Thursday, June 23, 2011

What's the Matter Here / Back O' the Moon / How You've Grown

What's the Matter Here (from the 10,000 Maniacs album In My Tribe)

That young boy without a name
anywhere I'd know his face
in this city the kid's my favorite
I've seen him, seen him, I see him every day

I've seen him run outside
looking for a place to hide from his father
the kid half naked
and said to myself,

"O, what's the matter here?"

I'm tired of the excuses everybody uses
he's their kid I stay out of it,
but who gave you the right to do this?

We live on Morgan Street
just ten feet between
and his mother, I never see her
but her screams and cussing
I hear them every day

Threats like, "if you don't mind I will beat on your behind"
"slap you, slap you silly" made me say,

"O, what's the matter here?"

I'm tired of the excuses everybody uses, he's your kid
do as you see fit, but get this through that I know what you do
and what you did to your own flesh and blood

"If you don't sit in your chair straight
I'll take this belt from around my waist
and don't think that I won't use it!"

Answer me and take your time
what could be the awful crime
he could do at such young an age?

If I'm the only witness to your madness
offer me some words to balance out
what I see and what I hear

All these cold and rude things that you do
I suppose you do because he belongs to you
instead of love and the feel of warmth
you've given him these cuts and sores
that won't heal with time or age

I want to say,
"what's the matter here?"
but I don't dare say.


Back O' the Moon (from the 10,000 Maniacs album The Wishing Chair)


Jenny! you don't know the nights I hide
below a second story room
to whistle you down
the man who's let to divvy up
time is a miser
he's got a silver coin
only lets it shine for hours
while you sleep it away

There's one rare and odd style of living
part only known to the everybody Jenny!
a comical where's the end parade
of the sort people here would think unusual


Tonight upon the mock brine of a Luna Sea
far off we sail on to Back O' The Moon


Jenny! you don't know the days I've tried
telling backyard tales
so to maybe amuse
o, your mood is never giddy
if you smile I'm delighted
but you'd rather pout
such a lazy child
you dare fold your arms
tisk and say that I lie

There's one rare and odd style of thinking
part only known to the everybody Jenny!
the small step and giant leap takers
got the head start in the race toward it


Tonight upon the mock brine of a Luna Sea
far off we sail on to the Back O' The Moon

That was a sigh
but not meant to envy you
when your age was mine
some things were sworn true
morning would come

And calendar pages had
new printed seasons on
their opposite sides


Jenny you don't know the nights I hide
below a second story room
to whistle you down
o the man who's let to divvy up
time is a miser
he's got a silver coin
lets it shine for hours
while you sleep it away

There's one rare and odd style of living
part only known to the everybody Jenny!
out of tin ships jump the bubble head boys
to push their flags into powdered soils and cry
no second placers

No smart looking geese in bonnets
dance with pigs in high button trousers
no milk pail for the farmer's daughter
no merry towns of sweet walled houses

Here I've found
Back O' the Moon
not here
I've found
Back O' the Moon


How You've Grown (from the 10,000 Maniacs album Our Time In Eden)

"my, how you've grown"
I remember that phrase
from my childhood days too

"just wait and see"
I remember those words and how they chided me
when patient was the hardest thing to be

because we can't make up
for the time that we've lost
I must let these memories provide
no little girl can stop her world to wait for me

I should have known
at your age, in a string of days the year is gone
but in that space of time it takes so long

because we can't make up
for the time that we've lost
I must let those memories provide
no little girl can stop her world to wait for me

every time we say goodbye
you're frozen in my mind
as the child that you never will be
you never will be again

I'll never be more to you than a stranger could be

every time we say goodbye
you're frozen in my mind
as a child that you never will be
will be again

After a recent move to a new neighborhood, I had the chance to introduce myself to my new next door neighbor. He was very friendly, but within about 15 seconds of meeting me, he said something like the following: "My wife and daughter are in another country, but they will be arriving here soon...So don't fall in love with me, kid."

Okay, that last sentence I just made up. But the first part about his wife and daughter was real. I replied that I would look forward to meeting them upon their arrival. This exchange between my new neighbor and I kept repeating itself. Every time I'd greet him in passing, he'd tell me his wife and daughter were coming soon. I started to wonder if he might be a little delusional, but I humored him nonetheless. "Can't wait to meet them!"

One day my neighbor excitedly informed me, "My wife and daughter have arrived!" I said, "Oh, I would love to meet them!" He looked a little uncomfortable and then said, "Oh, yeah, well, sometime soon." A few days passed and I saw nary a sight of anyone but him. My already easily ignited imagination was creating all kinds of scenarios to explain this strange situation.

But then one day it happened. I was walking to my door when he opened his door wide and said, "Do you want to meet my wife and daughter?" "Yes!" I said, expecting him to bring out some sort of handmade mannequin-like mother and daughter set with painted-on facial features and ill-fitting, tattered clothing on their frames. (I told you, overactive imagination.) But happily, I needn't have worried. His lovely wife stepped outside and walked over to greet me. She was tall, dark and graceful, bringing my short, pale clumsiness into sharp relief. Her husband went inside to look for his daughter while I chatted with his wife. Eventually a strikingly beautiful little girl, ten years old, bounded out of the house and strode up to me confidently to shake my hand. What do you know? My neighbor's family was real after all, and all of a sudden I understood why he spoke about them so often and with such excitement.

In the weeks since, I've grown used to hearing his little girl playing in our common yard. She runs about, laughing with reckless abandon and talking to anyone who will listen. Sometimes she comes over to play with my cats. She speaks with a British-tinged Indian accent that makes every word that comes out of her mouth seem that much more delightful. "You greedy kitty!" she exclaims while picking up my over-stuffed animal. Then she lets loose with peals of laughter. If it hasn't become abundantly clear by now, I'm quite taken with this little child.

Now let's be honest. Even people who claim to love all children don't really love all children. I have met children I adored and children that honestly creeped me out beyond reason. I have met kids that I wished I could adopt and raise as my own and kids that made me wonder if breeding should be outlawed. Children, much like their adult counterparts, are a mixed bag.

But there's something about children, about childhood, that makes us access something very raw in ourselves. Think about the world of fiction. Many of the books and films that are the most beloved, the most seminal to our idea of what makes inspiring fiction, are stories that center around children. Sometimes the stories are designed for children, sometimes not. Obviously, part of our fondness for these stories is the bridge it provides us back to our own childhood. But I think that there is also another reason. Children, childhood, represents the best part of us. Childhood is the purest, most innocent, most unprotected and least apathetic time in a person's life. Stories about childhood seem magical because childhood, by virtue of its freshness in experience and perspective, is magical. Those stories make us feel young again, with all our senses and our whole imagination fully engaged. And so even the most jaded person, even the person who says, "I don't like children at all" can have the ice shaken off them by accessing that forgotten part of themselves through a good story about children...or by meeting a child that brings that part of them to the surface.

This week's songs are all stories about children and childhood. I figured I'd start with the most well-known song of this bunch, the 10,000 Maniacs song What's the Matter Here. I've been sitting here staring blankly at the computer trying to figure out what I could possibly say about this song. When I read old newspaper articles about In My Tribe that mentioned this song, it was frequently spoken of as an almost controversial song. I didn't get that. Wrenching? Yes. Disturbing? Yes, certainly those words apply. But it was hard for me to see why this song was often referred to as being almost shocking. It's not as if child abuse was some sort of secret that Natalie let out by writing the words of this song, was it? No. But also...yes, a little bit.

I've had to remind myself that What's the Matter Here came out when I was barely out of diapers. People didn't talk about child abuse with the same openness then that they do now. They certainly didn't sing about it. But songs like What's the Matter Here, and some other notable songs that were released around that time, started broaching the subject and not in a subtle way. Thank goodness. I don't think this song was necessarily trying to teach a lesson, but instead just tell a story, one that would inspire some thoughtfulness about the subject. It affected people quite profoundly. Here are some notable quotes from Natalie about this song:

"I got a letter from a woman who said that after hearing What's The Matter Here she thinks twice before spilling her rage onto her children."*

"I was once doing a live radio interview in San Francisco and a man called in and said he'd been riding home from work on the freeway and What's The Matter Here came on the radio. It was the first time he'd heard us, or it, and he said the lyrics struck him because he'd been abused by his alcoholic father when he was growing up. He'd repressed it for years and never cried about it as an adult, and when he heard the song he started crying so much that he had to pull the car over. If just one person has a response like that, it makes it worthwhile.”**

A song about such a grave topic could have easily been trivialized with a lesser writer behind it. But instead, the song is moving and powerful and, as noted in the above quotes, profound enough to make a personal impact on many people.

What's the Matter Here was, as the lyrics suggest, inspired by Natalie's observations of a particular child. Back O' the Moon has a similar inspiration, but a less dramatic one.

"I wrote that song for a little girl in my neighborhood. I was trying to interest her in these wonderful books with gorgeous illustrations that were printed in the twenties. She just wanted to watch Dukes Of Hazard. I'd say, 'Let's jump rope, let's play hopscotch. She'd say no. I'd get so frustrated. I started out the song trying to say, 'Oh, Jenny and I have so much fun together.' But I realized we don't have fun. One time we were looking at the moon, and I was telling her about the sandman, the man in the moon, and she said, 'Are they going to put guns on the moon and point them down at us? I heard that on the radio.' Sort of takes the fun out of it."***

Just a little. In one old article I read, it was mentioned that after this song came out, little Jenny was a bit of a celebrity in her town. Apparently her parents had a t-shirt made for her that proclaimed, "I'm Jenny." Interesting. Their excitement over having their child mentioned in a song apparently overshadowed any reservations they may have had about the fact that the song was basically calling their child a bit imaginationless and lazy-minded. Win some, lose some, I guess. Wonder where Jenny is now...

Of the three songs I'm covering this week, my favorite by far is How You've Grown. Of all the songs Natalie performed with 10,000 Maniacs, this is the song most likely to melt me into a sniveling ball of tears. And I don't even have any children. Those of you who do...I don't know how you can even listen to this song. Natalie has a gift for using metaphors in her music, but I still think that one of her greatest strengths as a lyricist is her ability to lay bare a universal truth in a simple, direct way. There are few lyrics I can think of that are more moving to me than this one: "No little girl can stop the world and wait for me."

While the inevitable brevity of childhood from the adult perspective can be painful, I don't think of this song as being sad. If anything, it serves as a reminder to be engaged in the lives of the children who mean something to us while we have the chance. I suppose memories can only provide you comfort if you are around enough to form some meaningful ones.

I can't help but worry about my neighbor's little girl. I hope she makes friends when she starts school in a couple of months. I hope she doesn't get teased for her accent. I hope she can get used to life in a place that is very different than what she has been used to. One way or another, I hope she will keep coming over to play with my cats. I hope she keeps skipping through the yard every day and making so much noise her parents have to regularly quiet her down. I like being in close proximity to childhood. I think it's the best shot I have at staying young.

Thanks for reading! As always, feel free to share your thoughts via e-mail or the comments section below.

Click here to see the music video for What's the Matter Here

Download What's the Matter Here from Itunes - What's the Matter Here - In My Tribe

Download Back O' the Moon from Itunes - Back O' the Moon - The Wishing Chair

Download How You've Grown from Itunes - How You've Grown - Our Time In Eden

*BAM, August 1989
**Select, February 1991
***Musician, January 1986


  1. Wonderful blog!! I absolutely love Natalie's song topics. Her lyrics and melodies are so moving. I was 15 when "In My Tribe" was out. My first exposure to Natalie was the video "Peace Train." Not too long after that, when I heard "Like The Weather" on the radio, I decided to spend my next baby-sitting gigs on the album. And my fascinaton with Natalie began. I loved how she lyrically addressed the issues of illiteracy, child abuse, greed and selfishness in society. This was when I really started being aware of the reality of the world around me and how the common attitude of most people in general was shallow, disillusioning and disappointing to me. I lost my childish naivety and became indignant that more people didn't appreciate music that encouraged social awareness.

    I remember later (at age 20) when listening to "Our Time In Eden" for the first time, smiling at the lyrics of "How You've Grown," because it seemed I would often see old friends of my parents or long distance relatives we wouldn't see too often, and they would exclaim, "My, you've gotten so big! I remember when you were this tall," and they would indicate the height I had been the last time I had seen them. After hearing this for the five hundredth time, and developing the teenager attitude, I would mentally roll my eyes at these silly grown ups who should've known I was going to be bigger after so many years!!! :) Each year that I've gotten older, I can't escape this fact that now that silly grown up is me, and AS I'm saying the same thing to a youngster I haven't seen for awhile (I can't believe I just used the word "youngster!"), I'm telling myself to shut up, but I'm also marveling that so much time has gone by! How did it happen? Have I really been so preoccupied with my own life, work, bills, and other adult stresses and responsibilities that I have forgotten that children were growing up? And it makes me really miss being a carefree, imagination-filled, energetic kid. For example, I used to write poetry when I was a teen to my late 20's. I'm approaching 40 now (shudder), and I have no desire or inspiration to write. And if something actually moves me to THINK about writing, I get stuck before I even create a stroke. Stagnation has set in for this grown up. But perhaps that is why, like you, I love watching children play, talking to them, and experiencing their logic and imagination. This too has grown with age, because in my 20's and most of my 30's children didn't fascinate me like they do now. Your little neighbor sounds absolutely entrancing.

    But I do appreciate experiencing others' creativity. And I really enjoy reading your blogs, because you express your thoughts clearly, and I totally "feel" what I'm reading. Wow. I rambled a bit, didn't I? :)
    ~ Veronica Taylor

  2. Veronica -

    I think you are a great writer. If you ever get around to writing your own blog, I would surely read it.

    Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. I could really relate to what you said about the music causing you to become more aware of the world around you. It had that effect on me too. And sad to say, but music that is so socially aware is starting to slide into the backseat more than ever now.

    Thanks for your kind words about my writing. I actually wasn't that thrilled with this post so I was glad to hear you enjoyed it.

  3. "I've had to remind myself that What's the Matter Here came out when I was barely out of diapers."!?!? wow! Really loved this one, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with us.

  4. Jimney -

    I'm just a punk kid! Glad you enjoyed.