Since I imagine this post might be a pretty good ramble, let me say up front that if you love the Magnetic Fields, you should go see the movie Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt & Magnetic Fields. It's co-directed by Kerthy Fix and Gail O'Hara and I just loved it. By the time I post this, it'll be too late for you to see the 7 pm Monday show, which means you'll have only one chance to see it before it's gone-- Wednesday night at 9 at Alamo Ritz. Here's a link-- get your tickets now because I'm betting it'll sell out. (Soon, you can also buy the DVD.)
I want to tell you that Kerthy is an old friend of mine, and Austin lost a true talent when she decided to move to NY, and anytime she's ready to come back WE ARE READY!! (Do you hear me Kerthy?) But I'm not recommending the film as a favor to a friend. I'm recommending it because it is truly wonderful, a portrait of a man, a band, a platonic couple, and an intimate glimpse into artistic process.
Now you'd think, given how much I worship Merritt's writing, that of course I'd recommend the film even before seeing it, the way that some fans collect bootlegs, snapping them up without knowing in advance if they are any good. But my "relationship" with Merritt is tricky. First of all, it is on one level utterly imaginary. I don't know the guy from Adam, though I like to think I know him a teeny bit now that I've seen the movie. On the other hand, his lyrics-- in particular the masterpiece that is 69 Love Songs-- have moved me so much, for so many years, that in a way, I do have a relationship with him, even if he doesn't have one with me.
Merritt lands on a very short list I have of All Time Favorite Songwriters. Though I'm sure I'll forget a few, here's most of the list: Southpaw Jones, (old) Springsteen, (old) Elvis Costello, Franklin Bruno (look him up), and Jill Sobule. (There should be, and probably are, more women on that list, but let's leave it at that for now so I can focus on Merritt.) Actually, it's not just his clever words, but his amazing composition that gets me every time. And then there is the sentiment-- playful, flip, nostalgic, thoughtful... pick a descriptive that has a positive connotation and probably it, too, belongs in the definition of what Merritt does with his songs.
And yet... Well, I've seen the Magnetic Fields play twice, once at Hogg Auditorium years ago, and once, more recently at the Paramount. My memories of these shows aren't particularly great. I nearly fell asleep several times at the Hogg show (which Kerthy shot for her film). Later, I ran into my friend Vince, who also attended, and he said something like the performance had been the most deliberate act of lethargy he'd ever seen executed. He was understating the matter. It was like the band was purposefully fucking with the audience. They also sustained a private banter, exclusive of the audience-- well, Stephin and Claudia Gonson did, while the guitarist and cellist sat between them stoically, like they were ancient animatronic characters. I will admit that the S & C exchanges were quite witty and amusing, but overall the show was soooo slow. (On the other hand, Henry did attend with me-- he had just turned 14 and we shared (and still share) a passion for MF that is one of our special bonding thingies. So that was nice.)
At the Paramount show, Merritt was flat out rude to the audience and this statement is not just another instance of me being hypersensitive-- other friends who were there concurred. Now, I have seen a million concerts in my life. And I have grown up at least enough to know that brilliant songwriters don't "owe" any of us anything, though I find it ironic that folks like James McMurtry and Ray LaMontagne are so incredibly gifted with musical talents and yet seem really squirmy onstage. It's like the gods fucked with them and said, "Here, have a talent, an exceptional talent, but for people to know about it you're going to have to drag your introverted ass out on stage over and over." And yet I know by now that if I want to hear a musician perform, and if that musician is anti-banter or fails to be particularly warm and fuzzy, then my job is to get around that and enjoy the main reason I showed up, which is the music itself, and the opportunity to be in the same room with a voice I love.
But then, I am the President of the Office of Good Deeds, and as such, a huge fan of kindness. So despite my attempts to keep irritation in check when a performer doesn't offer the love freely, I admit I can come away from a grumpily performed show with a bad taste in my mouth. Can't these people be a little appreciative? I should say here that I am NOT referring to the shy LaMontagne and the laconic McMurtry-- I've witnessed both express their thanks to the audience, acknowledge that we're part of what keeps them in the business of doing what they're best at. But Merritt? Good lord, what a grouch. To the point that he passes the whole lovable curmudgeon stage and enters into the realm of borderline ick.
There's another reason this attitude bugged me about SM. It had nothing to do with wishing performers recognized the importance of fans. Oh no. What it was, was that I had fallen so in love with SM's music, and believed that anyone capable of such sentiments, such sweeping romance, such incredible insight, must surely be as sensitive in person as on the disc. Seeing him live threatened to move him over to the Fallen Heroes category, and frankly, I don't have that many heroes left.
So while I went to see Strange Powers simply thrilled that Kerthy's labor of love was finally in the can and on the screen, I wondered what I'd think watching the tale of Merritt. And this is why I am so glad-- so so so glad-- I went. Kudos abound, but one area that really stands out is that the directors use a decent amount of black and white imagery, which lend Merritt a very man-out-of-time sensibility, like he's from the very old school-- think the Beats, think Hemingway. There is a part of my heart that will always embrace the romantic notion of the 20th century poets and ex-pat writers and I'm mostly convinced those days are long behind us. Except...
Except here is this portrayal of Merritt, who pursues his passion and doesn't get anywhere near the recognition I wish he did. He is from another planet-- I'd call him an angel but that's not right. I don't even know how to capture him. If you know his work, you know what I mean. If you don't, I hope you'll check him out.
I especially appreciated the examination of Merritt's collaboration with Gonson, a self-described fag-hag, though she seems to have eyes only for one fag, the Amazing Mr. Merritt. Their relationship began in the '80s, another huge hook for me in the documentary as I recalled my own wild youth during that time, running around with my own music fanatic gay platonic boyfriend Jonny. We had such a bond, something so deep, and he was the first PERSON in my life (not the first man) to ever say, "I love you," to me-- and I count in this observation members of my own family (we were not a family that expressed our love verbally). The intimacy S & C have shared for nearly 30 years is palpable and totally resonated.
I understand, really I do, that I have no right to try to lay claim to Stephin Merritt, or his band, or any part of his life. I got to see 82 minutes of footage, culled from who can even guess how many hundreds of hours, that-- I understand intellectually-- can't even begin to scratch the surface of the songwriter's true depth and motives. But I was grateful for what I was offered, which felt like a whole lot, and I left the theater thinking I would really like to catch him live again sometime and that, no really, this time, whatever he wants to dish out to the audience, I won't let it get to me.
Because in the end, his music is such an incredible gift to those of us who've had the chance to know it, that that is more than sufficient. It stirs me every time my iPod pulls up MF on shuffle. And I cannot hear The Book of Love without instantly being transported, usually to a very cold night, late December, 2007, when Warren and I stood under the brilliant stars in Real de Catorce, Mexico, and danced to that very tune, each of us with one earbud, immersed in a fantastically intimate moment, right there, not looking forward or looking back, just taking in the massive sky and the poetic brilliance of one of the greatest songwriters who ever put pen to paper. This is what makes Stephin Merritt soar above the rest. I hope you'll go to the movie and see and hear for yourself.