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New Thoughts on Old Songs

While the Young Folks Were Having Their Good Times

By Michael Quinlan

I once saw footage of former President Richard Nixon praising 70’s pop duo the Carpenters as representing “the best of young people today.” And while the music of the Carpenters makes my ears flop over like they just took one too many Lunesta, and Richard Nixon is a president who could now proudly proclaim to be the second most hated “electronic interceptor” of the last half century, I could still relate to what Tricky Dick was saying.

Because, you see, 10,000 Maniacs were my Carpenters. They were an ideal. An archetype. They were the epitome, to me, of a band. My goody-goody side was completely buying what they were selling. My vision of Utopia had 10,000 Maniacs as the house band. They represented the best of an era. This is the band, after all, that serenaded President Clinton with “To Sir with Love” during MTV’s “Rock n’ Roll Inaugural Ball.” (They were introduced as “Chelsea’s favorite band.”) They were greater than the sum of their parts. (I guess I should not be using past tense, but, well, you know the story.) One day, I will probably hand over my 10,000 Maniacs albums to my children and delight in whatever imaginings their little minds might project onto their parent’s seemingly “innocent” times. This youthful discovery is part of what the Maniac’s music was all about.

A sincere reverence for both history and language is at the core of their music. Critics charged the band with being “preachy,” but I think they missed the point. Writing in the liner notes for 2004’s compilation Campfire Songs: The Popular, Obscure, & Unknown Recordings, music critic Anthony Decurtis correctly surmised: “While sounding nothing like punk rock, this is music made by people reveling in the freedom that punk rock had won.” After all, who but 10,000 Maniacs could have Natalie Merchant dancing around with her grandmother (as in the video for the lovely “Trouble Me”) without one iota of irony? In other words, self-expression need not be provocative or outrageous to be outside the mainstream, or to be scorned by those firmly entrenched in the status quo. Yes, I will dance around with old people and wear Depression era cotton day dresses and read obscure books collecting dust at my local library and volunteer my time to work with handicapped children and learn the lyrics to forgotten or laughed at or uncool music and if you don’t like it, you can go fuck yourself. Okay?

They were a band that I could easily see myself being a member of. More than, say, Motley Crue. As a member of “the Crue” I would likely spend my time fretting over the unnecessary detritus left behind in hotel rooms by Nikki Sixx’s filthy syringes and cursing Tommy Lee’s nasty ass for making me miss Frontline (yet again!) with his strip club shenanigans. Contrast that aesthetic with my Maniacs: They (in)famously nearly torpedoed their career early on, demanding that subsequent pressings of their (at that point) most successful album, In My Tribe, remove the Cat Stevens cover “Peace Train,” in protest of Stevens’ supposed “support” of the death fatwa against Salman Rushdie. John Lombardo, guitarist, lends rare lead vocals to an early song, “Anthem For Doomed Youth,” by lifting the lyrics from Wilfred Owen, a WWI soldier whose poems were published posthumously. (“Boys holding candles/on untraveled roads/the fear spreads like fire/as shrapnel explodes”). Keyboardist Dennis Drew plays with adorable pictures (Lifetouch™?!) of his children arrayed strategically on his music stand. Merchant, the group’s principal lyricist, has clocked some serious time at her local public library. On a first name basis with her librarian type shit. There was a certain bookstore freak, Dudley-Do-right-ism, frustrated boy scout, hippie camp counselor cache the band tapped into. The typical 10,000 Maniacs’ concertgoer might turn up with what novelist Elizabeth McCracken has called, “that strange desperate look that some librarygoers develop, the one that says: this is the only place I’m welcome anymore. Courtney Love’s charming insurrection to aspiring rock bands: “out of the trailer park, together!” becomes “out of our. . . local community college, together!,” in the Maniacs’ slightly more erudite parlance.

Thumbing through the liner notes of their recordings is like skimming through your childhood Social Studies textbooks. (In fact, according to band lore, a seventeen-year-old Natalie would improvise lyrics right out of her school texts at early gigs.) Every other track is chronicling one decade of ?the twentieth century or another. And not on the “We Didn’t Start the Fire” tip either. Merchant, Dennis Drew, John Lombardo, Robert Buck, Steven Gustafson, and Jerome Augustyniak do not just tick off names and dates from a history book. Instead, these songs are obscure, thoughtful, darkly sentimental, and completely inhabited by their creators. Whether chronicling Enola Gay’s “casual delivery” to Hiroshima in “Grey Victory,” (“There was light and atomic fission/swelling wind, rising ash, tide of black rain/the undersides of fallen metal trusses/evil debris of human bodies”) or exploring surrealist painting of the twenties in “Poor De Chirico,” the band infuses the music with an aura of “nostalgic despair.”

They had a lot to despair over. Nearly all of the Maniacs’ output was delivered under the cultural landscape wrought by a decade of Reagan-Bush. If Hillary Clinton had wanted to include an audio accompaniment to the tenth anniversary edition of It Takes a Village, she could just have well slipped in 1992’s Our Time in Eden, 1989’s Blind Man’s Zoo, or 1987’s In My Tribe. A sense of authentic community and shared ideals permeates all their work. “Why let your shoulders bend/underneath this burden/when my back is sturdy and strong?,” they plaintively asked us in “Trouble Me.” Here is Natalie Merchant describing what the band faced when forming in 1981: “Most of the Carter-era public funding for the arts that had caused a bit of a local renaissance in the 70’s was drying up. We were beginning to feel the country’s shift to the right at the threshold of the Regan-Bush era. We had a growing understanding that the recession of post-industrial towns like ours might not be temporary and that we were coming of age in an atmosphere of nostalgia and decay.”

This is music made by (in Nixon’s old school vernacular) “young people,” who do not believe they are going to live forever, and who appreciate the historical context (and historical memory) of their world. It takes a very special rebellious compassion to even concern yourself with some of the themes the Maniacs’ addressed. To ask “What’s the Matter Here?,” in a culture in which “there’s no complaining/while he’s reigning” (“The Lion’s Share”), is to assert a willingness to pay a particular kind of social price. “I don’t dare say it,” Merchant sang. It’s in direct opposition to the Carpenters’ smiling acquiescence. Why, thank you, President Nixon! Vietnam War?! What’s that? “How did they teach you to be/just a happy puppet dancing on a string?/How do you manage to speak/your mouth a frozen grin?” Natalie wondered in “You Happy Puppet.”

With their music, from the EP debut of Human Conflict Number Five (1982) right on through to their de facto swan song, 1993’s MTV Unplugged, the band celebrates a trajectory of individualists who soldier on in likely obscurity. Meet the plucky domestic heroine of their first hit, “My Mother the War”: “She’s made every effort/she knows every neighbor/chats at their doors/compare, econosize electrical appliances/my mother, the war.” In the Maniacs’ methodology, Rosie the Riveter can be just as subversive as Johnny Rotten. They even teasingly poked fun at a counterculture demigod: “Hey Jack Kerouac/I think of your mother/and the tears she cried/they were cried for none other.” Because, in the end, Kerouac was just “a little boy lost” who lived out his days with his determined and resolute mother. “I’m Not The Man,” chronicles a harangued and falsely accused black man on trial for his life circa 1930. (“Call out the KKK/they’re wild after me”). In “Maddox Table,” a working-Joe proudly slaves away at the kind of menial manufacturing work we’re supposed to disdain nowadays. (“The legs of Maddox kitchen tables/my whole life I twisted on a lathe”). A resigned agoraphobe contemplates the (dwindling) merits of getting out of bed in “Like The Weather.” (I hear the sound of the noon bell chime/well, I’m far behind/you put in ‘bout half a day/while hear I lie.”) A suburban family grapples with 1970’s Love Canal-era water pollution in “Poison in the Well.” (“Where to now, if your fight for a bearable life can be fought and lost in your backyard?”) An aged shut-in lives out his days in obscure solitude while life carries on around (and without) him in “Verdi Cries.” (“The man in 119 takes his tea all alone/he will not touch their pastry/but every day they bring him more”)?

Natalie and her “five husbands” blow the dust of these human relics, to remind us that, in the words of director Jem Cohen, “[in] the crooked line with the weirdos [and outcasts] is a good place to be, there is a knowledge to be shared and passed along.”

The reputation of 10,000 Maniacs is slowly receding into the same semi-obscurity from which they came. History would have you believe that they were a quiet, “clean-cut,” non-threatening, quasi-folk band led by a pretty young lady surrounded by five nameless buffoons who had a couple of ethereal pop hits suitable for prom themes (“These Are Days”), and essentially interchangeable with your Sixpence None The Richers and your Innocence Missions. A band even Richard Nixon could love.

Don’t you believe it.

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