Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘50 Song Memoir

A lover’s lies

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Over the last month, I’ve been listening endlessly to 50 Song Memoir, the sprawling autobiographical album by Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields. Like much of his work, it’s both technically exquisite and cheerfully uneven, with throwaway novelty tracks alternating with songs that I don’t think I’ll ever forget, but it’s clearly a landmark in the career of one of our indispensable artists. One of its best features is a thick accompanying booklet, in which Merritt walks his good friend Daniel Handler through the stories behind all five discs. It’s totally fascinating, both for its insights into craft and for its uncharacteristic moments of introspection. But it also includes an anecdote, which Merritt shares only in passing, that has been on my mind a lot, particularly in light of what I’ve been discussing over the last few days:

[The song] “Lovers’ Lies” is a boyfriend who, it later turned out, was a pathological liar. Dale Peck has a whole chapter about him. Apparently he went out with Dale Peck before he went out with me, which I didn’t know at the time…So he allowed everyone to believe that he was HIV-positive, because he was an AIDS activist, and it just seemed simpler. But he was not in fact HIV-positive, and eventually that got out, and he became a pariah, persona non grata, and had to leave the area.

Handler doesn’t ask for further details, and the conversation quickly moves on, leaving the story to stand enigmatically by itself. And the song doesn’t add much to the picture.

Merritt doesn’t mention any names, but he provides more than enough information to identify the individual under discussion, who is also thanked in the liner notes to one of his side projects. (I don’t particularly feel like naming him here, either, so I’ve quietly edited some of the passages that follow.) Dale Peck—a literary critic whom I previously knew best for calling Rick Moody “the worst writer of his generation”—tells the story in his book Visions and Revision, a long excerpt of which appeared a few years ago in Out. In his memoir, Peck recalls that the activist “was the first person I slept with who told me he was HIV-positive,” and that he also claimed to have been the son of a Holocaust refugee, a survivor of English boarding schools and mental institutions, and the victim of a beating in Boston. But after cataloging his friend’s remarkable background, Peck concludes:

Everything I’ve just told you is a lie. The Judaism—the Holocaust—the move to England and the nervous breakdown, the time spent in a mental institution and hustling on the streets, and above all the HIV infection: Every last detail—save, perhaps, his name—was a fabrication, invented for who knows what reason and perpetuated with some major or minor variations not just with me but with all of ACT UP…I don’t believe it was empirically necessary for [him] to adopt the identity of an HIV-positive person in order to become the kind of AIDS activist he became. But he did, and he immersed himself in his role to such a degree that he put himself at risk.

And he was no ordinary fabulist. Peck tells us that he was “also one of the nine or ten most important AIDS activists in the United States,” and in David France’s How to Survive a Plague, we hear more about the scale of this ongoing act of impersonation:

It was thought that he was the sickest member of the HIVIP support group—he had testified as an AIDS patient under oath before Congress and issued a famous dictum to fellow activists, “HIV Negatives Get Out of Our Way”—but in fact he had never been infected at all. David Barr, the support group founder, pieced together the deception through inconsistencies in his stories, the vagueness about his doctor visits, his secrecy about lab results. I was incredulous when confronted with these facts…For almost a decade I watched him partake in some of the most instrumental skirmishes that revolutionized science and medicine. I watched his work save lives. He could have accomplished as much as an openly HIV-negative man.

And France’s thoughts on the reasoning behind this deception are particularly significant: “What drove him, I guessed, was a peculiar kind of thrill-seeking behavior. There was no more immediate battle in this epic war than the one to survive. For young men it was an almost romantic race against time. I can imagine, but not fully understand, a compulsion to feel those stakes very personally.”

Peck makes a similar point in his memoir: “From the beginning of the epidemic part of the fascination with AIDS was the desire to have it. To live with it? To die from it? I suspect it’s probably neither, which is to say, I suspect the HIV these men wanted was the phantasmic kind that brings ‘meaning’ to life rather than sickness or pain or death.” And it makes for a striking contrast with an argument advanced by Susan Sontag in AIDS and Its Metaphors, which was published toward the end of the eighties. After noting that such diseases as tuberculosis and syphilis have been romanticized for their associations with emotionality or creativity, to the point of creating “syphilis envy,” Sontag writes: “But with AIDS—though dementia is also a common, late symptom—no compensatory mythology has arisen, or seems likely to arise. AIDS, like cancer, does not allow romanticizing or sentimentalizing, perhaps because its association with death is too powerful.” Sontag was clearly wrong about this, and it’s even possible to recognize this impulse in more recent cases of activists who altered or embellished aspects of their identities—some blatantly, others less so—in what Eve Fairbanks of Buzzfeed calls a mindset “that makes having endured harrowing circumstances seem almost necessary to speak with any moral authority.” But it may have been something even more fundamental. As Peck writes of one pivotal moment:

[The activist] said he had something to tell me and even as I guessed from his tone what it was he said: “I’m positive.” I use quotation marks here because I know these were his actual words: I recorded them on a piece of yellow paper ripped from a legal pad that I later tucked into a new journal. I was a sporadic journaler at best, usually starting one when I felt that something momentous had happened, and I knew that something momentous had happened here. Not that I had slept with an HIV-positive person, but that I had met someone great. Someone about whom I need manufacture none of my usual illusions to love.

Written by nevalalee

September 28, 2018 at 9:07 am

Quote of the Day

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A major songwriting technique for me is to imagine the songs that other people have written according to what the album covers look like, especially in the record sleeves that used to come with the albums, with advertisements for other records especially for inspiration…A picture of Papa John, a beach photograph. By “Papa John,” I mean, from the Mamas and the Papas of course…In the case of the song we’re supposedly discussing, I just tried to imagine what Papa John would write based on that photograph.

Stephin Merritt, in the liner notes to 50 Song Memoir

Written by nevalalee

September 11, 2018 at 7:30 am

All his little words

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Stephin Merritt

Yesterday, I listened to most of the album 69 Love Songs by the Magnetic Fields, which I hadn’t played in its entirety in a couple of years. I happened to think of it because it struck me that Stephen Merritt is exactly the kind of voice we all need to hear right now: wry, ironic, detached, and endlessly capable. His career has been defined by its productivity and by an inhuman degree of versatility, as if Merritt were determined to prove in practice what he once stated in “The Formulist Manifesto,” which is that all pop music, even the kind that affects us the most profoundly, can be reduced to a handful of technical tricks. He’s probably right. Yet as I took in the album again, I was hit by the realization, which I seem fated to periodically rediscover forever, that this is the most moving music that anybody has made in my lifetime. And its power is inseparable from how mechanical it all seems. In an awestruck review, the critic Robert Christgau marveled at how its three discs—“one-dimensional by design, intellectual when it feels like it, addicted to cheap rhymes, cheaper tunes, and token arrangements, sung by nonentities whose vocal disabilities keep their fondness for pop theoretical”—had upended all his preconceptions about how art was supposed to sound. What it really suggests, at least to me, is that our most deeply held feelings are artificial, too, or at least shaped to a frightening extent by pop music’s gorgeous lies. Which doesn’t make them any less meaningful. And it’s why I’m more excited about the upcoming album 50 Song Memoir, in which Merritt devotes one autobiographical track to every year of his life, than any new release in a long time.

What’s most notable about it, of course, is that it’s a musical memoir from an artist who, until now, has been steadfast in his refusal to reveal himself. For its first two albums, The Magnetic Fields hid behind the shiny, slightly opaque—but often heartbreakingly beautiful—voice of Susan Anway, and it wasn’t until she left that Merritt began to sing. (In retrospect, the abrupt transition from Anway to Merritt feels like a great gag in itself, like going from the angel at the top of the Christmas tree to a toy robot whose batteries were slowly running down. Unlike Bon Iver, Merritt didn’t need to process his voice to make it sound like a found object.) Later, he would often outsource the vocals to the likes of L.D. Beghtol, Shirley Simms, and, above all, his agent Claudia Gonson, who might have the loveliest voice of its kind since Neil Tennant. He also refused to be pinned down to any one sound, although the fact that his personality shines through every track, regardless of style, is as compelling an argument as I can imagine for the existence of artistic sensibilities that transcend genre. The very good documentary on his career, Strange Powers, reveals as little about its subject’s personal life as possible. His most emotional songs carry the implication that he might be pulling our legs, while his parodies and throwaways are where I suspect he might be the most heartfelt. And all of his albums, with one major exception, are a little “disappointing,” in the sense that any given day of one’s life is slightly disappointing. Whatever sense I have of Merritt comes less from any individual song than from all of them remembered simultaneously, like the character in Gödel, Escher, Bach who hangs a vinyl record on his wall so that he can gaze at it and enjoy the music all at once.

69 Love Songs

Yet it’s typical of Merritt’s slipperiness and infuriating cleverness that he transforms the whole notion of an autographical album into a stunt in itself. Judging from the five tracks that have already been released, this is a memoir written with the help of a rhyming dictionary, which might well be the only kind worth hearing. Merritt’s one real weakness as a songwriter—and I have to think hard to come up with one—is that the joke is often all there is: once you’ve heard the title of “I’d Go Anywhere With Hugh” or “My Husband’s Pied-à-Terre,” you basically know what the song is about, since Merritt can always be trusted to execute a precious conceit to perfection. But that’s how life is, too. When you stand back far enough, most lives are similar enough that at any given moment, when you describe the setup, any objective observer should be able to come up with the punchline. The only person who can’t see the humor is the one whose life is under consideration. In his review of one of the first albums by The Magnetic Fields, Christgau says of Susan Anway: “She’s proud to play the puppet.” But we’re all puppets of pop music. There are enormous swaths of experience that Merritt politely declines to cover, but for much of our lives, we talk to one another in song lyrics, our souls given temporary animation by the passage of a radio single from somewhere out in the ether. In practice, it usually has less in common with, say, “Layla” than with a plinky novelty track picked out on the ukulele. Merritt recognizes this and, in his odd way, honors it. And it does more to give dignity to human existence than the stark sincerity of a band like Arcade Fire, which I also love.

Which is just to say that Merritt’s memoir is also my own. I first discovered 69 Love Songs in my twenties, and it felt like I was among the last in my circle of friends to hear it, although it had only been out for two or three years. (So much time has passed that it feels now like I was listening to it almost from the beginning, which is scary in itself.) At the time, Merritt was about as old as I am today, and the album feels like a soundtrack to that chapter of my life, filtered through a weary wisdom that was telling me truths that I wasn’t ready to hear yet. Listening to it, I’m reminded of the poem by A.E. Housman—the poet and classical scholar who was once described by a colleague as “descended from a long line of maiden aunts,” and who feels weirdly like one of Merritt’s spiritual precursors—that begins:

When I was one-and-twenty
I heard a wise man say,
“Give crowns and pounds and guineas
But not your heart away…”

“No use to talk to me,” Housman says, and he was right. Poetry, like pop music or philosophy, is full of the sort of information that can’t be taught to us, but only recognized after we’ve learned it firsthand, and it can take a lifetime to tell the difference between its pretty fables and its most agonizing truths. Merritt’s music feels like two hundred ways of saying what Housman expresses in sixteen lines, and now that I’ve made it to the other side, I can only murmur: “And oh, ’tis true, ’tis true.”

Written by nevalalee

February 8, 2017 at 9:29 am

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