The flags are at half-mast.
I’d noticed this earlier in the week, when I picked up my son at the high school, when I dropped something off at the middle school, when I took my morning walk on the college campus. But it wasn’t until today that it dawned on me why the flags were at half-mast. Half a million Americans are dead—524,000, actually. That’s how many of our family members, friends, and neighbors have succumbed to covid-19.
This week, everyone seemed to be feeling it something awful. On social media, among my friends, in my own house. As my friend Lincoln’s Bible said on her “Flyerside Chat” yesterday: “This week, it all caught up with me.” Maybe it’s because, at least here in New York, the first week of March is perennially the bleakest time of the year. Maybe it’s the cruelty of the Republicans, using every stall tactic in the book to slow down he rollout of a landmark relief package that three quarters of Americans support. Or maybe, counterintuitively, it’s Biden’s announcement that there will be enough vaccines for every adult American by the end of May. This is fabulous news, a light at the end of the tunnel—but perhaps this made us all collectively release our pent-up trauma. I don’t know. But I have to believe that sunnier days are ahead—literally and figuratively.
On my walk this morning, I listened to 69 Love Songs, the three-disc album by Magnetic Fields—recorded, somehow, 21 years ago this spring. The original concept was for songwriting machine Stephin Merritt to crank out a cool hundred love songs, but try fitting all that music on compact discs. Sixty-nine, he says, was the next logical choice: 23 per CD (and also, duh, 69).
My wife and I were turned on to Magnetic Fields in the early 2000s by my friend Charles, who put one of the songs, “All My Little Words,” on a mix he made us when he and his wife moved to North Carolina. Our son was born not long after this, and I began to use some of the songs as lullabies. They call to mind a happy time and place. So if I’m in the right mood—and today, I was—the love songs, imbued with nostalgia, make me cry.
69 Love Songs is an indulgent, melodic, clever, catchy, brilliant, heartfelt extravaganza of an album. The songs are written in a host of different styles, from power pop to country to folk to jazz to world. Some are clunkers, to be sure. Some are meant to be. Some are super short. “Roses,” for example, is less than half a minute long:
Buy more stock
Will always woo.
Don’t be shocked
Make a millionaire
But when Merritt is on, he’s on. There are so many highlights, it’s impossible to capture them all. The Fleetwood Mac-ish “Sweet-Lovin’ Man” opens with a lyric that might have been my mantra for the Trump years: “There’s an hour of sunshine for a million years of rain / But somehow it always seems to be enough.”
In “The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure,” a meditation on the ineffability of love, Merritt rhymes lyrics with the last name of that obscure linguistic theorist: so sure, composure, kosher, bulldozer, composer, and Dozier—of Holland-Dozier-Holland fame.
There are plenty of such clever allusions. “Promise of Eternity” contains this line: “What if no show ever happened again? No Se7en, no 8 1/2, no Nine, and no 10.” In the jingle-jangly “Reno Dakota,” we hear: “Reno Dakota / I’m no Nino Rota / I don’t know the score.” The narrator of the lovely “Acoustic Guitar” implores the titular instrument to “bring me back my girl.” Some of the girl rhymes Merritt comes up with are chef’s kiss brilliant: “Acoustic guitar / If you think I play hard / Well, you could have belonged to Steve Earle.”
There are tracks that are straight-up comic, like “For We Are the King of the Boudoir” and “The Night I Can’t Forget” and “Yeah! Oh Yeah!” and “The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side,” which works in a plethora of boy’s names, all of them suitors of the object of the narrator’s affection (“Harry / Is the one I think you’ll marry / But it’s Chris / That you kiss / After school.”)
If you listen to all three hours, there are a few bona fide, stop-what-you’re-doing showstoppers. My friend Sue danced to “Papa Was a Rodeo,” a story song about an unlikely, long-lasting romance, at her wedding. The quiet, simple majesty of “Book of Love,” arguably the best of the 69 tracks, brings the house down; I never fail to be moved by the third verse:
The Book of Love is long and boring
And written very long ago.
It’s filled with flowers and heart-shaped boxes
And things we’re all too young to know.
And as with any collection of love songs, there are the requisite tracks about heartache and loss: “Come Back from San Francisco” and “If You Don’t Cry” and especially “Love is Like a Bottle of Gin”—my personal favorite. It’s just Merritt’s impossibly low voice over a squelched-out bass guitar, and, as the title suggests, he waxes poetic on how love is like a bottle of gin. “It makes you blind,” he begins. “It does you in.” The third and final verse:
They keep it on a higher shelf,
The older and more pure it grows.
It has no color in itself,
But it can make you see rainbows.
You can find it at the Bowery,
Or you can find it at Elaine’s.
It makes your words more flowery.
It makes the sun shine, makes it rain.
And then the heartbreaking conclusion:
You just get out what they put in,
And they never put in enough.
Love is like a bottle of gin,
But a bottle of gin is not like love.
So I listened to this today as I passed the flags at half mast, and I wept. And the tears felt good.