Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Gabriel Gordon Interview

Those of you who've been reading this blog since the early days might remember me writing once about the value of having a few unrealistic dreams. I'm not really the type of music fan who daydreams about getting autographs and taking pictures with the musicians I love. But what I do fantasize about is interviewing them. To me, reading or listening to a really good interview with any kind of artist, getting a peek into the thought processes and personality of someone who creates things that move you, is totally exhilarating. So I don't need to tell you what a thrill it was when I had the opportunity to interview Gabriel Gordon, a name that will be familiar to most readers of this blog. 

Gabriel has been performing with Natalie Merchant for nearly 15 years now and has a pretty incredible musical resumé, as you will soon find out. He was also gracious enough to let this amateur play the journalist. It was exactly as awesome as I hoped it would be. So without further ado, please enjoy my interview with Gabriel Gordon:

So readers of this blog will know you primarily for your work with Natalie, but can you tell us some other performers you've recorded or toured with over the years? 

Absolutely. My first tour was with Soup Dragons to promote their album Hydrophonic in 1994. After that I recorded with Idina Menzel on her debut release called Still. I toured as a tour manager for Madeleine Peyroux to promote her album Dreamland, and also as a road manager/stage tech for Marry Me Jane. I used to play with Leona Naess back in her Bleecker Street days at the Bitter End leading up to her first record deal. I handed over the job to Jason Darling when I went out on tour with Madeleine Peyroux. I moved to Europe in 2000 and eventually began touring with Andrew Roachford as well as James Kakande. I also opened up several shows for big artists around France and Germany, most notably, George Benson, Van Morrison, Al Jarreau, Tété, Meshell Ndegeocello and Lokua Kanza (whom I had the pleasure of meeting on my first gig with Natalie, on May 2, 1998 for her Saturday Night Live performance - Lokua played the intro guitar part on Kind and Generous on the Ophelia album and made an appearance with Natalie on the show.) I also opened up for the Brazilian Girls on a tour of theirs through the South. Lately I've been working with Wax Poetic (I sing three songs on the new album and also played guitar on a good deal of their new album called On A Ride - https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/on-a-ride/id550017552), Sissy Clemens (she also sings with Wax Poetic but also has her own solo project), Heather Christian and the Arbornauts (just finished recording her new album that will be out next year), Sticklips (great new band from the Hudson Valley of New York), Laura Dayan, Oyasaba, and California.

What influenced your decision to pursue music as a profession?

My father is a guitarist and singer (Ashford Gordon) and I grew up going to rehearsals, recordings and performances with him. It always struck me as perhaps the best job in the world. From the vantage point of a child, I only saw positives. As hard as it is sometimes, I focus on the silver linings.

Can you tell us about some of the solo albums you've released and if you have plans to record more solo material in the near future?

I've actually released 5 solo albums, and recorded 10. Here's my discography:

Global Refugees - 12th Planet (1999) Surprise Truck Records
Frequency - Gabriel Gordon (2000) Surprise Truck Records
Agent 17 - Gabriel Gordon & Genuine Childs (2001) Unreleased
Planetary Man - Gabriel and Ashford Gordon (2002) Surprise Truck Records
Lonesome Autumn Blues - Gabriel Gordon & Deron Johnson (2003) Unreleased
Gypsy Living - Gabriel Gordon (2003)
Trocadero (Europe) - (2004) Surprise Truck (USA)
Overwhelmed - Gabriel Gordon (2006) Soular Records/Universal (Europe)
The Ways of Our Era - Sounds for Your Hounds (2008) Unreleased
Indelible - Gabriel Gordon (2009) Unreleased
To Infinity and Beyond - "8" (2010) Unreleased

I am currently in the midst of recording two new albums of my own, as well as several original projects with others.

Who are some music-makers that you would define as your all-time favorites? And who is making music right now that you really dig?

Joni Mitchell, Chris Whitley, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Buckley, Meshell Ndegeocello, Lewis Taylor and Prince. Today, I'd say Meshell, Heather Christian, Loney Dear, Deron Johnson, Hess is More, Jason Darling and Brazilian Girls.
Are you a vinyl guy? If so, what are some of your favorite records in your collection?

Totally. Sadly, all my albums burned up in a fire, but I'm going to start a new collection! I'm a big Prince fan and had almost every album, single and remix.

That's so sad! My house got burglarized recently and the first thing I looked for when I realized what had happened was my record collection. Thankfully they were untouched, I suppose because old Nat King Cole records aren't as valuable as laptops. But they should be! Let's talk about live performance now. Maybe it sounds dramatic, but I know I've seen a handful of musical performances in my life that totally changed my perception of what music can be or do. What about you? What performances have you seen that totally rocked your world?

Loney, Dear at the Mercury Lounge about a year ago. Emil is astounding live. Prince at an after show party in a little club in the village. He just stood there and played guitar mostly and it was bliss. Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn on a TV broadcast live with Peter Gabriel singing "In Your Eyes". I was basically hypnotized while watching Nusrat sing an impromptu. It was powerful stuff and still is - just thinking about it.

Most people who love music will only ever know what it's like to experience live music as part of the audience, but you've had the chance to be on both sides of the stage. What is your favorite part of performing live?

Being in the moment and feeling the energy from the audience. It's one of the best feelings in the world.

I'm really glad you said that because I think a lot of people who aren't musically talented dream of how great it would feel to perform live. It's gratifying to know it feels as good as we imagine it. Are there any specific memories of your own live performances that stand out in your mind - for better or worse?

I remember falling off the stage once at a place called The Joint in L.A. The stage was small and it was darkly lit. I just took a step and landed 5 feet below on the floor. I got back up and resumed the song to much laughter from the crowd…I also really enjoyed playing at Izzy Young's Folklore Center in Stockholm. He's a real character and told me fabulous stories about Greenwich Village in the 50s and 60s.

Are there things that members of concert audiences do that drive you crazy? I always wonder about that because I am constantly mortified by the behavior of concert-goers, especially since I somehow always end up sitting next to the drunken guy yelling weird things at all the most inappropriate moments. Horrifying.

Nope. I love it when people come to see a concert. 

Oh, fine, take the diplomatic route! How about when you're not performing, what part of the world do you call home? And why have you chosen to live/stay there?

I live in Brooklyn. Being from Central California, I like peace and quiet, but can't let New York City go. It's a very creative place and is continually inspiring.

Of course, since this blog is about Natalie's music, you know I have to ask you a few questions about your work with her. First of all, how did you first meet Natalie and end up as part of her band?

I auditioned for her in New York and she asked me to join her for the Lilith Fair tour. My first gig was SNL in 1998 and I was so nervous. I'm thrilled to join Natalie on stage to this day. I'm still nervous.

What songs that you perform with Natalie do you tend to enjoy the most? Or does that change from night to night?

All of them. Seriously.

How do you keep yourself engaged when you're playing certain songs over and over and over again? How do you keep things interesting?

Easily. All I have to do is remember that I am on a stage playing music for people. Music is fun, or at least it should be!

I love seeing how much affection there is between you and Natalie when you perform together. It makes every performance feel so intimate and comfortable. What aspects of Natalie's work do you appreciate the most?

Her songs are beautiful. You all know that!

Okay, time for some fun and completely superficial questions! First, desert island choices - you can take one film, one book, and one album with you. Which would you choose?

Until the End of the World by Wim Wenders
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said by Phillip K. Dick
The Year of River Fontana by Loney, Dear

If you had to quit the music business completely tomorrow, what other profession would you choose for yourself?

A drummer. I kid…I would always choose music.

What are some of your guilty pleasures, music-wise?

Frank Zappa. That's not guilty at all actually, but just saying…Zappa...

If there was one song you could make disappear from existence without a trace, what would it be?

Not my place to be the authority there. 

Oh boy, you are a true professional. If guitars went extinct and you had to learn another instrument, which instrument would you choose?

Okay, that's sort of a cheat, but I'll let it pass because banjos are amazing. Thank you so much, Gabriel, for taking the time to let Natalie's fans get to know you better. I'm sure you hear frequently but still not nearly enough how much we enjoy your work and the huge part you play in making Natalie's music so beloved to us. 
Thank You!!!!!!!!


Thank you, as always, to my faithful readers. I hope you enjoyed this special treat. I know I did! And thank you, once again, to Gabriel Gordon. I can't even begin to tell you how much fun I had doing this. I'm very, very grateful.

See you all next time!

Great video of Gabriel and Natalie performing Break Your Heart (oh, and Erik Della Penna too. Sorry, Erik.) -

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Beloved Wife (Take Two)

Beloved Wife (from the album Tigerlily)

You were the love
for certain of my life
you were simply my beloved wife
I don't know for certain
how I'll live my life
now alone without my beloved wife
my beloved wife 

I can't believe
I've lost the very best of me  

You were the love
for certain of my life
you were simply my beloved wife
I don't know for certain
how I'll live my life
now alone without my beloved wife
my beloved wife 

I can't believe
I've lost the very best of me  

You were the love
for certain of my life
for fifty years simply me beloved wife
with another love I'll never lie again
it's you I can't deny
it's you I can't defy
a depth so deep into my grief
without my beloved soul
I renounce my life
as my right
now alone without my beloved wife
my beloved wife
my beloved wife

My love is gone she suffered long
in hours of pain  

My love is gone
now my suffering begins 

My love is gone
would it be wrong if I should
surrender all the joy in my life
go with her tonight?  

My love is gone she suffered long
in hours of pain 

My love is gone
would it be wrong if I should
just turn my face away from the light
go with her tonight?

I'm interrupting my regularly scheduled programming this week to do something I've never done before on this blog - write about a song for a second time. Let me explain:

I've written for fun since I was a kid - poems, essays, short stories, etc. But ever since I was a kid I've rarely been able to revisit my own writing with any sense of pride or enjoyment. I always think something I've written is solid as soon as I've finished it, but within months or even weeks of reading it again, I'm usually embarrassed and think it's terrible. I've just accepted this about myself. I write for the fun of the process, not so much for the end result.

This truth applies to this blog as well. I enjoy writing it, but it's pretty rare that I can go back and read a post from months or years ago and still think it's well done. So generally I avoid it. But there is one post from the early days of this blog that I find particularly cringe-worthy even just thinking about - the post I wrote about Beloved Wife. (Normally, I might provide a link here, but I really don't want to make it easy for you to read it.)

I wrote about Beloved Wife in a completely detached way. I made jokes, I talked about the music more than the words, and when I did touch on the lyrics everything I wrote was utterly inelegant. I think the reason for this is pretty simple - this is what I do in my life. When faced with situations that require me to speak about deeply emotional subjects, I find ways to joke my way out of too much genuine expression. Apparently, even when I write, even in anonymity, this tendency rears its ugly head. I sometimes thought about rewriting the post for Beloved Wife, but never seriously ...until yesterday. Yesterday I received a comment from a reader regarding my post for Beloved Wife. Here is what it said:


I lost my wife 6 months ago to cancer. I can tell you that everything in this song is true. We were married for 15 years and I would give anything (including all of my remaining days) for just one more minute with her in my arms.

It is not a choice to surrender all the joy in one's life. All of the joy in my life died with her.

I only wish I could simply turn away from life and join her. But she made me promise to go on, so I do.

Thank you for discussing this beautiful song.

The truth is, as you well know, I'm unable to write anything more meaningful, or better composed, than this reader's comment. But I at least owe it to him and others who might search the words "Natalie Merchant" and "Beloved Wife" and find this blog to write something more meaningful than what I wrote before. The words to Beloved Wife are straightforward; there are no allusions that cry out for deciphering. There aren't multiple ways to interpret the lyrics. So I'll keep what I have to say simple and very short:

Many of Natalie's songs are moving and many are beautiful, but Beloved Wife feels like more than that. It feels important. It's completely devoid of any effort to find a bright note, a silver lining in all the misery. I respect that. As vital as hope is, this kind of devastation deserves to be laid completely bare, to be protected for a moment from notions of going on with life.  

Beloved Wife has proved itself capable of completely embodying the despair of loss. That is why it's important. Because to hear someone put your feelings into words means someone else understands; that you're not alone. I guess in the end that is where the comfort in the song comes from - shared grief. Comfort in shared experience is not new ground for Natalie - it's her hallmark. But she has never and will never do it better than she does it with Beloved Wife.

I know that none of what I've written here today is as meaningful or as profound as the words of this song, but it's the best I know how to do.

Download Beloved Wife from Itunes - Beloved Wife - Tigerlily

Sunday, September 23, 2012


Headstrong (from the 10,000 Maniacs album Blind Man's Zoo)

To your common sense firm arguments
I won't listen to your voice of reason
trying to change my mind
I mind my feelings and not your words
didn't you notice I'm so headstrong
even when I know I'm wrong?

Take this to your heart and into your head now
before you waste your time
call a truce and call a draw

What's the use of mapping your views out in orderly form
when it does nothing but confuse and anger me more?
I mind my feelings and not your words
didn't you notice I'm so headstrong
you're talking to a deaf stone wall

Take this to your heart and into your head now:
the old wives' tale is true, I'll repeat it
all is fair in love and war
that's how the famous saying goes

Open up your eyes, see me for what I am
cast in iron, I won't break and I won't bend
take this to your heart and into your head now
the old wives' tale is true, I'll repeat it
all is fair in love and war
that's how the famous saying goes. 

If I told you we were out to sea in a bottomless boat
you'd try anything to save us
you'd try anything to keep us afloat
and if we were living in a house afire
I don't believe that you could rush out and escape it
and not rescue me  

Take this to your heart and into your head now
the old wives' tale is true, I'll repeat it
all is fair in love and war
that's how the famous saying goes 

Listen, I think they were talking to you

It's funny the way certain songs come at just the right time in your life. If you heard it a few years earlier or a few years later, your opinion of it could be completely different. I guess this is the reason why every older generation collectively rolls its eyes at the music of the current generation, but is completely able to embrace music they heard when they were young that may, in fact, be absolutely terrible. In my head, I can acknowledge that a lot of the synth-obsessed music of the 80s is not exactly high quality stuff. But my heart, and nostalgia, win out every time and I find myself always turning up the radio when those songs come on. But when I hear new pop music, I can hardly bear it for 10 seconds. I believe this is the way it is for many people. After all, there was an entire generation of people who thought the Beatles were an abomination and not just because of their "wild" haircuts - they hated the music. Sometimes it's just hard to move in the same direction that popular music goes along.

Even though Headstrong came out when I was still in grade school, I first heard it when I was 20 years old. At that time in my life, I felt like I could have written Headstrong. Early 20s are such an interesting time. You're just starting to figure out who you are and what you feel, want, etc., and are terribly anxious to express yourself and be understood by others. But because so much of what you've "figured out" is still so idealistic, people, especially those older than you, are so eager to bring you back to reality and point out all the ways that you're wrong. Nobody likes being told that they're wrong, but it's especially galling at that age.

And it's also unbelievable. When you feel something so powerfully, it's not only unfathomable that it's not true, it's offensive. Whenever someone tried confronting me with "common sense, firm arguments" I remember digging my heels in more than ever. The more people told me I was wrong, the more convinced I was of my rightness. I still get a thrill whenever I hear the lines: Open up your eyes, see me for what I am, cast in iron, I won't break and I won't bend. I used to think about those words all the time when I was young and I really made them my own.

There's one part of the lyrics of Headstrong that I've always internally debated over. When Natalie sings:

If I told you we were out to sea in a bottomless boat
you'd try anything to save us
you'd try anything to keep us afloat
and if we were living in a house afire
I don't believe that you could rush out and escape it
and not rescue me

I've wondered whether Natalie is trying to say, "Listen, as much as you can't understand me and disapprove of me, I know you care about me and would save my life if I were in danger. So just love me for what I am and leave me be." Conversely, I can also see this interpretation: "Stop trying to 'save' me! I'll go down in my sinking boat if I have to, but it's my choice so leave me alone!" The leave-me-alone part is the only part I feel pretty confident about. Thoughts?

When I listen to Headstrong now, in my early 30s, I feel differently about it than I did when I first heard it. I still love it, but I don't identify with the words quite so strongly as I used to. As time has passed, I've come to appreciate the benefit of being told that I'm wrong. Because, of course, I frequently am. And there is a lot of value in a person who can wisely, carefully, tell you that you're on a bad path or just plain being an idiot. We all need to be saved from ourselves sometimes. Now I'd much prefer to be known as someone who is more yielding than headstrong. But don't get me wrong. I still admire the resilient determination of the girl who sings, I won't break and I won't bend. I still want to be that girl. But with a little more caution and (a lot) more humility than I used to have.

I can't tell you honestly that I think Headstrong is one of the great 10,000 Maniacs songs, but it's still one I dearly love and one of my (few) favorites on Blind Man's Zoo. I wonder what Natalie would think of the words now? I wonder if she still completely relates to the way she felt when she wrote it or if she can't identify with it as much now. It's something I wonder about all the time when I listen to these older songs Natalie wrote. On my next post, I'm going to talk about one of those older songs she wrote...and about the song she wrote later on the same subject. Intrigued? No? Well, whatever. Come back anyways. See you then!

Here's a live performance of Headstrong. I'm sorry about Weird Al. Seriously. I'm really sorry.
Download Headstrong from Itunes -  Headstrong - Blind Man's Zoo


Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Living

The Living (from the album Ophelia)  

What's it like there outside 
with the living? 
from this broken down place 
where I hide 
from the living 
from the living 

Cause I don't care to stay 
with the living 

 O, the bottle has been to me 
my closest friend and 
my worst enemy 
afraid that I've walked a fine line 
squandered it all and 
wasted my time 

And I don't stand a chance 
among the living 

All the lovers I've gambled and lost 
count my mistakes 
whatever the cost 
I'll go off, I'll make myself scarce 
come tomorrow 
you won't find me here 

Cause I don't care to stay 
among the living 

No, I don't think I'll remain

Sometimes people will say they didn't like a film or book because it was too sad. Or they liked everything but the ending because the ending was too sad. I've never found this a particularly compelling reason to dislike something. If a filmmaker or a writer has given me an experience, without tricky manipulation, that leaves me genuinely moved, even gutted, I never resent them for that. Life as we know it is not just comedy and adventure, it's mourning and pain. Being moved by the lives of others, whether real or fictional, is a reminder that we are alive, capable of empathy.

However, I can understand feeling like you never want to read a particular book or see a particular film ever again because of its effect on you. I have often left a movie theater thinking, "That was wonderful and I never want to see it again." And that sort of sums up my feeling about The Living. It's a song that is deeply moving but almost punishingly sad. I hardly ever listen to it. Here is what Natalie said about the song in the liner notes to her Retrospective album:  

"I often gave rides to an older black man named Robert who seemed sane enough but had made a complete ruin of his life with alcohol. He would catch rides to the town nearby to do odd jobs for small change that he would always spend on booze. He found out that I was a musician and he told me that he'd been a horn player. He'd even sat in Count Basie's orchestra for a while until he was caught drinking gin in the men's room on a break. He told me that he'd lost everything: his wife, friends, jobs, home, and connection to his children. 'The bottle, that's my worst enemy,' he would say every time I had him in my car. Eventually it even took his life. I wrote this song for him."

When I was a teenager one of my family members received a letter from my stepbrother. He was a lot older than me and we never lived under the same roof. I'd only met him once, very briefly, as a little girl. But I read this letter and felt like some wormhole had opened up between me and him. In retrospect, I suppose that letter was filled with a lot of typical AA hyperbole and nothing necessarily all that unique about him. But to me it was a revelation. I'd grown up surrounded by so many open secrets - "We all know what the truth is but if we don't talk about it then it doesn't really exist." Here, all of a sudden, was someone naming the problem and saying, "I'm not going to be this thing anymore."

The two of us started corresponding regularly. I got to know about his life - a life absolutely decimated by booze. He'd ruined so many relationships, lost so many jobs, even lived on the streets for a period of time. Sound familiar? He sent me a picture once. I could hardly believe he was only 40 years old. Alcohol controlled him and stole his youth away. Despite all that, he was charming and funny and clearly treasured every letter I sent him. There was never one thing I mentioned in a letter that he would fail to comment on when he replied.

We started making plans to meet each other properly. Then these little gaps between his letters started happening. Eventually I concluded what he could never admit - that those gaps signified some flying leaps off the wagon. It depressed me, not just because of what that meant for him but also, selfishly, what it meant for me. Here I thought I'd finally found an honest person to connect to, someone that made me believe we could change our family DNA - and even he couldn't be totally honest. Not when the truth was too hard to admit.

Those spaces of time when he wouldn't respond to my letters got wider and wider until eventually the inevitable finally happened. It's weird how when someone is calling you with bad news, you can somehow know it just by the way the telephone rings. I was 18 when my brother died. I know I risk making myself sound cold when I say this, but I do not anymore consider his death to be one of the great tragedies of my life. What I lost when he died was not the flesh-and-blood companionship that most people experience with a sibling. Primarily, I lost the idea of someone, the immediate hope of something with meaning and weight. That leaves a scar, but it's a small one, hidden beneath greater sorrows and far greater joys.

When I first heard The Living, I think I thought of the words as being touching, but also supremely self-pitying, which I found sort of off-putting. But now when I listen to it, I hear the words of someone who is merely accepting what is inevitable to them. I hear the words of someone who knows, despite any efforts they make or those around them make, that they are going to lose. As sad as it is, as frustrating as it is to listen to those words, I can't resent them. I know they are genuine.


That's all for me this time. Can you believe how short this post was? Look at me, I'm finally understanding brevity! Don't hold your breath, though. Thanks as usual for all your sweet emails and comments. I promise to cover something shiny and happy next time. Then again it is a Natalie Merchant blog, so...

See you next time!

Download The Living from Itunes - The Living - Ophelia

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Candy Everybody Wants / The Dancing Bear / Daktari

Candy Everybody Wants (from the 10,000 Maniacs album Our Time In Eden)

if lust and hate is the candy 
if blood and love tastes so sweet 
then we give 'em what they want 

hey, hey, give 'em what they want 

so their eyes are growing hazy 
'cos they wanna turn it on 
so their minds are soft and lazy 
well, hey, give 'em what they want

if lust and hate is the candy 
if blood and love tastes so sweet 
then we give 'em what they want 

so their eyes are growing hazy 
'cos they wanna turn it on 
so their minds are soft and lazy 

well... who do you want to blame? 

hey, hey, give 'em what they want 
if lust and hate is the candy 
 if blood and love tastes so sweet 
then we give 'em what they want 

so their eyes are growing hazy 
'cos they wanna turn it on 
so their minds are soft and lazy 

well... who do you want to blame? 

The Dancing Bear (from the album Leave Your Sleep; words by Albert Bigelow Paine)

Oh, it's fiddle-de-dum and fiddle-de-dee, 
The dancing bear ran away with me; 
For the organ-grinder he came to town 
With a jolly old bear in a coat of brown. 
And the funny old chap joined hands with me, 
While I cut a caper and so did he. 
Then 'twas fiddle-de-dum and fiddle-de-dee, 
I looked at him, and he winked at me, 
 And I whispered a word in his shaggy ear, 
And I said, "I will go with you, my dear." 

Then the dancing bear he smiled and said, 
Well, he didn't say much, but he nodded his head, 
As the organ-grinder began to play "Over the hills and far away." 
With a fiddle-de-dum and a fiddle-de-dee; 
 Oh, I looked at him and he winked at me, 
And my heart was light and the day was fair, 
And away I went with the dancing bear. 

Oh, ’tis fiddle-de-dum and fiddle-de-dee, 
The dancing bear came back with me; 
For the sugar-plum trees were stripped and bare, 
And we couldn't find cookies anywhere. 
And the solemn old fellow he sighed and said, 
Well, he didn't say much, but he shook his head, 
While I looked at him and he blinked at me 
Till I shed a tear and so did he; 
And both of us thought of our supper that lay 
Over the hills and far away. 
Then the dancing bear he took my hand, 
And we hurried away through the twilight land; 
And 'twas fiddle-de-dum and fiddle-de-dee 
When the dancing bear came back with me. 

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

Like a weasel in the clover 
you tilt toss pop turn over 
sit down 

Tremble and weave like a moth 
by flame deceived 
sit down 

Like a weasel in the clover 
you tilt toss pop turn over
sit down! 

tremble and weave like a moth 
by flame deceived 
sit down 

Spill with your words caught up dance in your room slide like you're buttered up roll back the tomb 
sit down 

When the thunderclouds sound 
ants scatter to high ground 
sit down 

Bolt scuff jilt chase circle riddle 
shake in haste 
sit down 

Bolt scuff jilt chase circle riddle 
shake in haste 
sit down 

When the thunderclouds sound 
ants scatter to high ground 
sit down 

Recently, for a stretch of about 2 years, I lived in two different studio apartments. I'd never lived anywhere so small before in my life. They were both under 500 square feet. It would be relatively comfortable if I lived alone, but with a spouse and two cats and even my very modest amount of possessions it sometimes bordered on anarchy. There's really no place to escape to, not even to a solitary corner, when you share such a small space with other living beings. So late last year when we moved into a bigger place, it sort of felt like Shangri La. I kept marveling at how I could stretch my arms out in both directions and not hit walls.

My new home has an extra bedroom I've dubbed “the Gallery.” Pretty much all it holds at this point is some artwork on the walls and an old rug on the floor. You get rid of all unnecessary possessions when you move into a tiny apartment and then when it's time to move into a bigger place you find you having nothing to fill all the space with. I don't mind it, though. I love the open spaces. I have no urge to fill them up. The Gallery is my favorite room in the house. It's a good place for thinking. And it's a great place for my newest favorite thing in life – the one man dance party.

I like dancing. I've always liked it. But I've tended to do it only when there was occasion to do so – a party, wedding, concert, etc. Sure I might dance around a little absentmindedly when I'm listening to music as I go about various tasks, but I never set aside time just to dance – unabashedly, unashamedly, and wholeheartedly. But sometime back I got the urge to dance and decided to test out the Gallery as my own private dance hall. It was a good idea. Gallery by day, Dance Hall by night.

One of the most important aspects of these little dance parties is the solitude of it. No matter who I'm with and how comfortable with them I may be in general, I will always feel somewhat inhibited dancing with others. Dancing all by myself, on the other hand, is totally freeing. I can be as wild or ridiculous as I want to be. There's no one there to laugh at me or to even try to get in a groove with me. I'm perfectly alone with my music. It's the best.

As far as danceability goes, in my mind there is one 10,000 Maniacs song that stands far above the rest – Candy Everybody Wants. I love dancing to this song. I think the music is irresistible. Coupled with very biting, witty lyrics, I have to say this is definitely in my top 10 favorite Maniacs songs, maybe top 5.

One thing about danceable music in general, though, is that the lyrics tend to askew deep, thought-provoking subjects. This is fine by me. I listen to different music for different needs and moods. I do not require dance music to be thought-provoking. But if the words happen to be really, really great, well...that's just a bonus. Candy Everybody Wants surely falls into that category. It's typical that the most upbeat, danceable song by the Maniacs musically is still going to be coupled with edgy lyrics. I wouldn't have it any other way. While the lyrics have a message, it's not one that's so dour it takes the fun out of the music or feels inappropriate. If the music from Candy Everybody Wants was matched with the lyrics of What's the Matter Here, I'm not sure I could bounce around the room with quite such a fervor. Here are some quotes from Natalie about the song:

"The song is complete satire, and the fact that it might end up being on Top Forty radio is real interesting. I think it would be the first pop song in a long time to have lyrics like 'If lust and hate is the candy, if blood and love taste so sweet, then give them what they want.' They're not typical pop lyrics, and it's very subversive."*

"I am really disgusted with television in the United States - like an 81-year-old friend of mine says, 'Television is the ruination of our nation'! Who are these people who decide what goes on TV, what qualifies for the nightly news? It's as if we might drop dead if we're not constantly stimulated, or even worse, we might stop buying the products they want us to. I stay away from TV as much as possible, but when I do watch, I'm just astounded at what's going on. It's such an alien cultural force - it's like it's not my country anymore."**

The Dancing Bear was the first song I heard from Leave Your Sleep. It was released as a preview several weeks before the album came out. It was the only song I indulged myself in – I saved the rest for when the album came out. But from the very first time I heard it, I was in love. Deeply. While it is a very difficult thing for me to pick a favorite song off of Leave Your Sleep, if I was forced to do so The Dancing Bear would have to be my choice. I love the song so much I wish I could cuddle up with it and caress its cheeks. Have I gone too far? Oh, I don't think I've gone nearly far enough.

The song really is incredibly joyous. The musicians on the recording clearly seem to be having a ball. I only notice this when I listen to the song on headphones, but at one point somebody yells out, “Hey!” It's barely audible, so it can't have been “scripted.” I like to think it was unbridled joy mixed with a rebellious disregard for production values. I once tried to win over some teenagers to Natalie's music. They proved predictably difficult to inspire...until I put on The Dancing Bear. That won them over. They kept saying how much it made them want to get up and dance. The song is playing as I type this and my husband just came in the room to get something and then danced his way out. It's irresistible, I say!

When I saw Natalie in concert back in 2010, the song I most wanted her to perform was The Dancing Bear. It wasn't just because I loved the song, though. It was because I wanted to see Natalie dance to this song. I love watching Natalie dance. Even though I doubt this is entirely true, she certainly gives the impression of someone who is dancing with reckless abandon. She gives every song its own interpretive treatment. I find it impossible not to smile while watching her gleefully bounding around the stage. She didn't let me down that night. During the performance of The Dancing Bear she looked as happy as I felt. A quote from Natalie regarding Leave Your Sleep:

"Everybody thought I was out of my mind. Now, I think I'm vindicated. I think they understand. I kept telling people 'well, wait 'til you hear it.' When you hear it and say '19th century poetry,' people get a particular impression. They don't think of reggae sounds or Cajun sounds. They don't see Natalie dancing around their living room. They think candlelight, pensive and morose."***

Now it's time for a brief new segment I'm introducing to the blog. I call it “Songs I'm Not Really Sure What to Say About.” I'm getting down to the last several songs in Natalie's catalogue to cover (21 more after today to be exact.) There were bound to be a few challenging ones. What can I say about Daktari? The word “daktari” is Swahili for doctor. It was also the name of an American TV show from the 60s about a veterinarian and his small animal menagerie. Do either of these factoids relate to the song? I doubt it, but who could know? The lyrics don't exactly shed light on any...thing. It's repetitive and Mom-voiced command to “sit down” is about the only thing I can audibly make out unless I follow along with a lyric sheet. Daktari is kids' stuff; youngsters making music for the first time. But it's fun enough as a background diversion and while I wouldn't put it at the top of any one man dance party playlists, it would certainly do in a pinch.

As promised last time, I wanted to mention something again about the Natalie concert I went to last month. This time around, as opposed to the last time I saw her perform two years ago, her dancing was understandably more understated, given the different musical configuration and setlist. But still, she was incredibly elegant. Between songs, she always seems fully engaged with her audience and fellow musicians, but during the songs she seems so transported. It's like her body is a conduit for the music. She never gives the impression that she is dancing for our amusement but simply as a natural response to whatever song she's performing. In an age when so many performers resort to sharing the stage with huge video screens projecting glorified screen savers, it's quite a pleasure to watch a performer who is interesting enough to be her own visual centerpiece.

That's all for me this time around. This post marks a mini-milestone for the blog – with the inclusion of Candy Everybody Wants this week, I have now finished covering all the songs from Our Time In Eden, making it the first album of Natalie/Maniacs material I've covered in its entirety on the blog. We really are coming to the end of the line, folks. But don't worry, at the rate I write nowadays, 21 songs could take me years. See you next time!

Watch the wonderfully weird music video for Candy Everybody Wants:

Download Candy Everybody Wants from Itunes:Candy Everybody Wants - Our Time In Eden

Download The Dancing Bear from Itunes: The Dancing Bear - Leave Your Sleep
Download Daktari from Itunes: Daktari - The Wishing Chair

*Rolling Stone - March 1993
**Record Collector - October 1992
***Spinner - June 2010

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Letter / Concert Review

The Letter (from the album Tigerlily)

If I ever write this letter
the pages I could write
but I don't know where to send it
you have vanished
heaven knows where you live
heaven only knows 

If I ever write this letter
bitter words it would contain
just an unrequited lover
wishing she had never
spoken your name
had never known your name 

But if I write this letter
the truth it would reveal
knowing you brought me pleasure
how I'll often treasure
moments that we knew
the precious and the few 

"I'm going to cry tonight," I told my husband as we ate dinner before last week's concert. "I know," he said, unaffected. "It's okay." For me, though, it wasn't a warning so much as a resigned acceptance of the inevitable.

I hate crying. I'm not a person who subscribes to the notion that there is such a thing as a "good" cry or that crying will somehow make you feel better. This is primarily for two reasons: 1) Within 15 seconds of starting to cry, my sinuses shut down the exits so fast I practically suffocate. This results in crying that is not only stressful but also extremely unappealing - cry snorting, basically. And then about 15 minutes after I stop crying, the sinus activity starts working in the opposite direction. That's as graphic as I'll get. 2) I rarely, if ever, feel better after I cry. I feel emotionally and physically drained and usually more upset after the crying than before it.

The problem with this, of course, is that I cry incredibly easily. It's something that's developed in the last few years. When I was younger, I could almost always maintain my composure. Even if my eyes started to fill with tears, I could somehow suck them back in. But now it's gone the other way. I can well up at record speed just thinking about any number of things, beautiful or tragic. It's like my super power. Super crying.

But four songs into Natalie's performance that night, as she reached the emotional apex of Beloved Wife, it was my husband wiping tears from his face. And Natalie too. But not me. I was moved. But I was not crying. And I felt pretty smug about it.

The concert has given me a lot to talk about. Today I want to share some of my impressions of the concert, but I'll be sprinkling in more details in future posts. Let's get started:

The human. One rule I set for myself when I started this blog was that I was going to avoid allowing my writing to be about anything other than Natalie Merchant's work, as opposed to Natalie Merchant the person. The reasoning for this is pretty simple - I don't know Natalie Merchant and know hardly anything about her outside what I've read in interviews. I've included observations about her personality only as it pertains to the songs I am discussing on any given post. I know it will sound a little (or a lot) pretentious to say this, but I just don't want anything on this blog to ever give off the air of gossip, or worse, hero worship.

That long-winded statement was basically my way of saying, "I'm going to cheat now." But just briefly.

Lately, every newspaper piece I read about Natalie and every concert review a reader emails me all mention the same detail - Natalie has gray hair now. It's kind of weird to me that it gets mentioned so consistently and it started kind of getting on my nerves, even though it's never mentioned with any negativity. I guess I just wondered why it was such a big deal. But lately I've noticed that I've been inextricably drawn to every image I see of an actress or female entertainer, in print or on film, that looks noticeably like she is aging. When I see an actress with wrinkles around her eyes and mouth, I find myself thinking, "She's so beautiful." It's just so rare anymore to see female celebrities that look like they aren't airbrushed and plasticized. They look so...human.

And so, sitting just a few feet away from Natalie that night, I could understand why people can't stop talking about the hair thing. It's fascination. And, I think, enthrallment. Natalie Merchant looks just like a member of the human race. I can't think of anything more beautiful than that.

The voice. Natalie sounded better than she ever has to me and I think the reason really has to do with the accompaniment and the setting. I especially marveled at her performance of Henry Darger. I can't think of any song in Natalie's catalogue that requires her to sing at so high a pitch. It was the first time I heard her perform that song live and I found my body actually getting tense, wondering how she could hit those notes now, some 10+ years after she recorded the song. Shouldn't it be harder to sing higher as your voice ages? I guess not in her case. She hit every note so precisely. It was amazing.

My favorite moment, though, was during This House Is On Fire. As she sang the words, "Start a conflagration like there has never been," it seemed like her voice vaulted into the ceiling, bounced down and landed directly in my chest. There are not many things that can literally give me goosebumps, but that sure did it.

The experience. There were a lot of individual moments throughout the night that contributed to it being such a magical evening. Standing in front of that incredibly gifted group of musicians, Natalie seemed more joyful that I think I've ever seen her look in concert. I'm so happy for her that she is able to perform in this setting. Towards the end of Verdi Cries, Natalie stood off to the side of the stage and just listened to the orchestra perform (something she did a few times throughout the night.) At the end of the song, she started enthusiastically clapping even before the audience did and rushed over to one of the cellists and kissed him on the cheek. It was cute to see this symphony performer's pensive expression change into delight and maybe a little boyish embarrassment. It also made me reflect on how so many well-known performers obsessively seek attention and show little public (or likely even private) appreciation for the musicians that make them look good. In contrast, Natalie is quick to step aside while others shine. I don't think there was one person in the audience that night that doubted that her appreciation and awe was genuine.

Something else funny that happened that night - when I took my seat before the performance, an usher hurried up to me and told me I'd won a special prize and to follow her to get it. I followed somewhat reluctantly, wondering if the San Francisco Symphony had some sort of timeshare program to pitch me. It turns out that what I won was a signed poster of Natalie. It was a very lovely picture, but I felt a little guilty about it. I'm not really an autograph person and knowing this poster would end up in the closet, I felt like maybe this nice gift was wasted on me. Then, towards the end of the concert, Natalie told a story about meeting the SF Symphony's Music Director, Michael Tilson Thomas, when she was 9 years old and getting his autograph, which she still has in her "box of special things." Sure, I'm not 9 years old, and the poster wasn't signed for me personally, but that story nonetheless made me think I should be a little less of a stick-in-the-mud.

Seeing Natalie Merchant perform is something that I've experienced precious few times in my life. For me, it is a life-affirming experience, a chance to spend some time tucked away in almost surreal beauty. I always walk out of the theater feeling more alive and it's a feeling that stays with me for quite some time.

The tears. Overconfidence always catches up to you. During the latter half of the performance, I recognized the first strains of The Letter and felt the areas around my eyes start to twitch, then my cheeks, and then the epicenter of all emotional fault lines - the chin.

It's a song that is more personal for me than perhaps any other that Natalie has written. When I was first living on my own, I used to listen to this song and cry, trying to figure out my own confused emotions about the 19 years that had come before and why some of the most important people in my life had abandoned me so completely. Sometimes I felt so eaten up with rage I thought I would break. But this song, in a small but significant way, allowed me to begin wrapping a small ribbon on those emotions. It helped me not to forget the moments that were worth remembering, moments where I felt safe, happy and protected. Those moments may have been relatively few, but they kept me from being consumed.

When I heard The Letter that night, I didn't feel the same weight of emotion that I used to feel. Time really does lessen the effect of so many of those old wounds. I wasn't crying for sadness. I was crying because of the beauty of the music, of the moment, and of the realization that this night would end soon and be just a memory of a moment shared with a stranger whose music has meant so much to me. I was crying because these words so perfectly expressed what I was thinking:

how I'll often treasure 
moments that we knew 
the precious and the few 


 Download The Letter at Itunes - The Letter - Tigerlily

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Worst Thing / Eat For Two

The Worst Thing (from the album Motherland)

So you're in love, that's so good for you
live it up girl 'cause it never lasts too long
It's heaven for now, but not for long
It's gonna hurt you
it's gonna make you feel so bad 

Once I could love, I could trust, I could not doubt
but that was just about the worst thing that I could do
it was just about the worst thing that I could do 

Maybe not now, but it won't take long
before it's gonna hurt you
and truly do you some harm 

Once I was open, could hope, I had no doubt
but that was the worst thing that I could do
it was just about the worst thing that I could do 

Once I came close to that most elusive fire
burning with hopeless love and desire
but it was just about the worst thing that I could do
it was just about the worst thing I could do 

En el pasado que estuve ciega como tu
atrapada y perdida, como tu
embelesada y suspendida en mi jaula de plata
esos recuerdos me accompanaran toda la vida 


Eat For Two (from the 10,000 Maniacs album Blind Man's Zoo)

O, baby blankets and baby shoes
baby slippers, baby spoons, walls of baby blue
dream child in my head
is a nightmare born in a borrowed bed
now I know lightning strikes again
it struck me once, then struck me dead
my folly grows inside of me 

I eat for two
walk for two
breathe for two now 

Well, the egg man fell down off his shelf
all the good king's men with all their help
struggled 'til the end
for a shell they couldn't mend
you know where this will lead
to hush and rock in the nursery
for the kicking one inside of me 

I eat for two
walk for two
breathe for two now 

When the boy was a boy, the girl was a girl
they found each other in a wicked world
strong in some respects
but she couldn't stand for the way he begged and gave in
pride is for men
young girls should run and hide instead
risk the game by taking dares with, "yes" 

I eat for two
walk for two
breathe for two now 

Walk for two?
I'm stumbling 

Breathe for two?
I can't breathe 

Five months, how it grows
five months now, I begin to show

Last week, in the middle of the night, I woke up and realized I had just had the most amazing idea while dreaming. I made mental notes in my half-awake state so that I would remember everything when I got up in the morning. Sure enough, when the alarm clock went off I immediately started rehashing what was surely the most ingenious plan that I'd ever hatched while in a state of unconsciousness.

So here was the dream-induced idea: I would throw a Price Is Right-themed party for all my closest friends! I had it all diagrammed – where particular games would be played (putt-putt golf in the dining room), how I would build certain set pieces (one idea involved a large hamster wheel), where I could download the Price Is Right theme song (to be played on a constant loop), and who would play the various roles of host, announcer and...girls. (What are those girls called? Don't they have a name? “Showcase girls”...or something?) As my brain transitioned from sleep mode, though, something slowly dawned on me that you have no doubt already figured it out...This is a horrible, horrible idea.

Seriously, who would want to do this? No one I know, that's for sure. I don't even think a little kid would want to come to an event like this (unless, of course, they watch a lot of TV with their grandma or something.) Not to mention the fact that I absolutely loathe being a host of any kind of largely attended event – especially a themed one and especially one at my house. My sleeping brain apparently doesn't know me at all. At least I figured out what a bad idea it was before I got out of bed that morning or who knows what would've happened.

When you're in the moment, some ideas just feel so right. The problem is that most of the time, we don't come to our senses until long after that moment has passed. And sometimes our bad ideas are not harmless - they are colossally painful. The repercussions of our bright idea can end up kicking us in the pants for a long, long time.

A lot of our most idealistic ideas seem to be centered around love and there are likely few of us that can look back on our lives without realizing there were people we pursued or were in relationships with who were so absolutely wrong for us. When you're young it's easy to be optimistic, to think everything will turn out great. But a few heartbreaks down the road, love can turn even the most romantic of us into a cynic.

I've always thought of The Worst Thing as a song sung inside someone's head, the words of someone silently watching someone else's folly. Warnings like the ones sounded forth in The Worst Thing are all but useless in the face of infatuation. When someone is in love, logic can rarely find its way to their doorstep. The Worst Thing contains the thoughts of someone who knows their words would do no good.

At the same time, The Worst Thing also reveals the unenviable state of the one giving the warning. While many, if not most, relationships turn disastrous before too long, they certainly don't all turn out that way. Not every guy is a cad who's going to break the girl's heart. But clearly in the experience of the person singing this song (and I don't mean Natalie necessarily, just the character or persona she is voicing), love has always led to pain. It's a really, really sad song. I wish things had turned out differently for her, at least just once. I wish things had at least gone well enough to not sour her so completely on love altogether.

It wouldn't be much of a leap to imagine the teenaged voice of Eat For Two eventually becoming the voice of The Worst Thing. I imagine that young girl feeling so thoroughly tricked by “love.”

A quote from Natalie:

It's about a young girl who wants love and gets sex instead, and her whole life is changed: 'She couldn't stand the way he begged and gave in.'”*

She really should've run and hid instead. What amazes me, though, is that this song could be so misinterpreted. I once heard an interview with Natalie where an audience member asked her if once she became a parent, she thought differently about the song Eat For Two, as if the song were simply about how awful in general it would be to have a kid, and had nothing to do with the circumstances of the person having it. When the song came out, apparently some people thought of it as simply a jolly little song about the joy of having babies.

Maybe I was too subtle.”*

Nah. Maybe people should just listen to lyrics a little better.

That all being said, here is another interesting quote from Natalie about the song:

I've talked to many women who have children, who wanted children, and they said that they could understand the character in the song. Many women have moments of panic when they become pregnant. They realize that this will mean a big change in their lives, even in their bodies. It's very frightening."**

Truthfully, I can't imagine any woman not having some moments of panic when realizing how much their lives were going to change, how much they would be responsible for, and how much they just didn't know at all while expecting a child. Here's another quote from Natalie about the music chosen for Eat For Two:

"The melody is supposed to convey the naivete of the young girl, the music has a swelling pulse to it. It rises and falls in the way that the girl is thinking obsessively about her physical condition."***

I really prefer the MTV Unplugged version of this song, rather than the original recording. The slower pace and addition of strings fits the emotion of the words so much better. Natalie performed this song when I saw her live a couple of years ago and it was by far the best version of the song I've heard, at least in part due to the fact that her voice is so much more rich and strong now than it was at the time Eat For Two first came out (a fact that I acknowledge is probably hotly contested. Don't care. I'm right.)

I frequently find myself wondering what happens to the characters Natalie sings about once the song is over. I know that the character in Eat For Two is probably not meant to make me think of just one specific person but of any similar person in those circumstances, but I still can't help but wonder how things went for the girl in this song. I hope she didn't become the voice of The Worst Thing – wise but bitter. I hope things got better. Maybe I can make her the voice of Break Your Heart instead? Yeah...I like that. 

So before I sign off this week, I will take advantage of my last chance to brag about going to see Natalie in concert in (as of publishing) just over a week. Did I also mention I have third row seats? Definitely the best seats I've ever had to a Natalie concert. Anyways, once it's over I will indubitably go into my usual post-concert depression period and hopefully writing a post all about the concert will lift my spirits. I may or may not feature a song on the post, we'll just see. But anyways, look for that in the next 2-3 weeks. And if you've seen Natalie this summer, please send me your thoughts! Thank you to those who have written in recent weeks with concert reviews, you have thoroughly whetted my appetite. 
Take care and catch you next time.

Hey, for those of you who really miss Arsenio Hall (anyone? anyone?) here is a live performance of Eat For Two on his old show:
Wonder where that HUGE poster for Blind Man's Zoo is now. Also, do you think famous women get sick of having their hands kissed by strangers? Not sure I would like it. Too many tickly mustaches.

Download The Worst Thing from Itunes - The Worst Thing - Motherland

Download Eat For Two (Live) from Itunes - Eat for Two (Live) - MTV Unplugged: 10,000 Maniacs

*Musician - August 1989
**St. Louis Post-Dispatch – July 1989
***Newsday - May 1989