Spin magazine began life in the mid ‘80s basically as a more inclusive Rolling Stone, aiming not for the middle-aged rockers who made up much of RS’s readership, but young ‘uns who could, theoretically at least, be their kids, though they were more apt to be their younger siblings. The focus was college rock (aka, alternative before alternative was thusly named), hip-hop and other newer acts usually ignored by staid Rolling Stone.
In that sense, it was a good magazine. And, yet, I had a love-hate relationship with it, much as I did (and still do) with Rolling Stone. Whereas RS was staid and predictable, Spin sometimes radiated a hipster mentality with all the negative connotations therein. As a result, I usually read it at the newsstand. I brought this issue home, however, because of the cover story (by Jonathan Van Meter) on Natalie Merchant and 10,000 Maniacs, who’d just released Blind Man’s Zoo. They were, as I’ve written before, one of my favorite groups.
Van Meter writes: “At 25, Natalie Merchant, in front of her band, 10,000 Maniacs, has become one of the more compelling figures of American pop music. Her big ethnic lips, kicky little hair cut, insinuating alto (which seems to have developed its own not-of-this-hemisphere accent), and whirling dervish-child stage persona have become an obsession for white people everywhere, and caused boy critics, both here and in Britain, to gush. But for all it’s worth, that’s really just icing. What rivets is the band’s music, and even more, the powerful short stories of Natalie’s lyrics.”
In the article, Natalie reflects on her musical heritage: “Because my parents were fans of music,” she says, “there was always music in the house. My grandfather played mandolin, guitar and accordion. He always claimed that back in Italy one of his cousins was a famous opera singer. My other grandmother on my mother’s side claims her grandmother was named Byron and that we’re related to Lord Byron. She’ll swear to it until the day she dies. Byron had an incestuous relationship with his half sister so she always told us we were the bastard children of Byron, and don’t forget it. My grandfather on the other side was Irish and he was a piano tuner and sang in a barbershop quartet. I took piano training for a while, and voice training, but I never really pursued it because it was too intimidating—the teachers and recitals. So I stopped everything, but I kept playing the piano.”
Anyway, onward to today’s 10,000 Maniacs-themed Top 5, with Natalie’s comments on the songs lifted from the article:
1) 10,000 Maniacs – “Please Forgive Us.” “I’ve taken upon myself the obligation of making a public plea to Central America for forgiveness for what has been done to their country by all of the money that’s been provided for military aid to rebel groups there. I’m not apologizing to the Sandinistas. I’m apologizing to the people who have been caught in the cross fire, whose lives have been permanently disrupted by the loss of family members. the loss of their homes, the torturing of their children. And all done with our tax dollars. And I just…my heart doesn’t bleed for either side. What I’m concerned about is the people who knew absolutely nothing in that country and just found themselves in the middle of a war zone….”
2) 10,000 Maniacs – “Poison in the Well.” [It] is a very obvious song, especially now, with what’s happening in Alaska. [The Exxon Valdez oil spill.] But It was writing about Hooker Chemical Company in Buffalo and the Southern Love Canal, which everyone looks at as ancient history now. And it’s not ancient history where we live, because it’s still very much in the press. It’s a horrible event. Many people died of cancer. Many women to this day cannot conceive children, cannot stay pregnant.”
3) 10,000 Maniacs – “Eat for Two.” “[It] is about a young woman who doesn’t think being pregnant is her best option right now. But she’s five months along, so I avoid the abortion question, which is something that I really didn’t want to write about in a song. It’s a warning. Because the last verse is ‘Young girls should run and hide instead of risk the game by taking dares with yes.’ She’s saying, ‘Don’t be like me. Look at what a mess I’ve made of my life.’ And now it’s going to be the most public mistake she could ever make. I hope people don’t misinterpret it as a pro-life song.”
4) 10,000 Maniacs – “Hateful Hate.” “[It] is about the situation in [South] Africa and its historical context—what led up to what’s happening there today. There’s this intolerance of the differences between races and cultures that the colonial Europeans express towards—that they were primitive and savage. But this is all tired. Everyone knows what their attitude was.”
5) 10,000 Maniacs – “Trouble Me.” Well, the above four songs are the only ones singled out in the article, but no mention of Blind Man’s Zoo can be complete without this classic song…