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


  1. Hey there, Really excellent post, and one of my favorite songs ;)

  2. I just listened to this song again today after not hearing it for probably 15 years. I would not call myself a "fan" of Natalie Merchant (I only own the cd of "In My Tribe"), but I really do love this song.

    This song, like few others, elicits a strong emotional response in me: melancholy and nostalgia. Other songs that elicit a similar response do so because they are tied to points in my life and listening to them brings me back to that time. "Verdi Cries" does not have a connection to any clearly definable point in my life.

    Yet, listening to it often brings me to tears. I can not fully explain why.

    It is a lovely song with tight lyrics that tell a distinct story. However, I find plenty of room for interpretation and personal reflection in this seemingly rigid framework.

    Although the story the song tells doesn't mirror any of my own experiences (young or old) I am still strongly affected by it. I wish I knew why.

    1. may be the first person who has written me who is not a self-identified "huge fan" of NM.

      I can relate to the idea of not fully understanding why certain songs affect you so profoundly. Maybe one day it will dawn on you why Verdi Cries affects you the way it does. But maybe you will love it more if it always remains a mystery. More romantic that way, don't you think?

    2. I am looking for the entire story natalie tells on storytellers about verdi cries. Can you help me find it. It can be video or just written out. I have looked miles and miles for it as I want share this with a friend. I am a merchant fan and like the writer above have not heard this song in as long. I have always been drawn the emotional attachment I have to it and can not figure out why. It brings tear s to my eyes every time I hear it. Maybe for the same reasons from above. It just strikes a cord with me as I see the man behind the wall as lonely remembering a love lost. Maybe an older man at the end of his life coming to place that was special to him that brought him much joy and he is reflecting upon it before he dies. Anyway if you help me with the story she told I would really appreciate it.

      my email

    3. Hi Royal Blue -

      I'm sorry, I can't find a longer video anywhere online. Maybe you can try searching for the Storytellers DVD on Amazon or Ebay?

      I like your thoughts on the song. It really is very beautiful, isn't it?

  3. One suspicion I'd like to confirm - does anyone know Aida well? Are there any musical references to it in Merchant's composition? I am assuming not, but curious nonetheless.

    Love the song. Nice post.

    1. That's a great question and I'd be curious to know the answer too. Glad you enjoyed the post.

  4. I was not a fan of 10000 Maniacs until my roommate played this song on CD - back in 1988. I walked in and asked "who is that singing"? From that moment became huge fan.

    Saw her perform this live in 1989 in Charlotte, NC. Great venue. I've often said "If I could only take one CD with me, In My Tribe would be it". So few people know this song, but it is far and away my favorite song of all time.

    Thanks for posting, I had never seen those comments from Natalie on the song.

    1. Thanks for writing...and it only took me over a year to respond.

  5. with NJ Symphony in Red Bank 10/4/13.

  6. re: references to Aida in Natalie's lyrics: I always assumed the lines "sing of a lovers fate, sealed by jealous hate" has to do with Aida, the story I believe about a slave girl, who chose to be entombed (sealed) with her lover rather than to be without him.

  7. I love this post, I love this song and I totally agree that this song, the last verse in particular "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" always brings tears to my eyes. It makes me think of all the good moments in my past, that I'll never get to live again... and I compare it to my present, which is not as good or happy as it could be... such an emotional song! Thank you so much for your post Annie!

    1. Thank you for your kind words! It is indeed a beautiful song.

  8. Wow! Am I late to the party, or what? Anyway, In My Tribe has been one of my favorite albums since 1987. Thing is, I've never listened very closely to the last two or three songs (this is my habit, unfortunately, with many albums). So, I just recently discovered this little gem and have been playing it on repeat for most of my workday, today. I've never seen the video of her telling the story of her vacation, but I almost wish I hadn't read her explanation. To me, the lyrics were more child-like and I pictured a little girl exploring the resort, stealing pastries, drawing in the sand, and simply absorbing the sights and sounds around her (not that an adult couldn't do those things). Anyway, that's my take on the song.

    1. Hi Taggart -

      You're not as late to the party as I am late to reply to your comment. Sorry about that. I like your take on the song. It's always a gamble finding out an artist's thoughts on a song they wrote. Sometimes I like my ideas better than theirs! When that happens, I just apply my own meaning to the song. I don't feel beholden to the artist's intention necessarily. A little arrogant, I suppose.

  9. I only just heard the song Verdi Cries for the first time when it popped up on grooveshark. Oh my! It is simply such a beautiful piece of music. Thank you for this blog which I also just found. It amazes me how our lives takes us to places at our own perfect pace and timing.

    It is a nice story and it is giving my mind some context to hear the lyric. You are so right about NM and singing over an orchestra. I have been a fan of her voice and music since Tiger Lily and Ophelia. It is beautiful when someone with a great instrument such as NM uses it to make amazing songs. She seems to do it so simply and match her voice up with just the right string arrangements. I have a school age child playing in the school's orchestra and it brings you just about to the point where you bawl!

    When I write, paint or am at my occupation modeling engine components I like to play a piece of music and "loop" it (play one song on repeat same as Taggart explained). It helps me completely immerse (walk in or submerge all the way into your work and the "loop" and sometimes pull something amazing out). Verdi Cries will be looped very soon. Thanks again for the blog and the context and I look forward to reading much more.

    God bless.

    1. Hi Mark -

      Wow, that is an interesting idea. I tend to treat beloved songs like dessert - I try to keep them special and not overindulge. But looping the same song for an extensive period of time? That would be a very interesting experiment. I'd be afraid it'd ruin the song for me! But it would be a really interesting way to draw inspiration for your own artwork. Thanks for sharing!

      - Annie

  10. this is part of the story of her romantic trip....this will open up your mind ....

  11. Hey, this is really well done. Very insightful. I could never fully explain to why friends why I like this song so much. Now I will just direct them to your post.

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