The critic Lester Bangs once wrote that there is no greater sin for an artist than contempt for their audience. Magnetic Fields pianist and vocalist Claudia Gonson was practically radiating it when she stepped onto the stage of Philadelphia’s Trocadero theater this past Saturday, a full hour after the band was scheduled to begin their set. Without bothering to introduce herself, she informed the near capacity crowd of fans that she “requests your full and utter attention,” and then proceeded to lecture them that “we are the kind of band that likes to have readings before we go one, so if you want to talk, please do it somewhere far away.”
Author Rick Moody was then essentially thrown to the lions to satisfy some faux-literary whim, sent out with a local musician to perform a pair of mind-numbingly repetitive selections from his recent work, fetishizing mothers and “boys,” respectively. Moody was gracious and humorous, however, with a tongue-in-cheek aside to the restless crowd to calm down, and an exit “thank you” that seemed both heartfelt and relieved. Moody certainly demonstrated more class than Gonson, who followed her band mates onstage only to user her microphone to first “shh” the crowd. The audience, which had now been waiting over two hours, was held in further suspense until MF songwriter, singer and focal point Stephin Merritt made a protracted entrance to great applause several minutes after the rest of the group.
Merritt is one of the most talented songwriters in popular music, with an ear for melody and lyrical depth that belies his often ostentatiously grim public persona, giving his compositions a power and intimacy that makes many other songwriters seem trite by comparison. His masterpiece, up to this point, has been the three CD opus 69 Love Songs, where the often intensely private subject matter is made encompassing and timeless by an openly gay songwriter who writes about tenderness, longing and betrayal from a universal (and often hetero) perspective. The album was the soundtrack for one of the nicest affairs I’ve had in recent years, a summer-winter fling with a Southern photographer who I bought the set for as a coming-to-New York present and, more importantly, as one of the countless ways in everyday life that people use the music others create to express their own emotions.
That is why, even given Ms. Gonson’s patronizing, hectoring tone, I was deeply elated when the Magnetic Fields (also including guitarist John Woo and cellist Sam Davol) began their set, leading off with “Love is Like Jazz” (“you make it up as you go along”), which quickly segued into Stephin’s solo ukulele and voice turn on “A Pretty Girl Is Like…” The latter was frequently interrupted by cacophonous conversation and laughter from patrons who had lost interest during Rick Moody’s reading and could now not be coaxed back from the two bars on the venue’s second floor. Merritt started another solo number, but stopped midway, as Gonson again admonished the crowd, who by this point were having a sporadic go at one another along the lines of “Shut Up!” and “You shut up! You’re a fascist!” The band then kicked out the jams as much as a drummerless, string-based quartet can with an uptempo rendition of the wonderful “The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side,” preformed on the album by Dudley Klute, but here with Stephin acquitting himself fine, vocally speaking. The tune was greeted with thunderous applause and whistles, but by this point an ugly dynamic had settled on the crowd, pitting those who wanted to treat the event as a holy museum piece or a sit-down in some particularly severe church against those who had blown off the band entirely and were now chatting and guffawing away, oblivious to majority who were there to enjoy the music. The band continued for a few more numbers (including an excellent “Come Back From San Francisco”), but the struggle was lost. Announcing their last song a little under an hour after they had come onstage, the band left and returned for two encores, Gonson singing “Acoustic Guitar” and Merritt performing “Love Is Like A Bottle of Gin,” one of the most perfect pop songs, lyrically and musically, that I’ve ever heard.
Milling about with the downstairs crowd towards the end of the show, I couldn’t help but notice how young most of them seemed. In their teens and early twenties, they were much younger than the hipsters who usually go see the band or its offshoots when they play in my (and the group’s) hometown of New York City. Mostly young guys with their dates, who all plainly loved the music and were thrilled to see the band play live. I couldn’t help but feel a bit sorry for these kids, who had obviously spent as much time in their homes listening to the album as a 27-year-oldster like me had, and had probably been looking forward to this thing for months.
They wanted to hear a bunch of beautiful love songs and share an evening with someone dear and instead had been treated to the condescension of a ruling-class diva and a contingent so initially turned off by her that they tuned out the whole rest of the show at the expense of everyone else. The shame of it is that I’ve seen John Cale mesmerize a group of drunken college students by simply singing and playing his keyboard. I’ve heard stories of Jeff Buckley playing “Lilac Wine” in front of raucous Italian soccer fans who wept and sang along, or “Hallelujah” in tough rock dives where you could have heard a pin drop for the song’s duration.
Many times, fans come with unconditional love for works of art that found a way into their lives at a pivotal time, and a performer can in turn, more often than not, draw on that reservoir of goodwill. But an artist should never, ever, take their audience for granted, because by the time they realize how grave an error that is, the audience may have, as was evidenced at the Trocadero, already turned away.