This weekend, during the course of two nights at BAM, the Magnetic Fields will preview their next album, 50 Song Memoir, before its release in March. As the title implies, the album is a year-by-year recounting of frontman Stephen Merritt’s life and times up until his 50th birthday, when he started working on the opus. According to Merritt, the lyrics are “a mix of autobiography (bedbugs, Buddhism, buggery) and documentary (hippies, Hollywood, hyperacusis).”
The songs are so personal, in fact, that some of Merritt’s artifacts will surround him on stage, from vintage computers to tiki kitsch and shag carpeting. So far, just five tracks have been released. “Be True to Your Bar,” which represents the year 2002, is a maudlin number with a refrain that demands to be sung around a piano at one one of Merritt’s old spots, Marie’s Crisis: “Be true to your bar / And don’t let it down / Or else it may not always be around.”
This isn’t just some generic anti-gentrification ballad. Merritt name-checks a particular bar on St. Marks Place: “Eight hours is all you can take / Of tea at St. Dymphna’s / Until your hands shake / Then repair to your lair / For booze and beefcake / Eight more hours, till you can’t stay awake.”
There’s a story behind these lines. In 2002, Merritt was living at 533 East 5th Street, near Avenue B, and driving a Volvo station wagon to his studio in Williamsburg. He wrote much of 69 Love Songs while at St. Dymphna’s and Dick’s Bar, with his chihuahua, Irving, alongside him. He told Interview about the writing process.
I would sit for eight hours drinking tea at St. Dymphna’s until I was thoroughly caffeinated and then drink for eight hours at Dick’s Bar until I was ready to go to sleep. I don’t generally remember where I wrote a song. I don’t think that place is particularly important for me. For one thing, I rarely finish a song in one place. I generally don’t finish a song in one sitting. And the places where I write songs, gay bars, are fundamentally the same place. Generally I am listening to ‘I Will Survive’ or ‘Ring My Bell’ and eavesdropping on the same old conversation. I may as well be writing in airport lounges as they are so much the same.
Though Dick’s and St. Dymphna’s were the ones thanked in the liner notes of 69 Love Songs, Merritt also stopped into other East Village bars, such as The Phoenix. “At the Pyramid,” a track on 50 Song Memoir that’s dedicated to 1987, is about the Alphabet City club where he worked for two weeks. Further down Avenue A, he would stop into Library Bar. “Now the idea of the library bar is enchanting and romantic,” he told Vulture in 2010. “The Library Bar itself is more of a frat house. But I liked the idea.”
If Merritt, a notoriously morose gay man, felt comfortable at a frat-house bar, it’s because, as a songwriter, he didn’t seek out drinking dens for their charm. “I need to go to bars with boring music that isn’t too loud and isn’t too boring, but it can’t be rap because that’s too boring,” he told Vulture. “And [there needs to be] boring people who don’t find me attractive so they don’t want to come up and talk to me.”
In the 2010 documentary Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields, which catches him before his move to Los Angeles, he’s shown writing inside of West Village bar Ty’s. He says, “I come up with most of my song ideas while sitting in dark gay bars listening to thumping disco music. It’s me sitting with a cocktail and a cigarette in my hand writing about being someone with a cocktail and cigarette in his hand. This is not something I do for an hour, it’s something I do for eight hours.”
As the buzz around 69 Love Songs caused Merritt to rise from an “unsung East Village songwriter” (as an Observer headline put it in 1999) to a “cult figure,” Merritt got a little more protective about his locals. “He’s trying to stop dropping their names,” Timeout reported in 2000, “especially since a band of 20-year-old Californians approached him at the bar with their CD.”
Merritt eventually moved to a doorman building on Fifth Avenue, just above Washington Square Park. When he conducted an interview with the Voice in 2012, the location was described simply as an “old-timey Greenwich Village restaurant that uses real anchovies in its Caesar salad, and where the waitress brought him his pasta before he even cracked open a menu.” (Our guess: Knickerbocker Bar & Grill.)
But here’s Merritt naming St. Dymphna’s in his 50 Song Memoir, presumably because he now lives up in Hudson, New York. As for Dick’s, the “no-frills, theme-free East Village gay bar without the usual cruise-or-die desperation” closed in 2007, presumably because not enough people were true to it. The place will always be synonymous with the Magnetic Fields, if only because of the NY Mag listing: “Regulars include indie-rock celebutant Stephin Merritt, who can be found on any given night scribbling in his notebook alongside his pooch.”