On February 9th 2016, Stephin Merritt, the man who is The Magnetic Fields, sat down and wrote a song. The day was his 50th birthday and there were 49 more songs to follow, one for every year of his life on earth so far. Released in March this year as The 50 Song Memoir album, it’s an autobiographical concept album that tells an entertaining story both musically and lyrically. As part of the Melbourne Festival, Merritt and his band, opened the book of memories and in the first of two nights at Hamer Hall, proceeded to regale and beguile the audience with musical tales from the first half of his life. The 25 songs presented Saturday night were played in two halves, with intermission in between. With a stage set resembling a lounge room, Merritt sat atop a stool in what gave the illusion of a bay window. The 6 other musicians making up the band were arced around the outside of the house as if peering through the windows and getting a glimpse of the life lived so far. We the audience were given an open view – a view into Merritt’s and our own lives so far in that a lot of what he was telling us I’m sure many could relate to. I know I did at least. Hanging from the rafters was what could be seen as a picture frame or maybe a mirror, displaying visual descriptors of the songs.
Merritt is one of the most prolific and clever lyricists around having written as many as 350 songs. The songs, taking the form of rhyming verse, are wordy yet concise with quirky melodies punctuating the engrossing, engaging and often hilarious stories. As a companion to the 50 Song Memoir, Merritt read from what appeared to be a big book as an introduction to each piece, as song by song each year unfolded with a new adventure. What an action packed life he’s had so far! He’s had a cat called Dionysus that hated him for locking him up in his toy box, he’s thought about being reincarnated as a cockroach, he’s followed his mother through countless moves, religions and cults – although she did draw the line at Crystal Healing as outlined in song ‘My Mama Ain’t’. We heard how he stayed up late watching tv in ‘Hustle ‘76’ and subsequently ordered the compilation album of the same name (which he informed us actually never arrived!). He started his first band in ‘The Blizzard of ‘78’ and got big laughs from the line “At rehearsal we made The Shaggs sound like Yes”. The audience was clearly on his wavelength. Musically, the live band brought the songs to life flawlessly. Consisting of collaborators Shirley Simms, Chris Ewen, Pinky Weitzman, Anthony Kaczynski, Susanna Porte and Quince Marcum, they each are multi instrumentalists covering strings, percussion, backing vocals, horns, guitars, ukes, keys and synths, and proved to be an extremely tight unit. The sounds reflected musical phases in Merritt’s life and were complemented by the amazing visual projections and lighting design. These phases included rock n roll, glam and indie pop rock from the likes of Eddie Cochran, Alice Cooper and The Beat Happening, with the songs ‘Rock n Roll Will Ruin Your Life’ and ‘Why I Am Not A Teenager’. His hero worship of English new wave/synth pop icon John Foxx in ‘Foxx and I’ was openly recognized and even his time on the NYC club scene with ‘Danceteria!’ where he swears he only ever paid to get in once.
The penultimate song ‘The 1989 Musical Marching Zoo’ marked the formation of The Magnetic Fields. Hard to believe that with everything we’d just heard chronicling the 23 years leading up to this that Merritt’s life had room for anything else! The visual projections for the final song in this first chapter of the book, ‘Tetris’ saw me reliving endless road trips in a touring band with my Gameboy at the ready in the back seat of a Tarago. I’m sure many in the audience of a certain vintage could relate to my anxiety of not being able to control the falling bricks on the screen! This show in a word was spectacular. It was so jam packed full of material that illuminated the senses I think most people would have left feeling super inspired – I know I did. Bring on night 2 to see what the songs of the next 25 years of Stephin Merritt’s life reveal!
The Magnetic Fields play part 2 of the 50 Song Memoir with songs 26-50 tonight at Hamer Hall.
Ps. Thanks to some slight technical problems with the monitors after intermission, I learnt some pretty funny jokes too – I will leave you with this one courtesy of Violinist Pinky Weitzman – a man walks into a psychiatrist’s office wearing nothing but Glad Wrap around him. Shrink says ‘I can clearly see you’re nuts!’