When Courting My Wife, I Sing Stephin Merritt

No matter how self-absorbed you are, now and then you have to yield to the blaze of genius, and I had such a moment a few weeks back when I was listening to NPR’s “Fresh Air” and a tortured bass like a cross between Johnny Cash and Morrissey came on singing a bizarre love song.

Home was anywhere with diesel gas

Love was a trucker’s hand

Never stuck around long enough for a one-night stand

Before you kiss me you should know–

Papa was a rodeo.

Online the next day, I found “Papa was a Rodeo” on a three-CD set called 69 Love Songs , by Stephin Merritt. I ordered CD No. 2 with the queasy feeling I’d play it once and never again. Two days later, I ordered the other two, I couldn’t help myself. 69 Love Songs is a tour de force (by Mr Merritt’s band, The Magnetic Fields on the indie label Merge, of North Carolina), and while many cuts are precious, vain or otherwise unlistenable, at least a dozen are stunning. Hearing Stephin Merritt felt like hearing Rubber Soul , Nevermind or the Smiths’ Hatful of Hollow for the first time.

It turns out I’m a late discoverer. Stephin Merritt’s album was No. 4 on Spin ‘s list of the best albums of 1999, No. 9 on Rolling Stone ‘s list. The Village Voice put him on the cover, and critics compared his songwriting to Irving Berlin’s.

Mr. Merritt wrote half his songs at night at an East Village gay bar, the other half by day at an Irish bar, and I went to meet him at the day bar on a Wednesday. It was blustering, but he was seated outside, dressed all in black. He was no bigger than a wren, and as I might have guessed from the self-loathing strain in his lyrics, curious-looking. Small hands, a biggish nose, nicotine hues and a rare shy, boyish smile showing good-looking square teeth. About 35 (he declined to give his age).

He lit a Camel Light and said he’d just had a lousy hour-long interview with a reporter who kept arguing his songs were autobiographical. I said that many of them seemed confessional. Mr. Merritt was suspicious.

“There’s something about this record which makes part of my character pretty obvious,” he allowed. “I have a low, sullen, grouchy, monotonous yet expressive voice. But what says most about my character is the title of the record and the fact that I finished it. It reveals that I have some sort of possibly pathological willpower–although the fact I’m still smoking contradicts that–and I’m not so flaky that I can’t finish a huge absurd project.”

“People accused you of being flaky?”

“Not since I put out 69 Love Songs ,” he said.

“Who before?”

“People in positions of authority. Teachers. Record labels.”

“Your parents?”

“I didn’t have a dad. My mother is flakier than I was.” I was prepared to meet the hero-artist as irritable, camp narcissist. Mr. Merritt proved to be low-key, droll, intelligent as his music and just weird enough. When the waitress brought out Mr. Merritt’s teapot and a plate of sausage and beans, he ate the sausage but lifted the hem of his black sweater to allow a Chihuahua named Irving to creep out on his knee and eat the beans. Then he fed the dog cream from the creamer.

“You’re an unusual person,” I said affectionately.

“On the evidence of 69 Love Songs , I’ll accept that,” he said. “I’m a deliberately unusual person and people should be more unusual. At least people’s work should be.”

His thunderbolt arrived two years ago. A man of tremendous musical sophistication, Mr. Merritt was sitting in a piano bar listening to Stephen Sondheim songs and reflecting that while he had put out a number of indie-rock albums, rock didn’t really suit him. He didn’t go to rock clubs, he thought rock was over. Rock was the 60’s, soft rock was the 70’s, followed by disco and punk. Grunge was a “throwaway throwback.” He’d written music for plays at his fancy prep school outside Boston; he wanted to do something theatrical. He decided to write 69 Love Songs in one year. Now that the album’s out, the offers to write musical theater have been coming “thick and fast.”

“There’s rock on 69 Love Songs ,” I said.

” 69 Love Songs is a wide-ranging record and certainly includes rock. As a summation of the 20th century, it would have to.”

Grandness is Mr. Merritt’s stock in trade. He mentions 69Love Songs constantly, often with a lover’s disparagement.

” 69 Love Songs isapublicity stunt,” he said. “And it doesn’t bother to pretend not to be a publicity stunt. The other albums I did were albums first and publicity stunts under it.”

“But it has wonderful songs–”

“Well, it’s not a pure publicity stunt. It’s a fleshed out, crafted publicity stunt. If the records were blank then it would be a pure publicity stunt. Ha ha, they fell for this!”

Mr. Merritt’s detachment confused me because while the album has its measure of irony, it was the spare masculine emotion that stirred me. I named one of my favorite songs, “You’re My Only Home.”

I will stay if you let me stay.

And I’ll go if you let me go.

But I won’t go far away.

Because you’re my only home …

I told Mr. Merritt I sang it to my wife (trying to imitate his deep sad tones). He looked at me like I was crazy.

“The song is tragic and pathetic. ‘When you cancel dinner plans, I wish I didn’t understand’?” he said. “It’s a declaration of love for someone who doesn’t return it.”

“It’s a song about separateness in a relationship,” I said. “My wife cancels dinner plans–so what.”

I moved on to the emotional themes of the album: self-loathing, grandiosity, unrequited love.

He said, “I don’t think I’d be the only person in the world who has had a situation of unrequited love. Songs of unrequited love are a major part of songwriting.”

Cagey.

“Do you believe in love?”

He said, “I do believe in love as a chemically based, socially constructed category that’s different for everyone.”

“Where did you get that?”

“In sociology class. In bio-psychology.”

Mr. Merritt said he had gone to a number of colleges, including N.Y.U. and Harvard Extension School. Harvard Extension says he matriculated in 1989 and has still not gotten a degree. Claudia Gonson, Mr. Merritt’s manager and a vocalist on the record, said he was one credit short of graduation, and that most of the personnel on the album had actually met at Harvard 10 years ago. “I hate to blow the cover, but lots and lots of indie bands came out of the Ivy League,” she said.

I asked Mr. Merritt if “Papa Was a Rodeo” was autobiographical. Only in the sense that he lived in 33 houses in 23 years, he said. His mother was not a rock ‘n’ roll band, as the mother of the song is, but a Tibetan Buddhist and “itinerant hippie.” His father he declined to talk about.

“I never had a diesel gas vehicle, never had truck-stop sex,” he said.

On the jukebox inside, Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man” came on. “What do you think of that?” I said.

“Great maraccas.”

“They probably play a lot of Van Morrison here.”

“I don’t need to hear any more Van

Morrison.”

“What do you like about Van Morrison?”

“Nothing. Anymore.”

I told him how much I cherished the simple sweetness of 69 Love Songs , that I sang “Queen of the Savages” to my dog.

My girl is the queen of the jungle folk

You should see the things we see when we smoke …

She doesn’t use a fork

I don’t think I’ll go back to New York.

Mr. Merritt gave me an analysis of the song that took all the charm and wit out of it. He said it was about European attitudes toward race. The intellectual talk disappointed me.

I asked him if the success of 69 Love Songs had allowed him to go to bed with beautiful people.

“I think 69 Love Songs as a mating call is highly flawed,” he said. “It’s hard to believe anyone would want to go out with me after hearing it.”

“But you have such a fabulous voice.”

Mr. Merritt was hearing none of that.

“If I never sing again, I won’t feel guilty about depriving my adoring public of my gorgeous voice,” he said caustically.

“You don’t seem to understand what a great voice it is.”

“It’s a question of taste and I like my voice under certain conditions but it’s very limited. It has only one range, deep bass. I can sing lower than anyone else in pop, it’s fair to say. But I’m not so fond of my voice that I would want to hear an album of Stephin Merritt sings standards.”

So grand and so self-loathing. Mr. Merritt was not big on self-awareness; he said that he associated such exploration with feckless Buddhists. He didn’t seem to get the beauties of his record.

“I love the ardor and transparency of this record,” I said. “Am I being fooled? Am I a sap?”

“In love songs we’re all saps, including me,” he responded. “If I write ‘I love you, I love you, I love you,’ the question of whether or not I mean it is absolutely beside the point. How could I mean it or not mean it?”

“Well, maybe you could,” I said.

“I said I love you in 69 different ways,” he went on. “Mass manufacturing love songs in bulk is indicative of my attitude toward the uniqueness of the love song.”

It was a pointless argument, Warhol meets Rimbaud. “Sincerity is not really an issue in 69 Love Songs ,” he went on. “Because things that apply to me apply equally well to others. If I say ‘I love you,’ who knows who I’m talking to and five minutes later I won’t remember anyway. By the time I finish writing the song, I may be thinking of someone else, if I was thinking of anyone in the first place, and I was more likely to be thinking of Billie Holiday than anyone in particular.”

Irving moved around under the sweater and Mr. Merritt kept reaching under to pet him. I baited him.

“Are you better than Stephen Sondheim?”

I’ve never really cared for Sondheim myself, but Mr. Merritt got an affronted look.

“Stephen Sondheim is the greatest lyricist of American music. I can’t think of a better lyricist in any form. I’m not qualified to judge Jacques Brel or Serge Gainsbourg.”

“Well what do you do better than Stephen Sondheim?”

Mr. Merritt lit another Camel Light and found that he couldn’t resist.

“What do I do better than Stephen Sondheim?” he said. “I write more love songs.”