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."


Blogger Rusty said...

A staple during my Dr. Demento obsession when I was ten. He's no Odgen Edsl, of course.

4:13 PM  
Anonymous Nina said...

When I was a kid growing up in liberal Ann Arbor Michigan during the height of the anti-war movement (Vietnam, that is), no one was cooler than Tom Lehrer. Adults listened to him; the cool parents let kids listen to him ("The Vatican rag" is shocking today; imagine what it was like then!). Lehrer was a perfect soundtrack to the world we were living in. What he has in common with Merritt is an ironic facade covering an utterly sincere core.

7:19 PM  
Blogger Ernest said...

Rusty: I had to Google Odgen Edsl - what do you recommend?

Nina: Regarding "The Vatican Rag" being shocking, it was also prescient - "If they really want to sell a product..."

4:26 PM  
Blogger Rusty said...

The album Mower of Ogden Edsel is the only one they sell at Amazon (that I can tell), and it also has all of the OE songs I've ever heard on it, the most famous being "Kinko the Clown" and (my favorite) "Dead Puppies." (There also seem to be several spellings of this name. I think Bill Frenzer is the main guy's real name.)

3:57 AM  
Blogger Ernest said...

Cool - thanks for the tip, Rusty!

12:08 PM  
Blogger Ernest said...

Hmm...just realized that the line "Let us kill all these rats with wings by feeding them poisoned bread" from the 6ths' track "Pillow Fight" could very well be a reference to Lehrer's "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park"...

5:26 PM  

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