essay

songwriter’s best friend: a portrait of the smallest member of the magnetic fields

Irving Berlin Merritt was a wee six-month-old pup back in 1999 when the Magnetic Fields’ epic triple album 69 Love Songs was released and when we started filming. In those days songwriter Stephin Merritt would carry Irving everywhere with him in a red felt tote bag. Merritt kept him in the bag during a meal in Boston once (around the time he was in this photo), feeding Irving barbecued ribs one by one, while Irv never let out a single peep that would alert restaurant staff and have us all removed. I spent some time backstage with Irving at the Middle East in Boston — not a very charming room. If I let Irving alone back there, he would bark loud enough to disrupt the whole show (why we didn’t leave him back at Chris Ewen’s Cambridge apartment with other chihuahuas I will never know; oh yes, it was because Stephin wanted to bring him to the show). Luckily Claudia’s sister JJ came to my relief so I didn’t have to spend the entire evening *not* watching the show.

Back in New York, Irving accompanied Stephin almost everywhere. He could be seen at Dick’s Bar (where, as Stephin points out in Strange Powers, half of 69 Love Songs was written) barking at most everyone who came in (especially gents in hats and those with beards) and listening to the new wave jukebox or watching Xanadu (or porn) with the rest of the gay men. He could be seen at chickfactor parties at Fez—I remember watching Irving lick the plate on which a “Sorbet Sampler” (a typical Merritt dish) had been served and praying that the health department would not close down the venue. Irving came with Stephin, in the bag, to a Tibetan restaurant in the East Village once but was discovered and asked to leave well before mealtime commenced. And he spent many hours at St. Dymphna’s, the Irish bar where Merritt used to meet with Daniel Handler to brainstorm over pots of green tea and full Irish breakfast (mostly consumed by, yes, you guessed it, the wee Irving).

Irving was one of those chihuahuas who probably needed to get out and race around like a madman, to get those ya-yas out, which is hard to do in Manhattan (though in recent years he had a yard, where Irving got to spend much time chewing on his chicken). He also loved riding around in the Mini Cooper. How Stephin has managed to do so much recording in his apartments and houses without having Irving disrupt the proceedings is a mystery. One has to wonder if Irving could hear at all, after all the gay bar crowd noise and soundcheck shenanigans he has been exposed to. He was Stephin’s primary companion for the past 14 years and will be missed, especially by those who knew him over time.

Irving Berlin Merritt passed away August 2013. RIP little buddy.