Roving thoughts and provocations

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The Playful, Grumpy, Over-Literate, Fixated, Flummoxed Brain of Stephin Merritt

Emma Straub, courtesy of Variance Films
Stephin Merritt

The Magnetic Fields is the name Stephin Merritt calls the band he often plays with, when he isn’t playing alone or with several other bands he invented. The core group is Merritt and his old friend Claudia Gonson, who started as a drummer but now plays piano, “toys” (wire whisks, xylophone, sleigh bells—it’s a long list), sometimes sings, and, as her day job, manages the band; plus Sam Davol, a former lawyer who plays cello and sometimes flute and sometimes other things, too; and John Woo, a guitarist who often plays banjo. Merritt himself plays just about everything, including ukelele and a Greek instrument called a bouzouki. An army of irregulars, singing and playing every instrument imaginable, have chipped in over the years, including Daniel Handler, an amateur accordionist better known by his nom de plume, Lemony Snicket. (Merritt, playing with another of his bands, the Gothic Archies, also did an album of songs cued to Lemony Snicket books, Tragic Treasury.) There is a tuba player who comes and goes, named Johnny Blood.

The resulting music cannot be described without a quiver of hyphens: electro-pop, synth-pop, noise-pop, and so on, all of them flying wide of the target, since the target is always moving. More than anything else, what The Magnetic Fields do best is play complex music with simple songs hiding inside of it. You find yourself singing along to the most convoluted emotional dynamics imaginable. My children, ages 4 and 6, often ask to hear these songs in the car. (Until you have heard a four-year old boy sing the lines “Should pretty boys in discos / Distract you from your novel / Remember I’m awful in love with you,” you haven’t approached the full depths of this band’s appeal.)

It is the essence of this anti-sound to change drastically from song to song and from record to record. And not chiefly because the players and instruments change (though they do) but because Merritt, whose heroes include ABBA and Irving Berlin, and The Jesus and Mary Chain, has had a new idea, requiring new musicians and new instruments. In some ways, this is the most idiosyncratic music ever made. The Magnetic Fields exists to perform whatever passes through the playful, grumpy, over-literate, fixated, and flummoxed brain of Stephin Merritt

Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields is a fine new documentary about Merritt and his circle. (Both the name of the band, and the title of the film—taken from the title of a song by the band—allegorize the mesmeric influence Merritt casts on people. He could get them to do anything: it’s a good thing all he wants them to do is play music.) It covers the band’s history and includes some extraordinary footage of their shows.

Merritt himself, as the film makes clear, has no policies, only larks. But his larks are non-negotiable and sometimes comically precise: “Usually we do short records with some theme,” Merritt has said, “like travel or escape or Phil Spector or vampires.” There is therefore an element of the wild goose chase to all the band’s music. If Merritt is hearing a hootenany in his head, the band puts one together. The resulting song (“We Are Having a Hootenany“) is gleefully about nothing beyond itself (the refrain is “We are having a hootenany now”: you sing along, joining in on the party, even on the first listen). People who don’t like The Magnetic Fields often find this kind of eclecticism cloying, zany, or merely clever, missing the element of elan, of death-defiance, in a band that rifles so brilliantly through the rolodex of available musical styles, now sounding like Bing Crosby, now like Morrissy, now like Marianne Faithful, or Nico, or The Byrds, or Serge Gainsbourg, or Liberace.

The songs are short and there are a lot of them: the band’s most famous album, on three disks, is 69 Love Songs (1999). And they have to be short, because versatility has to be demonstrated in time: first you zig, then you zag; now you play the ukelele, now you do a song about heartbreak as Gregorian chant. The effect depends on starting over, again and again, and on starting every time from a tangibly new place.

Some of the songs feel like show tunes (a fact Merritt has allowed). But even as they express dramatic character, the rhymes precisely disintegrate character. These songs suggest the terrifying idea that character goes, unquestioningly, wherever the rhymes lead it. Here are some lyrics from Merritt’s tribute to the Irving Berlin song “A Pretty Girl is like a Melody.” What kind of a person in what kind of a play would say the following things?

A pretty girl is like a minstrel show
It makes you laugh It makes you cry You go
It just isn’t the same on radio
It’s all about the makeup and the dancing and the Oh,
a pretty girl is like a violent crime
If you do it wrong you could do time
but if you do it right it is sublime

The analogies make a hash of analogy—after all, as Shakespeare tells us, there is simply no comparison for a pretty girl (the fact that Merritt likes boys rather than girls gives his songs about girls the feeling of homage to these kinds of songs, as well as to the male singers who sing them). “A pretty girl is like a pretty girl”: what more can be said?

This undermining of lyricism, of the canonical comparisons and sentiments, is one side of Merritt’s genius. He is curmudgeonly company. But he is also essentially social in his vision for music. It’s a vision that would seem entirely untransferrable, non- or anti-collaborative, if it weren’t for his legions of eager collaborators, particularly the self-effacing Claudia Gonson.

Dreamyshade
The Magnetic Fields, 2004

To me she is the most intriguing person in Strange Powers. Merritt’s imagination guides the songs. But Gonson’s imagination of him is what makes this band a band. The two have known one another since high school, in and around Boston. Some of the film’s most touching moments show them horsing around in old photographs, looking appropriately eighties. They were “pit kids”: members of a tribe of teenage hacky sackers, runaways, faculty brats, jugglers, folkies, Goths, punks, and sojourning anarchists from Weston or Newton who converged (as they still do) on the Harvard Square T-station. Gonson is resolute in claiming no credit for the creative side of the Fields. What is clear from the film, though, is that from the very beginning Gonson and Merritt began collaborating on an artifact they both loved, namely Merritt’s mind.

There is a funny scene in the movie in which the two of them reminisce onstage about Merritt’s attempt to reunite Sonny and Cher by playing their solo records simultaneously, in separate rooms. That’s about as close as two people get in Stephin Merritt’s universe: who would want to be Cher to his Sonny? On stage, Gonson softens and socializes him, draws him out; his grumpiness has a comic edge, and their mutual patrol of one another is a sight to behold. But it has to be hard. He dislikes touring (applause literally pains him: he has a hearing condition called hyperacusis). Gonson has been his chief minder for more than twenty years. Merritt’s mind makes the songs. But it’s Gonson who keeps the band together, even when (as you can see in the film) that might not be what Merritt wants.

Gonson is an unlikely pop star. She majored in English at Harvard, and worked off and on towards a PhD. She seems like a grad student: she is, in fact, the only rock star who has ever performed in a crewneck sweater I am convinced I also own. She is forty-two, but could be fifteen years younger. Her spoken manner—rapid, ironic, self-effacingly self-referential, impressively but casually analytic—is that of a person accustomed to being around very smart, very verbal people, people eager to complete one another’s sentences. It is a manner usually devised for the efficient consumption and processing of artworks.

It is also a period manner, coming out of sixties and seventies childhoods, touching down at East Coast colleges, logging hours in comics stores and record stores in Allston and Brighton, Brooklyn and Berkeley. Those who have it start out as omnivorous fans of everything, and end up, the lucky ones, making omnivorous, encyclopedic art: I am thinking of people like Jonathan Lethem or Rick Moody. A lot of great music, film, and literature of our moment is made by this new sort of adult, a type (I would wager) impossible to imagine a generation ago.

Gonson never writes The Magnetic Fields’s songs (Merritt writes everything). And she doesn’t often sing the lead vocals: in fact Shirley Simms has been doing most of the female leads on the band’s recent records. When Gonson does, though, as on a song like “Reno Dakota,” it’s marvelous. Hers is not a voice with enormous showy range or forcefulness. But even when she sings the backup vocals, the band somehow seems to be thinking very hard about itself: about its internal chemistry, its distribution of gender and sexuality, its internal vectors of desire and distance, its ways, onstage, of seeming simultaneously like a family and like a tableaux of utter strangers.

Strange Powers made me feel that these Gonson-sung songs are a thing apart from everything else the band has done. There is a scene at the beginning of the film when Gonson and Merritt are in his apartment, adding little touches to the drum tracks for the band’s recent record “Distortion” (2008). Gonson is trying to interpret to the best of her abilities a sound Merritt is hearing inside of his head. She’s banging whisks together, hitting “gigantic oversize tambourines,” “a thingie that you turn and it is connected to a string” (Merritt blurts out, from the background “Frog Caller!”). “If you want to have this sort of wall of sound, boom boom boom thing, I could try a—gong?” Gonson is more than Merritt’s collaborator. She’s his conjuror.

It is what you hear in the exuberant yet thoughtful singing Gonson brings to these songs written by a person she has known intimately for twenty-five years, but who seems in some basic way unknowable. Merritt’s songs direct their yearning outside the band, at points emotionally and geographically widespread. But Claudia Gonson’s yearning aims closer to home, toward the band she and Merritt, with lots of help, have made together.

Strange Powers will be shown in theaters throughout the US in November and December 2010.

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