Stephin Merritt: "What I had in my head was 'Lizzie Borden took an ax and gave her mother 40 whacks'"

At Words With Friends, that is. Magnetic Fields singer shares the secrets of his first book, "101 Two-Letter Words"

Published October 19, 2014 9:00PM (EDT)

Stephin Merritt        (Marcelo Krasilcic)
Stephin Merritt (Marcelo Krasilcic)

Stephin Merritt is one obsessively good Words With Friends player. That might have something to do with having just written a new book of poems for each of the 101 two-letter words that allow Scrabble players to run words alongside words, multiply their scores, and deploy those valuable X's and Q's and Z's for the most points possible.

Since we had lunch a couple of weeks ago to talk about "101 Two-Letter Words" -- a four-line poem for each tiny word, accompanied by a Roz Chast cartoon -- each iPhone ding signifying a new word has filled me with dread. "Inveighs" for a triple-word plus the seven-letter bonus. "Moisten" as an opening play. "Zeal" run alongside "piranhas." Most irritating, a late charge to steal a game by three points, 414-412, when I thought I might have had him.

The book reads as sneaky smart as Merritt's game, and that shouldn't be any surprise. As the singer/songwriter of the Magnetic Fields and the mastermind of a bevy of musical offshoots like the Sixths, Gothic Archies and Future Bible Heroes, I'd make the case that Merritt has written more great songs in the last 25 years than most anyone. They're songs of lust and longing, of jealousy and the heart, sometimes heartbreaking and funny at the same time, and all of which would feel right at home in the Great American Songbook.

"101 Two-Letter Words" has that same mordant wit. They're pretty irresistible, whether your taste runs to creepy folk tales, sexual perversion, or you just have a dictionary or punctuation fetish. You'll learn the difference between an "ai" and an "al." You might finally be able to define "za," "ka" and "xu." And it may even improve your Words With Friends game -- provided, of course, that you're not playing with Merritt. Our conversation has been lightly edited and condensed.

How did your obsession with two-letter Scrabble words get started? Was it simply playing lots more Words With Friends while leading a touring musician's life?

It’s hard to tour carrying a large book because I keep having to carry things on the airplane. So I carry only small books, and then I run out of book in the middle of the flight. Or often we change planes. So, although I read a lot, sometimes I have nothing to do for hours on end on tour, so I started playing a lot of Scrabble and Words With Friends online. I quickly found that I wasn’t very good at it, chiefly because I couldn’t remember all those dang two-letter words. And I started writing myself little mneumonic poems about them -- and eventually it occurred to me that I could just write all of them and publish it.

Had you always been a Scrabble person or was this a new hobby?

I was a precocious 10-year-old Scrabble player, but I’m not tournament quality at all.

Serious players probably knew all of these. But it feels like the rest of us started playing that way with Words With Friends. Somehow I played the game different off the board. 

I think the tournament players always know all of the two-letter words and always use them in clever ways. The “ax,” “ox,” and “ex” tricks are very important, I think.

And then you learn the other ones ... 

... where would we be without “xi” and “xu.”

When I Googled the list of two-letter words, I didn't even know what those meant. Still couldn't tell you what "ka" or "ki" or "jo" or "xu" means, or even how to pronounce some of them. 

The Scottish ones in particular were all new to me …

You simply have to memorize them in some ways, the same way you have to just learn the words that work with a “q” and no “u.” It's not like the game makes you use them in a sentence.

I was thinking I should do a very small companion book of “q” without “u” …

That could be the online extra. "Qat," "faqir," "suq" ...

I’m just waiting for them to say, “Oh my god! We need an online extra! Quick, do the ‘q’ without ‘u’.” Or there’s the four new ones — the new Scrabble Dictionary came out with four additional two-letter words. But the online version doesn’t recognize those yet. So I’m safe for now.

We’ll have to update all of our apps. So you must have had a similar process of figuring out this list and realizing you had to have a way to keep them all in mind. That’s when you started working out mneumonic devices for them.

Quickly I had 3 x 5 cards. Then I had 3 x 5 cards on the wall.

Which means it was fun right away if it turns into a project like that. What were the words you didn't know, that you had to look up and figure out?

The Hebrew letter “pe,” for example. And “xu,” the Vietnamese hundredth of a dong. But you know, foreign currencies are good to know in Scrabble because there’s those Turkish words — the “q’s” without “u’s” that are good to know.

That explains what a “suq” must be.

A “suq” is a bazaar or a marketplace. (laughs) S-U-Q.

See? Another Scrabble word that if I had to use it in a sentence, it would be a massive embarrassment ...

Let’s go to the “suq.” Well, I read in the new Scrabble Dictionary there’s a new spelling of "kayak," which is apparently closer to what’s considered the correct organization of the Inuit word "kayak" — Q-A-J-A-Q.

You'd have to have a free letter for that.

You have to have a blank. Yeah.

You've gotten quite obsessed! 

Well, yeah, yeah. Actually, I’ve stopped doing the crossword puzzle. I used to do the Times crossword Monday through Friday. I could never quite get Saturday, and Sunday ...

What kind of a player are you? Are you aggressive? Defensive? Like to open the board up or use the tw0-letter words and keep it tight?

I like to spoil the triple-word score for the other player.

By putting a “c” close to it or something?

Yes, a “c” or a “v.” A “c” and “v” are the two letters that don’t appear in any of the two letter words.

Not enough people know that trick.

I was thinking I should have put that little tidbit in the book. It doesn’t say that anywhere in the book.

I don't know, maybe we should keep it a secret and leave it out of the story. 

The amazing thing about some of these words is that “xi” or “xu,” however you pronounce that, have such a narrow definition and use that it almost proscribes your verse. You have to define them simply so people know what they are. And then some of the other words are some of the most generic, widely used words in the English language: “is” and “to” and “an” and “he.” And for those you really need to narrow down a universe of infinite possibilities when you go to write, to narrow, these massive words down to four lines.

Well, when I was in sixth grade I was doing a written test and somehow the test was really easy for me — I knew the material really well — but during the test I sort of forgot what the indefinite article was coming before a vowel sound and I had to rework my sentences, all of the sentences, so that the word “an” didn’t appear, because I couldn’t remember what it was. Was it “ab,” “ad,” “ag,” “ah”? Fortunately, that’s the last time that happened.

Did you find that those super-common words were the ones that represented the biggest challenge, or was it the ones that are rarely used and more uncommon?

I think the easier words were easier because I didn’t have to define them so much. Whereas the difference between an “em” and an “en” — the difference between an n-dash and an m-dash — is subtle enough that probably most copy editors couldn’t rattle it off and everyone else seems to get it wrong much of the time.

You’re able to probably work a lot of your own playful obsessions into these. Music, certainly. I imagine punctuation is one of those things that you are super-interested in. Several of these reference philosophy as well.

One thing I get to talk about obliquely is music with “do," "re," "mi," "fa," "so," "la," and "ti."  But I’m not saying the same old thing I usually say in interviews: “Authenticity is a crock of shit” and that kind of thing.

So what’s a crock of shit in the verse, poetry or Scrabble world?

Hmm. I don’t know if there is any analog to the authenticity fetish that affects a very small amount of the music world, but unfortunately it seems like a lot of people are coming into contact with. I discovered last night that someone had written a scholarly paper on me and people allegedly like me in the indie-rock world, and the paper was called “This Little Ukulele Tells the Truth.” Which is a quote from me. But the author seems unaware that it’s a joke.

Are you suggesting the indie-rock world is devoid of humor?

I am. Unfortunately, it’s not the only part of the music world devoid of humor.

Did any of these words stymie you? Or any that you dreaded and delayed and put off to the end?

“Si.” S-I. Kind of a hard concept that “si” is the substitute for “ti” -- the seventh degree of the scale. People who don’t know the scale like the back of their hand may not easily remember it. They are mneumonic devices. So I ended up with “Ma could drink a si of tea but then she has to pee."

Were there favorite discoveries when you learned what some of these were? I didn’t know what the “ai” was -- it's a three-toed sloth. I think that may have been my favorite. And then it pops up in several of the poems.

"Nu." I didn’t realize that all neutrinos are formed in the sun.

Do you ever find yourself able to using any of these words now? Showing off how small your vocabulary can be?

Now I can speak a little Scottish. I think there are six Scottish words in here.  I’m an old Robert Burns fan. The songs. It’s not widely enough appreciated that Robert Burns is a songwriter, not a poet. He wrote his lyrics to existing melodies. Mostly traditional melodies.

Did you have a melody in your head as you were writing any of these?

I did not.

Because sometimes I could almost hear how it might sound if it was a song, in your voice.

I did not. What I had in my head was “Lizzie Borden took an ax and gave her mother 40 whacks.” That was the rhythm I used for the whole book, pretty much. Not quite. But that was the template. Because I didn’t actually know what I was going to end up doing with "ax," so it ended up being about Lizzie Borden. I take it for granted that the viewership — the readers — know who Lizzie Borden is. I may be wrong. I wonder how it would read if you don’t know that — if you’ve never heard of Lizzie Borden?

Well, you would tell from context that she was charged with something gruesome and that the ax wasn’t found. You might not know that she killed her parents, but you'd have a sense she was charged with something bloody.

Did working on this have similarities to songwriting?

Well, I sat around in bars. I used the same general technique of sitting around in bars. But in this case, I sat around in bars with a stack of 3 x 5 cards, which come in sets of 100, unfortunately. I try not to be wasteful. So I did try to find a stack of 100 3 x 5 cards that would have one additional one that had the advertising on it. But no.

It’s hard not to draw a parallel between “69 Love Songs” and 101 of these.

Sure. I just actually Googled "101" before coming here and apparently 101 has supplanted 100 as the most popular first word for a title. There must have been some qualifiers after that that I ignored. But apparently I’m in the mainstream.

I would imagine there are online communities in which 69 is a popular number as well.  


Is there something about the way a set of numbers forces a theme and an organizational principle onto a project that is especially appealing to you?

Sure. It gives the project shape. A month ago I suddenly learned that I was going to have to play an hour instead of 40 minutes in the venue I was about to play, so I had to come up with 20 more totally unnecessary minutes for my set. I figured I would jiggle it around a little bit. I would do 26 songs because my songs are really short. [Each] one with the title beginning on a unique letter of the alphabet in a unique alphabetical order so the audience could see that I was having a dramatic arc — well, not a dramatic arc, but an arc. A counter-dramatic arc. An arc.

Similarly, with 101 two-letter words, they’re in alphabetical order so you know where you are, and if you want to find one you know where it is. Which is not the case for “69 Love Songs.” I wanted it to be. I wanted it to be in alphabetical order. But once I’d started recording, it turned out that the first eight songs alphabetically were acoustic guitar ballads and it just wasn't going to work to put them in order. But if it had then everyone would know where all the songs were. And I don’t know if it would make it more or less intimidating and more or less boring. I mean, it would make it more boring in that the first eight songs were … But in the abstract, I don’t know if it would have been better or worse. Certainly, this is better. I would have never considered taking it out of alphabetical order.

The masculine pronouns in this book. You had a good time playing with the notion of gender with “he” and “pa”…

Yes. And “ma.” “Ma,” I think is the most frequent character.

Was there some gender subversion in mind? It's something you've always done so well in songs, having men and women sing songs in which the narrator is obviously of a different gender.

I’m all in favor of a little harmless gender subversion. As long as things don’t go too far, whatever that would be. I wrote this book about a year and a half ago before it became fashionable to be offended by the word “tranny,” so I’m looking forward to being pelted with rocks when I get to Seattle.

Just in Seattle?

Yeah, the Pacific Northwest tends to have more of what they used to call “politically correct” sensitivity to hurtful words and they’re sticklers for kinder language in ways that certainly New Yorkers are not famous for being. I’m all in favor of people being offended by particular words because it gives those words more interest and you can use them in different ways. “How Fucking Romantic” would not be all that interesting of a song if it were just “How Terribly Romantic,” or “How Copulating Romantic." That would be dull.

I thought “if” was quite fun as well. "If I had a hammer?" Of course, Pete Seeger had a hammer. 

Yes. In the intervening year and a half Pete Seeger died.

So it seems a little less funny now?

Yes. And I moved to a place where Pete Seeger was absolutely revered as a patron saint, just above Natalie Merchant. Yes. So in Seattle I’ll be pelted with hormones and in upstate New York I’ll be pelted with hammers.

The hormones might be more fun?

Yes. I’m looking forward to the hormones. Apparently they improve your performance in sports.

Were there rhymes that you were particularly happy with, or had always wanted to make or found especially pleasing?

I actually managed to offend my mother with “om.” My mother is a beatnik. Mustn’t say "hippie." "Beatnik" is the only permissible word. I’m sure I’m not the first person to use sci-fi and Wi-Fi, but it worked very well. Pete Seeger and meager. Bestiality is a theme that keeps cropping up in the book. Ma has sex with an ai. And then there’s the Tyrannosaurus rex, with whom one should have sex before having sex with one’s ex.

I think we can all relate to that. There are little tidbits in here, though, that maybe even are little tidbits of autobiography. In "es," you mention not liking your name. "Ye" feels like a strong atheist statement.

Oh yeah. I make a lot of bold atheistic statements, though. So this is not a new opportunity for that.

Your name. I don’t think I've heard that one before. Is that true?

There’s another autobiographical statement. What is it? Oh, “et.” I ain't “et” an animal since 1983. Yeah. It’s not quite true. But it’s nearly true.

And with "or," you drop in a songwriting motto: Or it's done.

“Or it’s done” was the motto that allowed “69 Love Songs” to ever get made because if we had worked on everything until it was a glitzy production, to the scale of the record, the record wouldn’t have been able to get finished. So part of the project was that it was supposed to be done in a year. That was a big important rule there. And it did actually go two weeks over. To me, anyone can do “69 Love Songs” if they take up their entire life to do it. But one year was the challenge.

Is there a novel in the works?


Would you like to write one?

I always think about doing the great American verse novel, but I have not done it. I have not started it.

You put a special emphasis on the word “scale” when you were talking about “69 Love Songs.Is there another way that you hear it in your head or would like to see that recorded or performed? Were you hoping for a grander scale?

Oh. A new version of “69 Love Songs” in some ways. I actually listened to "The Charm of the Highway Strip" while driving yesterday and I always think what fun it would be to do another version of that because it was so much fun to make. Not Volume 2, but the same songs again. I don’t have that feeling about “69 Love Songs,” though. I don’t think it would be fun to make again. I think it would be horrible and terrible, except if I were being paid an enormous amount of money so I could delegate tasks to other people, like trying to make the tape loop again. What did I use the tape loop for? I forget. But one of the songs is built around a tape loop and that is difficult to do now without servants. Since World War I you can’t really get good servants. But I do always think about doing “69 Love Songs” transmuted into some other medium. “69 Love Etch-A-Sketch pictures.”  “69 Love Recipes.”

How would you do “Charm of the Highway Strip” again?

Well, the original person who commissioned “Charm of the Highway Strip” as a demo, when she heard it she was horrified because she thought I was going to make something that sounded like the Pet Shop Boys. But instead I made something that sounded, to her ears, like Johnny Cash. And she said, “But I hate Johnny Cash.” Back then you could say such a thing.

But the conditions of production have changed so many times and so drastically since then that, even if I were trying as hard as possible to reproduce even the simplest sounds, I would fail spectacularly. So I probably wouldn’t try, except maybe on “Dustbowl.” The last song is an instrumental and only has three elements: fake piano, fake guitar and fake rhythm machine hi-hat.

It’s like authenticity doesn’t matter to you at all 


By David Daley

David Daley, former editor-in-chief of Salon, is the author of the national bestseller “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count” and “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy.”

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