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