Unrequited Love

Andrew Hultkrans on Rick Moody and Stephin Merritt

New York

Left: Stephin Merritt and Rick Moody. Right: Stephin Merritt. (Photos: Jennifer Snow)

The Book of Love is long and boring; its author’s voice is deep and deadpan. So learned Rick Moody and assembled throng at the 92nd Street Y on Monday night, when Stephin Merritt—indie rock’s Cole Porter—discussed his lyrics. The notoriously laconic, impressively prolific songwriter for the Magnetic Fields, the 6ths, the Gothic Archies, Future Bible Heroes, and other projects, Merritt doesn’t enjoy being interviewed—or, rather, enjoys pretending that he doesn’t enjoy being interviewed. Moody, a novelist and memoirist, wants Merritt to acknowledge an autobiographical, emotional force behind his lyrics, particularly those from the three-volume Magnetic Fields opus 69 Love Songs; Merritt—perhaps thinking “Um, cabaret? The Apple? Postmodernism? Hello?”—dodges, refuses, and glares at Moody as if he were Zebulon from Galaxy X. Both men wear hats.

Here are the details: Moody emerges onstage and delivers a long, immensely flattering introduction of “the best songwriter of his generation.” He mentions that his first encounter with Merritt’s talents was through the 6ths’ Wasps’ Nests (a synth-pop hootenanny) and, to indicate Merritt’s fluidity with genre, that he’d seen him play Erik Satie on marimba at the SculptureCenter. With that, Merritt appears—tan suit, newsboy cap—and unceremoniously plunks himself down. He says his first memories are of songs, starting at age three. At age nine, he composed a song called “What Do You Do When There’s Nothing to Do?” “It was dull,” he adds. He writes melodies in his head and lyrics in a little black book, often in the corner of a bar. If he arrives at a rhyme scheme too complex for a whole song, he’ll make it the bridge of another song. He sent 69 Love Songs to Tom Lehrer and received the reply “That’s sixty-seven too many,” along with an admonishment for his “avant-garde arrangements.” These answers are patiently extracted from Merritt like impacted wisdom teeth.

Needing a rest, Moody asks Merritt to play a song. It is the mordant, gorgeous “Aging Spinsters,” rendered tonight on ukulele. Afterward, Merritt pours himself a tumbler of Chivas Regal, says “Alcohol,” and offers Moody a drink, which is declined. Merritt asks why; Moody says, “Stephin, I’d be happy to talk about that later” and counters with the lyrics-as-autobiography gambit. Merritt is as squirmy with this question as Moody was with the last, but allows that “Aging Spinsters” was at least biography—written as a bit of friendly revenge on a friend, who, if you know the song, did eventually marry. Asked if he prefers limitations on his subject matter, Merritt, sounding like Leonard Cohen on screw juice, replies, “If the Ostrich Board asked me for a concept album about ostriches, I’d say, ‘Great!’”

Moody gamely continues, only to have Merritt, several times, ask him to repeat easily understood words. Moody apologizes for his lockjaw; Merritt says it’s because he can only hear his echo. As he pulls what sounds like a bottle of pills out of his jacket, Merritt says, “Everything profound is already a cliché.” Glossing the weird pill situation, Moody says, “We’re having a health-and-beauty moment here.” Merritt clarifies: “Commit lozenges.” Moody asks for one, hesitates, then asks what’s in them. “Nicotine, calcium . . .” The novelist waves them away. Merritt steadfastly refuses to say whether his love songs are genuine, describing 69 Love Songs as a “textual cloud.” Moody: “Wow.” By way of illustration, Merritt notes that there are two songs called “The Best of My Love.” He sings a bit of the disco one, then asks the audience who sang it. “The Emotions,” someone shouts. “Yeah,” sighs Merritt. The crowd laughs, nervously.

Merritt sings “The Book of Love,” accompanied by his ukulele. Moody mentions that the song was performed at his own wedding. Does this please Merritt? [Deeply uncomfortable silence] Moody elaborates, “Didn’t it come from a powerful emotional force?” [More silence, glaring] “The song,” Merritt says, “is about a powerful emotional force—the power of cliché. Strange thing to have at your wedding.” They argue about Meat Loaf. I want to crawl under my chair. Moody steers him back to lyrics. “Good lyrics make crap poetry,” Merritt says, “except Sondheim.” Does he have any guilty musical pleasures? “Why should I feel guilty about liking a song?” He explains he has a “clinical attitude” about melody, enjoying “Deutschland über alles” while being repelled by its politics. Is he influenced by poets? “No,” Merritt says, “It’s a different art. I wouldn’t be influenced by sculpture either—except for Duchamp’s readymades.” The authenticity flag is bravely floated. “It’s authentically music. I’m authentically singing.” Send in the clowns.