Thursday, December 23, 2010

Cotton Alley / Gun Shy

Cotton Alley (from the 10,000 Maniacs album The Wishing Chair)

One time
you made me cry
be proud that I
remember

My chin is sore
the bruise is gone
but the spot is tender

Gave my hand
a sister coy
to Cotton Alley where
you did enjoy
your wicked games
you curious boy

Tied my laces up together
when I fell
you laughed
until your belly was sore

In the brick laid aisle behind
the five and dime store

That's how
I made you blush
but doubt if you
remember

Were my tears genuine
or those of a skilled
pretender?

Nothing precious
plain to see
don't make a fuss over me
not loud
not soft
but somewhere in between
say "sorry"
let it be the word you mean

I was a little pest who
never took a hint
could never take a hint

You pinched my fingers
in a door
tossed my coloring book in a
rusty barrel

Pulled spiders from my hair
fingers in the door

My favorite blue blouse
stained on the back
running from a berry war

Can you hear me scream
in Cotton Alley?


__________________________________

Gun Shy (from the 10,000 Maniacs album In My Tribe and Natalie's album Live In Concert)

I always knew that you would
take yourself far from home
as soon as, as far as you could go

By the quarter inch cut of your hair
and the Army issue green
for the past eight weeks
I can tell where you've been

Well, I knew, I could see, it was all cut and dried to me
there was soldier's blue blood streaming inside your veins
there is a world outside of this room and
when you meet it promise me
you won't meet it with your gun

So now you are one of the brave few
it's so awful sad we need boys like you
I hope the day never comes for
"here's your live round son
stock and barrel, safety, trigger, here's your gun"

Well I knew, I could see, it was all cut and dried to me
there was soldiers blue blood streaming inside your veins

There is a world outside of this room and
when you meet it promise me
you won't meet it with your gun taking aim

I don't mean to argue
they've made a decent boy of you and
I don't mean to spoil your homecoming
but baby brother you should expect me to

"Stock and barrel, safety, trigger, here's your gun"

So now does your heart pitter pat
with a patriotic sound
when you see the stripes of old glory waving?

Well I knew, I could see, it was all cut and dried to me
there was soldier's blue blood streaming inside your veins

There is a world outside of this room and
when you meet it promise me
you won't meet it with your gun taking aim

I don't mean to argue
they've made a decent boy of you
I don't mean to spoil your homecoming my baby brother Jude
and I don't mean to hurt you by saying this again
they're so good at making soldiers
but they're not so good
at making men



In the early days of 10,000 Maniacs there was quite a lot of chatter about the lyrics that young Natalie Merchant was writing. One of the most oft-quoted statements Natalie has ever made was about caring more about nuclear arms depots than boys. While many lauded her earnestness, there was a vocal minority (including, it would seem, some members of the band) that suggested that the Maniacs would never achieve mainstream success until Natalie started writing songs about more "fun" topics than, you know, war and stuff. What's wrong with a nice little song about falling in love or having your best friend steal your boyfriend? Why can't she write about boys?

Well, the songs that are being covered on today's blog post are solid proof that Natalie Merchant has written songs about boys. Specifically...her brothers.

Alright, I guess this wasn't what her critics had in mind. But it didn't matter. It seems she did just fine without their advice. It may not be a sexy topic, but writing about your siblings is a worthy endeavor. After our parents and our mates, the relationship we have with our siblings is perhaps the most complicated and deeply layered of all. Here are these individuals who are either firmly established in your life from the day you are born or come tumbling into it shortly afterward. They are your friends by default and (frequently) your enemies by nature. And as we start to age, the relationships we have with our siblings tend to get that much more complex. When I think about the most pivotal interactions I had as a child, interactions that shaped my view of myself and my view of the world, they usually directly involved my siblings, perhaps even more than my parents.

No matter how far you get away from each other as adults, physically or emotionally, no matter how much they may have hurt or even terrorized you, they are the only people that can fully understand your family dynamics. They are the only people who know what is was like to be raised by your parents. I stopped trying years ago to explain to anyone what my upbringing was like. The quizzical expressions on too many faces made me realize it was a vain endeavor. The only people I can talk to about it are my siblings. And that, more than anything else, keeps us from ever drifting too far apart.

Obviously, Cotton Alley and Gun Shy, while having the brother theme in common, are very different from each other in their tone. Cotton Alley tells tales of brotherly torture both silly and significant, but the tone of the song and the way the words are sung make it clear that fondness is behind every expression. I'm not sure if this is accurate, but the lyrics sound very much to me like sentiments being expressed to an older sibling, one whose attention we younger siblings pine away for, even though usually when we get that attention it ends in them laughing and us crying.

Gun Shy, however, is a song with a much more serious topic and has words that are clearly directed at a younger sibling. Natalie's pleas and warnings to her brother, especially when she addresses him by name at the end of the song, are very moving. When I heard this song for the first time (on Natalie's Live In Concert album), I had already heard Natalie sing many songs in the first person and I'd heard her sometimes give names to the characters in her songs, but I had never really thought any of those songs were about her or about people in her life. But Gun Shy was different. I couldn't imagine that she was singing to anyone but her actual baby brother.

Here's what Natalie has said about Gun Shy:

"I felt so betrayed when my brother joined (the army) because he's my baby brother and I felt he was ignoring all my teaching."*

Is it because of my own partiality that I think that a roughly 24-year-old Natalie Merchant talking about her "teaching" is uniquely lovable? Probably. The more significant question is, Would baby brother ignore her teaching even after hearing this song?

"I sent him the album including Gun Shy on cassette and told him to listen to every song without exception. He came to see us in Germany a couple of weeks ago and he told me the army was no life for him."*

What can you say? She's a woman who can a get a point across.

While I think Cotton Alley is a very sweet song, the lyrics pale in comparison to the lyrics to Gun Shy or any other song on In My Tribe. It's remarkable to think how much Natalie progressed in her writing abilities in only a couple of years.

Download Cotton Alley on Itunes - Cotton Alley - The Wishing Chair

Download Gun Shy (Natalie's solo version, because that's the one I prefer, because it's my blog, so there) on Itunes - Gun Shy (Live) - Live In Concert

Click here to see a very old live performance of Gun Shy on Natalie's official website. And if you are tempted to make fun of her outfit, I'd just like to point out that her fellow band member is dressed a lot like the Colonel from Kentucky Fried Chicken, so...you tell me which is worse.

I want to take a moment to say thank you once again to those who have sent me e-mails. I appreciate your kind words and I especially enjoy hearing your insights about the songs. I am also getting lots of song requests and I assure you I am working on them, so keep your eyes peeled. See you next week!

*The Guardian, 1987

5 comments:

  1. I'm always interested in hearing songs about siblings because they're so rare and they describe such an intimate relationship that no one really talks about. One of my favorite sibling songs is "Picture" by Loudon Wainwright III about a brother in his mid forties looking at an old picture of him and his sister when they were five and six,drawing pictures with crayons and how this image captured their own world. You can see it on youtube here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yeHsS6sgfgo I'm an attorney who does a lot of family court work and every so often I get a child abuse or neglect case where the children have to be removed from their homes and put into foster care. They always try to put siblings in the same foster home and when I get kids who are old enough to understand I always tell them to look out for each other because of all the relationships in their lives, the longest one will be with each other. Thank you for talking about sibling songs.

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  2. Anonymous -

    Thanks for the link. That was a great song. The Wainwrights are one seriously talented family. Glad you enjoyed this week's post.

    - Annie

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  3. Anyone know where it is possible to get a copy of 10,000 Maniacs or maybe it was Natalie alone, version of "I Never Promised You A Rose Garden?"

    Thank You Philip-email at: finplan65@yahoo.com

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  4. I happened to listen to Cotton Alley on the way into work today and I heard it as I'd never listened to it before... in a much darker frame. While I can't be certain that all the lyrics work, it struck me that it could be read as an anti-bullying anthem, with the narrator listing all the things her tormentor had done to her.

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  5. I happened to listen to Cotton Alley on the way into work today and I heard it as I'd never listened to it before... in a much darker frame. While I can't be certain that all the lyrics work, it struck me that it could be read as an anti-bullying anthem, with the narrator listing all the things her tormentor had done to her.

    ReplyDelete