Thursday, May 12, 2011

Arbor Day / The Colonial Wing / Everyone a Puzzle Lover

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

Wide open falsehood
the clandestine truths
rival till the end
in a series of duels
pardon the drapery language I choose

"Waltz in Vienna" has taught me to use
every tall room a fiction
leather bound treasure books
up to the ceiling
gold spine upon spine

The guile and the treason
the faith and allegiance

Wide open falsehood
the clandestine truths
rival till the end
in a series of duels
pardon the drapery language I choose

The author grew fat to imagine
his lead pen careening
gave voice to the scheming
an Aryan cabal to dethrone

The guile and the treason
the faith and allegiance
to the empire unknown

The baron and his mistress
dine in fine banquet hall
as rebel insurgents plot in
the attic space crawl

Wide open falsehood
the clandestine truths
rival till the end
in a series of duels
pardon the drapery language I choose

His small hand did strive
to explain all the
rants and raves of
a people enslaved
by the cant of the shrewdest
capable men

The guile and the treason
the faith and allegiance
now lie in my hand

The guile and the treason
the faith and allegiance
now lie in my hand

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

Here is the storehouse of Her Majesty
well guarded by sentry
but looks are free

Call this the rayless and benighted age
witches by tallow candles
shifted their shapes

Here is the pestle and mortar
that ground the poison seed
a lute, a suit for jousting
and the poems of a balladeer
when all the Latin books were copied off
in golden script
hoarded away in
a monastery crypt

Superstition beyond belief

Over mountain, over dune and over sea
crude map and compass lead the caravan
and lead the fleet
here is the loot and plunder
they bore home
ivory tusk inlaid with precious stone
raw silk and spices by the barrel load
a soft skin drum with mallets
of human bone

A world wide rampage
rampage of greed

So here the tour concludes
the colonial wing
the rooms of the most refined
museum property

An early pair of spectacles
a claw footed divan
ornate clocks with birds that strut
on the half hours and quarter hours

Hear them chime

Everyone a Puzzle Lover (from the 10,000 Maniacs album The Wishing Chair)

Why are some men born
with minds that earn degrees?
the loving cups
gilded plaques
grace their study walls
hide the cracks
while their genius is turned
to works of tyranny then
off to market to market
go selling these

With words so fiery and persuasive
they steal cunningly
riches no one can exceed

Why are some men born
with a fate of poverty?
one firm bed
for a swollen back
year by year
the bodies wracked while
their obedience is had
with gradual defeat
by the pace by the pace
and the urgency

Through a muddled thought
they phrase it
"God knows we're deceived"
barter for
what they need

And where they go
disdain and jeering
for fools to call
the noble peasantry

O how it puzzles me

I pressed flat the accordion pleats
that had gathered in his cotton sleeves
while he thumbed
yes thumbed I wouldn't say caressed
the final piece
a mountain's crest
soon to reply assuredly

For a man aged ninety years
no words to waste on sermons
he'd be pleased to answer
short and sincere

"Girl there's a nonsense
in all these heaven measures
it's a heathen creed
so your grandma says
but better to live by...
drink it all in before it's dry"

He ended there with a rattle
cough, cough
I took away the long gone cold coffee cup
as a trail of Camel ashes fell
on the floor

I had a lot of musical influences in my home as a child. Each person in my family had wildly different tastes and I was prone to enjoying them all. But the person whose music stole my the heart the most was my father. I was a late-in-life child, to put it mildly, so the music he played in the house was stuff from bygone eras. In one house we lived in, he had a room dedicated to music-listening. He built speakers so huge that I could literally crawl inside the housing when the screens were off. He sound proofed the room. And he built his own record rack.

I was obsessed with those records. First of all, I loved the music itself, which was dominated by artists like Nat King Cole, George Shearing, and Count Basie, and lots of soundtracks to old Hollywood musicals like Singin' In the Rain, The Music Man, Oklahoma, etc. But in addition to the music itself, I loved the records, the physical objects. I used to go through them one at a time. I knew every cover by heart. I had stories in my head that went with every cover.

One of the records I remember the most vividly was a George Shearing album called Latin Lace. It featured a very risque (for the 1950s) picture of a woman on the cover, her completely exposed back to the camera, looking into a mirror with bedroom eyes and ample cleavage. I remember being both offended and endlessly intrigued by that picture, like I was looking at something secret. I wish that kind of album cover was all it took to be considered provocative nowadays. I miss that innocence.

I also remember the day my father brought home a CD player. He was thrilled, and in turn, I was too. He would talk endlessly about how clean the sound was, what a huge improvement the CD was over the record. He started replacing all those records with CDs and eventually, one-by-one, those records disappeared forever.

I do not consider myself to be an extremely nostalgic person, but in the last few years my longing for those records has grown considerably. Like most people, I listen to most of my music on an ipod or on CDs. I appreciate that clean sound my father told me so much about. But the older I've gotten, the more I've started to miss the imperfections of those old records. I miss the musty cardboard smell, the dust on the grooves. I miss the pop and hiss.

Several months ago I found myself in the wonderful Rasputin Records in Berkeley, here in California. I wandered my way down to the basement, the only suitable place for records to be kept. I could take the temptation no longer. I started buying records...and I haven't stopped since. I started with records from the era of music I loved as a child, from artists like Errol Garner, Henry Mancini, Ella Fitzgerald, and all the artists that I mentioned earlier. But I also started gathering up records from the other era of music that affected me the most, especially as I started growing to adulthood – the 80s. I bought records by artists like Elvis Costello, XTC, The Pretenders and, of course...10,000 Maniacs.

While all of the old music sounded perfect to me, I found that listening to these more “modern” artists was a bit of a mixed bag. Sometimes they just didn't sound right coming out of a record player. But listening to other albums, even ones I already knew well, on a record player was an absolute revelation. There is something about a record that brings a warmth that you don't find on the shiny, cold plastic of a compact disc. The Wishing Chair was one such album for me.

Although The Wishing Chair was the first full-length Maniacs album, it was the last album I purchased in completing my Natalie Merchant library. There are a lot of people who still firmly believe that The Wishing Chair is the Maniacs best album (I'm sure John Lombardo* appreciates that very much.) I understand this viewpoint. Musical nostalgia causes many people to favor an artist's first album over anything that comes after it, no matter how much progress they may have made in their craft. There is also something very precious about the enthusiasm and innocence of people making their first record. That enthusiasm and innocence comes across very clearly on The Wishing Chair and even though I've only been introduced to the album in recent years, I can appreciate those qualities when listening to the album...especially on record.

Let's talk about the music and vocals for these songs before we move on to the lyrics themselves. One of the reasons I find The Wishing Chair to be so charming is the lilting melodies on so many of the songs. Arbor Day is a great example of this. When listening to this song, it's very difficult to keep yourself from waltzing around the room in an overly dramatic fashion (something I struggle with even without having music on.) It almost sounds a bit like circus music. Everyone a Puzzle Lover, too, has a very agreeable melody. I'm impressed with how pretty these songs sound, considering how young and inexperienced the band were as writers and musicians.

On the other hand, The Colonial Wing is a great example of a typical first-album song. How many bands have fully identified their sound on their first record? Not many and certainly not 10,000 Maniacs. Even with the variety of styles on the album,The Colonial Wing still just doesn't fit on The Wishing Chair. It sounds like a bad R.E.M. song. (Am I the first to make a connection between R.E.M. and 10,000 Maniacs? How clever of me. What's that you say? Oh. Well then, nevermind.) The dissonance between the music and the vocals gets more and more jarring as the song gets closer to the ending. I find it painful, frankly. (How snobby do I sound?)

Lyrically, I don't think it can be denied that these songs are interesting. Natalie was only beginning to develop as a writer and I enjoy looking for patterns in these songs that would emerge in her music in a clearer fashion as time went by. Here are a few quotes from a very young Natalie about her approach to lyric-writing at the time:

"I love the pure sound of vowels and consonants and sometimes I've written lyrics that maybe didn't make as much clear sense as they could've, just because I preferred different words in that order."**

"At first, I was playing private games with words, and I wasn't even playing with other people. I think my desire to communicate more vividly, more directly, more clearly, happened with In My Tribe."***

That first quote in particular explains a lot about the style of the lyrics on The Wishing Chair. They are quite audacious. I think this lyric from Arbor Day sums up Natalie's early lyrical style perfectly: “Pardon the drapery language I choose...” I think she's done plenty to pardon herself in the many years since. Really, I don't think these are bad lyrics; they are occasionally lovely. They're just not...great. How did Natalie come to view those lyrics as time passed?

"Embarrassing. I was just so young. I feel like someone is peeling all my clothing off and I'm standing in Times Square and everyone is pointing at me.”****

"I started very young, and I don't think there's anybody - any professional of any sort, whether they're a carpenter or writer - who wants to be judged by the work they did at 16 when they're almost 50.”*****

Well, I really don't know what she's so worried about. It's not like someone is out there writing a blog about every single song she's...ever...

Um. Let's move on.

I'm going to keep collecting records, as many as I can fit in my tiny apartment. I love the chain that connects me to the past when I listen to them, even when I just look at them. The Wishing Chair is now over 25 years old. Listen to it on CD if you want. Download it from the links below if you prefer. But I think you should consider buying it on record. Even the cover of the album looks like it's made for a square piece of cardboard.

Nostalgia has its place.

See you next week!

*John Lombardo was a guitarist and songwriter for 10,000 Maniacs until he decided to leave the band shortly before they recorded In My Tribe. Oops.

Click here to see a video on Natalie's official site that features Arbor Day played in reverse, and also some other things...that...Well, maybe you should just watch it for yourself.

Download Arbor Day from Itunes - Arbor Day - The Wishing Chair

Download The Colonial Wing from Itunes - The Colonial Wing - The Wishing Chair

Download Everyone a Puzzle Lover from Itunes - Everyone a Puzzle Lover - The Wishing Chair

**Sounds, July 13, 1985
***Musician, August 1989
****People Magazine, July 1995
*****Los Angeles Daily News, August 2010


  1. I have the opposite opinion about certain songs. I've come to love The Colonial Wing, because of the imagery she paints with her words. You can just see a black and white movie about some colonial era ships carrying these relics back to "civiilzation". The drum and mallets made from human bones and skin.

    And I love Puzzle Lover, Maddox Table, and Back of The Moon. They are hard to understand without a lyrics sheet I grant you, but it's fun to discover the way she puts words and phrases together. "The man who's let to divvy up time is a miser, he's got a silver coin, only let's it shine for hours while you sleep it away". That's poetry and it's brilliant. Cotton Alley is another one I never get tired of listening to.

    The album does have a number of songs though that I do not listen to much at all though. Mother The War, and Among The Americans just don't do it for me. Anyway, nice to see someone analyzing this record.

    1. Hi Mike -

      Sorry for my late reply. Interesting to hear how much you like Colonial Wing. One of the many things I love about music - it's so delightfully subjective, more so than perhaps any other form of art. I just listened to Wishing Chair the other day. It's been awhile since I dusted off that record. Still love Maddox Table more than any other song on that album, but there are a lot of good songs on it.

      Thanks for writing!

      - Annie