I saw the Magnetic Fields last night, at the Herbst Theater in San Francisco. It was a great show, a good mix of old and new material, and I always love the differences between the live and recorded versions. Every time I see them live, the older material gets slower and sadder, I think--it's not as though "Lovers From the Moon" was ever a peppy song, but it was outright mournful last night. (And, as so often happens to me, watching Sam Davol made me wish I knew how to play the cello, but that's neither here nor there.) Throughout the show, though, I kept thinking about my own history with this music. It's not that I think I have any kind of indie-pop cool-kid cred here--kind of the opposite, actually. But I ran into one of my students in the lobby, before the show, and that somehow got me thinking about how long I've been listening to this band, how many other memories and stories are all tied up in that history.
My first exposure to the Magnetic Fields didn't take, actually. It was freshman year in college, when I made an unsuccessful attempt at being a college radio DJ. "All the Umbrellas in London" was in the "heavy rotation / new singles" bin at the station, but I only listened to it once or twice, and never played it on air. Our college radio station, WHRB, had (probably still has?) a very competitive selection and training process (called "comp"), and the year I went through it, our comp directors were two guys with, er, prickly personalities. They were very self-assured, very aggressive about their opinions, and absolutely scornful of any music that wasn't sufficiently hardcore. I learned a lot during that comp--I learned about the history of punk and hardcore, I learned a lot of gossip about the Lemonheads, I learned how to operate studio equipment, I learned that you couldn't count on the jazz DJs to show up for their 5am shifts, and I learned that the comp directors would shout you into the ground if you expressed a serious interest in indie pop.
I'm pretty sure that it was "100,000 Fireflies," on a mix-tape from a friend, that made me a fan. Everything accelerated from there. Music is such a social experience, and most of my college friends liked the Magnetic Fields; I owned a few CDs, but even if I hadn't, the music was somehow just always there.
At some point, and I'm trying to pin down when, a group of us went to see them play at Smith. Eight or nine people in two cars, driving out from Cambridge to Northampton. This was close to ten years ago, and I remember it in a series of vivid fragments. The show itself was in a ballroom or gym space, upstairs at the student center, I think? We all sat on the floor, and the stage was only a foot or two raised off the ground. The opening acts were all student bands, and one of them kept shorting out their lighting setup, all bright flashes and popping noises before everything went dark. There was a band whose entire set consisted of electric guitar feedback and a woman screaming near a microphone. The show itself felt perfect, not because it was smooth and polished but because it was immediate and idiosyncratic. Stephin agreed to a request from the audience for a song that Claudia had forgotten how to play. Claudia made a few hesitant jokes about Smith College, something about whether they were more likely to find copies of On Our Backs or Off Our Backs in the green room. Stephin went out into the audience and sang "Josephine" as a serenade to someone. This was a few months before 69 Love Songs came out, so when they played "Come Back from San Francisco", I'd never heard it before, but it stayed with me for days. (It wouldn't be until months later, listening to the new album over and over again at work, that I caught the double edge to the lyrics--"you need me like the wind needs the trees ... like the moon needs poetry, you need me.") I remember the drive home, too, watching the Massachusetts Turnpike speed past the window in the darkness, before drifting off to sleep in the backseat.
69 Love Songs was an -event-. No matter how many times I listened to it, I found something new, something particularly lovely or clever or funny or sad. We all sent email back and forth for days, making lists of our favorites. (I mentioned this in my online journal at the time, which led to my being interviewed by a reporter for the London Sunday Times Magazine. I've still got a copy of the article, I was so excited.) A while later--a few months? a year? the chronology is fuzzy--the whole group of us saw them at the Middle East in Cambridge, maybe a Valentine's Day show? All the singers from 69 Love Songs were there, too, and the stage was so crowded, all the people and the instruments and equipment all jammed up together, the singers perched on little stools. We were all up in front, right near the stage. During the encore, Stephin brought his dog out on stage with him, a little chihuahua named Irving. He asked us all to be very quiet, because Irving was afraid of crowds. I don't remember the song, but it was something Stephin sang all by himself, just him and Irving at a microphone in the middle of the stage. No matter how quiet we were, Irving still got scared, and he started shaking and whimpering. Stephin, without even a tiny hitch in the song, turned the dog around so that he couldn't see us, and then slowly tucked the dog under his shirt until the song was over.
Last night, Stephin Merritt explained his current theory on audience interaction. "The audience doesn't... speak... [long pause] ... English. There are some cognates, it might sound like they understand you, but they don't. That's why you don't answer them when they talk to you." Daniel Handler, filling in on accordion for a few songs, engaged us all in some audience participation during one of the songs from the Series of Unfortunate Events soundtrack. He asked us all to make pounding noises with our feet when the song tells us to run away, and to slump over in our seats when the song warns us we might die. The people sitting in front of me, a group of highly stylized twentysomething hipsters, were the most enthusiastic pounders and slumpers in our section. Before the show, watching this group file into their seats, I couldn't help smiling. They looked so familiar, cats-eye glasses, an army jacket with a patch of the East German flag, aggressively cultivated sideburns, corduroy skirts and retro blouses. They looked like people I used to know. "I feel old," was what I said to the friend I was there with, but I'm not sure it's what I meant. The sound on the new album is full of production and echo (there's a reason it's called Distortion), but when they played those songs onstage, just piano, cello, ukelele, and guitar, they didn't sound that different from the older songs. Years go by, and everything changes, but it's all just pieces of the same whole. That's what it felt like, pieces of the same whole.