The Annotated Stephin Merritt
Songs are grouped by band, then by release in chronological order
From the Magnetic Fields album Distant Plastic Trees:
Railroad Boy 

The title "Railroad Boy" was possibly borrowed from the traditional song of the same name, which has been performed by Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, among others. 

Here is an excerpt from the original folk song: 
She went upstairs to make her bed 
And not one word to her mother said. 
Her mother she went upstairs too 
Saying, "Daughter, oh daughter, what's troublin' you?": 

"Oh mother, oh mother, I cannot tell 
That railroad boy that I love so well. 
He courted me my life away 
And now at home will no longer stay." 


"Whale embryos filled your enormous room" 

The Enormous Room is an autographical book by e. e. cummings, which recalls his experiences about being detained in France before the first World War.  The "enormous room" is the prison in which he was kept, with other unlucky captives who, like cummings, were falsely accused of treason.

Living in an Abandoned Firehouse with You 

"I saw you today at the Café Blase" 

Stephin is referring to the Café Blase located in Provincetown, Massachusetts, at the tip of Cape Cod.  Take note of the references to the sea in the song: 

. Nameless seaside ghost town...that's where I go when I see the moon. 
. Take me out to the beach and I'll tell you my secret name   
Take me under the sea and we'll derail the trains. 

Here is a description and address of Café Blase, taken from the Provincetown web site ( 
Café Blase 
328 Commercial St. (between Freeman and Standish), 487-9465. 
Elegant European-styled sidewalk cafe offering wide variety of frozen cocktails & bar drinks and creative foods. Ideal place to dine under the sun or stars with an unmatched view of Provincetown's Street scene. 

From the Magnetic Fields album The Wayward Bus:
The Wayward Bus is the title of a John Steinbeck novel, containing character studies of people riding in a bus on the backroads of California.  It was made into a movie in 1957 starring Joan Collins and Jayne Mansfield, which probably should be avoided.
When You Were My Baby 

Musically, several songs on The Wayward Bus pay respect to the work of Phil Spector, but lyrically, there are also similarities.  In particular, the liberal use of the word . baby. is notable.  Quite a few songs produced by Phil Spector have the word . baby. in their titles, and Stephin was most likely following suit: 
The Ronettes:  . Be My Baby,. . Baby, I Love You,. . Soldier Baby of Mine,. . You Baby,. . Blues for Baby.  
The Crystals:  . Oh Yeah Maybe Baby,. . There. s No Other (Like My Baby).  
Darlene Love:  . Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),. . Johnny (Baby Please Come Home).  
Bob B. Soxx & Blue Jeans:  . Jimmy Baby,. . Baby (I Love You),. . Dear (Here Comes My Baby).  
Ike and Tina Turner:  . Hold on Baby,. . Oh Baby! (Things Ain. t What They Used to Be).  
Dion:  . Baby Let. s Stick Together.

Old Orchard Beach 

There is an Old Orchard Beach in the New York City area, and it is also a city in Maine.


"Random driving around with you in my dilapidated car  
like Isadora Duncan II in impossibly long white scarves" 
Isadora Duncan (1878-1927) was a popular and eccentric American dancer.  These lyrics refer to her unusual death in Nice, on the French Riviera.  A long silk scarf that was partially wrapped around her neck and body trailed behind the car in which she was riding; the scarf became entangled around one of the wheels, hurled her from the car, and strangled her.

From the Magnetic Fields EP The House of Tomorrow:
Technical (You. re So) 

This song, in part, is a tip of the hat to Laurie Anderson, the spiky-haired androgynous musician/artist/goddess who has recorded such electronics-laden songs as "O Superman" and "Sharkey's Day." 

"You're so technical, baby.  Are you a boy or a girl?" 

John Bigboote suggested that this line is a nod to David Bowie. s "Rebel Rebel," which has the following line: 
"She's not sure if you're a boy or a girl" 

"You look like Herbert von Karajan" 

Herbert von Karajan (1908-1989) was a notable conductor, with over 800 albums to his name.  Perhaps his most famous recording is of Richard Strauss. s Also Sprach Zarathustra for the soundtrack of the film 2001: a Space Odyssey.

From the Magnetic Fields album Holiday:
Torn Green Velvet Eyes 

I've read that the title was taken from a poem, but I have no specifics.  Help!

Swinging London 

"You couldn't grok my racecar, but you dug the roadside blur" 

Sci-fi aficionados will recognize "grok" as a Martian word coined by Robert Heinlein in his book Stranger in a Strange Land.  Basically, it means "to profoundly understand," but here is what a character in the book says about it: 
"'Grok' means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed - to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in group experience.  It means almost everything that we mean by religion, philosophy, and science - and it means as little to us [because we are from Earth] as color means to a blind man."

From the Magnetic Fields album The Charm of the Highway Strip:
In the nearly unreadable liner notes, the quote is provided from which the album title was taken: 

"Let us hope that the merits and charm of the highway strip are not so obscure but that they will be accepted by the wider public" - J. B. Jackson, 1956 

Here is an excerpt of a review of Jackson's book Landscape in Sight : Looking at America from Amazon
"During a long and distinguished career, John Brinckerhoff Jackson (1909-1996) brought about a new understanding and appreciation of the American landscape.  Jackson founded Landscape Magazine in 1951, taught at Harvard University and the University of California at Berkeley, and wrote nearly two hundred essays and reviews." 

For years, Stephin studied with John R. Stilgoe, who was a pupil of Jackson.

I Have the Moon 

You may have figured out that "Crowd of Drifters" is about vampires, but you may be surprised to find out that "I Have the Moon" also has a vampire theme.  It is sung from the point of view of a vampire who has bitten his lover once.  To avoid getting a second bite, which would cause him to also become a vampire, the lover flies around the world in a plane to evade the nighttime.

Two Characters in Search of a Country Song 

This title is a reference to the play Six Characters in Search of an Author, written by Luigi Pirandello.  Here is a synopsis from Amazon
"Luigi Pirandello's masterpiece, Six Characters in Search of an Author, presents the playwright's views about the isolation of the individual from society and from himself. This play within a play chronicles six characters as they seek an author to tell their story, and to present their real lives on stage. But do their realities make better tales than fiction?"

From the Magnetic Fields single "I Don't Believe You":
I Don't Believe You 

"You may sing me 'They Were You,' and I start crying halfway through" 

"They Were You" is a song from the musical The Fantasticks

(thanks to Brian Antonak for this info)

From the 6ths album Wasps' Nests:
San Diego Zoo 

"Highway 405 will take you from the Boom Boom Room 
to Interstate 5 which goes right to the San Diego Zoo" 

The Boom Boom Room is a gay club in Laguna, California.  Here is the listing found on the Sidewalk San Diego web site
Boom Boom Room 
1401 S. Coast Highway 
(949) 494-7588 
The rambling complex at the Coast Inn is packed with tan, toned bodies, especially on weekends.  The front room has a large central bar, two pool tables, and such embellishments as a pressed-tin ceiling and hurricane shutters. A small room with a pool table connects this bar to the rear one, which has a fabulous 8-foot-long tropical fish tank and soft amber lighting. Off this is the small dance bar. Crowd: 75/25 m/f, varied ages, but mostly under 35 on weekends, touristy, well-heeled, occasionally attitudey but fairly down-to-earth.

Looking for Love (in the Hall of Mirrors) 

In this song, the Hall of Mirrors is a fictitious gay club, and its name is possibly a nod to Kraftwerk's "The Hall of Mirrors" on their Trans-Europe Express album. 

"There's a dark place down by the tracks where the wrinkles don't show 
They've got a room in the back where the lonely hearts go 
You can get in on the act or just take in the show" 

These lines refer to a theory that Stephin and Claudia have, that gay bars are always located near railroad tracks.

Yet Another Girl (from the Wasps' Nests 6 6/6" boxed set) 

"Mademoiselle Chelsea Hotel, prettiest in all the world" 

This line refers to the Chelsea Hotel located in New York City.  The following description was taken from a Berenice Abbott page
"Built in 1884 when 23rd Street was the center of fashionable New York, the Chelsea Hotel was architecturally conservative -- its 12-story brick walls are load-bearing -- and lavishly decorated. By the 1930s, it had been the home of several illustrious writers, including O. Henry, Thomas Wolfe, and Edgar Lee Masters, who appreciated its shabby elegance." 

See the entry below for "Amnesia" for more info.

From the Future Bible Heroes album Memories of Love:
Blond Adonis 

"Blond Adonis on the endless Autobahn" 
"My computer-generated face is all the rage" 

These lines are probably references to the pioneering electronic music outfit Kraftwerk, of which Stephin is a fan.  Autobahn is the title of their 1974 album, and Kraftwerk has tracks titled "Europe Endless" and "Endless Endless" on their Trans-Europe Express album.  The "computer-generated face" could be referring to the cover of Computer World or Electric Café.

From the Future Bible Heroes EP Lonely Days:
How to Get Laid in Japanese 

Apparently, Stephin has been studying a Japanese phrasebook.  Here is an English translation: 

"tabako wa ikaga desu ka" 
How about a cigarette? 

"dare ka ga o machi desu ka" 
Are you waiting for someone? 

"yoru ga sugiyootoshiteimasu" 
The night is almost over. 

"hoteru ni o mukae ni kimasu" 
I'll pick you up at the hotel. 

"dono ban ni ikimashoo ka" 
What night do you want to go? 

"o taku made okuri shimashoo ka" 
Can I give you a ride home? 

"o hitori desu ka" 
Are you alone? 

"asu o shinji ni ikimasen ka" 
Don't you live for tomorrow? 

(thanks to Sarah Collins and her friends)

Unreleased songs

"You mustn't put the sun in your mouth 
She's the filthiest thing in the world 
She gets really dirty when she sets in the South 
You know she can't help it, she's a Chelsea girl" 

Knowing Stephin's admiration for Andy Warhol and Nico, this might be a reference to Warhol's film Chelsea Girls (which features the Chelsea hotel prominently) and/or Nico's album Chelsea Girl

See the entry above for "Yet Another Girl" for more info. 

Robey Pointer provides this explanation: 
"A 'Chelsea girl' is probably referring to a New York, Chelsea is a district that used to be a dump a long time ago, and is now some kind of posh, semigay area.  A 'Chelsea boy' would be some club-o-matic buffed guy who wore very little clothing and looked identical to all other Chelsea boys."

As You Turn to Go 

"I know you've had more love than Mata Hari" 

This mini-history was found on (of all places) a site for software called "Mata Hari"
"In reality, no person named Mata Hari ever existed. Mata Hari was the stage name adopted by Margaretha Zell, a dark and beautiful Dutch woman born in 1876, who became an exotic dancer and then a World War I spy. To increase her mystery, she fabricated wild stories about her background. At the height of her popularity, having danced in burlesque houses throughout Europe, Mata Hari had become a household name, and her picture adorned advertisements for everything from cigarettes to tea.  

Her spying began through a series of wealthy lovers. It is undisputed that she spied for the Germans beginning in 1916 under the codename H-21, using such exotic spycraft as invisible ink and other techniques. Many claim that she also spied for the French as a double agent.  

According to a permanent exhibit devoted to her at the Fries Museum in the Netherlands, it was while on a mission for the French to Brussels that British custom officials first questioned her about her activities. This inquiry - and later denials by the French that she was working for them - led to her arrest in Paris in February 1917. After a highly-publicized trial, she was executed by a French firing squad in October of that year.  

Mata Hari literally means 'eye of the day' in Malaysian, but is symbolic of the sun."

Additions are welcome!  Mail me at krebnar at wiw dot org.  I left out references and lyrical interpretations that I thought were fairly apparent, otherwise this list would be enormous.

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