We lost Chuck Berry this month.
I’ve never been a fan of Elvis Presley, and whenever anyone would ask me who the real king of rock ‘n’ roll is, I wouldn’t hesitate to say Chuck Berry. Seeing Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll, the 1987 documentary that chronicles a pair of Berry concerts, was a big moment for me. While there are a lot of musicians who can rightly be called influential, Berry is one of the few whose impact cannot be overstated. I’m paraphrasing my friend Greg Boerner here: If you like rock music, of any stripe, you owe a debt to Chuck Berry. If you play rock music, of any stripe, you owe your career to Chuck Berry.
Believe it or not, Berry has a new album coming out, his first in 38 years. That’s almost as long as I’ve been alive. It was always intended to be his last, but sadly, Berry did not live to see it released. He died at age 90 at his home, leaving behind a legacy so indelible that generations of guitar players carry it on every time they play that fast, exciting sound he pioneered. Hail to the real king of rock ‘n’ roll. May he rest in peace.
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Berry’s death (and long life) offers a good opportunity to reflect on what we leave behind us, and how we deal with the inevitable end. If you’ve been reading for a while, you know I have a particular fascination with final records, particularly those made under the shadow of impending death. Last year gave us two incredible examples of this in David Bowie’s Blackstar and Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker, both difficult and bold final statements from artistic icons. And I am still captivated by Warren Zevon’s final days, and his final record, The Wind.
In truth, though, any artist’s latest work could be his or her last. Prince, for example, clearly did not intend Hit n Run Phase Two to be his last word, and it certainly isn’t a significant enough piece of his canon to shoulder that weight. Imagine if Johnny Cash’s last album had been Boom Chicka Boom, for example, instead of his extraordinary run of American Recordings. Imagine if Miles Davis had died with You’re Under Arrest, instead of swinging back with Tutu and Aura. Or imagine if he’d finished that final hip-hop-driven album, complete with Prince collaborations, instead of leaving us with the halfway glimpse that is Doo Bop. As Chuck Berry once said, you never can tell.
I wish no ill on Stephin Merritt, but if his new Magnetic Fields opus, 50 Song Memoir, sadly becomes his last, it would be a fine capper to his remarkable career. Merritt is a songwriter’s songwriter, a storyteller of breadth and depth that is much rarer now, certainly, than it used to be. Merritt sits comfortably in the lineage of masters like Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, encapsulating full-length novels into the barest few lines and writing love songs that contain whole worlds. He made his name with 69 Love Songs, a monolithic set that explored that much-maligned and yet ever-present form from every angle, and has kept up a steady stream of output (with the Fields and his other projects) since, all of it worth hearing.
But one thing he hasn’t done – in fact, one thing that has made him uncomfortable – until now is autobiography. Merritt is an observer and a tale-spinner, and his songs are rarely about him. 50 Song Memoir has a gimmick that’s just irresistible: Merritt, now 50, has written a song for each year of his life, and collected them on five CDs, one for each decade. It’s as delightful as it is unexpected, and it offers, for the first time, a real window into the man behind the music.
Of course, this is Stephin Merritt we’re talking about, so this isn’t straight “and then this happened” diary entry. It’s more oblique and artful, and Merritt can’t resist looking back at 50 and commenting here and there as well. Musically he incorporates influences from the decades he’s traversing – the ‘60s material brings in some psychedelia, and the ‘80s songs sound like ‘80s songs. But of course, the entire two-and-a-half-hour thing sounds like no one else but Merritt.
50 Song Memoir, then, is a collection of moments, each filtered through Merritt’s particular prism. The early songs are mainly memories – “Judy Garland” left an impression, as did “A Cat Named Dionysus” – but Merritt makes sure to include his conflicting religious impulses at age 9, on a song called “No.” It’s the album’s first stunner, showing how he came to rely on evidence and reject spirituality early. At age 11, Merritt ordered a record called “Hustle ‘76” off of the television, sparking his love of music, which he explores in “Rock ‘n’ Roll Will Ruin Your Life” (age 14) and “How to Play the Synthesizer” (age 16).
And even during his teenage years, he is unsparing with his mother and the succession of boyfriends and stepdads he grew up with. “Happy Beeping” is a frightening tale of abuse from age 17, and it sets up the difficult “Fathers in the Clouds” from age 34, and this couplet: “There’s a lie on my birth certificate, and the other guy would like me to change it, I’ve met each of them twice…” The teenage years are full of music and exploration – dancing to Ultravox on “Foxx and I,” going clubbing on “Danceteria” – while the twenties are full of sex (“Me and Fred and Dave and Ted”) and scraping by (“Haven’t Got a Penny”). The second and third discs here serve as a splendid portrait of what it was like to grow up gay in the ‘80s, with the specter of AIDS hanging over every encounter.
The fourth disc, detailing Merritt’s life from age 31 to 40, is the saddest. It even begins with a song called “I’m Sad,” and it includes a tribute to New York after 9/11 (“Have You Seen It in the Snow”) and a concluding trilogy about an ill-fated romance. (The second entry in that trilogy, “Cold-Blooded Man,” is one of the best songs here, and one of the harshest.) During these years Merritt moves from his beloved New York to Los Angeles, chasing after a boyfriend, and it’s a decision he comes to regret.
Thankfully, the final disc isn’t full of recriminations and regrets. It’s actually the most beautiful of the five, save for the opener, “Quotes,” an unleashed smack at irresponsible journalists. (Only Merritt would rhyme “speech defects” with “homosex” and then continue the word – “uality” – on the next line.) “You Can Never Go Back to New York” finds Merritt returning to his home and finding it wonderfully different, while “Big Enough for Both of Us” finds him falling in love again, and playing on our sense of double entendre to talk about his heart. “I Wish I Had Pictures” could have been the final track, as a 49-year-old Merritt looks back on his life wistfully: “I’m just a singer, it’s only a song, the things I remember are probably wrong, I wish I had pictures of every old day ‘cause all these old memories are fading away…”
But true to perverse form, Merritt chooses to end with “Somebody’s Fetish,” which sums up what he’s learned about love: there’s someone for everyone. “And I, even I, with my wildebeest’s face, my eccentricities and my freedom from grace, even for me has Cupid found a place,” he sings, and somehow he makes even his hangdog vocal style sound giddy here. It’s a quirky, beautiful thing, and it ends this memoir on a hopeful, joyous note.
The question everyone will ask is whether 50 Song Memoir is as good as 69 Love Songs, and I think that’s the wrong question. They’re very different works, despite being twin pillars of the Magnetic Fields catalog. I think 50 Song Memoir is the more significant achievement for this reclusive, reticent artist, giving us an extended look at his own life for the first time, and on his own terms. It’s quite a ride, and by the end you feel like you know Stephin Merritt, finally, as more than just a clever, sad songwriter. That’s worth a million love songs to me. 50 Song Memoir is a treasure, and I’m glad both of us lived long enough to see it happen.
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As Mark Twain once said, though, the trouble with stories is that if you keep them going long enough they always end in death. That’s something my friend Noah Gabriel knows well. He’s dedicated his new album (his tenth!), Dead Reckoning, to an extended reflection on life’s inevitable end, and in the process he’s shed the blues-rock style he’s worked hard to establish, both on his own and with his band, Noah’s Arcade. In its place he’s spun a moody web of subtle sounds, and over 32 minutes those sounds will wrap you up and carry you along.
Dead Reckoning is split into two sides. On the first, Gabriel writes from the perspective of someone on his deathbed, staring down eternity. He does so with his usual straightforward language, and it’s heartbreaking. “Jericho Walls” finds our character wondering if he will weigh down those he’s leaving behind, and on “Temporary State” he curses whatever disease has left him where he is: “God damn this temporary state, each day the hollows they wait, God damn this restless mind of mine, got me doing time…” He wrestles with belief throughout these songs, noting that “everybody’s born destined for the dirt” on “Heavy” but holding out hope on “Invitation”: “If heaven is a promise, I hope it never breaks, I hope to find it open when I reach the gates…”
Death comes on “Damage Been Done,” and it’s tough to listen to: “I hear the beat of the angel’s wings, come to take me home, rest with me here, child, can’t you see the damage been done…” This is Gabriel’s most emotionally resonant material ever, and the 18 minutes of side one play like a single piece, setting a mood and seeing it through. “Heavy” feels like an extended introduction to “Invitation,” and I mean that in the best way – when the drums crash in on the latter track, it feels like a chapter turning, like a journey moving on. And “Damage Been Done” is a powerful, sparse conclusion.
Side two, then, approaches death from the other side, from the point of view of people watching a loved one slip away. “Fast Train” feels somewhat disconnected from the rest, though it provides a two-minute burst of strums and drums that is much needed at the halfway point of this record. But the next three songs explore Gabriel’s theme thoroughly. “Far From Home” finds him wishing he could hold on to his loved ones as they go: “Through worried eyes I watched you try, you gave and I prayed but you couldn’t stay, I gave all my love…” “Midnight Blue” is like a lullaby, but one full of dread and longing: “And we both know the sun, it couldn’t come too soon…”
And “Shine,” the final song (save for a bookending instrumental), hearkens back to the spirituality of the first side, Gabriel’s character recovering from his loved one’s death and promising to make the most of life. “I know there’s something more than living, I know there’s reason for the rhyme, life is love and love is giving, so now I’m giving in to shine…” It’s a hopeful finish to what is basically a half-hour of mourning, and it’s the closest thing here to Gabriel’s usual style – he sounds like he’s coming alive at the end, soaring guitar solos and all. It’s really the best message anyone could take from an album about death – in the words of Warren Zevon, enjoy every sandwich.
You can buy Dead Reckoning from Noah here. Be sure to check out that great cover by Aurora artist Chris Hodge.
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This one ran long, so I’m going to save the First Quarter Report until next time. Speaking of next time, I have Aimee Mann’s new one to talk about, as well as a few others. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.