Sunday, February 17, 2008

Bios, Interviews and Stephin Merritt

Today I met with a friend and we talked a little about bios. Some are silly and read like a resume. Some tell nothing about a person. But some say more than words on a page and give a glimpse into a person. I like those bios. I like to know.

Maybe I prefer interviews. Here are some excerpts from an interview with Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields.

As Hundreds Cheer
The Glum Triumph of The Magnetic Fields
by Rob Tannenbaum
December 1 - 7, 1999

The part of the interview where Merritt says that he relates well to the English.

***


"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."

***

The part of the interview where he talks about his upbringing.

***

"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.

***

This is the part of the interview where he talks about how The Magnetic Fields came to be. And about writing 69 Love Songs.

***

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."

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.

***

This is the part of the interview where Merritt 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.

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