True music lovers understand the value of Smokey Robinson's sound maternal advice: You better shop around. Pop crushes can be as easy and regrettable as a drunken one-night-stand, because even the homeliest melodies can be made over by major-label cosmetologists, dressed for quick sale in trendy studio fashions, and shipped out to walk the slinky, unavoidable streets of Top 40 radio.
Pop is easy and available, but time passes, tastes change, and a decade down the road your beloved prom theme -- once a constant aural companion -- loses its hormonal urgency, youthful blush, and deep personal meaning until all that's left is an embarrassing "Oops! ... I Did It Again."
Nobody seems to understand this better than the Magnetic Fields' wryly misanthropic Stephin Merritt, whose 1999 triple-disc release 69 Love Songs was a triumph of quixotic craftsmanship over the assembly-line style of hit-making that prompted Frank Zappa to ask the musical question, "Is that a real pancho or a Sears pancho?"
Containing nearly three hours of material drawing inspiration from every page of the great American songbook (pre- and post-rock), 69 Love Songs was bigger and far more ambitious than the average boxed retrospective of an established, best-selling artist. It was destined to become either an instant classic or a cautionary tale for megalomaniacal indie rockers everywhere. Fortunately for Merritt (and for the rest of us), it was embraced by critics far and wide, earning a top slot on countless year-end lists and astounding brand penetration for an ad hoc band that never, ever tours.
"Well, we haven't gone gold," says L.D. Beghtol, the former Memphis Flyer writer who collaborated with Merritt on 69 Love Songs and the author of 69 Love Songs: A Field Guide, the latest installment in Continuum Press' wonderful 33 1/3 book series.
"Maybe if you counted every individual disc in the three-CD set it would be gold," Beghtol adds, reconsidering the industry standard as slyly as Merritt has reconsidered the industry.
Books in the 33 1/3 series focus on single, highly influential rock-era recordings ranging from Pink Floyd's The Piper at the Gates of Dawn to the Smiths' Meat Is Murder, and beyond. Each book presents its subject matter from a semi-insider's perspective, eschewing academic treatments and all the banal tropes of traditional rock journalism.
"Music writers write about themselves," Beghtol says, staving off a yawn. "How many times have you read a review that started out, 'When I was 17, I was really, really sad, and this album I'm about to write about saved my life.' It's boring, and I wasn't going to do that."
- L.D. Beghtol
According to Beghtol, who played a number of unusual instruments and whose rich, raspy baritone voice can be heard throughout 69 Love Songs, Merritt is a pop artist more in the mold of Andy Warhol than Justin Timberlake. His images are coolly appropriated from a distance, as are his sonics, which are borrowed in equal measure from the Mod sounds of "Summer Nights"-era Marianne Faithfull, the darker side of '80s new wave, Hank Williams-era honky-tonk, and the pre-rock stylings of Cole Porter and Hoagy Carmichael. In Merritt's songs, "keeping it real" is rejected in favor of "keeping it interesting," and romance is only approached in purely literary terms.
"In the late-'60s/early-'70s context of 'man with an acoustic guitar,' commercial sincerity is taken literally," Beghtol explains. "Stephin's is a more distanced reality. It's more like saying, here's a bunch of emotions. If you like them and want to believe in them for three minutes, you can. Because if artifice is good enough and complete enough, then it's real."
Just as Merritt rejects any traditional sense of realism within the framework of his songs, Beghtol has abandoned traditional narrative and presented his take on 69 Love Songs (the music) in the form of a devil's dictionary.
Although there's plenty of interview material for fans, including wry commentary from various band members about the recording of each individual song, the author has devoted the majority of his pages to a funny, endlessly fulfilling exploration of the famously literate songwriter's most effective tool: language.
"There was no point in writing for the casual reader," Beghtol says. "A casual reader's just not going to pick up one of these books. It's not going to happen. It's for fans. These are smart kids, so I wanted to give them something that would be worth their $10. And I wasn't going to write another piece about the genius of Stephin Merritt."
In addition to penning 69 Love Songs: A Field Guide, Beghtol, a multi-award-winning graphic artist, also designed the book's layout, filling its clean, easy-to-read pages with quirky illustrations and subtle visual puns.
"One of the conditions of my doing the book was that I got to design it. I knew it would be fun and that I would have the ability to access images in a way that [the publisher] just wouldn't have either the time or the energy.
"I'm an enthusiast," Beghtol says of his approach to music writing. "I'm a cheerleader for justice. So many music writers want to tell you all the reasons why something is bad just to show off how smart they are. What I like to do is say, Hey, here's all this really neat stuff that you should know about."
In addition to his work as a freelance writer, designer for Village Voice Media, and sometime member of the Magnetic Fields, Beghtol has been associated with at least three other literate art-rock bands: Moth Wranglers, Flare, and L.D. and the New Criticism, whose newest EP, Axyareal, is due out in March.