Merz and i.

I’ve always liked Kurt Schwitters — too weird for the conservatives, too staid for the dadaists — and I was pleased to see Hal Foster’s LRB review (10 March 2022; archived) of two Schwitters-related books; I extract some passages on his invented words and idiosyncratic usages:

Schwitters gathered all his activities under the banner of Merz, a term he first used in 1919 and went on redefining for the rest of his life, which after 1937 was spent first in Norway and then in England, in impoverished exile from the Nazi authorities. He stumbled on the neologism in a collage from 1919 ‘in which the word MERZ, cut and pasted from an advertisement for KOMMERZ UND PRIVATBANK, remained legible underneath the abstract forms’. Thereafter Merz became a prefix that Schwitters added to his poems, pictures, assemblages and constructions, a ‘special brand’. ‘Pure Merz is art, pure Dadaism is non-art, and both are intentionally so,’ Schwitters announced in Merz 1. ‘Whereas Dadaism merely asserts oppositions, Merz balances out oppositions by evaluating them within the artwork.’ Note that he positions Merz as a double overcoming: a sublation not only of found capitalist rubbish in the interest of a final balanced artwork, but also of Dada, which is at once cancelled, preserved and transcended (‘merz’ is contained in ausmerzen, to negate). Or that is how Schwitters wished Merz to be received, which is not quite how it is experienced: again, as viewers we oscillate between the trash and the form, between Merz as crap (we hear merde in the word) and Merz as composition (Freud and his colleagues speculated on the relationship of shit to art not long before Schwitters explored it in his own way). And this struggle between sublimation and desublimation gives Merz its intensity to this day (perhaps we hear Schmerz – pain – as well). […]

Although Merz is an activity of excessive addition, Schwitters also presented ‘a special form’ that he simply called ‘i’ (after ‘the middle vowel of the alphabet’, rather than Ich), and its operation is radically subtractive. Take an old tram ticket, he suggests by way of example, ‘cut a square from its right-hand corner and you have an i-drawing.’ ‘This describes the discovery of an artistic structure in the non-artistic world and the creation of an artwork from this structure through delimitation alone.’ An ‘i’ composition is collage at its purest, a simple cut (‘delimitation’) that connects like a copula, a montage that offers a ‘distinct expression as a composition’. Writing of ‘the path’ of the artistic idea in 1922, Schwitters claims that ‘“i” sets this path to = zero. Idea, material and artwork are identical.’ In 1915 Kazimir Malevich had called his Suprematist abstractions, such as Black Square, a zero degree of art; here Schwitters proposes his own version, which, contra Malevich, opens out to the world. Produced ‘through the act of seizing alone’, ‘i’ is also an early instance of the artistic appropriation of media images, a strategy with an important afterlife – in the détournement of found pictures and texts by Situationists, say, or the piracy of the same by postmodernists. Unlike these practitioners, however, Schwitters had only a limited interest in critique: art remained his primary aim.

Schwitters advanced two other notions that are still resonant: ‘banalities’, which describes some of his source materials, and ‘evaluation’, which concerns the way he arranges all of them. Print media boomed in the two decades after the First World War, and many intellectuals grew anxious about the cultural effects of kitsch; Hermann Broch went so far as to declare it ‘the evil in the value-system of art’. Schwitters took a different approach – he exploited banalities. ‘The best way to battle the bad taste of formless and mindless literature is i-banality,’ he said. That is, to appropriate clichés from bad writing as well as advertisements, songs and anthems, and to interject these in his own texts like so many Dadaist outbursts. Schwitters also drew on literature that he deemed stale; in Merz 4 he published two lists of pronouncements by German, French and Dutch authors, ranging from Goethe and Schiller to his own contemporaries (for Schwitters, Expressionist literature had become little more than the ‘Spiritual Exchange of Goods’). He did the same with hostile art reviews, from which he extracted stupid lines and threw them back, mangled, as part of his response to critics. These ripostes developed into a genre of its own that Schwitters called ‘Tran’, a term, like Merz, found by cutting a word in half, in this case Lebertran, cod-liver oil (the message being ‘Here’s some of your own medicine’). In his Trans, Schwitters took a page from a little-known guide by Schopenhauer called The Art of Being Right: 38 Ways to Win an Argument (1831): one way to jiu jitsu an opponent is to ‘extend’ his language as a way of undercutting it. This kind of travesty is a verbal version of the general Dadaist strategy of taking a bad thing from the culture and making it worse – critique by way of mimetic exacerbation. But the exploitation of banalities was implied from the start in Merz collages that assimilated ‘intentionally kitschy and intentionally bad elements into the artwork’. Here again Schwitters anticipated a key Situationist move; in his great Modifications, from the late 1950s and early 1960s, Asger Jorn (who also wrote smartly on banalities) bought up flea-market paintings and détourned them to his own ends.

In his play​ with banalities Schwitters was motivated by more than just critical revenge or artistic redemption (as was Jorn). ‘All the Dadaists had a great love for banality, in every form,’ Schwitters writes in Merz 4, where he salutes in particular Paul Éluard, whose monthly leaflet Proverbe ‘cultivated banalities almost exclusively’. Schwitters claims (in a line borrowed from Tristan Tzara) that Éluard ‘wants to achieve a concentration of words, as if crystallised for the people, but whose meaning remains nil’. This suggests that a proverb is a commonplace that can call up a virtual public, since everyone knows a banal saying. Schwitters tries this thought again in connection with a quotation from another French poet, Pierre Reverdy: ‘Assis sur l’horizon, les autres vont chanter’ (‘Seated on the horizon, the others will sing’). Encoded here is the recognition that everyday people often create anonymous culture that we ‘experience as an artwork, as chanter,’ and that he, ‘Kurt Schwitters, is the artist of the work of autres’: ‘I am the artist, who, through an act of delimitation, turned the song of others (which might be very bad) into an artwork.’

Banalities may be degraded – they are made to be circulated and consumed – but in that process they are also rendered common. They indicate a buried kind of cultural commons (the ‘ban’ in ‘banal’ points to the common as that which is often denigrated), which can be surfaced as the ground for art that aspires to be collective. […] ‘Merz is open to everyone, idiots and geniuses alike,’ Schwitters insists. ‘I would remind you of my collection of banalities.’ In this way he attempts, impossibly, to leapfrog the great political struggle of his time: ‘An artist is neither a proletarian nor a bourgeois. And whatever he creates belongs neither to the proletariat nor to the bourgeoisie, but rather to everyone.’

This doesn’t mean that anything counts: the materials must undergo ‘evaluation’ (Wertung), a term that Schwitters repeats like a mantra. In his account, representational art proceeds by ‘verification’: a work is made to match the appearance of the world and is assessed above all according to its success or failure in achieving this. With abstraction that measure is lost and the work of art becomes its own model: evaluation, not verification, is the test, that is, ‘co-ordinating the individual parts of the image in relation to one another’. The viewer follows up on this evaluation; our looking checks the arrangement produced by the artist. Here lies the conservatism of the Merz idea: far from being attacked as in Dada, composition is affirmed. In fact it is raised to a higher level – another sublation. […]

Before Schwitters could evaluate his materials he had to extract them from the world, an act that he called ‘deformation’ (Entformung), another neologism. But that deformation was preceded by one that might be termed ‘devaluation’, for his materials are drained of both use value and exchange value; they come to Schwitters already consumed, and only as waste do they become the stuff of Merz. All this devaluing and revaluing occurred during a crisis in value – in economics (world-historical inflation), in culture (the double problem of avant-gardism and kitsch), in language and representation (the structural linguistics of Saussure and the Cubist semiotics of Picasso). Value was relative, a matter of position within a system with little or no connection to the world (this was true in physics too). ‘At the end of 1918 I realised that all values only exist in relation to one another,’ Schwitters wrote in retrospect. ‘From this insight I developed Merz.’ As with banality, so with exchangeability: Schwitters tried to make it work for him. ‘The happiest moment of my life was when I discovered that everything is really indifferent.’

Note the repeated use of sublation, an unfortunate term we discussed back in 2005. Also, Schwitters may have created his Tran by cutting Lebertran in half, but it is also an independent word.


  1. Michael Hendry says

    I’ve known Americans named Merz and Mertz, and always assumed (a) that both were descended from German immigrants who were quite possibly distant cousins, (b) that the German name was spelled Merz and pronounced Mertz in the usual German way, and (c) that one family kept the German pronunciation by adding a T when they immigrated, while the other family kept the spelling and lost the pronunciation. (Did they spend a few years or decades saying “It’s pronounced MuhrTz!”?) I’m surprised to hear that the word has (or had) no meaning. Were there Merzes in Germany who objected to Schwitters’ assignation of a not-very-complimentary (and very confusing) meaning to it?

  2. Keith Ivey says

    For Americans perhaps the most famous people named Mertz are Fred and Ethel, the neighbors on “I Love Lucy”, though knowledge of them has faded and will continue to do so.

  3. J.W. Brewer says

    This makes me think of the parallel clipping in the title “Project: Mersh,” the penultimate non-posthumous record released by the Minutemen, where the intention and/or possibly joke was for it to have a more “commercial” sound than its predecessors. “Mersh” is apparently also extant as a surname – don’t know if it’s “Mer(t)z” filtered through some other intermediate tongue, or etymologically unrelated.

    There’s also “merch,” clipped from “merchandise” and meaning “t-shirts and other stuff related to the band that you can buy at the ‘merch table’ staffed by some associate of the band and generally somewhere near the entrance of the venue where the band is playing.” This is a recent-ish usage, in the sense that it might be 25 years old but not 40.

  4. This is a recent-ish usage, in the sense that it might be 25 years old but not 40.


    Goods to be bought and sold, merchandise; (now) spec. products used to promote a particular performer, film, or the like, or endorsed by or associated with a particular celebrity, event, etc.

    1957 Southeast Economist (Chicago) 15 Sept. (Classified Ads section) p. d/7 We have over $25,000 of odds & ends we must sell this month to make rm. for our Christmas merch. We must sell this merch. or rent a whse.
    1987 Sun Herald (Sydney) (Nexis) 9 July Commercials offer different degrees of irritation to different people, but in advertising terms the name of the game is to ‘move the merch’.
    2005 N.Y. Times 14 Aug. xiv. 8/2 Everybody was there for the music, nobody was there just to buy merch.
    2014 New Yorker 15 Dec. 44/2 Digital their lives across multiple YouTube well as over Tumblr, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, with merch available on each.

  5. I’ve known Americans named Merz and Mertz […] I’m surprised to hear that the word has (or had) no meaning.

    Surnames by definition have no meaning other than pointing to a person or set of people; of course they often derive from words with other meanings, but that does not mean that they have to be connected to a word that happens to be spelled the same or similarly. As for these surnames:

    Mertz Name Meaning

    German: patronymic from a short form of the personal name Martin . German: variant of Martz . This surname (in any of the possible senses; see also 1 above) is also found in France (Alsace and Lorraine) and Poland. […]

    Merz Name Meaning

    German: variant of Mertz and Marz This surname is also found in Poland Czechia and France (Alsace and Lorraine). German: habitational name from any of the places called Merz. […]

  6. J.W. Brewer says

    The 2005 OED citation is an example of what I’m talking about, as indicated by the “(now)” in the gloss indicating a more recently-evolved sense. Perhaps the 1987 citation indicates AustEng was ahead of the curve but it seems also to be a different/broader sense. The 1957 cite is ridiculous unless the OED also has entries for “rm.” and “whse.” That someone pressed for space might abbreviate “merchandise” as “merch.” could have happened many times going back many decades, but the question is whether that same person would have said “merch” aloud and done so in a context (maybe this is the distinctive point) where expanding it to “merchandise” would have bit a bit odd/unidiomatic/wrong-register?

  7. David Marjanović says


    ausmerzen, to negate

    Oh no – no! Try “expunge from existence”, “eliminate without exception”.

    we hear merde in the word

    Do we? …oh, if we take final fortition for granted, I guess so…

    perhaps we hear Schmerz – pain – as well

    That’s more like it!

    the ‘ban’ in ‘banal’ points to the common as that which is often denigrated

    I don’t understand this. Is this about the English word ban?

    ‘deformation’ (Entformung)

    As a literal calque, yes, but the ordinary meaning of “deformation” is covered by Verformung. Entformung must refer to the removal of form/shape.

    Were there Merzes in Germany who objected to Schwitters’ assignation of a not-very-complimentary (and very confusing) meaning to it?

    I’m sure Friedrich Merz, he of the Leitkultur, would object – what I don’t know is if he’s ever heard of it. I hadn’t.

    t-shirts and other stuff related to the band

    Or the political campaign.

  8. Band merch is early 1990s at least, IIRC.

    I started looking at the Maximum Rocknroll archives, but their serch doesn’t distinguish partial from whole words, and the first few issues I looked at had “speed merchants” and the like (music style, not drugs, btw).

  9. J.W. Brewer says

    I’m not specifically disagreeing with the early 1990’s claim; my only affirmative claim is that it wasn’t yet current (in the U.S., at least among people who weren’t industry insiders*) in the early/mid Eighties when I started going to shows and buying t-shirts … And I speak as someone who bought a Minutemen t-shirt on the spring ’85 tour where they’d just released the “Project: Mersh” EP.

    FWIW the google books corpus (probably a lagging indicator for the particular NP) doesn’t clearly have the relevant sense of “merch table” prior to around 2001, although there’s a 1999 possibility that I can’t confirm due to the limitations of snippet view and a 2017 short story that gets misdated as having been published in the mid-Nineties due to bad metadata (i.e. it was in the 2017-ish edition of an annual anthology series that got miscoded by the starting year of the series …)

    *I have a hypothesis that it might have started as an industry-insider thing where bands and their management needed to distinguish among three basic income streams: a) royalties from record sales; b) ticket-sale revenue from live performances; c) sales of t-shirts. posters, lunchboxes, keychains** and whatnot, with category c) needing a generic name …

    **Okay, it’s only within the last 5 years or so that I’ve noticed keychains, although lunchboxes for bands whose audience skewed young were already a thing when I was in elementary school in the Seventies.

  10. ktschwarz says

    I agree with JWB about the OED entry. The 1957 cite should not have been included, except maybe in square brackets — that’s the kind of thing I expect the OED to be more careful about.

    Merriam-Webster entered “merch” in their last print edition (2003) and dates it from 1982, but defines it only as “merchandise”, not the specialized sense. does try to give a specialized definition (“merchandise, especially as marketed to a particular fan base”), but this is not as accurate as the OED’s; they also give the date as “1980–85”. I’d have to see the 1980s cites to judge whether they are the specialized sense.

    (Personally, I don’t have a clear feeling on whether this sense goes back before 2000.)

  11. ktschwarz says

    FWIW, the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang H-O (1997) did not include “merch”. Green’s has it but defined only as “merchandise”, with this earliest citation:

    1992 [US] G.P. Pelecanos Firing Offense 6: I traded retail clichés (‘Katie, Bar the Door,’ ‘Passin’ Them Out Like Popcorn’) with Fisher, the company merch manager.

    This does not sound like the specialized sense to me.

  12. Mersch is a Luxembourgish town and surname.

  13. i can attest to “merch tables” as a very standard phrase at all-ages punk* shows back to 1991 (+/- a year or so).

    but i’m not sure about JWB’s explanation. i think the merch table – thing and term – is specifically a DIY / subcultural institution: if your band had “management” – meaning being on the major label track – you’d likely be playing venues whose staff would be selling the shirts/records/stickers, and likely wouldn’t have to deal with carting such things around yourselves. you’re only dealing with a merch table if you’re playing small venues (bars, livingrooms, VFWs, cafes, little clubs) that don’t have that infrastructure, and band members/roadies/friends are the ones sellng things. and if it began as insider (band/roadie) lingo, it’s hard for me to imagine that lasting more than 15 minutes, since a main use of “merch table” is to tell the audience where to give you money (“if you want the new 7″, or a t-shirt, go see hugh at the merch table, over there by the fire exit!”).

    so the 1980-85 dating makes sense to me, corresponding to the emergence of a more solid network of DIY scenes and venues. i don’t have a printed source to cite, but if i were gonna look, i’d start with the early issues of Cometbus, which began in ’81, since aaron’s descriptions are thicker than most zine-makers’.

    * by local boston definitions – i’d describe a lot of it as metalcore these days.

  14. The oldest Cometbus I have is from about 1990, I think, so no help. If you feel like doing some fieldwork, rozele, why not ask him in person? Does he still run a bookstore in Brooklyn? Steve at Quimby’s, also in Brooklyn, might also have an idea.

  15. John Cowan says

    How wonderful it is that artists issue these manifestos, whether individually or in groups. It gives future critics an excellent guide to what their practice will not be. The Imagist Manifesto, for example, proclaims that Imagist poetry will “use the language of common speech”, whereas in practice Imagist poems are about as hieratic as anything since 16C euphuism. And as for “hard and clear, never blurred nor indefinite” — well! just read some of it!

    As an example, consider Pound’s “In the Station of the Metro”:

    The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
    Petals on a wet, black bough.

    Is apparition the language of common speech? And if the faces in the crowd are “hard and clear”, they hardly look like flower parts.

  16. PlasticPaddy says

    re performing the Ursonate in public:
    “The reception of these first public performances was varying widely. On many occasions I was performing at rock or punk clubs as an opening act for a band, and lots of people were not at all into it. Their preference was either to just talk with their friends or hear their habitual kind of music. So they started to scream and protest, and often throwing things at me, especially beer, which fortunately was mostly given out in plastic, not glass containers. The culminating point of this kind of experience was a performance of the Ursonate, opening for a concert of The Stranglers at Vredenburg Music Center in Utrecht in 1986, for an audience of about 2000 fans. When I was announced, even before I had opened my mouth, people started calling out: “Rot op!” (“Fuck off!”), and when I started, the atmosphere became very much that of a football match, but clearly an away game for me. With massive roaring they tried to drown out my voice, but of course the P.A. made me louder. Six stage guards were working hard to keep people from climbing the stage and hitting me, and hundreds of half-full plastic beer glasses flew about me. But in the course of the performance I managed to win over at least a few hundred people, who were roaring in my favor.”

  17. hundreds of half-full plastic beer glasses flew about me.

    Yeah, I think I’d be on the throwing end of some of those (judging by performances on Youtube). It’s not ‘The Loch Ness Monster’s Song’ sort of Dadaesque.

    I have been to rock-gig style poetry performances and not thrown beer-glasses: Linton Kwesi Johnson opening for John Cooper Clarke.

    I have (possibly) been to a Stranglers concert at my varsity. (You of course went to every live gig.) This was mid-1970’s; some sort of Punk band. The P.A. was so bad I didn’t catch their name. The warm-up band seemed to spend most of the time tuning their guitars — which did nothing to make them easier on the ear. Then they stopped. Whereupon I realised a) they’d been the main/only band; b) they’d been putting their guitars out of tune deliberately.

    wonderful it is that artists issue these manifestos

    That’s not a new thing: Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament; Russian ‘Mighty Handful’; L’Album des Six (admittedly a concoction of a critic rather than the composers). To your point, the enthusiasm of the manifestists is in inverse proportion to their output.

  18. Jen in Edinburgh says

    It depends how common you want – there are words like ‘ere’ and ‘morn’ which are ONLY used in poetry!

  19. PlasticPaddy says

    When you wrote ‘ere’, I first read ‘ere. I have not thought of Andy Capp (or his missus) as a poet, but I suppose one could look at him (or her) that way…

  20. J.W. Brewer says

    I don’t doubt rozele’s recollections re early Nineties use, and the google books corpus where it takes another decade to pop up includes more mainstream/commercial music-biz trade magazines but not “zines,” which is one good reason to think it would be a lagging indicator of actual usage. Maybe I should be clear that I’m not claiming that the relevant sense of “merch” is not potentially older than the set-phrase combo “merch table,” just that the latter is useful insofar as it presupposes the relevant sense of “merch.” I would be interested in seeing the 1980-85 cites that is apparently referencing without showing.

    I am sufficiently older than rozele that I have personal-participation memories of that early-mid-Eighties efflorescence of the American underground music scene and the creation of the entire parallel non-major-label ecology/economy (labels, zines, venues, radio stations, unusually hip record stores, etc.) that sustained it. And the later-style merch table was just not, as best as I can fuzzily recall (and of course my own necessarily limited personal experience was not universal/nationwide), a standard-issue feature yet. One big reason might be that more marginal bands often didn’t even have t-shirts to sell – I think something happened technologically (related at least in part to the desktop-publishing revolution) between the early Eighties and early Nineties that made the cost-and-other-difficulty barrier to getting a small-sized run of your own cool-looking t-shirts made up substantially less than what it had previously been. E.g., about 4 months before that spring ’85 Minutemen gig at which I did come away with a t-shirt, I attended my first (very late ’84) Replacements gig, and I definitely didn’t come away with a t-shirt, which I think may well have been because they didn’t have any along to sell. And this was when they were getting great press attention and touring their 3d or 4th (depending on how you count) album on a nationally-known indie label that wasn’t just the band self-releasing their own stuff.

    I remember seeing the Dream Syndicate in summer ’85, after their brief major-label stint had ended. They had a new lead guitarist and some new songs to play but had not yet put out their first post-A&M record. For purposes of interviewing them pre-show at the radio station and then going over to the venue I wore a t-shirt (with the cover art of their prior album) I’d gotten on their previous tour, which may have been a mistake, because they didn’t have any new t-shirts to sell and what I was wearing was apparently an unfortunate reminder of the perks they’d lost by losing their major-label deal (although the frontman assured me bitterly that not a penny of the t-shirt sales revenue from the while-on-A&M tour had flowed through to his own pocket).

    One reason “merch table” may have erupted into more mainstream usage starting by 2002 or thereabouts is that the napster era, which destroyed the traditional revenue model of the record biz and thus impaired one traditional revenue stream for recording artists, made even established major-label arguments suddenly much more dependent in percentage terms on their merch revenue stream and thus suddenly more focused on how to increase that revenue stream.

  21. J.W. Brewer says

    Words like (non-Andy-Capp) “ere” and “morn” are also used in what you might politely call other specialized registers, such as the construction of crossword puzzles and/or palindromes and the playing of scrabble. All of these of course subordinate idiomaticity to other desiderata.

    ETA: they would also be good candidates for headlinese because fewer characters than the words they can be treated as synonyms for, but I’m not sure if they’re really extant in that language variety, so if not it would be interesting to understand why not.

  22. Maybe it also had something to do with the advent of CDs in the early 90s? Self-publishing on CD is much easier than pressing your own records, and musicians selling their own CDs has been a feature at most concerts of less-well known artists I’ve been to since my mid-twenties.

  23. I was also in the “college rock” scene in the 1980s and I agree with JW that merch tables did not become a thing until later, probably early 1990s. I went to a lot of shows at Toads and even MTV exposed bands like the Replacements or They Might Be Giants ca. 1987 did not have the table of merch that is a common scene at every show today. I certainly would have bought a Replacements t-shirt had one been available. Smaller clubs like The Middle East in Cambridge definitely did not have merch. I lived with an up and coming band in the Boston scene in the early 1990s, and even they didn’t have merch. However, I do have a Too Much Joy t-shirt from 1992/3 which is probably about the time merch started to become more of a thing in the alternative scene.

    All that said, tables of merch were very much a part of the stadium rock scene even in the late 1970s. Given that bands like Rush, Iron Maiden, Rolling Stones, Eagles, etc. were actually far more influential on the main stream than bands like the Minutemen or the Pixies, it’s odd to think that “merch” would have entered the vocabulary only when alternative bands started following along.

  24. J.W. Brewer says

    Datapoint following up on Vanya’s comment: the released-circa-spring-’91 Sonic Youth video for “Dirty Boots,” showing the band performing in what appears to be a small “underground rock” sort of venue, does briefly show a primitive merch table, not obviously offering anything other than t-shirts.* Of course SY were themselves on a major label by then (although they didn’t necessarily want to play that up imagewise) and I don’t recall t-shirts being on sale when I saw them in ’88 (plus or minus) at the 9:30 in D.C. But I have told my 18-year-old that this video is all things considered a reasonably accurate depiction of what it was like to see a non-mainstream band at a small club back then when her late mother and I did that sort of thing, except for: a) the lighting inside the club being really good; and b) all the kids in the audience having good complexions and acne-free skin etc.

    *This is the video which rapidly became unintentionally comical because you’re supposed to be able to tell that the primary Cute Girl is really hip because not only is she at a Sonic Youth show where she catches the eye of the Cute Boy, she’s wearing a t-shirt with the name of another cool/obscure/hipster band, i.e. Nirvana, who within 6-8 months had exploded to such overwhelming mainstream success that putting your Cute-Girl character in a Nirvana t-shirt no longer signified what the auteur of the video had intended to signify.

  25. Of course SY were themselves on a major label by then

    Yes, I remember the “sellout!” complaints at the time, which quickly fizzled because Daydream Nation was such an undeniable masterpiece. (I’m fairly sure I bought it the first day it became available in NYC.)

  26. J.W. Brewer says

    I would have put their first major-label album one later in time* (Goo, perhaps less of an undeniable masterpiece). But perhaps we are using different label taxonomies.

    *Not counting an intervening side-project album credited to a fooling-no-one pseudonym.

  27. Enigma was distributed by Capitol/EMI (and a year later formally acquired by them), so even if it was nominally an indie it was perceived as one of the big guys. Plus everybody loved SST (the fans, I mean, not the bands who didn’t get paid), so they booed when anybody left the label.

  28. tables of merch were very much a part of the stadium rock scene even in the late 1970s.

    Indeed, e.g. (Not a punk band.)

    Sonic Youth, Nirvana, etc., were indie bands, but they had well-organized if smaller labels behind them. The bands playing all-ages shows in squats and selling cassettes (not yuppie sellout CDs) and stickers through classified ads would be where the small merch tables started, I would guess. Those were (and are) separate worlds.

  29. @Y: next time i’m at Book Thug Nation, i’ll see if aaron’s around to ask!

    and the point i was making about subcultural / DIY scenes was not that they were pioneers in having merch – it’s about the different relationship between bands and merch (as JWB’s account of Dream Syndicate illustrates). i’d expect sales tables in an arena context to be talked about as part of the larger category of “concession stands”, since they’re operated (or contracted out) by the venues (/labels/management).

    and, for the record, i still have some band t-shirts that i bought at shows in the early 90s – probably at the Middle East, in fact – including one for Heretix from 1991-2 (after they got thrown off Island). but buttons/patches/stickers were the more common merch of that period.

    but: evidence in another direction:

    i just flipped through the first issue of Book Your Own Fuckin’ Life (1992), and didn’t see any “merch”. a bit of “merchandise”, though, in both listings (Rave Records, SF: “It’s not merchandise, it’s music”*) and ads (most notably a florida outfit called Merchandise Revolt). but generally the ads don’t use an overall category, and list out what they have: t-shirts, stickers, buttons, etc (but mostly just t-shirts).

    * which makes me wonder whether “merch table” began as an ironic/eyeroll label.

  30. J.W. Brewer says


    You like everything that comes out on 4AD.
    You like everything that comes out on SST.
    You like almost everything that comes out on Homestead.
    I like everything I get in the mail for free!

    I found Jim Ruland’s 2022-published book “Corporate Rock Sucks: The Rise and Fall of SST Records” somewhat frustratingly inconsistent, but there is a lot of interesting raw data in it, including some interesting stuff about how Sonic Youth tried very hard for several years (during which they released various records on other labels) to get themselves signed by SST before their campaign finally succeeded.

  31. John Cowan says

    The Clearwater Festival (then known as the Great Hudson River Revival) definitely had merch tents (for all the bands jointly plus the festival itself) back to at least 1980, when Gale and I first attended together and bought T-shirts (for her; nobody ever prints T-shirts that are long enough to cover my navel). I doubt if the word merch was already in use, however.

  32. David Marjanović says

    another cool/obscure/hipster band, i.e. Nirvana


  33. another cool/obscure/hipster band, i.e. Nirvana

    instantly flashed me back to a show with my highschool friends’ band at the Middle East (upstairs). they’d just changed their name from The McVeighs to The Dead Cobains (complete with a vicious rewrite of Come As You Are – which tells you everything you need to know about what boston punks thought about seattle grunge in spring 1994*). most of them were too young to have been at the 16+ show without playing it. i don’t think they had merch.

    * the definitive (and marginally kinder) statement was probably Bongo Fury’s Pearl Jam Bought My Hair (haven’t thought about that track for a looong time, but there it is on bandcamp, apparently – along with a lot from related bands Think Tree and Count Zero (though not El Dopa): can’t vouch for how well any of it holds up, but they defined a particular corner of the boston scene).

  34. But I have told my 18-year-old that this video is all things considered a reasonably accurate depiction of what it was like to see a non-mainstream band at a small club back then

    No need for facsimiles. There is a ridiculous amount of footage up on YouTube. You might check out an old Magnetic Fields show at the Middle East in ’91 (their first) for curiosity value, also early Pavement. There is also a video of the Pixies playing TT the Bears in 1986, but the video quality gets worse as you go back in time.

  35. J.W. Brewer says

    @Vanya: What’s different about the SY video is it shows more of what the club looked like from an audience member’s perspective walking around as opposed to just having the camera fairly tightly on the stage. Youtube has (in several versions, some mislabeled) the entire 4/18/85 Minutemen show from New Haven I got that t-shirt at (videotaped contemporaneously for some local cable-access thing, i believe), and you can see the audience a little bit when the camera pans out, so the back of my head is probably on screen at some point but I can’t pick it out from the backs of other folks’ heads (not least because I can’t reliably remember how long my hair was that particular month/year).

  36. J.W. Brewer says

    @rozele: I regret to say that I was not sufficiently up on the 1994ish underage Boston scene to be aware of Bongo Fury, but I’m thinking that if I’d met them at the time my reactions would have been:

    1. Whoa, you named your band after a pretty obscure thing from Frank Zappa’s back catalog that 99% of kids your age wouldn’t know about!

    2. [5 seconds later] So you must be total nerds.

    3. [10 seconds after that] Okay, I guess it’s a fair cop that I’m kinda nerdy for even getting the allusion and for all I know your target audience is people who won’t get the allusion but just think it’s a cool random word combination.

  37. Ah, that’s gotta be also what Juno Reactor was riffing on with the song name “Conga Fury”…

    Now that we’ve come from Merz to music hipsterism, I feel obligated to mention (originally assumed upon glancing at this comments section that we would’ve gotten here by that route) the prolific Japanese noise artist Masami “Merzbow” Akita, also with a good handful of projects called things like Merzbeat or Merzbox. I see he indeed gets it from Schwitters, but by today I assume putting out anything avant-garde and at least music-adjacent with a Merz- prefix would be primarily read as a reference to him.

  38. J.W. Brewer says

    J. Pystynen reviving this thread after some weeks of silence reminds me that while I had originally invoked both the clippings “merch” and “mersh” as Merz-adjacent, the subsequent discussion had focused almost exclusively on “merch.” So here’s the additional mersh-related info I found out at some point via some followup googling.

    1. The surname “Mersh” does not appear to be a variant of “Merz” but seems instead to be an echt Anglo-Saxon one that is a variant of “Marsh,” and indeed the common noun “marsh” was often spelled “mersh” well into the Middle English era — apparently some sort of vowel shift occurred early enough to be reflected in an e>a respelling rather than the older orthography already having frozen.

    2. OTOH there’s an Ashkenazic-American character named “Mersh Cohen” (apparently legally named Moses Cohen) in Jascha Kessler’s novel “Rapid Transit: 1948, an Unsentimental Education.” In the Bronx-in-1948 setting of the novel he’s going to law school on the GI Bill but there are some flashbacks to and/or recollections of his more violent and/or picaresque doings a few years earlier while serving in the U.S. Army in just-being-Occupied Germany and dealing with the locals “in his punctilious CCNY Deutsch.” I certainly don’t have the impression that “Mersh” was a common nickname for “Moses,” but I don’t know if this is a one-off invention of Kessler’s or has some sort of precedent.

  39. Keith Ivey says

    From The Hebrew National Orphan Home (2001), writing about a New York City orphanage around 1940:

    Two years later, when Morris Moritz and I were on the Roosevelt High soccer team, soccer had become a well organized school activity with a high school coach in charge and with the high school athletics department scheduling the games and handling the many other details involved in an interschool varsity team league.Morris, who we called by the diminutive of his Yiddish name, Moishe, which we reduced to “Mersh,” was one of the four acrobatic Moritz brothers at The Home, and, although the smallest member of the team, was the team’s star. I, on the other hand, was merely a second-string player; however, I had enough game time to squeak by and earn my letter, which, by this time, soccer letters were handed out along with all the other athletic letters at the annual awards ceremony in the school auditorium.

    Presumably this has to do with the New York pronunciation of “oi” familiar to people outside NYC from the Three Stooges and cartoons and movies.

  40. John Cowan says

    noun “marsh” was often spelled “mersh” well into the Middle English era — apparently some sort of vowel shift

    The same, indeed, that had already given us star, farm for ME sterre, ferme and was later (after the orthography was frozen) to provide the pronunciations of sergeant as well as clerk, derby (though not in America where a spelling pronunciation was adopted). The doublet vermin/varmint reflects the same change.

  41. Is there a connection with the bar pronunciation of ‘bear’, of American frontier stereotypes?

  42. Morris, who we called by the diminutive of his Yiddish name, Moishe, which we reduced to “Mersh,”

    Mersh = Moish! That’s truly beautiful.

  43. @JWB: i seem to have inadvertantly given the wrong impression of who Bongo Fury were! which was very much the opposite of the underage spirit-of-77 McVeighs.

    they were a spoken word project of peter moore’s, active i think mostly between his art/punk/prog/industrial* bands Think Tree (1987-93) and Count Zero (1996- ). so very much the kind of project that gets a zappa deep cut name!

    that said, my teenage crew were not at all the biggest zappa fans we knew, and nonetheless i still have so much of Joe’s Garage in my head. so that kind of band name wouldn’t’ve been so improbable on the VFW/OCBC/etc all-ages circuit at the time. i mean, i had friends in a band called Queen Maud Land** /shrug/.

    * i know, i know. but genre was funny in boston at the time and that’s the best i can do to convey the sound. they played galleries as well as clubs, of course.

    ** the drummer had a swedish immigrant father.

  44. I just read Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate, set in San Francisco, c. 1980. A fictional art-punk-ish band in the book is called Liquid Sheep. I’m kinda sensitive to band names. It’s not perfect, but not unpleasant, and it’s funny.

  45. J.W. Brewer says

    @Keith Ivey: Thanks! I definitely suffered a failure of imagination re how a nickname transcribed as “Mersh” could potentially have been pronounced in the Bronx in 1948!

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