Saturday, March 24, 2012

I'm Not the Man / Cherry Tree

I'm Not the Man (from the 10,000 Maniacs album Our Time in Eden)

it crawls on his back, won't ever let him be
stares at the walls until the cinder blocks can breathe
his eyes have gone away, escaping over time
he rules a crowded nation inside his mind

he knows that night like his hand
he knows every move he made
late shift, the bell that rang, a time card won't fade
10:05 his truck pulled home
10:05 he climbed his stair
about the time he was accused of being there

but I'm not the man
he goes free
as I wait on the row for the man to test the rope
he'll slip around my throat...
and silence me

on the day he was tried no witness testified
nothing but evidence, not hard to falsify
his own confession was a prosecutor's prize
made up of fear, of rage and of outright lies

but I'm not the man
he goes free
as the candle vigil glows
as they burn my clothes
as the crowd cries, "hang him slow!"
and I feel my blood go cold...
he goes free

call out the KKK, they're wild after me
and with that frenzied look of half-demented zeal
they'd love to serve me up my final meal

who'll read my final rite
and hear my last appeal
who struck this devil's deal?


Cherry Tree (from the 10,000 Maniacs album In My Tribe)

Over your shoulder
please don't mind me
if my eyes have fallen
onto your magazine
I've been watching and wondering
why your face is changing
with every line you read

All those lines and circles, to me, a mystery
Eve pull down the apple and give a taste to me
if she could it would be wonderful
but my pride is in the way
I cannot read to save my life
I'm so ashamed to say

I live in silence
afraid to speak
of my life of darkness
because I cannot read

All those lines and circles, to me, a mystery
Eve pull down the apple and give a taste to me
If she could it would be wonderful
then I wouldn't need someone else's eyes
to see what's in front of me
no one guiding me

It makes me humble
to be so green
at what every kid can do
when he learns A to Z

All those lines and circles
just frighten me and I fear that I'll be trampled
if you don't reach for me
before I run I'll have to take a fall
and then pick myself up, so slowly
I'll devour every one of those
books in the tower of knowledge

"I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened."

The above quote is attributed to Mark Twain. I don't really know if he said it or not because it seems that most every quote in history has been attributed to Mark Twain at one point or another. But it sure sounds Twainsy. And of any quote I've ever read in my life, it's the one I identify with most.

I have a problem with empathy. That's how I think of it - a problem. I turn what is essentially a selfless quality into an utterly self-absorbed one. When I hear about someone else's tragedy my imagination is immediately off to the races, diagramming just how terrible I would feel if I were in their shoes. And thus in my relatively few years on this earth, I have experienced some awful things: losing my entire family in a natural disaster, being diagnosed with a terminal disease, receiving debilitating and life-altering injuries, losing any and all of my five senses, finding out that I was switched at birth and my real family was so much better than my fake one, and discovering that my husband was cheating on me...on our 40th wedding anniversary. In other words, I have been through some terrible things in my life, none of which have actually happened.

Nevertheless, I cannot deny that this (over)interest in other people's experiences is undoubtedly a factor in my love for the music of Natalie Merchant. I think her greatest gift as a lyricist is her ability to so completely inhabit the emotions of a stranger. Most of the time she sings in the first person, speaking the thoughts of her characters as if they were her own. She didn't invent the wheel, of course, but I think she made it stronger...or faster...or something.

One night a couple of years ago I watched a news program about a woman who had dedicated decades of her life to bringing to justice the man who murdered her son. I wondered how I would feel in her situation. I thought that it was possible I wouldn't be all that interested after a certain point in seeing justice done. If it wouldn't bring your loved one back from the dead, then what good would it really do? A couple of weeks later my nearly brand-new bicycle was stolen, the first bicycle I'd owned since I was a teenager. For weeks, I thought of nothing but revenge. I came up with schemes wherein which I could punish all future would-be bicycle thieves. I wondered if it could be possible to electrify my future bicycle so that if anyone touched it they would receive a little jolt. I thought about posting a sign in my neighborhood that addressed the dirtbag thief. All of this...for a bicycle. It sure changed the way I thought about the woman in that news story.

People's desire for justice is so strong that they will at times be satisfied even to see the wrong person punished for a crime, just so long as someone is punished. I'm Not the Man's power lies in its ability to put you in the position of the accused murderer. This lyric, in particular, is one that I find powerful:

his own confession was a prosecutor's prize
made up of fear, of rage and of outright lies

For some people, it would be easy to see emotionally volatile outbursts as evidence of guilt or a desire to cover up the truth. Given my propensity for emotionally volatile outbursts, I would surely be thought guilty the moment I opened my mouth; my lawyer's face burrowing deeper into his hands with every word I said. I've never been on a jury before and, frankly, the thought of it terrifies me. Intuition plays a part in the decisions rendered in a courtroom, even if it shouldn't, and intuition can be wrong. It can kill people.

I'm sure the most common question people have about I'm Not the Man is whether or not it is based on a real story. Here are some quotes from Natalie on I'm Not the Man:

"I think it has some of the most intense lyrics I've ever written. And the man was actually executed a day before I sang the song."*

"I have the opportunity occasionally to have the attention of some young and fertile minds, and to plant a seed like that - people are being executed in this country who may be innocent - isn't that a terrifying thought? Think about that. Be aware of that, and next time you're exposed to any information about it, be a little more interested in it."**

There was some debate as to whether a song as dark as I'm Not the Man belonged on Our Time in Eden, a more uplifting (for the Maniacs) record. Natalie's thoughts:

"There was some discussion among band members that the songs Tolerance and I'm Not the Man were just too dark for the album. But I believe in balance. I just feel that beauty and tragedy exist everywhere, and that to make an album that is only concentrating on positive and beautiful subject matter - it's not honest. It's not the way that I see the world."***

I've never been particularly enamored with the song Cherry Tree. It's always sounded, musically and lyrically, like the song of a very young band. Which, of course, they were. It's also possible that my sense of empathy was failing me when I first listened to the song. But when I read the following quote from Natalie, it made me listen to the song a little differently:

"Sometimes I avoid writing about certain things because I don't want to trivialize things I don't understand. It would be difficult for me to write about Contra atrocities, because I would think that subject matter a little too powerful to go with the rest of the songs. It's easier for me to put myself in the position of an illiterate, because I can pick up a Japanese newspaper and it makes no sense to me. Whereas I've never stepped on a landmine."****

When I first started learning Japanese a few years ago, I remember looking at a magazine and thinking "There is no way I will ever be able to read this." But once I started putting concerted effort into it, things eventually got better and better. The first time I was able to look at a sentence in Japanese and rattle it off with no thought and understand just what it is was saying was perhaps one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life. I can only imagine how much more amazing it would feel to begin to learn to read your own language, after years of living in the dark. I appreciate that this song ends on a such hopeful note.

Even if Cherry Tree is still not one of my favorite 10,000 Maniacs songs, I still appreciate that Natalie thought to write a song about a subject that affects so many people. It's a subject that doesn't get highlighted nearly enough, in art or otherwise. After all, empathy is a quality that is at its most valuable when it moves us to not just imagine but to act.

That's all for me this time. A couple of things before I leave you: I want to say a special thank you to those who've written me e-mails since my last post. You people make me feel far better about my writing than I deserve to feel. Thank you so much for thinking to drop me a line. I really enjoy hearing your thoughts on the songs I write about on the blog and your feelings about Natalie's music in general.

Second, I just want to brag once more that I am going to see Natalie in concert, with a big fat orchestra, in less than 3 months. If you happen to catch Natalie in concert this summer, I sure would love to hear your reviews. I'm planning on doing a special concert review post on the blog and I'd like to include your thoughts as well.


Download I'm Not the Man from Itunes - I'm Not the Man - Our Time In Eden

Download Cherry Tree from Itunes - Cherry Tree - In My Tribe

*Boston Globe - November 1992
**Billboard - September 1992
***Musician - November 1992
****Sounds - July 1988


  1. Thank you Annie for another enlightening blog. I've heard Cherry Tree and I'm Not the Man so many times intrigued by the voice but without really listening to the wise words and themes. Like you I'm really looking forward to a summer concert. Can't believe I bought tickets to a June concert way back in August. At least with Natalie, I don't have to wonder whether or not to go. Thanks again for renewing my ears and please don't keep us waiting quite so long between updates.

    1. Hello Chasm -

      Glad you enjoyed the post. Awesome that you get to see Natalie live this summer! Which city? You've seen her live before? I'll try to get my posts out faster...but I only have 30 songs left in the NM catalog. I gotta pace myself! Thanks as always for reading.

  2. I'm looking forward to seeing Natalie perform with the Seattle Symphony June 22. Can't wait. I've only seen her in person once before in 2010. Ah magical! Just 30 songs left? sniff, Ok ration them carefully. :-) And I hope not too many of the 30 make for combos or pairings.

    1. Ah cool. I have another reader who is attending that concert as well. I want reviews from all of you!

      Speaking of which, it will be 30 songs plus a sspecial concert review post!

      Thanks again for writing and reading.