Nightclubbing with Stephin Merritt

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The American singer-songwriter behind The Magnetic Fields has written an epic musical autobiography – 50 Song Memoir. Four of the songs document his unique relationship with nightlife in London and New York City

Stephin Merritt by Marcelo Krasilcic

I was in London in the summer of 1980 and I was 15 and people were dressing as pirates …

’80 London by Jetpack
London by jetpack: it can be done
What we spend on fuel, we’ll make in film
From the ICA to Abbey Road in seconds
On high rooftops we’ll dance the twist
I spent August in London when the New Romantics reigned
And though I was oblivious then
My love has never waned

From what I could tell, reading The Face and i-D, even people of my age were participating in the costume revolution. I remember seeing it as a premonition, and thinking that in the future everyone would look a lot more hip. But actually everyone is a lot less hip now. I reference Vivienne Westwood in the song and she’s still doing the same thing she did then, but selling it for ten times more money. I’d pay £600 for a t-shirt if she placed the safety pins on the rips herself, maybe £6,000, because I could save it and sell it in the future for £60,000.

’84 Danceteria!
Biding time until Save the Robots
Let’s arrange our hair like Rorschach blots
Baby we can be anything or anyone at Danceteria, Danceteria

I paid the first time I went to Danceteria and then I never paid again. I was given drinks tickets, which means I was essentially getting paid to go. A relatively square person I met there told me that not only was he not sure of my gender, he was not sure of my species, so apparently I looked wild and crazy enough to be an asset to the club. I certainly wish I had some pictures of me then, but I don’t.

Every young person thinks that their own era is the most important era, of course, but at Danceteria, we were probably nostalgic for 1977 and Studio 54 and the great days of Max’s Kansas City, when you knew that Warhol was going to be there. The entire pop art world of the East Coast was in that back room. If you wanted to meet these people you simply went to Max’s. Warhol was shot by a lunatic, so you’d think that he would have only hung out in places where lunatics couldn’t go. And I don’t think there was a doorman at Max’s Kansas City.

New York has always been about celebrity. I remember walking past Susan Sontag in Chelsea once, in the 1980s, when I had a terrible cold. She had a bright red nose, looked miserable and obviously had a cold too. I looked at her and there was a kind of dual recognition – “Oh my god, there’s Susan Sontag, and we both have a cold” and “Oh, I’m Susan Sontag, I’ve been recognised, and yes, we both have a cold.”

My song “Danceteria!” references Lydia Lunch, Marc Almond, Nick Cave and Foetus, a.k.a. Clint Ruin, who were all part of that scene. I never really went to the afterhours club Save the Robots – I was in school, so it was best to be in bed by 4.30am – but sometimes I went at weekends. There was a second floor with a huge sandbox, which was fun to rake your hands through, until you discovered a syringe in it. New York was full of heroin at the time.

’87 At the Pyramid
I saw you at the Pyramid
Disco all around you
You danced into my dream world
Bleach blond with caterpillar eyes
Rugby shirt like a bumblebee
A shy-boy smile, dimples for days
Destined never to notice me

Nightclubs are a place people go where they don’t have to be. No one is making them go, so whatever they do there, they’re choosing to do and they know that everyone else there is also there because they want to be. If you’re in a place of work or at the airport, you don’t have that. It’s a unique environment. Pyramid is still there on Avenue A but it’s not the same thing. Nightclubs, as spaces, can support successive scenes though. Heaven in London seems to go on and on and on. This song features a boy who I had a multi-decade crush on. Years later I saw him DJing at the Stonewall.

’02 Be True to your Bar
Be true to your bar
And don’t let it down
Or else it may not always be around
Be true to your friends
And let your friends know
Without your bar you’d have no place to go

I’m not on social media, and I have presbycusis, so my hearing makes it impossible for me to go to nightclubs now. So the second half of my life has been defined by going to bars. I haven’t been to a bar above 14th street in Manhattan for 10 years, apart from the gay country and western bar Flaming Saddles in Hell’s Kitchen, which is a tourist trap, but it has the best name and everyone should go there once. I go to bars in the West and East Village, but I don’t go for the same reason other people go. I go to sit on my own and write. One night I was at The Phoenix and a woman came up to me in tears, crying: “Oh my God, you’re Stephin Merritt. I can’t believe I’m meeting Stephin Merritt. I can barely speak.” It was strange. I’m not Mick Jagger, people don’t generally have that reaction. I tried to say soothing things to calm her. I’d really rather be invisible. C

 

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