Funny thing is, Gore's facile, obvious lyrics have always put me off. It isn't just that the words are very simple and direct yet unmistakably heartfelt that rankles me so. It's that they are utterly without any sense of irony and use clichés in such unimaginative ways -- the opposite of Stephin Merritt's delightfully tangy lyrics. The Magnetic Fields have been compared to Depeche Mode on a synth-pop level, which is fair, but stacking Merritt's lyrics up against Gore's is certain to doom the latter's fast fashionistas.
Gore's words are memorable. But Merritt's are twistedly memorable. His couplets writhe with clichés and revel in their familiarity, but unlike Gore he's well aware of it. "Most of my lyrics are built so heavily on cliché that most people feel like they're supposed to experience the feeling of the protagonist in the song because they've heard it so many times before," he deadpanned on the phone a few weeks ago. "They'll be listening to the difference between the song and the cliché the song is from. So emotionwise [the songs] are pretty blank. You fill in your own."
A recent California vacation underscored everything South Florida lacks. I won't get into it, but it sure is nice to drive along a coast and see an actual coastline, instead of the waistlines of old, wrinkled condo dwellers and their massive, concrete, view-blocking eyesores.
Of course I strolled Venice Beach in Los Angeles -- hadn't been there since 1984 -- and enjoyed the street musicians, who would probably be shot dead or jailed for life in Broward County if they tried to fuck up our positively posh beaches. There was the guy with his two sons singing a wildly free-spirited version of the Eagles' "Take It Easy," a one-man band who played bass with his feet as he strummed a guitar and manipulated a bass drum and a horn, and one mangy old musician who may or may not have been ambulatory (I know I never saw him standing) whom I'll never forget.
I must not have noticed him on my first cruise down the boardwalk (bins of cut-out reggae CDs beckoned), but I couldn't miss him on my return. From a distance I could see him sitting cross-legged, his guitar flat on his lap. The spastic way his arm jerked while his hand, clad in a ragged brown fingerless glove, flailed haphazardly across the strings, I thought he was pounding out an angry, sloppy strum-storm. As I got closer, though, a beautiful, slow, almost raga-like tune emerged. His guitar was weather-beaten and cracked, with a gaping hole into which a microphone (plugged into a tiny practice amp) had been inserted and secured with duct tape.
Only four strings remained, and those were ancient relics. But the sad song he played stayed with me for seven straight days. When I returned to L.A. after soaking up the fog of San Francisco's frigid pseudosummer, I couldn't wait to go back to Venice and find him again; he had haunted me. When I did I stuffed a couple bucks in his guitar case and watched as the fingers of his left hand pressed down on the strings, sliding up and down the neck as his right hand flew like a broken-winged bird. Toothless, he told a story about a note he'd found in his mom's attic after she died. It was, just as he promised, the prettiest song I'd ever heard.
Of course the homeless in Fort Lauderdale aren't allowed to entertain passersby -- they might drive away customers looking for a parking space near the Gilded Turd or some other worthless Las Olas boutique.