Monday, April 19, 2010

Sitting In The Wishing Chair With 10,000 Maniacs




Originally published in 1986 in Disoriented Rain Dance 3

Editor's Note: Jamestown, New York was not the first permanent British settlement in America, but it is the hometown of 10,000 Maniacs. Andy writes on about his meetings with the band that could almost be subtitled “What 10,000 Maniacs Mean To Me”…

It is quite a task for me to put a huge bag full of feelings about 10,000 Maniacs music into coherent form on paper. I will try, but if this, at one point of another, doesn’t hold together, please forgive me.

The first 10,000 Maniacs show for me was in October of last year at Rick’s American CafĂ© in Ann Arbor. A new music band called 10,000 Maniacs is not supposed to break free of all precepts and stereotypes. 10,000 Maniacs should be skinheads or industrial techno-punkers. But this six-piece live up to their name in a very different way.

Natalie Merchant is the center of this beautiful, melodic art form. She is sitting in the Wishing Chair, if you will. Bass player Steve Gustaffason says it does not bother him that Natalie gets all of the attention. He says he expects it and he keeps smiling and he keeps playing.
Natalie has long, flowing hair. Her beautiful hair, dark brown, and everywhere is part of the trip taken at a 10,000 Maniacs show. She wears gorgeous clothing: long dresses full of color from some hidden thrift store at the far end of some town. Her dancing adds to a show that smiles simply on a visual level. Leaping and bounding and feeling, possessing her music through dance. We have brilliance through this grace and I haven’t even written about the music yet!

The music is soft as Nat’s voice soars high and low and deep and into my heart. She signs her words and poetry so simply―they are hers―and when I am transfixed by the front of the stage, they become mine too. Let us get one thing straight: Natalie Merchant is a genius and an artist. She is also a very kind and pleasant woman of 22 years.

The Maniacs album to know and love is called the The Wishing Chair. The 12-inch singles, the album Secrets Of The I-Ching and the EP Human Conflict #5 are out of print. Lucky is the one finds them at the groovy record store. More entirely pleasing music. During the last maniac stop in Detroit, Natalie played for me the first few songs on a demo tape for the next album. Soon the big label will deliver more vinyl ecstasy…

10,000 Maniacs hail from Jamestown, New York which is a small town in the western part of the state near Lake Chataqua. There is a little girl in Jamestown who plays with Natalie. Natalie enjoys this little girl and her brother. The little girl’s name is Jenny of “Back O’ the Moon” fame. Jenny’s parents saw the Maniacs in Musician magazine and now their daughter wears a shirt that says “I’m Jenny.” Jenny saw 10,000 Maniacs live at their last show in Jamestown.

One day, Natalie, Jen and her brother went horseback riding. Natalie pointed to a dead bird by the side of the path and asked the little boy if would eat that bird.

“Oh no. Oh no!”
Well do you like it when your mom serves chicken?
“Yeh! Yum-Yum!”
Well, gee, chicken is a dead bird.
“No?!?! Is it really?!”
The young boy’s mother called Natalie and was very upset with her for subverting her child with the vegetarian spirit. I am actually quite glad that Natalie Merchant has that spirit, because it was during that conversation when Natalie and I made plans to eat at a truly wonderful restaurant in Royal Oak called Inn Season. When the Maniacs hit Detroit in March, Natalie and I shared sparkling conversation over Tofu salad and carrot juice.

Back on stage again, Natalie spins and twirls holding in her hand a sort of magical wand with a streamer at its tip. She dances, dressed in black across the stage, she is still full of such charming movements―reaching down and tapping my head as I stand at the front of the stage. This show was a free gig put on by the fraternities at the University of Dayton. 10,000 Maniacs played at a Twister game! Well, the man in charge of musical entertainment has enlightened tastes. Lucky me, I was a few minutes away, in Yellow Springs visiting my college-to-be, Antioch.

I remember that night there was one gentleman who stood and stared at Natalie the entire night (besides me). He could not take his eyes off of Natalie’s legs. I think he was noticing that Natalie has a European spirit about her and doesn’t shave. Well, it was the best frat party I’ve ever been to!

I was so high on the music of this show that my enthusiastic movements turned into slam dancing on “My Mother The War.” We had it all―another guy climbed on to the stage and Nat helped him into a stage dive. It turns out “My Mother The War” was originally a poem by a college professor. I asked Natalie, “Did you have him?” She replied, “In a sense; he was my boyfriend.”

It was in Detroit back in October that before one of the Maniac’s shows, Natalie was eager to talk with us about something and nothing at the same time. She told us about making a tape for her brother with Joy Division, New Order and Walt Disney themes at the tail end. He was tripping when he first listened to it and, boy, did the Disney themes freak him out. Somehow we got to talking about “Lost in Space.” The next thing you knew, Natalie was swinging her arms like the robot, going “Danger, Danger!”

10,000 Maniacs played Traxx the same night as the Cure played the State Theatre and it was a somewhat sparsely attended show. I was happy to catch both gigs. In all frankness, I must say that 10,000 Maniacs were the better show. The Cue had plenty of pomp and image, but the Maniacs had some more crucial qualities.

Caring and concern for a set of music was never more evident. That is part of the magic. I shall not soon forget the improvisation during “National Education Week.” Natalie has a special way of singing bits and pieces of a variety of tunes here and there. This one was easily the most splendid though. My heart leapt as I heard on this stage, the familiar sounds of my youth:

“This old man, he played three, he played nic-nac on my knee, with a nic-nac paddywack give your dog a gone, this old many came rolling home. This old man he played four…” Music and fun and other good feelings we could never put into words.

I have a good friend named Lisa. She is probably the biggest 10,000 Maniac fan. Her love for Natalie’s music in itself makes me smile. Unfortunately, Lisa is 17 and underage and because of some horribly unjust and unfair laws, she had not been able to see 10,000 Maniacs live. In January, I took her to Ann Arbor and at the entrance, this lost young doorman took her ID and refused her entrance.

I couldn’t find the rest of my party and was flushed with guilt and anger as Lisa had to spend the entire show in my car. I had now seen 10,000 Maniacs four times, and Lisa, this beautiful young woman with so much love for the band had to sit in the car only because of her age.

After the show, I shared this with Natalie and she was suitably disappointed in the whole system. She walked into the biting cold with me and out to the car to meet Lisa. Lisa was lifted out of the chilling winter night with a chance to meet Natalie who cared enough to trek out into the cold. Class and caring shows us once again something about this band that make them so important.

At the onset of this article, I mentioned how Steve Gustfson said he expected Natalie to get all the attention. Well, guess what? I’ve given Natalie all the attention. In fairness to five of the nicest, most fun guys I’ve ever met, I’d like to write about the Musicians who make this whole thing work so splendidly. When I first saw guitarist Robert Buck in his conservative ‘50’s garb, I thought of Mr. C from Happy Days. He really is a great man and a lot more easy going then his appearance might lead one to imagine. He also plays great guitar.

John Lombardo is the other guitarist and he also plays some fine acoustic. What many people don’t know is that John has this amazing lunchbox collection highlighted by a classic NFL Quarterback. We had a very enjoyable conversation about how much my former Planet Of The Apes and Bee Gees lunchboxes might be worth.

Dennis Drew with his sort of college-intellectual look was the first Maniac I became acquainted with by phone to confirm my meeting the band after the first Ann Arbor show. He went out of his way to get my friends into the show in January as Rick’s overflowed. One can see Natalie and Dennis exchanging knowing looks during a show. Their friendship extends more years then the band’s.

Steve on bass and Jerry Augustianiak on drums are both all smiles and enthusiasms, it seems at almost all times. Jerry seems to just go into his own thing back on the drum set, groovin’ in his own way with this fabulous boyish grin. I remember during “Daktari” the first time I saw them, that up song had the people dancing and Jerry’s smiles just kept going. I remember how excited he was after the show that people were dancing. He’s just a beautiful person making beautiful happy music.

Natalie did share dinner and Lisa was along with us. Lisa had expected to go home and once again miss out on her favorite band because she was still 17. But Natalie suggested that Lisa come to the club with her and they wouldn’t think of carding her. It worked! I can still see Nat saying to the doorman “She’s with me!” Lisa had the time of her life as far as I could tell. She finally felt, in person, the quiet strength and overwhelming musical grace and beauty that Natalie Merchant generates.

It is a dance and a song in my heart to see all of the truly terrific things that music can do for people. It has made my life! The tide flows in and the tide flows out and my 10,000 Maniacs cassette keeps playing.

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