Saturday, September 22, 2012

am i destined to be a stephin merritt fan

Stephin Merritt is not a household name*. That's fine. Some of my favorite musicians never quite made it to "household name" status. Many had brushes with it, but are long past it. So that's not a  big deal. Merritt is the lead singer and main songwriter for The Magnetic Fields. I'd never heard of him or the band before I met my wife. When she and I met, she was living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She was a big fan. Se used to go to Magnetic Fields concerts and sit on the side of the stage. And he'd make fun of the way she dressed. That from a man who only wears brown.

I've tried listening to their music, but never quite got into it. Merritt's voice is haunting, a fact that's enhanced by his deadpan delivery. I sometimes find it fascinating to listen to, but I never got into it.

But over the years, there have been what I will, for lack of a better phrase, call the intrusions of his existence into my consciousness. Given his stature in the music world, it would be easy enough to go through life rarely if ever hearing of him and not taking note when I did. But because my wife is a fan, that doesn't happen.

Early this year I was reminded of him by a CD in a big box of disks I got through Freecycle. I blogged about that back in February.

Another time, I listened to one of his songs and found it kind of good. But then when I went to Amazon and listened to samples from the album, I just didn't like it.

This time it was a film screening hosted by The Modern School of Film. The school is having a series of film screenings. In each, a musician (Neil Finn of Split Enz is up next) is asked to pick one movie to screen. Then, after the screening, there's a conversation and Q&A between the musician and the host. Last night, the musician was Stephin Merritt.

As a film, Merritt chose The Black Lizard, an odd Japanese mystery from 1968. In case you want to see it, here's part 1 (of 9 on Youtube -- I have not checked to make sure all 9 are there, so watch at your own risk):
 When asked why he chose that movie, Merritt explained that he picked it because he wanted to see it -- he hadn't seen it in 18 years and it's not available on DVD.

But getting away from the movie pick, after the film, they showed a Magnetic Fields video for "Andrew in Drag," from their latest album. That was great. Here it is:
I also found the Q&A interesting. Merritt, while not unfriendly, seemed kind of uncomfortable onstage. I couldn't tell if he was angry or bored (after the fact, that's my guess). But at times, he almost seemed to be daring the host to ask him a question.

At one point, and I forget what question prompted this, he said that he's incredibly bored when he sings. He purposely does take after take until he's wooden, because he doesn't believe singers should emote. This, by the way, explains what I observed above about his deadpan delivery. At any rate, he wants to get the emotions of a song from lyrics and the melody -- not from a singer emoting. I was amused by his observation that one of the problems in music is that everyone wants to be Aretha Franklin. He clarified that Aretha Franklin is a good thing, but everyone wanting to be her is a bad thing.

The point here, if there is one, is that with each Merritt encounter I find myself drawn more and more to liking his music. Maybe someday soon I'll be buying his albums?

*A note on my "household name" comment. Originally I wrote "big star." My wife disputed that by noting all the stuff he's done, and at venues like Lincoln Center. He is, she argues, a big star. It's just that he's a big star who few people would recognize. Rather than split hairs or argue semantics, I figured I'd change it to "household name." 

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