Thursday, February 17, 2011

My Mother the War / Grey Victory / Tension

My Mother the War (from the 10,000 Maniacs album The Wishing Chair)

She borders the pavement
flanks avenues
parades pass
white glove attended by

My mother the war

She'll raise a shaft
lift a banner
toss a rose

My mother the war

She knows every neighbor
chats at their doors
econo-size electric appliances
come share tea
and a seat by my
cradle with

My mother the war

Forsaken vigil
three years each tour
hands of God enfold him
prayed mother of war
haunt a doorway
beg a postman
is there word
for mother the war
5 black stars

In bitter defiance
she's spiting the corps
wet a brood
short league for combat

My mother the war

Well acquainted
with sorrow
with grief

My mother the war

Folded lace
blood soaked robes
folded lace
blood soaked

Mother the war


Grey Victory (from the 10,000 Maniacs album The Wishing Chair)

There was light and atomic fission
Swelling wind
Rising ash
Tide of black rain
Cement seared shadow traces
Reminiscent of their last commands

Instantly one thousand flames arising
Ill scent the burning hides surrounding
A settlement debased entirely
Enola Gay had made a casual delivery

Please build a future, darling
With our bomb
Cherish and love it
For the sake of
Earth bound kingdom come

The undersides of fallen metal trusses
Evil debris of human bodies
Each window's glass shards pelted
Secure confines
Brittle collapse

Neighbors lay beside
Each other unknowing
Faces scorched of all familiar bearing
Too few hands
Many wounds for closing
Marred by
Fear lamenting

Here we stand
At the door to gold atomic age
Don't spoil your face with worry
Trust in
Earth bound kingdom come


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

Frail hinges pivot
On a case's door
Souvenirs from places
Containers change
With each occasion

Cellophane encased
Displaying paper
Credit years of service
A tool of
Central enterprises

The early hope
For permanence the
Words the rings
And social security the
Miracles high tragedy

A thought mistaken
For a memory
Clear the dust from
Smiles in boxes
Cross a patterned floor
Recall the voices

Local posts they
List your friends
In order of
Lawn scattered tins
Feed birds the
Portion baked for
Absent guests

Mass edition icon
God sent comfort is
Your salvation
But who grants
Absolution for sins
That never were committed

Makes a tangle
Of each thought becomes
Sound never penetrate
As servile edges
Break and faint

Dress lenghts
Fractured family ties

Last summer, a few days after I saw Natalie in concert on the Leave Your Sleep tour, I was in a bit of a post-concert funk. It's a common occurence for me. When I'm looking forward to something, I feel like I'm walking on air, but once that something has come and gone, getting back to mundane reality feels particularly harsh.

So one day in the midst of this funk I decided to leave work and go to the hole-in-the-wall record store around the corner. I came across the 10,000 Maniacs album Hope Chest, a collection of pre-Elektra Maniacs material. That album, along with The Wishing Chair, were the only Maniacs' albums I did not yet possess. I didn't recognize any of the songs on Hope Chest and intuition told me there might be a very good reason for that. I only had a few minutes before I had to get back to work, so with no time to dilly-dally I just figured, why not? How bad could it be? It was still Natalie, right? So I grabbed it and went to the checkout counter.

Here is where I would like to describe to you the reason why I love independent record stores. When I walked to the counter, the man sitting behind it, a man I assume is the one and only person who has ever worked there, was staring at an extremely small television, his face merely inches away from the screen, and eating kimchi straight from the jar. It took him a few moments to notice me standing quietly in front of him, but when he did, without any hesitation he said, "Would you like some kimchi?" and held it out before me. "Sure," I said and he lovingly placed a forkful of kimchi into my waiting mouth, then dabbed gently at the corners of my lips with his used napkin to mop up the juices. Five weeks later we were married.

Nah, just kidding. He did offer the kimchi, but I passed and told him I'd just stick with the CD instead. He asked if I was a Natalie Merchant fan. I told him I was. He asked if I had purchased Leave Your Sleep yet. I told him I had. He asked if I bought the two-disc version or the abridged version. I told him two-disc. He asked me if I knew Natalie had a daughter. I said I'd heard that. He then listed off a lot of Natalie-related facts and I pretended I didn't know them because I thought it would be the polite course. He summarized by telling me something about Kate Bush and giving me a hand-written receipt. This is the type of thing that just doesn't happen when you buy your music at Borders, folks. (It just dawned on me that given his seeming fandom, someday Kimchi Man might read this blog and if so I just want to say - I'm sorry things didn't work out for us Kimchi Man, but I know you will find your soulmate someday.)

When I got back to work, I popped in the CD and took my first listen to pre-In My Tribe Maniacs. Less than an hour later, I had finished listening. I took the CD out, placed it back in its case and thought, "Well, it was worth a shot." I found quite a few of the songs painful to listen to and figured I would never listen again...but eventually I did and my thoughts toward it softened a bit.

Time for a quick disclaimer: I said in the very first post of this blog that I would not be covering pre-Wishing Chair Maniacs material and I am sticking with that plan. The three songs I've chosen to talk about this week were featured in some variation on Hope Chest, but they also can all be found on The Wishing Chair.

So let's start with My Mother the War. This song garnered the most attention of any songs from the early days of 10,000 Maniacs and for good reason. It's a fun song to listen to, perhaps more than it should be. It's also one of the only Maniacs songs I can think of that actually sounds like an 80s song. Even though the bulk of their music was released in that decade, their music really has a timeless quality and most of it sounds like it could be released right now. My Mother the War has a little bit of The Cure or Joy Division lingering in it and definitely seems like the experimenting of a group trying to find their own distinctive sound.

As far as the lyrics go, here's what Natalie has said:

"I've always been intrigued by propaganda songs from the '40s . . . things like He's 1-A in the Army and He's A-1 in My Heart. That was the picture I had in mind for the song. It starts off glorifying war in a way - or at least glorifying going off to war, and then it turns around and shows the brutality."*

There are two things I would like to say about this statement. First, that kind of lyrical content might give the song a darker dimension...if you could actually understand anything Natalie is saying. But with the exception of the part where she says, "My Mother the War" and one other single word - "pavement" - I would have to follow the lyric sheet to have any clue what words were being sung to me.

Second, although I can see the themes of glorification and brutality of war from reading the lyrics, a general theme to this song can be seen only very vaguely. No knock on Natalie, though. She was a teenager when she wrote the lyrics to this song and even though they are pretty amateur, they are also a whole lot better than anything most people could write at that age (and probably better than anything I could write now.)

More direct lyrics can be found in Grey Victory, a song about the bombing of Hiroshima during World War II. This song is also very pleasant musically and is a great example of the style that was the Maniacs' trademark - upbeat melodies with dark lyrics. Here is what Natalie has said about the song:

"The way we just serenely abandon ourselves to the fact that there are billions of dollars worth of nuclear weapons on both fronts is insane. There's no way my writing a song is gonna change it, but that's what I think about all day long sometimes and I want other people to know it."**

That quote is from 1984, when Natalie was barely out of her teens. In last week's post, I talked about the way these little snippets from Natalie have revealed certain ways in which she has changed over the years. This last quote reveals a way in which she seems to have stayed the same. She's never been afraid to tackle subjects in her writing that others would find too daunting. Just one more reason I appreciate her so much.

Last but not least is Tension (sometimes called Tension Makes a Tangle.) Of all the songs on The Wishing Chair, this song in particular seems to be a pretty accurate preview of the lyricist Natalie would develop into as time went by. Not so much in the structure of the lyrics, but in the content. It's a song of observation, the kind of song Natalie does best. She described what inspired the song this way:

"The song Tension just began as a poem I wrote sitting in my grandparents' house. I think a lot of elderly people are neglected by their families and even though I spend a lot of time with my grandparents, there was this period last winter when they couldn't shovel their sidewalks and I was just too selfish to walk six blocks and do it for them. That's a small thing really, but it's better than singing a song about going out to a club and getting it on or getting it up."**

Indeed. I wonder if the grandparents described above were the same grandparents she wrote about in Beloved Wife. I'd like to think so. My paternal grandparents died before I was born and I spent very little time with my maternal grandparents before they died. Truthfully, I found them quite terrifying and not at all a comforting presence, so I find these little love songs from Natalie about her grandparents to be a way to live those emotions vicariously.

I have more thoughts to share about The Wishing Chair, but they will have to wait until another day. But before I leave you this week, I would like to once again express my appreciation for the kind (and thought-provoking) words you all have shared with me through your e-mails and comments. Whenever I start to feel lazy about writing, your thoughtful expressions give me a needed kick in the pants. When I started this blog I did not anticipate that I would eventually be writing posts with sentences like, "He lovingly placed a forkful of kimchi into my waiting mouth" but I've come to count on your patience with my particular brand of tomfoolery. Thanks for reading.

Click here to see a live performance of My Mother the War. It makes me feel really old to say this, but when I watch this video I can't stop thinking, "I hope she has a good chiropractor."

Download My Mother the War from Itunes - My Mother the War - The Wishing Chair

Download Grey Victory from Itunes - Grey Victory - The Wishing Chair

Download Tension from Itunes - Tension Makes a Tangle - The Wishing Chair

*LA Times - October 1985
**New Musical Express - September 1984


  1. I look forward to reading your blog every week. Please keep writing.

  2. Anonymous -

    Thanks! I'm glad you enjoy the blog and I will definitely keep writing.