The curse of the love song

Imagine the love song were a person. She would be very old and very sad. And she would live in Portugal. But how would she feel about the work made in her name? Stephen Merritt, front man of the Magnetic Fields and writer of the hit album '69 Love Songs', travelled to Lisbon to find out
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Tour Diary: 11.1.01, Lisbon. We've just flown in from New York and the sun is rising. In my hotel room overlooking the Atlantic, I've been rifling through my bag of tour drugs, uppers and downers and sidewaysers; I popped a few, then read the label. Oops. Having nodded off for a moment, I open the window for some tiny flying horses, who remind me of an appointment downtown and whisk me off to a little café, Si Decidir, in the fado district. The proprietress is playing her fado guitar (a small 12-string tuned confusingly) and singing in an ancient, spectacularly sorrowful voice. The little horses explain that I am here to interview her, and that she is The Love Song, and show me how to work the tape recorder.

Tour Diary: 11.1.01, Lisbon. We've just flown in from New York and the sun is rising. In my hotel room overlooking the Atlantic, I've been rifling through my bag of tour drugs, uppers and downers and sidewaysers; I popped a few, then read the label. Oops. Having nodded off for a moment, I open the window for some tiny flying horses, who remind me of an appointment downtown and whisk me off to a little café, Si Decidir, in the fado district. The proprietress is playing her fado guitar (a small 12-string tuned confusingly) and singing in an ancient, spectacularly sorrowful voice. The little horses explain that I am here to interview her, and that she is The Love Song, and show me how to work the tape recorder.

Stephin Merritt: Are you really the Love Song? I pictured you as much older, you don't look a day over 99.

The Love Song: A fado singer never gives her age. She is too sad.

SM: I believe we spoke on the phone when I was writing the latest Magnetic Fields album, 69 Love Songs.

LS: There is only one Love Song.

SM: Well, yes, but...

LS: Memories of yesterday, they do not disturb my reverie. I am very old, as you can see, and names and faces go by without changing my mind. The young are all alike, you think you have something you can get me to say, always putting words in my mouth. But I will outlive you all, and forget you.

SM: Surely you remember Neil Hannon from the Divine Comedy, for whose delightful A Short Album About Love you were extensively consulted. Perhaps you remember Nick Cave's lecture album The Secret Life of the Love Song, on which he says, "The peculiar magic of the Love Song, if it has the heart to do it, is that it endures where the object of the song does not."

LS: I have many admirers who claim their songs are about their little fancy whores, when they are really singing about me and me alone. Poor little Nick, I remember him from The Boatman's Call.

SM: Actually, I interviewed him about that album, and he says it was written about one particular person, in the thick of a difficult ending. Like Marvin Gaye's album about his divorce.

LS: Too absurd. Nick called me every night, he would cry on the phone for hours and tell me I was the only one who really ever understood him. And yet he does like to pretend that there could be another Love Song, an imitation based on some floozy I never even met. There is only one of me, despite your 69 copies. There may not be much call for my services nowadays, since popular music is more concerned with young harlots and how to beat them up (no doubt they deserve it).

LS: You seem to be perhaps a little jealous of younger women...

LS: It is the young men, the songwriters. They say they are artistic and they don't want to be seen with me. They parade around with the young women like they were peacocks, but female peacocks are ugly and stupid and make always the same horrid bleating sound. Now who would write a song about that? When the men have had enough ugliness they come to me, usually through the back door at first. When they have known me for a time they are no longer perhaps so young, and they come to me because they need me, and I don't charge them any money, I don't cost anything, I am a person of great beauty who can be had for free. The young girls will have nothing to do with me, nor I with them. They are prostitutes, they need money, money, money for faster machines, for expensive hi-fi equipment, for nightclubs and the drugs they need to survive the nightclubs. The young think me simple but I have experience. I am pregnant with history, I can tell my lovers any story worth telling.

SM: So you're saying that instead of going out and buying expensive recording studios, and singing about nothing in particular, as rock boys will, that they could just, like, call you up and talk to you for a little while?

LS: I still have a house in Nashville, a relatively cheap phone call for you Americans. But the British never call me anymore, except for Neil and Nick of course, but then they're Irish and Australian. I was talking to Jarvis Cocker, feeding him some of my best stories, but then he went and made that pornography album. He's too good for me now, he thinks. He'll come back, they all do.

SM: When I interviewed Tom Lehrer, the American social satirist of song circa 1960, he said he couldn't listen to 69 Love Songs because the Love Song is a necessary evil but there should never be two in a row, and three in a musical is the limit.

LS: I never liked him, he only made fun of me. But then the homosexuals in general have either pretended to snub me, like Morrissey and Sondheim, or been my most vocal admirers, like Lorenz Hart and Cole Porter.

SM: And me?

LS: What was your name again?

SM: You seem to make a lot of people uncomfortable. By the way, is there any truth to the rumour that you have been having an affair with, of all people, Randy Newman?

LS: I try not to use a lot of words where only a few will do. It disarms people.

SM: Do you think that makes people uncomfortable? It can be difficult to hold up a conversation of any intelligence with someone who limits her answers to three little words.

LS: Not if those three words keep changing their meaning according to the context.

SM: You mean like, "Nobody loves me"; "I love you"; "You hate me"; " I love you"; "You love everybody"; "I love you"?

LS: Are you writing a song or doing an interview?

SM: Isn't writing a song always already an interrogation of previous texts, a curatorial activity more akin to collage than to painting, and any possible Love Song inherently a response to its own tradition, just like a person is, such that the Love Song writes itself before we do, each conceivable Love Song immanent in the available selection of historical ones, involving no reference to extratextual life as if such a thing could be?

LS: My detractors may accuse me of insincerity but there can be no truth value where there is no referent. My excuse is that I am absolute, abstract, an arrangement of my parts changing through time in an infinitely arbitrary manner if at all, and since I have been doing this for hundreds of centuries you may love me or leave me but don't try any funny business because two can play at that game.

SM: Is that a threat?

LS: Ian Curtis [from Joy Division] was cruel to me. No one does that for long.

SM: I have here a new book you might like, Reading Lyrics edited by Robert Gottlieb and Robert Kimball. It's a book of lyrics from the first two thirds of the last century, many involving yourself. One of them, "You Can't Get a Man With a Gun," by Irving Berlin, seems like an advertisement for you.

LS: Irving used to get me drunk and write down whatever I said. Don't you love, "A man never trifles /With gals who carry rifles, /Oh, you can't get a man with a gun?" That was mine. It has been said that the way to a man's heart is through me. And I never go armed in the street.

SM: Pesky interviewers keep asking me if the Love Song has declined because people no longer fall in love.

LS: But I don't care if they fall in love or not, it's certainly none of my business. Old ladies such as myself have a different attitude toward these things.

SM: But isn't love important to you?

LS: I couldn't care less. I have outlived it, and as Sondheim says, "First you're another sloe-eyed vamp, /Then someone's mother, then you're camp. /Then you career from career to career. /I'm almost through my memoirs, / And I'm here."

The Magnetic Fields play HQ Irish Music Hall of Fame, Dublin (00 35 31 889 9499), tonight; Hammersmith Lyric Theatre, W6 (020 8741 2311), 17-20 January. Their triple album, '69 Love Songs', is released by Circus Records

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