Monday, June 27, 2005

Fracture my spine and swear that you're mine

When Merritt was asked how he came up with the idea for 69 Love Songs, he said (in the interview documented in the 69LS booklet):

...I had been thinking it would be good to get into the world of musicals, and probably easiest to get into it through a revue of songs along the lines of An Evening [Wasted] with Tom Lehrer or Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, two revues that don't need any narrative to be wildly entertaining.

Tom Lehrer is a peculiar figure in music; a satirical songwriter in the 50s and 60s, with a penchant for lyrics about twisted subjects and Cold War paranoia, he only released around 50 songs and gave up performing in public in 1967. Growing up in New York, Lehrer enjoyed musicals as a child and took piano lessons from a rare teacher who actually taught him popular songs instead of classical music. Skipping several grades, he enrolled at Harvard University at the age of 15 in 1943 and eventually attended graduate school there while teaching mathematics courses to undergrads, something he continued to do for decades.

In 1953, Lehrer recorded the short-but-bittersweet Songs by Tom Lehrer at a cost of $15; though the initial pressing was 400 copies, word-of-mouth advertising helped it become popular beyond the Harvard campus (but one might argue that by having songs about Boy Scout pimps and a love memento in the form of a severed hand, the album practically sold itself.) After a stint in the Army, he released a new batch of songs in 1959 as both a live recording (An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer) and as a studio recording (More of Tom Lehrer); this new set included perhaps his most infamous track, the gleefully sick "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park." Arriving in 1965, his next album That Was the Year That Was contained definitely his most politically and socially biting material and featured some material that was first used on the television show That Was the Week That Was. After that? Not much - he recorded several ditties for the children's show The Electric Company in the early 70s and a few more scattered songs, and more or less everything (except the unnecessary stereo re-recording of Songs by Tom Lehrer) is compiled in the boxed set The Remains of Tom Lehrer.

On the occasion of the boxed set's release in 2000, Merritt actually interviewed Lehrer, but unfortunately Lehrer was repulsed by the idea of 69 Love Songs. Merritt said in this article by the Independent:

"I love Tom Lehrer, but he doesn't love me. He said that three love songs are quite enough for any stage show and, while love songs are a necessary evil, the idea of doing 69 of them was morally repugnant to him. He tried to listen to them, he said, but he just couldn't stand it."

And in this interview, he relates more about his encounter with Lehrer:

"He didn't approve of my fudged rhymes," Merritt said, laughing as he munched wheat crackers before a recent Magnetic Fields show at the University of Pennsylvania's Irvine Auditorium and described what turned out to be some of the most useful criticism his long-form missive received.

"He thought it was lazy...My [response] was, it's inevitable in an album of maximum variety like that. You almost have to, just to make things work. But I took it to heart, and made a kind of arbitrary decision to rhyme formally on [the Magnetic Fields album, i]."

69 Love Songs made a sort of dividing line for Merritt's works - none of his previous releases was as massive and diverse, the ukulele was the dominant musical instrument instead of the synthesizer, and a bolder sense of comedy emerged. Before 69 Love Songs, I had never witnessed an audience actually laugh out loud upon hearing Merritt's lyrics. And Merritt even encouraged laughter; a few songs into their two-night stint in Carrboro, NC, to perform the entirety of 69LS, he mentioned to the audience (which was polite and rapt) that it was okay to laugh. The live moments that usually killed were, "A pretty girl is like a violent crime / If you do it wrong you could do time," "Acoustic guitar, if you think I play hard, well you could have belonged to Steve Earle or Charo or GWAR," and the entirety of "Yeah! Oh, Yeah!" among Merritt's questionable love songs. Being a "necessary evil," several love songs pepper Lehrer's songbook, including "I Hold Your Hand in Mine," "She's My Girl," "Oedipus Rex" ("...a loyal son who loved his mother") and "When You Are Old and Gray," this week's first selection.

In this excerpt from Neil Gaiman's journal, he wrote:

"The first time I met Stephin Merritt we wound up talking about Lehrer, as Stephin had just interviewed him for Time Out New York. I remember at one point talking about the way that time changed the songs: 'When he wrote the Masochism Tango,' I said 'It was the masochism that was the transgressive element...'

'Whereas now, it's the Tango,' finished Stephin."

Monday, June 20, 2005

Love that's fresh and still unspoiled, love that's only slightly soiled

MONICA: There've been a million articles where people refer to you as the Cole Porter of your generation.
STEPHIN: Actually, I'm not big on Cole Porter. And I don't think comparison is a good idea -- it's misleading. But Cole Porter is shorthand for a good lyricist, so I take it as a compliment.

(from an interview by Monica Lynch, Index Magazine)

It has come to the point where every other article or music review related to Merritt brings up the Cole Porter comparison, and it's obvious that he is a bit weary of it. Despite saying he's "not big on Cole Porter" and calling Porter's songs "formulaic," he has cited the songwriter in several of his best-of lists. While Merritt says that Porter is "shorthand for a good lyricist," I'd go a bit further and say that it's shorthand for a clever lyricist. I can hear Merritt grumbling, miles away, "Clever? *sip of tea* *long pause* Nonsense."

STEPHIN: Cole Porter was cheating on his songs that people think of as having great lyrics. "You're the Top," etc. They're list songs. Anybody can write a list song.

Sure, that may be true, but there are bad list songs and good list songs, and I would say that Merritt's "Technical (You're So)," "Alien Being," and "Fear of Trains" fall in the latter category.

So, Cole Porter. Born into a rich family, Porter had a childhood filled with music lessons, and he even went on to study music at Harvard, before serving in the French Foreign Legion. He led the life of a playboy while in Paris and met his future wife, Linda Lee Thomas, there. Everyone points out that Porter was bisexual, and this often comes up when comparing him to Merritt, who is openly gay, but this is an irrelevant point. From the late 20s through the 50s, he scored numbers of successful musicals and films, among them Anything Goes, High Society, and Kiss Me, Kate.

Merritt describes the final song of 69 Love Songs, "Zebra," as being "...more or less a Cole Porter parody [...] It's taken to extremes. The couple actually own everything in the world." True, Merritt is clearly poking fun at the leisurely lifestyles of the wealthy, and possibly Porter himself. "Almost every songwriter you've ever heard grew up rich and spoiled, actually. That's how people can afford to become songwriters."

Listed as Merritt's favorite song of 1930, "Love for Sale" shows the slyly suggestive side of Porter. This version is by Julie London whose Sings Cole Porter album is held in the same regard as Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper by Merritt, as cited in the 69 Love Songs interview booklet. Ella Fitzgerald, beloved by Merritt and "one of the major singers of the twentieth century," sings the second track this week, "I'm Always True to You in My Fashion," a song that bears certain similarities to "The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side" in my opinion.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Just like his wife when she was beautiful

In various articles and interviews, Merritt has consistently named Kate Bush as being one of his favorite contemporary songwriters. Kate Bush is a rare artist who has been able to find a wide audience with music that is highly eccentric and imaginative and doesn't follow a musical formula. Her fans remain rabid (chalk me up as one, though I'd probably cringe if I re-read my old posts from the early 90s on, even though she hasn't released a new album in twelve years. She occasionally borrows from literary classics, but her own songs are often like short stories, featuring diverse characters, locations, and plots. As a teenager, she found instant success with her track "Wuthering Heights," which was a number one hit in England, and her work became even more challenging and intriguing over the years, with her creative peak being the incomparable and essential albums The Dreaming and Hounds of Love.

When I read the lyrics to Merritt's track "Maria Maria Maria" on the Eban & Charley soundtrack, I realized that the story was a bit similar to the one told in "Babooshka," but with a gender switch. In "Maria Maria Maria," two lovers meet for an extra-marital affair, but in the final plot twist, after his lover departs, the protagonist removes his disguise and ponders, "I wonder if she ever knew her lover was her husband too." The wife in "Babooshka" decides to tempt her husband, as a test of their marriage, under the titular assumed name; first, she writes him letters, and then eventually she meets him incognito. Of course, he decides to be an unfaithful bastard. But, the situation isn't so simple: the husband is attracted to this mysterious siren because she was "just like his wife" before she became weepy, frigid, and dumpy.

The Magnetic Fields track "Wi' Nae Wee Bairn Ye'll Me Beget" has two main sources: the folk songs of Scotsman Robert Burns (David Jennings's page has links to MP3s of Burns songs) and the "shape-shifting couple" theme common to folk legends and songs, including "The Two Magicians." For example, this version by Steeleye Span is practically a (Wonder)twin to Merritt's ditty, lyrically - the chorus even ends with the line "A maiden I will die." As pointed out by Jennings regarding "Wi' Nae Wee Bairn...," "In live performance Stephin and Claudia...alternate in singing the lines in each verse, which brings out the dynamic of the song in sharper relief." Kate Bush's "Get Out of My House," a disorienting song about retreating and avoiding confrontation, also uses the "shape-shifting" theme. The woman turns into a bird to escape, but the man turns into the wind to hold her back and also to blow her a kiss. Then they both turn into mules, sterile and stubborn creatures, and bray until the song's conclusion.

Kate Bush - "Babooshka"
Kate Bush - "Get Out of My House"

Monday, June 06, 2005

It's not the note I sent you that you quickly burned

It's silly that it has taken me several months to get to Irving Berlin, a songwriter intensely admired by Merritt. The similarities between the two are apparent - both are incredibly prolific (Berlin wrote well over a thousand songs) and both have an affinity for simple, catchy melodies. Heck, Stephin even named his chihuahua "Irving." As a Russian immigrant on the Lower East Side, Berlin faced a "sing or starve" situation while growing up, singing in saloons as a teen for spare change. After his teen years, he worked as a lyricist on Tin Pan Alley, and his breakthrough hit was the song "Alexander's Ragtime Band" in 1911. From Broadway songs (like "There's No Business Like Show Business" from Annie Get Your Gun) to Hollywood film scores (like "White Christmas" from Holiday Inn) to insufferable patriotic tunes (like "God Bless America"), Berlin covered the gamut during the first half of the 20th century, and his work has been canonized into jazz standards (like "Blue Skies"), too.

Merritt has made it clear that he would like lots of people covering his songs. Readers of his music criticism know him to sometimes be harsh and unforgiving; however as a rule, he (mostly) refuses to comment on renditions of his own songs, because he doesn't want interpreters to be discouraged by the possibility of receiving a critical drubbing from him. When asked by Chickfactor what song he wished he had written, his response was, "Happy Birthday to You." Why? "It's the song in the entire world that is sung the most; everyone knows it." Today, although the "standard" is a quaint idea, Merritt is using Berlin's career as a model for re-vitalizing this lost notion. Also, Merritt said that he identifies with Berlin, "...for being an artistic hack, but making a show of hackdom."

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."
(from an article/interview by Rob Tannenbaum in Village Voice)

"Be Careful, It's My Heart" was cited by Merritt in this interview with Terry Gross (start listening at the 8 min 26 sec mark) as being one of his favorite love songs. Merritt's own "Epitaph for My Heart" seems to be a sort of epilogue for the Berlin track, describing the consequences of improper handling.