Some 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.”