A brief interview with Susan Anway (RIP)

image from her FBK page

I still remember where I was when I first heard “100,000 Fireflies” in 1991. I remember my first Magnetic Fields show at CBGB in 1992, when I was confused by the fact that Susan Anway wasn’t singing. I grew to love all the other TMF singers but there is something calming and otherworldly about those first two albums, perhaps made more mysterious by the fact that we didn’t see her perform.

I (or we) tried to interview Susan Anway a number of times for chickfactor and the documentary Strange Powers, but it never quite came together. I was more in touch with her in the 1990s, when I was the Music Editor at Time Out New York and assigned her to write reviews of Celtic albums. She never performed live with the Magnetic Fields. Susan was honored to be associated with the Magnetic Fields but was also very busy with her “powerful atmo electropop” project Diskarnate, which featured German composer-producer Armin Küster and her partner, Jack Andrews. After decades living in Arizona, she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2015. She died on September 5, 2021. This brief interview is from 2011.

image from her FBK page

chickfactor: How did you first get involved with the Magnetic Fields?
Susan Anway: Claudia called me and said she and Stephin had heard my extreme psychedelipunk band V; and did I want to audition? She sent me a tape of “Crowd of Drifters”—Stephin said it was a song about vampires. First listen I thought, O NO-O, this sounds like a Kris Kristofferson song, a Kris Kristofferson song…ABOUT VAMPIRES! I actually laughed. Joke’s on me. How am I supposed to interpret this? But at the same time, it had a strange and wonderful quality I had never heard before and I fell in love with it musically. 

The audition was in Stephin’s Boston apartment. The room was pretty bare except for a lonely mic stand, keyboards, MAC, rug and HP Lovecraft book on the floor. I thought, He is going to hate what I did to his song, I sound just like a Judy Collins clone. But after the first few lines, he stopped me, and we started working on realizing the song together. Just a typical day in a studio, like we had done it for years. Kismet.

photo of Stephin back then by Susan Anway

Describe a typical day recording with Stephin back then.
When we recorded Distant Plastic Trees, Stephin seemed to be living on chocolate milk, cigarettes and bagels. I was commuting from Arizona, so we were fairly disciplined. We put in a typical eight-hour day, broken by a walk to Kenmore Square for “lunch bagels” and more chocolate milk. Sometimes we went out for supper afterward, because there are only so many bagels you can eat in a week.

In session I was always testing a variety of voices—Shirley Bassey, Debbie Harry, Aretha, Mary Travers, Mary Black, too many to list, even Sinatra. Vocalists often sing in character. There has to be some kind of back story. Stephin would say, “Don’t sing like you know how.” That was new. And it worked. But I still had to visualize. I think you can hear it most in “100,000 Fireflies,” “Candy” and “Tokyo A-Go-Go.”

Little-known secret: in one session Stephin handed me a hand-written lyric sheet for Tangerine Dream’s “(Further Reflections) In the Room of Percussion” and asked if I could sing it like Marlene Dietrich! I did. It was off da chain! Wish we had done it. “My god! the spiders are everywhere!” LOL Verzeihen Sie mir, liebe Marlene.

image from her FBK page

What is Stephin really like? 
When Ridley Scott was directing Gladiator, someone asked him if it was true that Russell Crowe was difficult to work with. He laughed and said: “The good ones always are.” Stephin is not difficult; he is simply a maestro. When you work with a maestro, you must view yourself as an instrument. The mutual goal is the execution of a shared musical intent, beautifully and descriptively, shaped by the choice and nuance of instrumentation. Ego falls away. It’s all about the music. 

image from her FBK page

What were those early shows like? And the Boston/Cambridge music scene in general?
I can’t speak about the early shows or the Boston scene in the ’90s because at that time I had moved to Arizona, and was starting my love affair with EDM/electro/industrial/Europop.

Have you seen Strange Powers
I finally got a chance to view the film a couple of nights ago! I enjoyed it greatly. You might be interested to know that when the clip of “100,000 Fireflies” came on, the whole audience started singing it—including me! The film has some wonderful rehearsal/
arranging scenes and, of course Stephin’s (and Claudia’s) wry comments. 

Thank you for all your many kindnesses re: TMF and my contribution to the early band sound. I am happy my disembodied voice is in the film. As a vocalist, I feel in some ways that’s perfect.

image from her FBK page

These responses were for our 20th anniversary issue (CF17, 2012):
What was the best record / live show / artist in 1992? 
Record (other than The Wayward BusMagnum Force 
Performance: Sielwolf 

What is the best record / live show / artist of 2012? 
Record: looking forward to Delerium’s Music Box Opera.
Performances: The Roots & Combichrist, for sheer sustained intensity and crowd motivation

image from her FBK page
image from her FBK page

agony uncle stephin merritt is here to dole out romantic advice for your plague year holiday

AS AN ERSTWHILE ASTROLOGER I AM EMINENTLY QUALIFIED TO GIVE ADVICE. THE BAD NEWS IS, MERCURY IS IN RETROGRADE FOR VALENTINE’S DAY. THE GOOD NEWS? THERE ISN’T ANY. 

Selfie courtesy of Stephin Merritt

We met during COVID, talked/texted for a few months and finally decided to just meet in person last September. She’s great, my age (mid-40s), goth (like me, although I might be more of a mod), smart, funny, likes good music, all the things. But she’s cripplingly insecure, in a way that I don’t know how to deal with? I’m divorced, was married 10 years. She’s the first person I’ve dated since getting divorced in 2018. I’m not a “rebound” kinda guy, I like real relationships. But due to her own bad experiences with past relationships, she has so many trust issues, even though it should be obvious that I don’t have a wandering eye and am totally into her. What can I do? How do I make her see that I’m not like her exes? — TVPs Fan
SM: WOMEN CANNOT AND SHOULD NOT TRUST MEN. GET USED TO IT. ALSO, IF YOU DON’T KNOW IF YOU’RE A GOTH OR A MOD, YOU SHOULD BE SEEING A COGNITIVE-BEHAVIORAL THERAPIST. 

I met someone online during COVID and we’ve never met in person. Should I propose? — Lockdown Princess
SM: NO! PEOPLE ONLINE AREN’T REAL. GO TO A BAR, LIKE AN ADULT. MOST HAVE OUTDOOR SEATING. WEAR A UNION SUIT. 

I have a Valentine’s Day date but the forecast is going to be 28º and cloudy so a bit chilly to eat outdoors. Should I invite them back to mine? Should I risk being exposed to someone else’s droplets and bodily fluids so we can have sex indoors? — Sweetheart of the Rodeo 
SM: WEAR A UNION SUIT. 
DO NOT MAKE A PLAN FOR AFTER DINNER, IT’S PRESUMPTUOUS AND GAUCHE.

My BF is addicted to Facebook. Even when we’re in bed he’s gazing into some left-wing FBK group and making snarky comments. Is there any hope for us? — Device addict’s BF 
SM: ONLY HAVE SEX OUT OF BED, ALWAYS, AND THEN YOU WON’T CARE WHAT HE DOES IN BED. 

Is perfume passé? —Unscented 
SM: YES, IT’S HORRIBLE. ANYONE WEARING PERFUME IN AN ELEVATOR SHOULD BE ASKED TO LEAVE AT THE NEXT FLOOR. 

We are stuck in our house with three children this Valentine’s Day. Do you have any advice on how we can find romance in spite of them? How can we keep them away from us so we can be intimate? — Spouse House
SM: HAVE SEX OUTSIDE, LIKE ADULTS. PARKS ARE GOOD, CARS ARE GREAT. PUBLIC BATHROOMS ARE GOOD FOR A QUICKIE. GARAGES ARE AWESOME. 

I want to make my beloved a meal full of aphrodisiacs. What should I make? (We’re vegan) —Hungry for Love 
SM: CHOCOLATE, CHOCOLATE, AND MORE CHOCOLATE. 

I’m a lifelong commitment-phobe who seems to attract other commitment-phobes. How can I stop the madness? —Pattern Breaker 
SM: YOU MAY NEED TO DECLINE TO DISCUSS YOUR RELATIONSHIP HISTORY, SAYING YOU’RE NOT PROUD OF IT BUT YOU HAVE CHANGED YOUR PRIORITIES. 

I have a crush on someone whose musical taste could be improved. How can I “help” them improve it? Should I make a mixtape? What should I put on it? —Ear Candy 
SM: MIXTAPES ARE GREAT, BUT MAKE SURE YOUR CRUSH KNOWS THAT THE LYRICS ARE NOT MEANT TO BE LITERAL MESSAGES. (OTHERWISE IT WOULD TAKE FIVE YEARS TO MAKE THE RIGHT CHOICES.) ALSO, BE OPEN TO LEARNING WHY THEY LIKE WHAT THEY LIKE…WITHIN REASON!
I ONCE DECLINED TO DATE AN OTHERWISE WONDERFUL GUY BECAUSE HE WAS INTO JAMIROQUAI, AND I DO NOT REGRET THAT DECISION. 

I’ve basically been living in slankets and shackets for a year. What should I wear on V-day? —Athleisure Annie 

SM: NOTHING! 

The Magnetic Fields’ latest release, Quickies, is out now. 

Selfie courtesy of Stephin Merritt

LD Beghtol remembered by Daniel Handler

I have spent all day trying to absorb the death of LD Beghtol, with whom I shared a stage and a cognac many a time. His extravagant voice and personality lent charm and drama to his bands Flare, The Moth Wranglers, and the New Criticism, as well as his unforgettable vocals on The Magnetic Fields’s 69 Love Songs. In lieu of a photograph I am posting what may as well have been a portrait, from a book by Edward Gorey we both admired. Listen to something gloomy tonight, with a touch of melodrama and panache, to remember a man who turned every room into a velvet-draped literary salon. Mr. Beghtol, the world is diminished.

What I keep remembering is at the first Three Terrors show, where Stephin, Dudley and LD were singing the saddest songs they could think of. LD sang “Pretty In Pink” with me on synthesizer and I screwed up the intro, so he only sang a few words and the we had to stop.  But the few words, “Caroline laughs and it’s raining all day” gave away the surprise.  So the start-over was particularly awkward.  LD waited for the murmurs to die down—he did always hate a chattery audience—and then we started again and his vocals were so sad and relentless that everyone was transfixed. Everyone made the journey with LD to the place where this was indeed the saddest song.  That’s what he did: he brought the theatrical moment, the drama, the gesture.  And he could transfix you.

LD Beghtol tribute by Dana Kletter

LD in SF with DK and DH

Dana Kletter remembers her friend and collaborator

When I met LD, I felt he knew me, and I think he felt I knew him. 

The first time I recorded with him he instructed me to be the murdered girl.

He was a great writer of some crazy antic fiction. 

“Maybe this time, you think to yourself: ‘Lady peaceful, lady happy.’ That’s the new me! Giddy with it all, you plant a big wet kiss on Not-So-Little Red’s startled, becollagened mouth, pinching what’s either a third nipple or an ill-concealed on/off switch slightly misaligned on the bead-encrusted bodice of the creature’s gaudy gown as a fan organ wheezes soothingly above the thrum of hypnotic snares.”

When I told him I found a new psychiatrist, he wrote, “I sometimes wish I were much more fucked up so I could do that.” 

He was the most cynical romantic I’ve ever known. 

He meant to make a record this summer but was thwarted by everything. He sent me some demos for possible songs. Hell is other people’s boyfriends, one began. 

We texted and called each other regularly. I’m sorry I cannot text him now to complain about this. 

I loved him dearly and will miss him forever. 

Photo by Dana Kletter. Taken while we were in the studio recording “Morgantown.”
Listen to the song here. Recorded San Francisco, 2012,  Doug Hilsinger on guitar, LD and I on vocals, and backing tracks LD brought from New York. Mixed by Kramer.

RIP LD Beghtol, splendid butterfly

LD Beghtol (December 1964–December 2020)

Oh LD. I don’t remember exactly when I met LD but he just twirled into the Magnetic Fields universe around the time that 69 Love Songs was being designed and recorded. He was in a band called Flare. He sang on 69 Love Songs. He was a graphic designer who became instrumental in bringing chickfactor’s design to another level; his photoshop expertise also elevated the quality of my photography in the print publication. He became our designer in chief; I usually chose the art but he made it all work in chickfactor issues 12 to 15, our chickfactor mixtape, many event posters, and even a book of my photography that was published (limited edition, 7-inch size) in 2012.

When the rest of the city left town on holiday weekends, LD and I would hole up in my Manhattan apartment and/or his office on 23rd street and work work work on chickfactor. We would spin many singles. We would sit on the floor eating pad thai. We would plot upcoming shows. We both had extremely busy day jobs and yet we were productive AF during all of our free time. Other times we’d be communing with Stephin at St Dymphna’s over tea (Stephin’s chihuahua Irving Berlin would often eat the entire Irish breakfast) or later at Dick’s Bar on Second Avenue or the Phoenix where we would watch show tunes, sip Courvoisier and talk endlessly about people and music and art and life. I would often try to leave to go home and the boys would buy me another drink and set it in front of me.

LD was a force of nature. If he loved you, he *REALLY* loved you. But if you crossed him, it was murder. If he cared about you, his loyalty knew no bounds. He once wrote a set list that was built to torture a certain musician who LD believed had wronged me. He felt everything extra deep. Some of his creative partnerships didn’t last: If he burned the bridge, that was it. But he lived a creative life through and through; whatever day job he was doing, you can bet he spent every free moment doing a million small creative things. His grand moments in the spotlight with the Magnetic Fields in New York and London were among his proudest moments; as a featured singer he would come out with all the drama one would expect in such moments. He made you believe he *was* the King of the Boudoir all right.

Our relationship was complicated but we mostly got on like a house on fire. He found community with both the Magnetic Fields and chickfactor (among others), along with New York music culture in general. He and Dudley and Stephin were like a trio of charming, sulky sweethearts, and LD was like a bitchy-diva sibling to me. We mostly got along well but struggled with creative differences. Although the vile and brutal year 2020 took him along with many other cultural icons and American lives, his art will live on, and you can bet he had a million new projects simmering away that we’ll never get to see. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye, but I won’t forget him because he was unforgettable. RIP, LD.

interview and photograph are from chickfactor 15, 2002, by Gail O’Hara

Here are a few things we designed together:

RIP, irving berlin merritt 1999–2013

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.