The Magnetic Fields at The Sound Academy, March 30th 2012

“You can’t bring that in there.”

I resisted the urge to swear and turned around. The security guard shining her light into Dani Couture‘s bag was shaking her head. My ticket had already been scanned, but I turned and walked back to the doors. Despite the pleasant fog of four glasses of pinot grigio, which I’d downed during Prohibition’s “hooch hour” earlier in the evening, I accepted my responsibility for the trouble Dani was having getting in. It was at least half my fault.

“They’re chocolate chips. I was going to make cookies later.” Dani was trying to appeal to reason.

The security guard shook her head again. “No outside food or drink.”

In addition to the bag of chocolate chips, Dani’s bag was stuffed full of a hilarious assortment of groceries, including two trays of dim sum that I’d purchased (sesame balls and bbq pok buns) and a full box of panda cookies with strawberry filling.

We really did try and cram the whole world in there.

“Can we check it?”

“No, we don’t take bags. But you can hide it in a bush outside.”

“What?” This sounded suspiciously like a scheme I would have come up with.

The security guard nodded sagely. “Here, let me find you a bag.” She quickly returned with a yellow No Frills plastic grocery bag. Dani and I looked at each other shrugged. After tying our food as securely as we could in the bag, we ran outside, found the safest-looking shrub we could and stuffed the food under it.

“Thanks for the bag,” I said to the security guard as she waved us through.

“No problem. People do it all the time, and it’s cool enough out tonight that the buns should be fine.”

We conceded that she had a good point, and joined Grace, Evan and Cliff inside. They had been watching us drunkenly squirrel our ill-considered snacks away with the same expressions people wear when their blackout-drunk friends think talking to the cops is a good idea: with indulgent amusement, but also like they were prepared to say, “we’ve never met these women before in our lives,” if need be.

“If they hadn’t opened up terrible food stalls in this place, I would be holding a pork bun right now,” I grumped as we all walked in together.

“Ah, the stench of onion rings. Now I hate the Sound Academy even more.” Grace wrinkled her nose.

The venue was a little less than half full. Most of the room was standing, heads tilted and postures contrapposto, but a few tables were scattered about as well. On stage, Bachelorette sampled her own dreamy voice, creating loops of hums and trills over a poppy but slightly melancholy synth base. I wished the drinks were cheaper.

“The last time I was here I was roofied.” I wasn’t kidding. The urine test had recently come back, and traces of rohypnol were still in my system two days after I had suddenly felt dizzy, left the Sound Academy in a cab, and spent the rest of the night babbling incoherently.

My friends all grimaced. “Are you okay being here?”

I nodded. “I’m just drinking out of cans from now on.”

Bachelorette finished her set and left the stage. There was a general rush to the bar for refills.

“Let’s get closer,” Dani suggested.

“I got this.”

I barely needed to use my elbows at all to get the five of us comfortably situated in the third row. The hipster crowd was much more person-space sensitive that the average metal crowd.

I spend the vast majority of my time listening to aggressive music. There is something about heavy metal that moves me like most other music does not. There is a visceral charge, a palpable, very physical energy that makes the listening experience completely different, especially in a live setting. While I sometimes encounter a pop song or a bit of hip hop that briefly attracts my attention, it always ends up being a brief affair, a casual bit of flirting. When it comes to metal, I am happily married and will always come back home.


Ah, but then there are the Magnetic Fields. This is the one musical affair that I can’t seen to set aside, the one real bit of inconsistency in my taste. All the other weird things that I like made a kind of sense — sure, I like musical theatre, but I also love power metal, so it all sort of has an accord. But the Magnetic Fields don’t make the same kind of sense. They are gentle, melancholy, stalwartly acoustic and analog, winsome and whimsical, cynical but with hope. They play with emotional tones and textures, most of them romantic in nature, with the same sense of blithe experimentation as they apply to their choice of instrumentation (which range from cello to kazoo). Their subtle tenderness is something that I should sneer at — and yet, their hooks have a hold deep in my heart.

I could feel my throat closing a little as the crew set up the chairs for the ukelele strummer/vocalist, cellist and acoustic guitar player. Stephin Merritt’s multi-instrument station was set up, the mic carefully angled. Claudia Gonson’s upright piano and mic were adjusted lovingly. The last time I saw the Magnetic Fields, I went by myself and spent the night texting pictures to someone I wished fervently was sitting next to me, clutching my hand during the most romantic moments. That person is dead now, and I came to hate him long before. Suddenly, the huge room seemed coffin-close. I almost turned and wordlessly walked out.

But then, the band walked on stage, each member taking their place with a kind of easy humility, and I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.

The Magnetic Fields. If you look close, you can see us in the third row.

The Magnetic Fields band have an effortless kind of rapport, and related to each other with a kind of innate tenderness that seems on the verge of telepathic. Only Claudia Gonson and Stephin Merritt talked to each other on stage, Stephin making horrified faces at Claudia’s awful puns and as they discussed the origin of the Magnetic Fields as a Stephin Merritt cover band – Stephin himself was only convinced to join the project when he went to a show and realized how unhappy he was with how his work was being interpreted. They all played their instruments as though they were simply breathing, with a perfectly natural pleasure and ease. The chemistry they have is a beautiful thing to watch.

Stephin Merritt!

Earlier in the evening, while drinking too much wine in preparation for the catharsis I was expecting, Dani, Grace and I each made a list of our top three the Magnetic Fields songs. Each of us had one of our top three songs played. When my selection, “Book of Love” (I am a bit of a sap) began, I could not resist pumping my fist in the air in triumph. Merritt said that it would be the song they played at his funeral, that “it will be played like this,” and the rendition the Magnetic Fields treated us to was a much more down-tempo, minor-key version than I have heard before. Grace got “It’s Only Time” from her list as well, and Dani got to hear “You Must Be Out Of Your Mind.” They played a lot of newer material as well, as they are promoting their recently released record Love At The Bottom Of The Sea. The revenge fantasy numbers “Your Girlfriend’s Face” and “My Husband’s Pied-a-terre” went over particularly well with the crowd. I absolutely adored the more mournful, sinister piece “I’ve Run Away To Join The Fairies,” which showcased Merritt’s morbidity more effectively that I have heard since his work on the delightfully creepy soundtrack to Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.

After returning for an encore, the Magnetic Fields played “Busby Berkeley Dreams” as the very last song of their set. Stephin Merritt’s lugubrious baritone positively ached during the choruses. The tightness returned to my throat.

“Do you remember which bush it was?” I looked around vaguely, as though scanning a parking lot. Then one of us spotted a bit of yellow plastic poking out from beneath a shrub and we jogged over.

“It’s fine!” I ripped the plastic trying to get at my dim sum as fast as possible.

“I was sure a raccoon was going to eat it.” Cliff was watching us divide the groceries as though something slightly supernatural had just occurred.

I selected a sesame ball from one of the trays. The strangely glutinous exterior gave way under my fingers when I pinched it. The sensation of my teeth shearing the strange little dumpling felt uncomfortably like biting into flesh. Sesame seeds stuck to my lips.

“It tastes great,” I said, crying down the back of my throat.

2 Responses to “The Magnetic Fields at The Sound Academy, March 30th 2012”

  1. kim

    Hey Natalie,

    It was so amazing to find your site today. I feel so much the same about metal. The amazing viseral connection, feeling the vibration of the music connecting with my organs. The pounding music blasting out everything else in the world. It’s only been 6 months or so since i have started attending events of this kind but I swear i cant get enough! It’s hard though, i’m a 36yr old chick that knows no one that even remotely enjoys the music i do. I’ve brought my husband out a few time because it wasn’t easy to attend by myself. Since though i’ve given up trying to find people to accompany me! I’ve been to a number of shows in hamilton (and a few in TO) and met a few people but social anxiety prevents me from really getting to know the other people there.

    I have thought about writing about my experiences when I go and have actually talked to a guy that puts together shows in the hammer about doing reviews.

    Anyway just had to write you and let you know how much I connected with your writing!

    Thanks Kim

  2. NatalieZed


    Thank you so much for your comment; you made my day. Connecting with people through writing is one of the reasons I do this crazy thing to begin with, and it is wonderful to hear that I have succeeded. 🙂

    I completely and totally understand the pressures of anxiety, but if you ever find yourself at a Toronto show, please don’t hesitate to say hello.

    all the best,



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