for the listener and aren’t fussy about arrangements; songs that are full of heartbreak.
Maybe this last quality, in fact, is the quality that draws me most to 69 Love Songs, and I take pains here to point out that the perception of heartbreak in 69 Love Songs is interpretation, not fact. Since Stephin Merritt remarks that he doesn’t “want to say which ones are ‘true’ songs,” there is no profit in going down that byway of pop criticism which insists on seeing songs as extracts from an autobiography. And yet I adhere to the delusion that there’s something heartbroken and truthful and even sincere about a lot of these songs. Sincere, a word that doesn’t come in for a lot of respect these days. I brought the point up with Claudia, by e-mail, and her response was, “There’s something about sincerity that nauseates me.” I had the same reaction from Stephin himself. I did an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer before opening for the Magnetic Fields, and when asked why I liked the band, I told the interviewer that I thought that Stephin’s songs were, notwithstanding his denials, heartfelt and moving. Then I made the mistake of repeating this to Stephin backstage. His put-down was swift and complete. I can’t recreate it exactly but it was close to words like: “What incredible bullshit.”
But if there’s not something true and sincere about the complexity of human emotions on this record, why bother to keep listening to it? An album rewards attention over four years, or more, because it means something about how people live. That’s why no one really listens to the Electric Light Orchestra anymore. Theirs were impeccably crafted pop songs that meant nothing at all. They were adept, and they were as compelling as sheet rock. People listen to Burt Bacharach not for the tricky metrical changes and major seventh chords, although these are nice, but because of the conjunction of the music and the complicated pathos of the words.
After all, it’s not called 69 Clever Songs or 69 Songs with Extremely Dextrous End Rhymes or 69 Songs in Which a Guy With a Lot of Talent Apes Other People’s Musical Styles. It does say Love Songs in the title, and I take the ambition to be as indicated. The word love is invoked in the title, and it turns up in ninety-nine one-hundredths of the songs—not as a mere signifier of the sort imagined by Ferdinand de Saussure, but because love, the word, the idea, speaks to an important, even exalted way that people interact. When this interaction has been effectively dealt with in the popular song (“All You Need Is Love,” “Shelter From the Storm,” “God Only Knows,” “My Funny Valentine”), it has reached a place that is indelible to millions. To incline toward this word, to incline toward this abstraction, with all the trouble and bliss that it causes, in sixty-nine different ways, is to be preoccupied—centrally, vitally—with what it means to be living here on earth. That we are still listening to the album is proof of its meaning, not proof of its inventiveness. Because inventiveness is not forever. Inventiveness lasts about fifteen minutes.
Remember when Mike Chapman was producing Blondie and he said “If you can’t make hit records you might as well fuck off and chop meat somewhere”? The same could be said of love songs. If you can’t tell the truth about love, then you might as well fuck off, etc. The Knack were clever and shallow, and they were the next Beatles for a few minutes in the late Seventies. And where is Mike Chapman now? Doing some spots for a VH1 program in which he reckons with the fact that the popular taste has passed him by? Why love songs? What is it about love songs? Why all these love songs? Why not songs about war? Why not songs about death (like “Last Kiss” and “Teen Angel”)? Is it simply because these are not affirmations and we would be unwise to spend our leisure on music that recoils from affirmation of any sort? Or is it because music, that incredibly powerful but largely abstract art form, is best and most practically married to subject matter that ennobles? Is desire the perfect catalytic agent for the abstraction of music? Is music itself love, as David Crosby once remarked in song?
The most beautiful moments on this collection of love songs, the most beautiful moments in the history of Stephin Merritt, are the moments when he is somehow alone with his ukulele or his guitar, and there’s a lot of air in the recording, and he’s seducing the listener with lines like “You can sing me anything,” and the equipoise is between a distrust of the love and the faint but stirring hope that maybe it will turn out well this time. The accompaniment, almost always written after the melodies, leaves a hovering uncertainty in the piece, a little bit of echo, a little bit of reverb. Unmistakeable is the sensation that love is a thing of the atmosphere. It could go either way, there could be another dead end of acrimony and disputation, or, and Stephin would deny it aloud, perhaps there could be harmony. Maybe he really does know something about it, even though he would claim instead to be debunker (“Are you out of love with me? Are you longing to be free? Do I drive you up a tree? Yeah! Oh, yeah!”); maybe, even though he’d prefer to allude to a certain bar where he writes while staring off languidly and listening to the Human League on the jukebox, there are these instants when affirmation and annihilation are equally part of love’s system of uncertain futures. And this is an instant that is best captured in song. He says it right there, in “The Book of Love”: “The book of love has music in it/in fact, that’s where music comes from.”
That’s the Magnetic Fields that I adore.
Thirty-one songs, then, because it’s a prime number, and because it’s the same number as in that medieval classic, Andreas Capellanus’s “Rules of Courtly Love,” which preserves such irrefutable complexities as (#1) “Marriage should not be a deterrent to love,” and (#2) “Love cannot exist in the individual who cannot be jealous.” Like Capellanus, the Magnetic Fields, as preserved here, have fashioned a primer on the complexities of love. They have denied both their affirmations and their heartbreak in the press, sure, and even sometimes onstage, because to be vulnerable is hard, sad, thankless, and costly, as Capellanus has himself advised (#13, “Public revelation of love is deadly to love in most circumstances”). But in their secret hearts they betray how fervently they are lovers. Compare the medieval master in #14, “The value of love is commensurate with the difficulty of its attainment,” with the songwriter, “Well, darling you may do your worst,/because you’ll have to kill me first…” Or Capellanus in #22, “Love is reinforced by jealousy,” and Merritt, on Disc One, “Fido, your leash is too long,/you go where you don’t belong.” Thirty-one love songs, then, because love songs when they are true (“No one will ever love you honestly/No one will ever love you for your honesty”) instruct us in suffering, school us in desire, remind us of our loss, foster in us our enthusiasm.
Of course, now I’m rethinking the whole project, and wondering about the songs that got left off. Maybe I really made some mistakes here. I mean, it’s stupid to overlook “Absolutely Cuckoo,” which just sort of has to start the whole thing, as it does on the official release. “The Cactus Where Your Heart Should Be”? With its great guitar part? But what about the Modern English simulations of “(Crazy for You But) Not That Crazy?” LD’s star turn on “The Way You Say Good-Night?” Or what about Disc Three? Initially it seemed kind of weak to me, but now I’m kind of into “I’m Sorry I Love You,” with Shirley’s harmonies. How could I have been so stupid? And “Love Is Like a Bottle of Gin,” and “Two Kinds of People.” And Claudia singing “Zebra,” the last song. I should have included them all. I should definitely do it over. But I promised a friend next week I’d get Decade down to a single disc.
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