Thursday, November 24, 2011

Verdi Cries

Verdi Cries (from the 10,000 Maniacs album In My Tribe)

The man in 119 takes his tea all alone.
Mornings we all rise to wireless Verdi cries.
I'm hearing opera through the door.
The souls of men and women, impassioned all.
Their voices climb and fall; battle trumpets call.
I fill the bath and climb inside, singing.

He will not touch their pastry
But every day they bring him more.
Gold from the breakfast tray, i steal them all away
And then go and eat them on the shore.

I draw a jackal-headed woman in the sand,
Sing of a lover's fate sealed by jealous hate
Then wash my hand in the sea.
With just three days more I'd have just
about learned the entire score to Aida.

Holidays must end as you know.
All is memory taken home with me:
The opera, the stolen tea, the sand drawing, the verging sea, all years ago.

A few years ago on a trip to the San Francisco Zoo, I noticed a particular phrase written on the napkin and paper towel dispensers throughout the property.

"Paper comes from trees."

That was all that was written, nothing more to it. I loved the simplicity of this message and wondered if it might actually inspire people to more conservative usage. I have a feeling it did. People are bombarded with directions, requests, and prohibitions everywhere they go and even though these things are generally for their benefit, the knee-jerk reaction most people have to those things is to be annoyed. So had the San Francisco Zoo's napkin dispenser said, "Please use only as many napkins as you actually need because we are trying to save the planet by using less paper," I think some people would be inclined to turn their brain off somewhere around "Please only use."

But with the four simple words "Paper comes from trees," they actually made people engage their brains for a moment. No implicit direction or request was needed. They gave their visitors a simple fact and trusted that they would respond accordingly. I know this is a simple thing, but I loved it. Give us the opportunity to use our brains and we might just do it every once in a while.

For this same reason, I hate the pledge drives on my local public radio station. It's not because I resent being asked. I quite appreciate the reminder. But, at least where I live, the way the radio personalities try to persuade people to give is less than inspiring. For instance, after listening to several minutes of This American Life, the local program host will chime in with, "Wow...isn't This American Life just so...fascinating? It really is just so...interesting. It really makes you in a way that really makes you think. It's just really...special. And it's one more reason you should donate to..."

If you really believe in the power of your programming, let it speak for itself. Yes, This American Life is fascinating, interesting, entertaining, and thought-provoking. But give us listeners a little credit for figuring that out ourselves. Leave us some room to draw our own conclusions. Play the clip and then just simply say, "If you want to continue to be able to listen to programs like this one, please donate." I know I'm being impossibly hard on these program hosts, who are simply doing their best for an extraordinarily worthy cause. I just wish there was a way pledge drives could be a little more "Paper comes from trees."

I don't think song lyrics need to be subtle. Straightforward stories, messages, or expressions are fine by me. But there is a special appeal for me in a song that doesn't really tell you what it's about or what it's trying to say or what it's trying to make you feel or understand. I've written before on this blog about the way some of Natalie Merchant's song lyrics tend towards giving the listener a chance to make up their own mind about meanings. As much as I would love to hear Natalie dissect every song lyric she's ever written (an idea that I suspect would make her gag), I appreciate being given the chance to fill in the gaps with my own conclusions, my own experiences.

Aside from its other virtues, Verdi Cries is a song that allows listeners to make their own connections. If you asked five people who listened to the song to tell you what it means to them, it's likely that five completely different responses would be elicited. Here is what Natalie has said about the inspiration for Verdi Cries:

"When I was 20, I went to Europe on vacation and stayed at a hotel in Spain, sort of a small, family-run hotel on the Mediterranean. It was pretty amazing. I hadn't spent a lot of time traveling at that point, especially not in Europe. I was very impressionable. So I wrote that song about being there."*

"Life has poetic qualities to it. A day can be completely mundane, unless you observe it from a perspective that is a little bit more creative. It was just a journal entry. But I loved paralleling the opera about the Ethiopian slave girl being entombed alive with her lover, and this old man in the hotel room listening to it alone while I was taking my bath."**

Maybe the greatest kinship I have with Natalie's music is its intense focus on people, usually strangers. If I were staying next door to room 119, I think I would've thought a lot about the man listening to Aida because he was lonely. Maybe this story of loving someone so much you would choose to die with them rather than live without them comforted him with its union of devotion and defeat.

Verdi Cries is also a rare instance of a song that Natalie has admitted is about (or at least features) herself. I like to imagine a youthful Natalie stealing tea and pastries and drawing pictures in the sand and writing pages upon pages of daydreams and flights of fancy and observations and reflections in her journal while experiencing a new part of the world. There is something terribly romantic about this song. Not romantic in the boy-girl way. Romantic in the idealistic openness that can be felt so often when you are standing at the precipice of something undiscovered.

Musically, Verdi Cries really foreshadowed the shape Natalie's music would take as time went by, especially with her solo material. I think there are a lot of echoes of Verdi Cries in many of the songs on Ophelia and even Leave Your Sleep. She always sounded natural with an orchestra behind her voice. Maybe she was only just toying with this pop music business all along.

My favorite lyrics in Verdi Cries are the final ones:

Holidays must end as you know.
All is memory taken home with me:
The opera, the stolen tea, the sand drawing, the verging sea, all years ago.

When something good is ending, I frequently find myself thinking about this line: "Holidays must end as you know." These are simple words, I know. But they leave a little room for me. Sometimes I just want to draw my own pictures in the sand.

Thank you for reading this week's post. I want to say a special thank you to Glen and Jeff for sending me their thoughts on recent Natalie concerts they attended. I eat my heart out every time there is a Natalie concert that I can't attend (which is, um, always), so I love these little reviews and insights. Keep 'em coming!

Click here to see a video of Natalie performing Verdi Cries on VH1 Storytellers. I couldn't find a version of this video that includes Natalie's introduction to this song, which is really great. If anyone can find it, please send me a link!

Download Verdi Cries from Itunes - Verdi Cries - In My Tribe

*The Performing Songwriter - May/June 1996
**Baltimore Sun - December 1987

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Eden / Maddox Table

Eden (from the 10,000 Maniacs album Our Time in Eden)

We are the roses in the garden
beauty with thorns among our leaves
to pick a rose you ask your hands to bleed

But what is the reason for having roses
when your blood is shed carelessly?
it must be for something more than vanity

Believe me, the truth is we're not honest
not the people that we dream
we're not as close as we could be

Willing to grow but rains are shallow
barren and wind-scattered seed
on stone and dry land, we will be
waiting for the light arisen to flood inside the prison

And in that time
kind words alone will teach us
no bitterness will reach us
reason will be guided in another way

All in time...
but the clock is another demon
that devours our time in Eden
in our paradise

Will our eyes see well beneath us
flowers all divine?
Is there still time?

If we wake and discover
in life a precious love
will that waking become more heavenly?


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

The legs of Maddox kitchen tables
my whole life twisted on a lathe
in a foreman's torrent
my first English was
"faster boy if you want your pay"
barking commands
loud and simple
we could all obey

Then I was forever pulling silvers
rubbed the sawdust always
deeper in my eye
varnish vapor that could linger
on my skin
it held tight
the whine of spinning blades
still echoes to bother my sleep at night

See that ox
stamped dead center
on the letter head of the company mail
four decades a spitting image
of the animal I portrayed
at Maddox Table a yoke was carved
for my neck

Sun through the window oil spattered
and in mason jars
tricked plenty seeds thrive
the standing joke
around the shop was
with my green thumb
anything'd grow
my part was to laugh
show and ornery jig had
cut it at the knuckle bone

See that oxen
trade mark burned
into every stick of furniture
from horn to tail
four decades a spitting image
of the animal I portrayed
at Maddox Table a yoke was carved
for my neck
was tailor made

Oh, my Dolly was a weak
not a burdened girl
treat her to a piece of vaudeville
a Wintergarden moving picture show
Bemus Point on July Sundays
by trolley we'd go

To your benefit we'll strike a bargain
with the waving fist of a union man
not just for
candy and cologne
but for
automobile keys
cash in the bank
and the deed
on a place called home

A few weeks ago I went to visit a friend in a nursing home. As I was leaving, I passed through a room where several residents were gathered around in their wheelchairs. I surveyed the faces. For the most part, their expressions were painfully similar - the vacant stares of people who no longer know where they are or perhaps even who they are. But from the back of the room was a sound, the only noise in that room that was louder than the small radio blaring You Don't Bring Me Flowers by Neil Diamond and Barbara Streisand, louder than the TV's game show contestant cheers. It was the sound of an old woman sobbing.

There was only one person in that room conveying any emotion and the emotion she was conveying felt so...right. It made me sick to my stomach. And it also made me feel oddly comforted. I felt like there was another person in that room who understood how awful this all was, how cruel and unjust that people should spend their final years in such a miserable condition. I hoped that if I was ever in her situation someday, I would have the presence of mind to know I should be crying.

Eden, I suppose, is a song about imperfection - the imperfection of humans, of our surroundings and of life itself, perfectly symbolized by that thorn-filled rose. Pain and beauty are intertwined in this life and no one gets away with only joy and no sorrow. But the lyric that defines the song for me is this one:

but the clock is another demon
that devours our time in Eden
in our paradise

I live eternally in the future. I have no concept of this "be in the moment" business. I'm trying to learn. I can't tell you how frustrating it is when in the middle of a beautiful, joyful moment in my life, I start thinking about when the moment will be over, about how I'll feel if I can't have this joy anymore. I start feeling depressed halfway through a vacation because I'm already anticipating having to go home. Instead of fulling immersing myself in a great concert, I end up thinking during every song, "I hope this isn't the last song, I'm not ready for this to be over." It's infuriating to be inside my own time-traveling mind. So this lyric in Eden about the demon clock that steals away those perfect moments in life, it resonates with me very deeply. I don't know many people my age who think about how they'll feel when the are in a nursing home. I wish I was like them. But I'm ever aware of that clock. I may not live in the moment very well, but I don't take things for granted either.

While I don't dwell on my own past much, as I get older I find myself more and more nostalgic for things that are no more, for things that have been no more since well before I was born. It's this sense of longing for forgotten things that has fueled my recent obsession with record-collecting (as I type this, I'm listening to 1951's The Provocative Erroll Garner and wondering when the word "provocative" started being used primarily in reference to naughty things.) This nostalgia caused my recent willingness to get rid of almost all of my possessions so I could afford to live in a neighborhood established around the turn of the century and soak up its feeling of history. It is perhaps this same nostalgia that makes me love the song Maddox Table so much.

Maddox Table was founded by William Maddox in 1898 in Jamestown, New York and operated into the early 1980s. Furniture manufacturing was at the core of Jamestown's livelihood and when that all started going overseas, it must have felt like the city went with it. A quote from Natalie:

"It was probably a great place to live in 1920. There's still two or three factories operating, but it's really bad, veneer-coated stereo components, those kind of things. That's what they're reduced to making. It's incredible. You can go to the second-hand shops and antique stores and find specimens of this beautiful woodworking that used to be done there. When someone was first married and they bought a bedroom suite it was like for royalty it seemed, but it was something everyone could have."*

I think Maddox Table is far and away the best song on The Wishing Chair. This song really foreshadowed the lyrical style Natalie Merchant would make her own as she progressed in her career. She slips so easily into the skin of this factory worker, describing the things he sees, hears and smells as he slaves away. I love the level of detail she includes, like the description of the Maddox Table logo, which you can see a poor image of in the picture below:

Here are two more quotes from Natalie:

"I met an old man who used to work at Maddox Table. I told him I'd written a song about the company, and I gave him a copy of the record. I never thought I'd meet someone like the person in the song."**

"I have a ridiculous level of nostalgia for something that maybe never even existed. But growing up around my grandparents and spending a lot of time sitting around the front porch with their friends, everyone was always saying it used to be so much better."*

I really love this quote. Maybe Natalie hit upon what this form of nostalgia really is - not just a longing for the past but a longing for the idealized version of the past. While there are obvious dangers in idealizing the past, it seems like we have such a deep-rooted need to do so.

I can acknowledge the fact that the woman I saw crying in the nursing home may have been just as mentally lost as everyone else in that room. She may have had no idea at all why she was crying. But in my idealized version of that moment, she was crying because she was mourning her better days, mourning the memory of what she used to have, real or imagined. There is beauty in that, no matter how sad it is.

Click here to watch the music video for Maddox Table

Download Eden from Itunes - Eden - Our Time In Eden

Download Maddox Table from Itunes - Maddox Table - The Wishing Chair

*Los Angeles Times - August 1989
**Vegetarian Times - March 1989
Bottom photo source