In what some would consider to be an unfortunate event in itself, I rolled out of bed at 6:30am on a Saturday to head to the western suburbs and catch a children’s book celebration. Ouch.
Why would someone do this? Well, the book was the 13th and final installment of A Series of Unfortunate Events by reclusive author Lemony Snickett, along with the musical accompaniment of The Gothic Archies.
ROCK AND ROLL!!!!
But enough with the pseudonyms. Snickett (who’s never been seen) is the penname of the mordantly funny and slightly effeminate Daniel Handler. The Gothic Archies is the most recent nom-de-plum of Stephin Merritt. The prolific singer/ songwriter/ producer/ collaborator that has made fantastic albums under the names Future Bible Heroes, The 6ths, and most recognizably The Magnetic Fields.
I had no knowledge of the Unfortunate Events series (except for the some semblance of a Jim Carrey film) until Anderson's Bookshop hooked me up with a copy of the book. Despite being utterly clueless, the opportunity to see (and ideally meet) the seldom-touring Merritt was too much of an opportunity to pass up.
It was obvious, as we waited in a line that curved around the block, that Merritt was an obscure footnote in this J.K.Rowling-esque obsession. The cue was mostly made up, as I assumed, of youth -- all clutching their new Snickett book. Well… youth, their parents, a smattering of hipsters and Carol Marin. Some of the kids were dressed as characters from the novel... mostly Violet: the eldest of the polite, book-loving orphan protagonist Baudelaire children.
At 9:30 the doors opened and people started heading into The Tivoli Theatre -- a gorgeous restored movie house. Merritt and Handler simultaneously took the stage, but it was definitely Handler’s show. He strode to centerstage and gleefully introduced Mr. Lemony Snickett with a sweeping gesture and a swell of applause. As the clapping subsided and no one emerged from the curtains the elders in the crowd who were “in” on the joke let out a little snicker. The kids were less jovial about the ordeal and disappointed that the Tivoli marquee, “Welcome Lemony Snickett”, was an out-and-out lie.
Handler then suggested the crowd should do the “Peter Pan thing” and applaud SO loud that Snicket should magically appear. The kids put in an honest second-effort but would quickly learn that Handler takes delight in disappointing children for the sake of entertainment –- a hobby shared by the author’s delightfully evil antagonist, Count Olaf.
“HONESTLY! Why would he [Snickett] lie to children!!!?,” Handler mused loudly, grabbing one of his books from the hands of an aisle-seated youth. “…Aside from the fact that it's easy. And fun." The kids, at some point, were also in on the joke and took delight in Handler’s antics and boisterous delivery -- even when the content of his quips were well over their heads.
Really bad photo of Merritt (right) and Snickett's untouched drumkit (left).
Amidst this highly-animated meanness, Merritt plucked the ukelee to the tune of his new Gothic Archies songs (an album which dedicates a song to each of Snickett’s thirteen books.) Between Handler’s silliness, the author would pick up his accordion to join Merritt in their songs. Merritt, who played the straightman to all of Handler’s hi-jinks, played very little and sang even less.
The Gothic Archies album, The Tragic Treasury: Songs from A Series of Unfortunate Events was TECHNICALLY co-written by Merritt and Snickett. But truth be told, Handler plays the accordion pretty well. In fact, Handler played keyboard and accordion on Merritt’s biggest success to date -- The Magnetic Fields’ massive pop genre-hopper 69 Love Songs.
Live, the diminutive Merritt’s voice is striking, a most unnatural baritone that resonated throughout the cinema. His foreboding (and sometimes nearly comical) delivery fits perfectly in Snickett’s playfully gloomy world. Sometimes buried in studio wizzardy or lo-fi recordings, Merritt’s vocals in-person were powerful -- most remarkably on their song “This Abyss”.
Merritt exited mid-show in a staged fit of embarrassment, as Handler complained aloud about the musician’s “incessant one-chord strumming”. The author then dragged two volunteers out of the crowd to use percussive instruments. Handler thrust a noise-maker at the older volunteer saying, “Here. Hold this. And when I give the signal, throttle it like a baby.”
At this point, with Merritt definitely not coming back, my entourage began to sneak back to the lobby in the hopes of talking to the reclusive artist. Not that I had anything logical to say to him. After blinking at eachother for a second, Merritt dead-panned "It's too early." It was. It wasn't even noon in rainy Downers Grove. And when I realized how burned-out I was, I imagined Stephin, with the tour not half over, travelling and playing second fiddle (read: ukelee) every morning at 10, he must be flat-out exhausted. In the spirit of the celebration, Merritt told me to frown for a picture. He then signed my pal's CD, writing "Beware of Brian. Brian is a spy." He's on to me.
Stephin It's-Too-Early Merritt: "Frown. Frown. Frown. Frown."
Elsewhere in the Tivoli, famed author & graphic novelist Neil Gaiman was shaking hands and signing autographs too. An unexpected but exciting addition to the days events. I personally didn’t know who Gaiman was, but the level of “freaked-outedness” that my friend displayed told me that the guy was kind of a big deal.
That said, the trip out to Da Burbs was well worth it. Though Merritt’s stage time was minimal, Handler was able to keep the attention of people with a near-zero attention span – that being me, my friends, and a crowd of 10 year olds.
Scaring Small Children