You have to admit it's a little funny, the sudden abundance of Stephin Merritt during Black History Month. It seems like just yesterday Merritt was being called the New York Times' nearest available "rockist cracker" by New Yorker music critic Sasha Frere-Jones, more or less on account of liking Morrissey and not OutKast. In fairness, it was longer ago than just yesterday, and a time when OutKast had started seeming tedious. In reverse fairness, hadn't Morrissey started seeming tedious even longer ago?
But look. Merritt, the tart-witted phrase turner, musical magpie, Magnetic Fields frontman and author of such songs as "The Cactus Where Your Heart Should Be," "Please Stop Dancing" and "I Wish I Had an Evil Twin," among many others, likes what he likes. And enough other people like what he likes, and what he does, which usually consists of crooning in a deep-voiced warble over clever indie-rock concept albums of his own devising, that his occasional omnipresence is to be expected.
And so you'll be running across him: on the Fields' new album Realism; or the remastered vinyl box set of their widely adored 69 Love Songs, due in April; or the two Noise Pop shows this week; or at Mezzanine this Sunday courtesy of SF360's Film+Club, in a documentary, reportedly ten years in the making, called Strange Powers: Stephen Merritt and the Magnetic Fields. And then on May 4, as part of the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival, Merritt will perform his new score to the 1916 film of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea live at the Castro Theatre, with accompaniment from Castro organist David Hegarty and local author Daniel Handler on the accordion.
Ubiquity is not the same thing as knowability, of course, and Merritt remains a mysterious figure. It is fair to say he's pretty much exactly the person you think of when trying to picture a bandleader who'd have Daniel Handler as his accordionist. Imagine an odd, slightly doughy, sad-eyed little man, alone and hunched over his songwriting notebook in an East Village gay bar, with one hand covering his one bum ear and the other crossing out not-literate-enough lyrics, sighing heavily from residual irritation about the stupid questions some unprepared interviewer had asked him earlier in the day. Or, better, imagine this same person standing fully and brownly dressed in a bathtub with a microphone in front of him, a harp at his side, and Irving, the pet Chihuahua he named after Irving Berlin, enfolded in his arms. Of this image, in fact, there is photographic evidence.
Strange Powers should provide an even fuller portrait, or at least an even more complicated one. Consider this promotional zinger from San Francisco Film Society programmer Sean Uyehara: "Having been a fan of Stephin Merritt's music for a long time now, I've always wondered whether he means it or not. This documentary seals it -- I'm definitely not sure." It is somehow perfectly logical that in the film's trailer, the first two attesters to Merritt's greatness are Peter Gabriel and Sarah Silverman -- just as it is logical that they appear only after a New York cab driver wonders why a documentary would be made about Merritt and claims quite believably never to have heard of him.
In sum, Merritt is among us and yet he eludes us. Maybe Black History Month can be his moment after all.
A Sneak Preview of a Film About Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields,Sunday, February 28, 8pm at Mezzanine in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit sffs.org.
Magnetic Fields play at the Fox Theater in Oakland Saturday, February 27, 8pm and at the Herbst Theater in San Francisco Monday, March 1, 8pm. For more information visit noisepop.com.