Thursday, February 24, 2011

San Andreas Fault

San Andreas Fault (from the album Tigerlily)

Go west
paradise is there
you'll have all that you can eat
of milk & honey over there

You'll be the brightest star
the world has ever seen
sun-baked slender heroine
of film & magazine

Go west
paradise is there
you'll have all that you can eat
of milk & honey over there

You'll be the brightest light
the world has ever seen
the dizzy height of a jet-set life
you could never dream

Your pale blue eyes
strawberry hair
lips so sweet
skin so fair

Your future bright
beyond compare
it's rags to riches
over there

San Andreas Fault
moved its fingers
through the ground
earth divided
plates collided
such an awful sound

San Andreas Fault
moved its fingers
through the ground
terra cotta shattered
and the walls came
tumbling down

O, promised land
O, wicked ground
build a dream
tear it down

O, promised land
what a wicked ground
build a dream
watch it all fall down



Well before I was old enough to be legally employable, I dreamed of having a job. The reason was simple - I wanted money. But not just money for stuff in general. I wanted money so that I could buy a car. As far as I could see, a car was my ticket to freedom, an essential component on my quest for independence.

So when I was 16 I got a job and I hoarded away all of my minimum wage payments, combined them with a small loan from my sister and pretty soon I had bankrolled a whopping $2,200. Obviously, I wasn't in the market for anything flashy. But one sunny Saturday I test drove some grandma's 1985 Toyota Corolla and talked the owner into taking my money. Since there was a bank holiday that weekend I had to wait three more days until I could get the cash to the seller and let me tell you, those three days were the longest of my life.

But then it happened. I gave away all the money I had and in return I got a car that would go 0-60 in roughly fifteen minutes. It would be easy for you to think that the childish fantasies that caused me to put so much weight on having my own ride would soon leave me disappointed. But you'd be wrong. I got exactly what I wanted. I got freedom. At least it was the most freedom I had ever had up to that point. I will never forget what it felt like to drive in that car for the first time, to feel so sure that I would never be trapped again.

I wonder what it felt like for Natalie Merchant to start writing and recording Tigerlily, her first solo album. Did she feel scared? Did she feel exhilarated? Probably both. But undoubtedly she had to have felt an overwhelming sense of freedom. No one to convince, no one to appease, no need for compromising. This is something all of us dream of having in our professional lives, regardless of what we do, but this desire must be especially intense when you are an artist. Trying to get a group of people to agree on something so completely subjective must be incredibly difficult. It would be so much easier to satisfy a committee of one.

There are no songs on Tigerlily that are an extreme departure from the general musical style of 10,000 Maniacs, which may have been a coincidence or may have been by design. San Andreas Fault was the first track on the album, so in a sense it was the world's first introduction to the Maniac-less Natalie. I think it was a great choice. It's a beautiful song, one that fans recognize instantly when Natalie performs it live, right from the very first beats of the drum. While the lyrics are filled with incredulity about both the literal and figurative shaky ground that those with golden dreams of California have chosen to build their lives on, the song never feels preachy or caustic, a criticism that was sometimes put forth about Natalie's earlier lyric-writing. (Personally, I love when she's preachy and caustic, but I'm a glutton for punishment.) Here's a quote from Natalie about the song:

"My visions of Los Angeles really haunt me. It's really seductive, but at the same time, once you touch the thing that felt so seductive, you turn it over and you realize it's just made of fiberglass or tin or cardboard. The substance is lacking. It's a strange place. There's the cult of the beautiful body and the cult of ostentatious wealth, what kind of car do you drive, what kind of house do you live in, is your body buff or not, are you blonde, are you beautiful enough to survive."*

In the liner notes to Natalie's Retrospective release, she talks about experiencing her first earthquake in California and the puzzling response of people around her once it was over:

"I remember how bizarre it seemed to me that when the aftershocks were over, life seemed to go on without interruption. People were acting as if we were all just on the same plane after a spell of turbulence."

I would contend that there are two sides to this story. Yes, there are many Californians who have grown accustomed to earthquakes and seem to hardly notice them. (As a child, I quite looked forward to them, as it guaranteed at least one day out of school, sometimes more. Closest thing a California kid gets to Snow Days.) But my mother, who had lived in California all her life, was terrified of earthquakes. Once, during a nasty aftershock, as my sister and I headed for a safe place in our home, we were hit by a blinding force - it was my mother, pushing her two youngest children out of her path and running down the stairs with a speed I had previously imagined her incapable of. AND...she had scissors in her hand. It's a miracle we survived to adulthood. But I guess part of the point of San Andreas Fault is well-illustrated in her case because she never did get herself out of dodge. Those quakes didn't scare her enough, I guess.

I don't think Tigerlily is Natalie's best album. I think every album she produces manages to improve on the last. But Tigerlily and San Andreas Fault in particular is a beautiful introduction to the second half of Natalie's musical career. Everything about the album seems to testify to the freedom she was feeling when she made it and when she said the words of our last quote for today:

"I can do exactly what I want now, which is an amazing freedom. I've never felt that before."*

Freedom suits her, don't you think?

Thanks for reading this week's post. Please feel free to send me your thoughts on this song via e-mail or the comments section. See you next week!

Click here to see a video of Natalie performing San Andreas Fault live

Download the live version of San Andreas Fault featured in the above-referenced video at Itunes - San Andreas Fault (Live) - Live In Concert

*Time Out - June 1995

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