It was The Magnetic Fields, a band with a major following and a concept album, 69 Love Songs, that was a critical and (relatively) popular success when it came out in 1999 and still is much respected and loved. I found out about them only a couple years ago while visiting the Silver Sparrow Designs blog, where Kristi (a wonderful silversmith) always has a playlist going. There I heard the haunting song "All My Little Words" for the first time, and my fandom began. The internet makes it so easy to immerse yourself in an enthusiasm, and before too long I owned several CDs and knew that Stephin Merritt, the founder and songwriter, is often called the lyricist of his generation, with a prolific output and multiple side projects going, including soundtracks, to keep up with his vast creativity. He's also a famous downer. I've watched hours of videos and have seen him smile exactly once. Interviews with Stephin Merritt look painful for all involved. He resembles no one more than Eeyore. Not surprisingly perhaps, the man writes loves songs that will break your heart, but he's also so funny. And clever. Wicked clever.
When I heard about the concert, it had been awhile since I'd gone on a Fields jag, so it was easy to tell myself I could skip the show when my usual concert partner wasn't overly interested. But earlier this week, I listened to their music while I worked and sought out concert videos on YouTube. From those, I got the impression that the band performs accoustically, with pared down arrangements of their songs, which only made me more interested, since I could often live without the synthesizers he frequently uses. The comments with the videos, about how great the live shows were, also intrigued me. Dang, I really wanted to see them now.
So around 6:00 pm the night of the show, I decided I was going. By myself. It was sold out (yay, Philly!), so I found a ticket on Craigs List, changed my clothes (didn't even have time for a shower), and set forth on my solo adventure. I'd been to the venue once before, and I figured if I got there early, I could stand along a rail and watch in singledom anonymity and comfort. Shortly after 7:00, on what was an unseasonably warm evening, I was about 10th in line to get in (behind two other people who'd come alone, which heartened me). When the doors opened at 8:00, I went straight to the bar, got a stiff drink, and then staked out my spot in a slightly elevated "fenced in" zone off to the side and back about 30 feet from the stage. I got a corner spot that projected out onto the floor (ie, not stuck along the wall), which was just perfect, and I was soon joined by a couple from DC and their teenaged daughter, who were seeing the band for what the man estimated as the 10th time. Also encouraging: mature people, bonafide nonhipsters, who were nearing a dozen shows. This could be good. I chatted with them a little as the crowd settled in and between songs by the opening act.
The place had really filled up by 9:30 or so, and right before the Magnetic Fields took the stage, I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to find a woman smiling at me. She said, "Are you a fan?" I said, "Yeah, that's why I'm here" (probably not as friendly as I should have, but it seemed like a dumb question), and she said, "I'm Stephin Merritt's mother!" Yowza. I imagine there were fans in this audience who would have immediately dropped to one knee and genuflected when confronted with his mom, such is the esteem in which Mr Merritt is held, but I was just surprised that she was talking to me. Which should clue you in on how great this spot was that I'd staked out. I'm certain that she was making friends so she could horn in on it, which I totally let her do, because Mother Mary does not get turned away. But first I introduced her to my DC neighbors, since I figured with their long-time fandom, they deserved to meet The Man's mother more than I did, and I was happy to share.
Wish I could tell you that I made sparking conversation with her and we traded emails, but that's not really how it went. We chatted for a few minutes before they started to play and then around some songs, mostly me asking her questions like "Has his voice been like that ever since puberty?" (he has a remarkably deep baritone), when what I really wanted to ask was "Why did you spell Stephin with an i?" and "So what makes him smile?" Just having her beside me -- Stephin Merritt's mom! -- made the show feel much more personal, like I had a stake in it. After a few songs, I said truly insipid things like "He's sooo clever!" and "You must be so proud!", but what mother tires of hearing that, so I guess that's okay, especially since I was sincere -- his is clever and she should be proud. After the show she was happy to pose with me for a photo and I wished her well. I also told her that I had not seen a Philadelphia audience behave so well during a concert in a long time (it was actually quiet during the songs, which never happens anymore; most concertgoers act like they're in their own living rooms and talk or sing along too loudly). I was hoping she'd pass that on to her son.
|Alex Merritt and I|
The concert itself was just a delight. Five musicians on five acoustic instruments -- piano, ukelele, guitar, cello, and what I was told was a mouth organ (this was Stephin's; it was sort of like a tabletop accordian that he could also blow into through a tube; weird but wonderful, like the Fields themselves). I liked everything they played, even songs I was completely unfamiliar with. And the songs that were already favorites they knocked out of the park, mostly because they did them with minimal fanfare and maximal impact. Stephin's performance of one of their most popular songs, "The Book of Love" (Peter Gabriel covered it), left me misty-eyed, and when I turned to look at his mother, she had crossed her hands over her heart in emotion. (My insightful comment to her at that point: "Just wow.") The night before Philly, they played in Hudson, New York, and several videos from that show have been posted on YouTube, so I can see that the two shows were very similar. This song was a nice moment in both Hudson and Philly (Stephin doesn't sing it on the 69 Loves Songs version). I'm hoping a few more faves make it to You Tube, like "Grand Canyon," perhaps the saddest love song in the fewest words that I know. Here's a version of it from an older concert.
See, doesn't he look like Eeyore?
So, to sum: I decided to go see live music alone for the first time ever, and because I was in a good spot (only because I planned it that way since I went alone), I got to have an encounter with the mother of a figure I admire. Alex Merritt was with the band, and because I was standing with her, I felt a bit like I was too. It made the experience that much more vivid and enjoyable for me. Moral of the story: Once in a while, do something that scares you a little but that intrigues you even more. It could pay off.