Friday, March 12th, 2010

The Magnetic Fields: Live At Town Hall, New York City, March 11, 2010

This picture is actually from Seattle, but there was not a whole lot of difference last night, lemme tell yaSome historical perspective: A long time ago there was a magazine called CMJ New Music Monthly which came with a CD offering 15 or so recent tracks from generally obscure bands that pretentious young white people like myself favored back in the days when this nation was so carefree that its biggest obsession centered around a figure skater and her skeevy boyfriend who had attacked a rival figure skater and her friend Ron Goldman. Or something. Anyway, CMJ New Music Monthly was pretty great, because back before the Internet you had to rely on your friends or your local college radio station to find out about new bands, which was fine in theory except sometimes your friends tried to get you into shit like Infectious Grooves and the DJs at most college radio stations were unbearable because they affected these terribly desperate airs of terminal hipness even though, come on, you're a fucking DJ at a college radio station, the only thing that could make you less cool is if you wrote for the newspaper. So sometimes the system broke down. And that's why we were happy to have CMJ, even though it was kind of expensive and that one time they included that Youssou N'Dour collaboration with Neneh Cherry you kind of got the feeling they were doing it because they thought they were supposed to and not because they were super into it.

Anyway, at some point in 1994 I scrounged together some singles (which is what we used to call one dollar bills back when they were good for anything) and got the latest CMJ. The disc included the track "Strange Powers," by a band called the Magnetic Fields, of whom I had not previously heard. It knocked me sideways. I mean, immediately, I was like, "This is a sound I need in my life from now on." I went down to my local record store (an amazing place called Waterloo Records; younger readers and Awl publisher David Cho are probably not familiar with the concept of the "record store," but they were these terrific shops that had physical inventory on the premises for you to peruse and sometimes even listening centers where you could hear a record before you decided whether or not you'd buy it; to learn more about record stores, you can read a terrific novel from the 20th century called High Fidelity by Nick Hornby) looking for Holiday, the album from which the song came, but it was on an obscure label called Feel Good All Over and they had to "special order" it for me, which was something else record stores did a hundred years ago. They did, however, have a copy of another Magnetic Fields album called Charm of the Highway Strip, which I immediately bought, and by the time the folks at Waterloo finally called me four weeks later to let me know Holiday had arrived, I had LIVED with Charm in a way you only can when you have not yet fully become an adult, to the point where all my friends were like, "I'll drive, because if we go in Balk's car we're going to have to listen to that DRONY MOTHERFUCKER with the suicide voice," which is true because that was pretty much all I played but also worked out well because even back then I liked to drink a lot so it was nice to know that basically I would be able to get hammered that night and not have to worry about transportation. Anyway, Holiday came and I did the exactly same thing I had done with Charm which was listened to the fuck out of it.

I had no idea who Stephin Merritt or any of the other band members were, and because they didn't get a lot of coverage in Spin or Rolling Stone, which were the Time and Newsweek of music magazines back in an era when being Time or Newsweek (or Spin or Rolling Stone) actually meant something to music (or magazines, or the wider culture), I didn't learn a whole lot more about them. A couple of years later, having moved back to New York, I was in the HMV, a new chain record store that had a pretty good selection of imports (which is what we used to call records that were difficult to obtain because they came from other countries; can you imagine?) and they had a new record from the band called Get Lost that I had no idea had come out but did not seem to be available in domestic form, at least at that particular HMV, so I shelled out for the French version (which, it turned out, had a different sequence, something strange that record labels used to do back when anyone actually paid attention to the running order of albums). It was a very different sounding record from Holiday and Charm: fuller, less machiney. And while it didn't capture my heart the way the previous two did-and, really, how could it? You can only develop those kind of affections for a certain amount of time, and after that things just become preference-it was still pretty excellent. At some point after that I saw in the listings section of the New York Press-an alternative newspaper (and this may require the greatest feat of imagination of all on your part, young folks) that was actually quite vibrant and amusing at the time, even though half the jokes were of the button-pushing, "Hahahaha, you care about poor people, fuck you, loser!" variety-that the band was playing at Brownie's, an old club with terrible acoustics on Avenue A-and this is JUST when that street had pretty much lost its edge because all of the white people who had moved down there to shoot heroin had wised up and decided that they could sell more records by doing rockabilly and Elvis impressions-that subsequently became a bar called HiFi. The band went on late, and Merritt was still drinking at the bar when his drummer Claudia Gonson yelled at him to get on the fucking stage already. I had never seen him before. He was TINY. I'm not sure how I ever pictured that disembodied voice, but it wasn't that guy. Kind of shocking, really. Anyway, they did a cover of "Bela Lugosi's Dead" that night, and Merritt and Gonson had pretty much already established the stage patter that you see today, although he was a lot drunker then.

Then 69 Love Songs happened, and all of a sudden they were no longer my band, which was a stupid way to think about a group that I first learned about from the pages of a magazine that wound up inspiring the bowel-evacuatingly irritating music festival that plagues this city once a year, but we all have these ideas of "ownership" over certain things we love. Whatever, I was old enough at that point that I was happy for them. I wanted more people to hear them. I'm glad they got big. Or, you know, "big." Watching them last night at Town Hall it was hard not to reflect on the fact that pretty soon it will be 20 years since I first heard of the band. Things change, I guess. Anyway, they put on a really great show. If you were there, maybe you heard me. I was the jackass who yelled "wooo" every time Gonson said, "This next song is from Charm of the Highway Strip."

37 Comments / Post A Comment

Oh, CMJ New Music Monthly. So many memories. I think that was how I first heard Uncle Tupelo?

And the show was so fantastic. Sigh.

Miles (#3,961)

I was at the March 10th show! It was great, and my first time seeing them, despite being a fan since Holiday. My friend said the set was the same as it was at BAM a few weeks ago: got to hear Fear of Trains (my favorite track), I Don't Really Love You Anymore, and You and Me and the Moon. Really great time, though the seats at Town Hall at excruciating for someone of even average height.

Miles Klee (#3,657)

dude my name is also miles and i was also at the 3/10 show and i was also uncomfortable in my seat! we should have high-fived!

Miles Klee (#3,657)

p.s. 100,000 fireflies was a perfect ending and all the umbrellas in london annihilated me

i got kinda choked up during 'looking for love (in the hall of mirrors)' last night, myself. (obligatory raving about the amazingness of amelia fletcher goes here.)

Miles (#3,961)

Hells yes! Men Named Miles solidarity, brother!

All the Umbrellas in London fucking wrecked me, too. So much better than the album version. And Shirley owned Fear of Trains.

Chris Conroy (#3,983)

I HEARD YOU SHOUTING "WOO" AND I WAS LIKE "I LOVE THAT GUY." I too was excited by three songs from HIGHWAY, especially since one was "Fear Of Trains," but was sad that none of them were "Born On A Train."

LondonLee (#922)

"all of a sudden they were no longer my band, which was a stupid way to think about a group"

Stupid yes, but we all do it.

Especially if you're the bass player.

I think of the awl as my blog.

mathnet (#27)


jolie (#16)


maebefunke (#154)

Back before the Recession, and when print media was only on its second or third heart attack, a young friend of mine had what was referred to as an "internship" at CMJ.

He now teaches English to immigrant junior high punks (edgy!) in France, a country that still has some money left to pay people for "jobs."

HiredGoons (#603)

I remember when Stephin (that's right, Balk) used to DJ on Mondays at Beauty Bar. I miss that.

Did he really move to LA?

Alex Balk (#4)

Gah, thanks. Although if that's the ONLY typo in there I'm amazed.

Miles (#3,961)

He didn't move to LA; still downtown.

HiredGoons (#603)

Oh good. I thought it may have been because his chihuahua couldn't take the winters anymore.

Aww, Balk. You made me smile.

HiredGoons (#603)

Savor it.

Alex Balk (#4)

He's right. Who knows when it will ever happen again?

Pretty much just switch "The Magnetic Fields" and "CMJ" in this article for DJ Quikand "The Source", and you have my formative years.

hman (#53)

I first saw them a long time ago at Fletcher's in Baltimore, and last saw them when they played Lincoln Center in 2002(?) – and like you, felt like I was 'losing' them, but now I can't be happier.

Also, some people were DJs at their college station AND wrote for the paper.

I was there last night.

1) Wish they'd played more from Distortion.
2) I talked to Paul Rudd at the merch table.

Very enjoyable show.

Alex Balk (#4)

Hahaha, everyone I talked to during the break did the [head bowed, low tone] "Paul Rudd is RIGHT THERE."

Must be big Clueless fans.

Tablefornone (#3,264)

It's too bad he's such an insufferable douche. But I guess the best artists are.

barnhouse (#1,326)

You guys had Paul Rudd? We had Christina Hendricks.

Daniel Sargeant (#3,989)

Austin, Balk?

Tulletilsynet (#333)

I am SO GRATEFUL for this post, after just having read (my slavish brand loyalty to the Awl's business model overpowering all other motivations) an extended dialogue by Choire & Natasha (+ 91 relatively long comments) about a video by a dance-track diva, who both interlocutors cheerfully agreed was not very good as either a singer or an actress. But who was nevertheless somehow worth their intelligent and enthusiastic attention.

So it's nice to read something about music where it somehow matters whether the music was any good.

Bittersweet (#765)

Isn't it great that both can be covered so thoughtfully here? Every now and then people want to take a break from mumbling and gazing at shoes and jump up and down shouting nonsense…

ow that hurt (#3,919)

My older sister gave me "the Wayward Bus" when I was younger; of course it meant I could never again relate to normal people in the everyday world.

Which was exactly what I needed at the time

Clip Arthur (#2,024)

Truth be told the Magnetic Fields were my clarifying moment that snapped me out of the slavish world of indie-rock and back into the more true-at least for me-world of liking things because I like them. Which is all to say, I don't think I'll ever understand what the big deal is surrounding them: Twee songs filtered through old-school songwriting mentality. The description of this performance just grates me. And if you like it, hey more power to you. Just there is something cultish about these folks.

PS: Also, while Sasha Frere Jones presented the concept of Stephin Merritt being a closeted racist in such a ham-fisted way, I personally agree with the sentiment. I really can't think of an indie rocker who personifies all that's wrong with indie rock (and yes, the subtle racism in it) more than Stephin Merritt.

Flashman (#418)

Here's how I discovered the Magnetic Fields.
In the spring of 1995 I was pulling an all-nighter, working on some architecure project and listening to CBC's Brave New Waves. I heard this amazing sound coming out of the radio and as soon as Brent Banbury announced who this was I wrote their name down on the closest piece of paper handy (the cover of a Harper's magazine; the ink smeared on the glossy paper). I looked all over Montreal – Dutchies, HMV, L'echange.. – for any of their music but found nothing. But I did not forget.
Fast forward a few months to my summer job, which was teaching rock climbing and paddling at the Outward Bound Wilderness School deeep in the boreal forest 3 hours north of Thunder Bay, Ontario. Despite already having a fairly steady girlfriend, who disastrously was also an instructor at the school but not there for these few months, I started dating (much as you can in such a place) Georgia, the assistant cook (whose father, incidentally, was the producer of those Degrassi TV programmes). We considered ourselves pretty urbane, bohemian types, and when we both lined up a few days off, we decided to drive down to Duluth Minnesota to enjoy a bit of civilization. (This was only possible because a guy who we'd only known for about 2 weeks volunteered to *lend us* his Ford Festiva; this is the kind of good person who works for Outward Bound)
So off we went on our adventure, down route 66 – stopping to pose for pictures beside the highway marker; stopping to skinny dip further down – to Duluth, and it really was a lovely little place, the mythical small town USA. It was plenty funky – something about the place reminded me of a Daniel Pinkwater novel – but having had this taste of urban life we wanted more. Why not keep on going, all the way to Minneapolis? So clear out of the woods and out into the prairie we went, and had one fabulous day exploring the Toronto-esque Twin Cities. Eventually, en-route to a movie (Crumb, I think) on Hennipin Avenue we found this wicked record store, and there, lo and behold was the record I'd been searching for: Magnetic Fields 'Charm of the Highway Strip'.
We headed back north that night, and while Georgia slept I put the CD into the ghetto blaster that was sitting on the back seat, and as you've probably guessed the experience of listening to it for the first time, there, driving through the night on Route 66, had quite some impact. One song in particular seemed to speak right to me – 'Two Characters in Search of A Country Song', and it's line about 'just make believe they're so in love.' I realized right then and there that I really didn't like this girl so much, we'd been getting on each other's nerves already, and the stress that resulted that night from not finding a motel room and having to stay up all night, catching a few miserable hours of sleep in that tiny car made things much worse. I think we broke up pretty soon after we got back to camp.

whoneedslight (#758)

I still have close to 30 CMJ discs. Whatever happened to Knapsack?

A Snood Mood (#1,737)

And here I thought I couldn't love Balk more.

Charm Of The Highway Strip is a great album from top to bottom, but I only like Strange Powers and Swinging London of off Holiday.

A Snood Mood (#1,737)

Aaaaaand a typo the very first time I bat my eyelashes at Balk. Figures.

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