Michael Hearst on tour with The Magnetic Fields

We published Michael Hearst’s account of touring with The Magnetic Fields back in our fifth issue in August, 2009. Scroll riiiighttt down to the bottom for an update from more recent times.

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I hate flying. I would rather stand in front of an audience of a thousand-plus people, performing material that I’ve barely rehearsed, using unreliable vintage equipment, than I would go into an airport, deal with ticketing agents and airport security, get on an airplane and fly thirty-thousand feet above the ground. Regardless I get in a taxi and head to JFK.

The Magnetic Fields have been one of my favourite bands for quite some time, and not just because Claudia Gonson, who plays keyboard and sings with the group, is one of my best friends. Their music is witty, funny, and often sad, all at the same time. The instrumentation of their live show is simple and folky, consisting of cello, acoustic guitar, piano, and ukulele—more like a chamber ensemble than a rock band, which to me makes them that much more interesting. The band’s songwriter, Stephin Merritt, generally sings in his basement-level, pitch-perfect timbre. But on occasion, Claudia Gonson or Shirley Simms step up to the microphone to take over a song or two with their clear-toned alto voices. After fifteen years together, the band has grown beyond cult status to filling theatres in just about any city they choose to visit. So of course I accepted the invitation to be their opening act.

I’m not a solo performer. In fact, I hardly consider myself to be an instrumentalist. I’m, at best, an idea guy and a composer. Perhaps an entertainer? But an instrumentalist, I am not. This would explain why I generally surround myself with several really good musicians who can take the reins when my fingers fumble and I forget the next chord. Unfortunately, The Magnetic Fields were not necessarily interested in my regular band, One Ring Zero, which I had co-founded and comfortably toured with for the past ten years. Due to financial constrictions and logistics, they wanted me to perform solo, and I said yes. I didn’t even know what I’d be doing. Claudia had not specified. She’d said, “Do whatever you want to do.”

Among many of my side projects, including an album of new songs for ice cream trucks titled Songs For Ice Cream Trucks, I had recently begun working on a website called Songs For Newsworthy News. The premise: a collection of songs posted in blog form recounting various news stories that have captured my interest. The songs are incredibly short, often not more than two sentences, and inform of government scandals, sports victories, and science discoveries, among other topics. Perfect! I’ll play the guitar, and sing about the news. Oh, and maybe I can find an old slide projector on eBay, which I can use to cast news images behind me. Claudia thought it sounded good. She also suggested that, to break things up a bit, perhaps I should read some of my flash non-fiction pieces, which are also often not more than two sentences long. I would construct an entire performance based around brevity.

*

At the Delta ticketing counter, a disgruntled man avoids eye contact while telling me that I will need to pay an additional seventy-five dollars for my suitcase, which exceeds the fifty-pound limit. I’m not surprised. I have stuffed it with the slide projector, a small guitar amplifier, and a bunch of merchandise. He suggests that I try removing some of the items and placing them in my backpack. Unfortunately, my backpack already contains my laptop, toiletries, and a couple changes of clothes. Nonetheless, I remove the slide projector from my suitcase and attempt to make the transfer. No chance.

Still without looking at me, the man says, “Okay, your suitcase is now under fifty pounds. But you’re going to have to pay an additional fifty dollars for one of those extra carry-on items.”

A long line of Hassidic Jews has formed behind me, waiting to be ticketed for a flight to Tel Aviv. They roll their eyes and mumble in Yiddish.

“Really?” I plead. “It’s just a slide projector.”

“Sir, why don’t you just check in one of those items,” he says, nodding at my backpack and guitar, which I’ve been trying to hide behind me. “You’re only allowed to carry-on two items.”

“But I can’t. One’s a vintage guitar, and one’s a laptop computer.”

“Okay then. So how you gonna pay?”

“You can’t be serious?” I say. “It’s just one small, extra item. Please? You’re gonna make me miss my flight.”

The guy finally looks up at me, with fierce eyes. “No, you’re gonna make you miss your flight! Look, I don’t come into your work and give you a hard time, do I? Now, you come up to me and raise your voice. What makes you think I’m gonna do you any favours?” Then, in a calmer voice he repeats himself: “Now how you gonna pay?”

I take a deep breath. “Okay, I’m sorry. Seriously. I don’t mean to take it out on you. It’s just that I hate flying. Even being in the airport makes me nervous. I really just want to get it over with. Can you pleeaasse help me out? I don’t want to miss my flight. I’m a poor musician!” Totally pathetic.

The guy looks back at his computer. He presses a button, and then, without another word, hands me my ticket, simultaneously calling “Next!”

*

A Xanax later I touch down at the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, whereupon I take a taxi straight to the Dallas Sheraton. I ride the elevator to the 18th floor, walk down the hall to room 812, and tap on the door.

“Gnu!” says Claudia. She pronounced the letter G in the word Gnu—a variation on “nu”—a nickname that she and I have used on each other for several years. Nu is a Yiddish word meaning “So?” or “Well?” I discovered the word while reading a Chaim Potok book. Claudia, I’m certain, heard it somewhere in her Jewish upbringing. She had suggested we start using “nu?” in our daily salutations; this, however, quickly degenerated into us simply calling each other “nu”, using the word as a proper noun instead of an interrogative pronoun. And eventually this evolved into Claudia calling me a Gnu, a reference to Flanders and Swann. Wearing a blue and yellow Marimekko nightgown, Claudia gives me a giant hug. “Wow, you got here really early.”

“I did? I thought this was when I was supposed to arrive.”

“Oh, for some reason I thought…” she mumbles something, returning to her computer. “Sorry, just finishing up something here,” she says, typing.

I dive onto the unused bed, stretching out like a giant X.

*

In the morning, while Claudia is asleep, I head to the lobby for coffee. The Texas-sized hotel, which is really more of a small city, is a labyrinth for the not-yet caffeinated. I stand in what I believe to be the central atrium. Giant-sized men wearing conference lanyards walk past me with giant-sized beverages in their giant-sized hands.

“Can I help you?” asks a concierge.

“Coffee?”

“Ah, okay. Well, we have our restaurant, the Tiffany Rose Lounge. And just past that, the Pearl Street Café. Or, if you prefer, around that corner is Bagels on Bryan, which also has coffee.”

Seconds later I am at the Pearl Street Café.

“Hay thayr,” says the barista with a Texas twang.

“Hi, can I get a double Americano with one and half sugars, a little bit less water that usual, and a touch of whole milk?”

She simply looks at me.

“Or, just a double espresso is fine.”

“Oh, sure,” she says with relief.

While stirring in sugar, I see John Woo and Sam Davol (guitar player and cellist for The Magnetic Fields) walking through the lobby. They spot me and, like businessmen at a real estate conference, enter the Pearl Street Café with arms extended.

“Good to see you,” says John. “Thanks for coming out!”

“You kidding? I’m honoured.”

As quickly as I shake both their hands, John says, “I think we’re heading back to our rooms now, but we’ll see you at soundcheck.”

“Yep,” I say. “See you then.”

*

Back upstairs, Claudia asks with her face pressed against the pillow, “You find coffee, Gnu?”

“Saw John and Sam down there too.”

“Those guys are total early birds. Probably been up since seven.”  She continues, “So, I’m supposed to meet a couple friends today who I haven’t seen in years, but Mike and Emma were talking about going to the Texas State Fair. They said you’re welcome to go with them if you want.“

“Oooh. Totally! What time’s soundcheck?”

“It’s at four. But you probably don’t need to be there until like five or so.” 

I find Mike and Emma, the merchandising team, downstairs in the Tiffany Rose Lounge. Emma is finishing her yogurt parfait.

“Thing cost me eleven bucks!” she says scraping the edge of the glass with her spoon.

Just a few weeks ago Mike and Emma were serenaded at their wedding by Stephin Merritt as they walked down the aisle. They have worked with the band for several years. When not touring, Emma is a writer, and before that was Stephin’s personal assistant. Mike is a graphic designer, whose design for the current Magnetic Fields tour poster is a 3-D screen print, which comes complete with 3-D glasses! I first got to know Mike and Emma a couple years ago at their annual holiday party. After most of the guests had cleared the apartment, Claudia and I stuck around with Mike and Emma in the living room to watch episodes of R. Kelly’s Trapped In The Closet. To this day, we still reference lines from Trapped In The Closet on a regular basis. Oh my god a rubber, a rubber, a rubber, a rubber!

The three of us walk to the bus depot, and then get on a bus heading to the fair. During our ride, Mike and Emma show me their latest iPhone applications. We also discuss the food items that we will find at the fair, and the sequence in which we will consume them. Just then, off in the distance, we spot the top of the Ferris wheel, and a ginormous statue of the cowboy, Big Tex. Big Tex wears size seventy boots and a seventy-five gallon hat, and towers fifty-two feet above the ground. And he talks! Oh yeah, and he’s sponsored by Dickies clothing company.

Wandering the fairgrounds we discover many other highlights, including an ADD screening tent (we are too distracted to go in), a strange animal called a Brahman (which looks like a cross between a camel and a cow), and, of course, lots and lots of fried food. We start with corndogs, move on to chalupas, and then top it off with a deep-fried peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The game and ride tickets aren’t cheap. Fortunately, after our lunch of lard, we aren’t especially interested in getting on any of the rides. Instead, I suggest that we pick a game, one game, a game that all three of us can play at the same time, thus increasing our chances to win some sort of terrible prize. We decide on a horseracing game, requiring that we roll balls and try to get them to fall into various holes in order to advance the horse along the track. Aside from the three of us, there are four other people competing. The barker takes our money, rings a bell; we frantically roll our balls toward the holes. Within seconds, Mike shouts “I’m gonna win.” And sure enough, another bell rings, and Mike Fusco is proclaimed winner.

“Get the ugliest prize!” I suggest.

“Yeah, get that one!” Emma says pointing to a purple dog with plastic-porcupine fur.

“Or!” Mike says, pointing to a similar thing, but with fur marbled blue, pink, and yellow.

I roll my suitcase from the Dallas Sheraton to the Majestic Theatre, a mere two blocks away. The theatre, an ornate old-world performance hall, dates back to the Vaudeville era, and has hosted some of the best acts ever to come through Texas, from Houdini to Mae West to Duke Ellington. And tonight, The Magnetic Fields. The band is already on stage checking their levels. I place my stuff in the wing, and then walk out to say hi to everyone, including Stephin and Shirley, neither of whom I have yet seen.

“Ah, I see you’ve been awarded the grand prize,” I say to Stephin, who has the blue, pink, and yellow dog set up next to him on its own private stool.

“Yes, this is ‘Deep Fried’,” He says in a low rumble, completely sincere.

A fellow with a blonde buzz cut limps over to me. “Are you Michael?”

“Yes, hi.”

“I’m Craig.”

Claudia gets up from behind the piano and walks over. “Gnu, gnu, gnu.”

“Nu.”

“I should probably introduce you. This is Craig Walker, our tour manager.” She then points to a distant figure in the back of the theatre. “And that’s Y-Mike, our sound guy.”

“Another Mike?”

“Yeah, we’ve got multiple Mikes. You, Mike Fusco, and Y-Mike. Let’s see, you should also introduce yourself to Zero. He’s the in-house tech guy. Not sure where he is right now, but you’ll love him. He used to be the pyrotechnics guy for Kiss.

“Holy crap! That’s awesome.” Soon enough, I meet Zero, a fifty-something guy with very little hair and very tight jeans. I start asking him about Kiss, and his eyes immediately light up. He has also worked with Yes and Queen. I’m so impressed that I plan to tell the entire audience later that evening, “Hey everyone, the main tech guy here at the theatre used to work with Kiss and Queen, and his name is Zero!” 

After a sushi dinner and a bottle of sake with Claudia, Y-Mike, and Shirley, we return to the theatre just as the doors are opening. Claudia and Shirley walk in first, somehow passing the security guard without him noticing. He turns to me just as I step into the lobby. “You got tickets?”

“Tickets? I’m actually playing tonight. I’m the opening act.”

“You need to go around to the back of the building and go through the service entrance.”

“Really? I can’t just go in here?”

“No sir. You gots to go around back.”

“But I’m already in the building. And the stage is right there.”

“Look, don’t give me trouble, son. You need to go around back.”

I feel like I’m at the airport ticket counter all over again. Y-Mike speaks up for me, “He’s the opening act! He’s playing in like ten minutes!”

“I don’t care who he is! He’s got to go around back.”

“Come on,” I say to Y-Mike. “Not worth the effort.” I nod to the guard.

As we walk out, I hear him say, “What the hell’s wrong with him?”

A few minutes later we enter the dressing room. Somehow word has made its way to Claudia. “I just heard that there was a bit of a problem with security. Is everything okay?”

“Yeah, no big deal,” I say, embarrassed to have caused any commotion. I haven’t even played my first show.

In the dressing room—which is really more of an oversized bathroom—the band sits around snacking from the hospitality platter (carrot sticks, hummus, cheese cubes, and grapes). I really need to pee. The toilet is just behind a single swinging door, less than three feet from Stephin.

“Sorry, I need to pee,” I say to him.

“I don’t care,” Stephin says.

I stand in the stall for at least a minute before I can relax my muscles.

“Man, it’s difficult to urinate when everyone can hear you,” I say.

“Get over it,” Stephin mumbles.

“I’m working on it,” I say.

*

Wearing my finest vintage suit, I walk out into the blinding lights. I feel incredibly awkward and stupid at first, but as soon as I begin talking I start to feel better. Explaining to the audience that I will be reading several incredibly short, true stories from my childhood, I turn on the Kodak Carousel slide projector, casting one of my drawings onto a makeshift screen:

Then, with deadpan delivery, I begin.

My grades were slipping. Chemistry and English didn’t interest me. I ignored the teacher’s lectures and spent the majority of class doodling in my notebooks. My mother was concerned about my poor performance in school and sent me to a therapist. Dr Rubin immediately diagnosed me with Attention Deficit Disorder and prescribed Ritalin. He said by taking twenty milligrams a day, my focus would come back and my grades would, most likely, improve. Within a couple days, the Ritalin kicked in, and my doodling became much more elaborate.

A handful of people applaud. I look up and say, “thank you,” confirming their reaction.

After twelve equally short stories, each with its own drawing, I tell the audience that I’ve recently been working on a project called Songs For Newsworthy News. I pick up my guitar, and advance the slide projector to the next image.

“For example,” I say. “The Robert, Woods, Johnson foundation recently released their annual obesity survey. Then I strum a bar chord, and begin singing:

“F as in Fat” are the obesity rates,

Which now exceed one quarter of over half of all the states.

Colorado is at the bottom, it seems that no one is too large.

But Mississippi has a waistline that’s the size of a barge.

At the end of my set, I thank The Magnetic Fields for closing for me. I bow and walk off stage. Fifteen minutes later, the band goes on.

*

At eight o’ clock the next morning, we stand around the rental van. All ten of us. Mike, Emma, Claudia, Stephin, John, Sam, Shirley, Y-Mike, Craig, and me. Like a giant game of Tetris, we place all our suitcases and instruments in the back of the van. Once this is accomplished, Claudia drives Stephin, John, Sam, Shirley, and Craig to the airport to catch a flight to Austin. The rest of us wait in the lobby for Claudia to return, at which point we will drive to Austin.

Two minutes after leaving the hotel, the GPS flashes an arrow to turn right. Claudia, talking on her cell phone, ignores the instructions and continues straight.

Mike Fusco speaks up. “What are we on, Olive? Claudia, I think maybe you were supposed to turn back there.”

“Wait, what?” says Claudia pulling the phone from her face. “That’s not what my intuition tells me.” She puts the phone back to her face, “Sorry, so…”

The GPS flashes another arrow, this time to the left.

“Claudia, turn left here,” Mike Fusco says.

“Claudia, maybe you shouldn’t be on the phone right now,” I say.

“Yes, Claudia. Off the phone,” Emma agrees.

Claudia speaks into the phone, “Hang on,” annoyed, and then pulls the van over. “Guys, I think I know how to get on the highway. Can we just turn this thing off?” She then continues her phone conversation while the rest of us remain silent. Several cars pass on the left. After she has finished, she pulls back into the traffic. A couple stoplights later, we turn onto a highway entrance ramp. “See!”

The drive to Austin is just over three hours. At some point, I update my Facebook status via my iPhone: Michael is passing through Waco, TX. Claudia is driving.

Emma and Mike decide to update their statuses too, saying similar things. The responses come quickly. I read mine out loud:

Status Updates on your iPhone, dude? from Fiona.

Dr. Pepper Museum! from Jason.

You are clearly the reason they invented the iPhone in the first place, Michael. from Heidi

I think you have an entire car of iPhones, do you not? Say hi to Claudia and Emma and Mike and you for me. from Linsey.

Are you near the cowgirl hall of fame? from Sarah.

“Wait, I want to update my status too!” says Claudia. “How do I update my status? Will someone update my status for me?”

Hot, humid and liberal, Austin is another world compared to Dallas. After checking into our just-off-the-highway Holiday Inn, where normal-sized people walk through the lobby, we go back into town for lunch. At Güero’s Taco Bar, Claudia, Y-Mike, Emma, Mike Fusco, and I devour three bowls of delicious, homemade chips before our orders arrive. Then, after a couple of amazing soft tacos with sides of rice and beans, I’m in serious need for a nap. Unfortunately, sound check is in just a few hours. Claudia and Y-Mike head to the theatre to deal with the equipment. Mike, Emma, and I continue on to the thrift stores. We also make a stop at the Hey Cupcake! van—an old Airstream, which sells a variety of homemade cupcakes—where Mike and Emma buy a box of treats.

At The Paramount Theatre, just like soundcheck the afternoon before, the band is perched on stage performing to an audience of one, the soundman. Y-Mike walks the room from back to front, checking the levels. Stephin sings into his microphone with Deep Fried at his side.

I want to be an artists’ model

An odalisque, au naturel.

I should be good at spin-the-bottle

while I’ve still got something left to sell.

Craig hobbles out from his makeshift office and asks if I’ve talked to the in-house sound engineer. He says they are all union, and that my slide projector might pose a problem.

“What’s going on with your foot?” I ask.

“I had this blister on my toe, and I swear I got something from one of the hotel beds or something. It’s totally infected now. Man, I can hardly walk. Hurts like a motherfucker.”

I unpack my stuff and wait in the wing for the sound engineer. The band switches to another song. Claudia sings:

I was happy

Which is not like me at all

For an hour

I was feeling ten feet tall

And I had myself a ball

I was heading for a fall

“Nobody told us you’d be projecting,” the in-house sound engineer says to me in a defensive voice. “Now we have to call in our projectionist.”

Not wanting to repeat the mistakes I had made with the airport ticketing agent or the doorman in Dallas, I put on a soft voice. “Oh, sorry about that. It’s really not a big deal. I can just set it up myself.”

“No, you can’t,” he says sternly. “We have to call in our projectionist. And it’s gonna cost you $200.”

Craig pulls me aside. “Hey, sorry, man. Is there a way you can do the show without the projector?”

“Ugh. Let me think about it.”

Fortunately, I don’t have to think very hard. After contemplating the idea of holding up 11”x17” photocopies to an audience of a thousand plus, Claudia says, “No, I think you should just use the slides. The slides are pretty cool, and essential to your show. Why don’t you let The Magnetic Fields absorb half the fee, and then we can just take the other half out from your check at the end of the tour.”

That night, I go on just as I had the night before. Only this time, instead of making my usual $200 fee, I pay half of it out. Oh, and the projectionist never shows up. I have to set up my slide projector myself.

*

At 8.15am Claudia and I wake to the obnoxious alarm clock. We had purposefully set it for as late as possible, intending not to shower; there would be time to shower in Boulder. Instead, we quickly wash our faces, brush our teeth, and pack our bags. Just as I am walking out the door with my suitcase, Claudia hollers. I look over my shoulder and see her holding up her empty suitcase, all of its contents spilled across the floor. “I guess I forgot to zip it up.” We both laugh, and then she says, “Can you go down to the lobby and tell the rest of the crew that I’ll be a bit late?” 

At the Austin Airport, the ten of us file through security like a team of ducks. We then wait around at the gate for half an hour, playing with our iPhones and reading magazines. I ask John Woo if he might be willing to carry my slide projector for me, relieving me of extra fees. He is happy to oblige. Soon thereafter, we board the plane and take our seats. I grip the armrest anxiously during takeoff, and only let go once the plane levels off at cruising altitude. Claudia and I watch a videocast by Slate Magazine on my iPhone. It’s a story about Sarah Palin’s hometown, Wasilla, Alaska. I can barely focus on the video. I’m too nervous.

*

After we land at the Denver Airport and the bags are collected, we pile into two minivans and head for Boulder. The drive is just under an hour, with scenery ranging from flat and sparse to the foothills of the colourful Rocky Mountains. As we enter Boulder, the theme song to Mork and Mindy enters my head. Nanu Nanu! The highway turns into the main road, and our hotel is conveniently located just about a mile down.

Claudia and I wheel our suitcases over the tile floors of the lobby and enter the long carpeted hallway. “Is this where they filmed The Shining?” I ask Claudia. The patterned wallpaper and double white doors seem familiar.

“Oh my god, it totally looks like it. I wonder if it is where they filmed it?”

In a little girl voice I say, “Come play with us, forever, and ever, and ever, and ever…” Claudia starts screaming.

By the time we are ready to head to the theatre, the fatigue of the first two days hits me. Then again, perhaps it is just that we are 5,430 feet above sea level and I haven’t yet caught my breath. Thankfully, the Boulder Theatre is much more comfortable than either of the two previous venues. There is an entire downstairs area just for the band, complete with multiple couches and armchairs. Also, attached to the lobby is a small bar, where, after soundcheck, we watch the second presidential debate between Barack Obama and John McCain. Joe the Plumber is mentioned several times, and each time the room shouts liberal, anti-McCain comments back at the television. A couple drinks later I am ready to perform. My act is now feeling fairly well-oiled. I read my stories, sing my songs, and show my slides. The audience responds with applause, cheers, and laughter. Of course, they really just want to see The Magnetic Fields. After my set, I watch from the wing. By now I have a pretty good sense of which of their songs are played when. Certain songs that had previously been my favourites, Papa Was A Rodeo, The Book Of Love, are no longer quite as interesting to me. Songs that I had barely known before, The Nun’s Litany, Walking My Gargoyle, supersede them. Consistently, however, I am won over by the band’s performance of It’s Only Time. Even Shirley, who for this song walks off stage and stands beside me, whispers, “This is the best song!”

Twice during The Magnetic Fields’s performance Claudia gets up from behind the piano complaining of dizziness and sneaks backstage, where she is offered drags from an oxygen tank—a nice amenity for us sea level-visitors. As Claudia runs back toward the stage, she winks at me and says “Gnu!”

For the encore, it’s been worked out that during Three Way, at just the precise moment, I will casually walk across the stage and join Shirley and Claudia to shout the words “three way!”, thus turning ourselves into a trio of women. I had nailed it in Austin. Tonight my timing is off. I shout “three way!” almost an entire beat behind Claudia and Shirley. It sounds ridiculous. I lose my straight face, and start to laugh. The girls also laugh. Then the entire audience cracks up and applauds as I walk off the stage.

The situation with Craig’s infected toe has become absurd. While watching him limp his way around the Atlanta airport, I grab a stray wheelchair and force him to take a seat. I push our tour manager the rest of the way to baggage claim. Good thing we have the day off. Unfortunately, it’s a nasty, rainy day in Atlanta. Instead of venturing into town during our one free evening, Mike, Emma, Stephin, Claudia and I decide to simply have dinner in the hotel restaurant. After a couple drinks, a subject which has come up several times in the past between me, Claudia, and Stephin makes itself present once again: What exactly is the melody line for the 1980s hit song Take On Me?

“I thought we already figured this out,” Claudia says.

“I don’t think it’s been totally settled.”

Claudia sings, “Take on meeeee. Take me on. I’ll be gone. La, la, la, laaaaaa!” Her pitch rises with each syllable. She sings it again, this time with numbers. “It’s, one, seven, eight… Five, up-an-octave, six… Three, four, five… And then up another octave, three, two, one, five.” She takes a deep breath. “It’s like three octaves!”

Stephin says, “You had an interval wrong.” And then, barely moving his lips, he sings his version of the song. It starts in a low rumble, but works its way to a less-low rumble. “Take on meeee. Take me on… I’ll be gone… In a day or two…” He strains to sing the last note, too high for his range.

“Oh, oh, oh, right.” Claudia says quickly. “It’s one, seven, eight. Eight, five, six. Three, seven, eight. Three, two, one, five!”

“Wait, let me try singing it into my iPhone,” I say, opening the Shazam application. I sing into the mouthpiece and wait for a response.

“You were flat on a couple notes,” says Stephin.

I glance at him with narrow eyes, and then look back at my phone. “Ha ha! It found it!” The song begins to play through my phone’s tiny speaker.

“What are the words there anyway?” I ask.

“Shhh shhh shhh,” says Claudia, “Here comes the chorus.”

Just then the waiter walks up. “A-ha!” he says, refilling our waters. “I love A-ha!”

*

My final night. The Atlanta Symphony Hall in the Woodruff Arts Center! Backstage, I walk past four tympanis, eight upright bass cases, and multiple towering white baffles that surround the stage. From centre stage, I look up at the two balconies with their red seats. In the back of the room, under the first balcony, Y-Mike is setting up the mixing board. Behind me, the band has just begun to unpack and setup. Minutes later they are up and running. I get out my laptop as they begin to play California Girls. I decide to record it. I walk around the stage, using the computer’s built-in camera to make a cheap music video. As I pass each band member, they stop playing for just long enough to either make a face, or wave into the camera. That is, except for Shirley, who refuses to let me film her from behind. She slowly spins around in place, staying fixed on the camera the entire time.

At eight p.m., as the doors open, I stand behind the merchandise table with Mike and Emma. I can’t help but smile as the fans storm in. Piercings, dyed hair, girls holding girls’ hands, boys holding boys’ hands, they buy CDs and t-shirts before the show has even started. Some have brought gifts, mostly for Stephin. One boy-girl person with horn-rimmed glasses, rosy cheeks, and baggy clothes hands Emma a small cake with white frosting and says, “Any chance you can give this to Mr. Merritt?”

“Of course,” say Emma and Mike, the smiling faces of The Magnetic Fields.

*

I walk out on stage and once again do my thing. Do I have the audience? Who knows. There is laughter, there is applause. Claudia joins me for the final song, singing the Songs For Newsworthy News theme while I strum the guitar:

What’s the deal?

There’s a guy writing

Song about newsworthy news

Topics that have sparked his interest.

Some are sad,

Some are just plain old bad,

But at least you might learn something

That perhaps you didn’t know before.

In the form of Songs For Newsworthy News!

And then I am done. I sit in the back row and watch The Magnetic Fields perform one final night.

I like your twisted point of view, Mike

I like your questioning eyebrows

You’ve made it pretty clear what you like

It’s only fair to tell you now

that I leave early in the morning

and I won’t be back till next year

I see that kiss-me pucker forming

but maybe you should plug it with a beer.

The next morning, in the van, on the way to the Atlanta Airport, something goes terribly wrong. The left side of my abdomen begins hurting in a way that is all too familiar. I keep quiet and stare at the highway. While waiting in line at the baggage check—me for my flight to New York, and the rest of the crew for their flight to Raleigh, North Carolina, I quietly mention to Claudia that I am fairly certain I’m having a kidney stone.

“Oh no!”

John, Shirley, and Sam all hear her, and turn. “What’s wrong?” they ask.

“Michael’s having a kidney stone!”

“Oh man!” they say.

“It’s okay guys. I get them all the time.”

“Are you kidding?” John asks.

“Seriously, this is like the tenth one I’ve had. I should start collecting them and make a necklace or something. My doctor actually does regular ultrasounds on me, and had seen this one. It was just a matter of time before it started kicking.”

I take several deep breaths. This isn’t exactly the way I had envisioned saying goodbye. Not the way I want to get on an airplane, either. Nonetheless, I hold it together just long enough to bid everyone farewell. I go from one person to another, giving them each a hug, saving Claudia for last. Second to last is Stephin. Knowing very well that he’s not much of a hugger, I offer him a handshake. He looks at my hand and hesitates. But then complies.

“Thanks so much for having me!” I say.

“Oh, thank you,” he says sincerely. A small smile grows out of the corner of his mouth.

I give Claudia a big hug, and then, clenching my teeth, I walk to the security check.

Of course, by the time the three zigzagging lines, which enter from three different directions, all merge together at the x-ray machines, the entire band reappears right next to me.

“Um, hey guys,” I say, feeling slightly stupid. I am now hunched over sideways with my fist pushing into my gut. Claudia helps me lift my suitcase onto the conveyer belt. I walk through the machine and show my boarding pass to the TSA officer.

“You alright?” he asks.

“Yeah, I said. Think I might have a kidney stone or something, but no big deal.”

“Oh man,” he says. “I get those too. I’m so sorry. You know, you should drink some lemonade.”

“Wow, you do know it well,” I say. “I know the lemonade trick—citrus is the key. Thanks!”

“Good luck with that.”

And just then, I kid you not, my pain goes away. In fact, it is later confirmed by my doctor that the stone did pass. My doctor speculated that in the airport the stone had started to move, and then somehow broke apart, alleviating me from any drawn-out agony. I’m fairly certain it was either the x-ray machine or the kindness of the TSA officer. Either way, I headed home.

_________

AND A WORD FROM MIKE

This morning I walked down to the farmer’s market on 5th Avenue in Park Slope, Brooklyn to pick up a few things for dinner. By the time I reached the fish vendor, Claudia had arrived pushing Eve along in her stroller. Now fourteen months old, baby Eve Gonson has enough dexterity to reach up to me and wave. I think she has a little bit of a crush on me.

Claudia’s appearance at the market was not a coincidence; she had sent me a text message fifteen minutes earlier:

“Morning! Heading to market at noon.”

“I’m here at Market. Come now,” I responded.

“Will try. I gotta baby as you know. She’s just finishing eating, then we gotta get her dressed and out.”

“Wait? You have a baby?” I said. I included an emoticon of a smiling frog.

“You got a smiley frog face??”

Indeed, Claudia has a child. Eve Rose Gonson was brought to the world with a little help from modern science. And although she is fatherless in the traditional sense, her paternal needs are more than made up by Claudia, as well as myself, Mike, Emma, Fiona, Tanya, Sarah, Brenden, Gabrielle, Kelly, Anthony, and countless other friends who surround Claudia at all times.

In the meantime, the Magnetic Fields machine continues to churn. They are currently preparing to tour again this coming spring to support a new album. Claudia is nervous about how she’s going to handle the situation with Eve. Some way or another it will all work out, I’m certain. It always does. And in the past two years, Stephin, Claudia, Sam, John, and Shirley have been busy promoting their prior releases: Obscurities, and Realism, as well as a feature-length documentary about the band called Strange Powers.

More recently, in between singing nursery rhymes to Eve, Claudia took the time to lend her vocals to my band One Ring Zero’s latest album, The Recipe Project. For this album I asked a handful of celebrity chefs to contribute recipes, which Joshua Camp (co-composer) and I then set to music, in a style suggested by the chef, and sung word for word. In the case superstar chef David Chang and his recipe for Maine Jonah Crab Claws With Yuzu Mayonnaise, he mentioned that one of his favorite bands was the Magnetic Fields. It was a no-brainer to ask Claudia to sing the song. All I needed to do was bounce Eve while Claudia gingerly crooned into the microphone, “Defrost the crab claws according to the shippers’ directions…”

Similarly, I asked Tanya Donelly (of the Throwing Muses, Breeders, Belly) to sing vegan chef Isa Chandra Moskowitz’ recipe for Peanut Butter Brunttes. We recorded the vocals in Boston at Claudia’s parents’ house.

Soon after, Tanya, who had been busy raising her own two daughters, decided she also wanted to return to the stage. She asked Claudia and I to be her backing band, along with Sam Davol, Rick Moody, Hannah Marcus, and Carrie Bradley. We have two shows coming up next week; one in New York, and one in Boston. Perhaps Mike and Emma will be available to babysit.