Category Archives: 1998

Today’s Top 5: Natalie Merchant

Life. It’s sweet. Every day is a gift, every moment a treasure, despite the pain and misery we sometimes endure. Those are cliches, I know, but I believe them – especially while listening to The Natalie Merchant Collection, which I’m doing as I write. The set, for the uninitiated, features her seven studio albums alongside one disc of new and old songs performed with a string quartet, and another disc of, as the press release states, “rare and previously unreleased tracks recorded between 1998 and 2017.” It’s due out on July 14th, but those of us who preordered received it early.

Much has and will be written about the collection, I’m sure, and I plan to write about it myself this weekend, after I’ve had time to digest the new material and contemplate what the set, writ large, means in the scheme of things. I will say, however, that if you had told me back in 1986, when I first heard Natalie with the 10,000 Maniacs, that I’d still be listening to her all these years later…well, I’m not sure how I would have responded. But I’m glad she’s still making music, and glad to still be a fan.

Anyway, for now, here’s today’s Top 5: Natalie Merchant. Not necessarily her greatest songs (though some are), but great songs and performances, nonetheless.

1) “Carnival.” (From Tigerlily.)

2) “Life Is Sweet.” (From Ophelia.)

3) “Break Your Heart.” (From Ophelia.)

4) “I’m Not Gonna Beg.” (From Motherland.)

5) “Space Oddity.” (From 1999’s Live in Concert, which isn’t included in the collection.)

And three bonus tracks:

6) “Maggie and Milly and Molly and May.” (From Leave Your Sleep,)

7) “Ladybird.” (From Natalie Merchant.)

8) “Frozen Charlotte.” (From Butterfly, the collection’s disc of new and old material recorded with a string quartet.)

Of Concerts Past: Maria McKee at the Tin Angel, 12/6/1998

As many an artist can attest, following one’s muse doesn’t always result in success. Such was the case for Maria McKee.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Little Diva, as she’s sometimes called, I can’t say that I’m surprised. In the 1980s, she fronted Lone Justice, a so-called “cowpunk” band from L.A. that never broke as big as they should have. Their best known song is likely the gospel-infused “Sweet, Sweet Baby (I’m Falling),” written by Maria, Little Steven Van Zandt and Benmont Tench (of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers):

“Shelter,” from their second and final album, is another gem.

By 1993, she seemed destined to break big yet again, this time on the strength of her second solo album, You Gotta Sin to Get Saved. Such songs as “I’m Gonna Soothe You” –

– received airplay on radio stations that featured the then-hot alternative-country format, which was essentially the previous decade’s “cowpunk” filed under a cooler name. And, as this Philadelphia Inquirer review notes, she headlined and sold out the TLA in Philly, which holds about a thousand.

Looking back, that album and tour may well have been the pinnacle of her success…and the cause of the death spiral that her career soon entered. One of her bandmates is said to have given her a mixtape he’d made of David Bowie, Mott the Hoople and other glam and glitter acts of the early ‘70s. Whether that’s true, I don’t know, but this part is undisputed: She released the love-it-or-hate-it, glam-infested Life Is Sweet in 1996. The title track is the most mainstream thing on it:

That song isn’t indicative of the album as a whole, in other words. That would likely be “Absolutely Barking Stars” –

Some fans, such as myself, found it a moody, mercurial and eccentric set, akin to a Flannery O’Connor novel put to music. A Southern (California) Gothic album, if you will. I loved it then and love it now. Other folks, however…not so much. Within two years, the album was out of print and she was without a record company.

This night, the fourth stop on a five-city tour, was a way to test out new material for a forthcoming album (which would take 4 1/2 years to materialize) and, no doubt, make a little money. And I do mean little. Capacity at the Tin Angel is, at most, 125. It’s basically a long, thin hall fronted by a tiny stage; tables take up the bulk of the room, though stools dot one of the long walls.

I wrote about it at the time for my former Old Grey Cat website, as well as Da Boot!, and provide a slightly tweaked version of that summary here:

Accompanying herself on acoustic guitar, she opened with the plaintive “Life Is Sweet,” a testament to life’s bittersweet truths. The potent “Promised Land,” one of six new songs she showcased, followed; and although a bassist and keyboard player joined her, the audience’s eyes remained riveted on her. “Something Similar,” another new one, was hypnotic.

One of the night’s memorable moments came early. At the piano, she bashed out the thick, angry chords of Life Is Sweet’s “I’m Not Listening” and possessed the sparse lyrics like a mad woman.

After “Am I the Only One,” she explained that the red-hot Dixie Chicks cover the song on their hit Wide Open Spaces CD, wishing them nothing but success. “It means I can make a record and do whatever I want,” she declared. In short, she’s a prisoner of rock ‘n’ roll. She’s also a renegade from a record label – Geffen – that buried her best album. They wanted more of the same, for her to continue to mine a country-rock vein; she wanted to explore new terrain, to dig up skeletons and put them to rest, to lay it out in song.

It’s music for the psyche that she’s after; it’s music of and for the soul. It’s “Worrybirds,” the night’s encore, about nagging self-doubt:

In Philadelphia, if only for a night, Maria McKee exorcised her demons; I’m grateful to have been a witness.

Juliana Hatfield’s Bed, Unmade

juliana_bedI wrote the below a few years back, borrowing a bit from a story about Juliana and PledgeMusic that I’d posted to the Hatboro-Horsham Patch (now available on this blog), for a contest by the publishers of the 33 1/3 book series. Hundreds of folks sent in the openings for tomes on their favorite albums in hopes of scoring a one-off book deal. My entry, along with a few others focused on various Juliana albums, didn’t make the cut.

My plan was to put forth my suppositions about the album and Juliana’s career… and then have them proven or rebuked (either by her or through further investigation). I also planned to tell the story of the indie-CD store owner I mention who, with dollar signs in his eyes, followed the likes of CDnow and became an online-only operation… and wound up a pizza-delivery man. I saw (and still see) his career arc as a metaphor for the music industry writ large.

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September 1998. My wife Diane and I are browsing the racks in an independent CD store in Ambler, a small suburb some 16 miles north of Philadelphia and a figurative hop, skip and jump from our home. It’s neither musty nor dusty, but well-lit and clean, turning the usual stereotype of such shops on its head. In another affront to the vibe of most indie stores, the owner – a baldheaded man in his mid-30s, just a few years older than me – jabbers like a barker wooing customers into a circus sideshow. He wanders the tight terrain, pitching any and every disc within reach to whatever customer happens to be near. Everything’s great and one of the best things he’s heard all year.

We come not for the atmosphere, but the stock. Though limited, it’s priced right. The majority of the CDs are secondhand or branded “not for sale.” The latter are promos, and are mailed by music labels to critics and radio stations in hopes of reviews or airplay. Said recipients, in turn, sell those they don’t want for a few bucks. Along with homemade cassette copies of CDs, they are the illegal downloads of the ‘90s.

I finish one row of CDs, start on the next. I’m accustomed to tuning out the owner’s hard sell, not that it matters this day. He’s focusing his attention on Diane, yammering about a singer-songwriter he’s sure she’ll love. The scary thing is, despite his used-car salesman approach to moving merchandise, he’s right more often than not. In the years to come we’ll form what might best be called a close acquaintanceship with him.

That’s when I see it: Juliana Hatfield’s Bed. The no-frills cover features Juliana with her head sideways to the camera and atop what appears to be a red sheet. One of her eyes is hidden behind fallen locks of her blondish hair, which has a reddish tint to it. Her other eye looks like that of a wounded doe. She has a new album out? On Zoë Records, an offshoot of the independent Rounder?! Last I’d been aware, she was on Atlantic. She fell fast, I think.

Juliana, of course, was one of the original “It Girls” of the alterna-rock scene of the early 1990s, riding an indie wave she helped to create in the late ‘80s with her old band, the Blake Babies, to Atlantic’s shore, where she scored minor hits with “Spin the Bottle” from 1993’s Become What You Are and “Universal Heartbeat” from 1995’s Only Everything. She appeared in teen and preteen magazines, guest starred on My So-Called Life and, along with the Breeders and Belly (among others), made it cool for girls to rock out on electric guitar in a way that Joan Jett and Chrissie Hynde never did. But, as I’d learn in later years, it wasn’t a total love-fest. An ill-advised comment she made to a magazine in 1992, when she was in her mid-20s, about being a virgin was heard as a marketing ploy by some and a reason to make fun of her by others. Her little-girlish singing voice was called cloying and saccharine, an affectation; that it seemed even more so on Become What You Are than before only made matters worse. More to the point: after Only Everything didn’t perform up to expectations, she butted heads with her label over its never-released follow-up, God’s Foot; and then asked for and was granted a release from her contract.

Now, I’d long been accustomed to off-kilter vocals among men (Neil Young) and women (Kate Bush), so that was a non-issue for me, and the virginity brouhaha seemed downright silly. Yet, on that September afternoon I questioned whether the “not for sale”-branded Bed would be worth the investment and if I was, in fact, still a fan. Don’t get me wrong; I’d found her work with the Blake Babies grand, if occasionally goofy, and thought her first solo album, Hey Babe, good and her second one, Become What You Are, slightly better. But there was other music being made during the early ‘90s that proved more compelling to my ears – 10,000 Maniacs’ sublime Our Time in Eden and Maria McKee’s earthy You Gotta Sin to Get Saved are two examples, but I could easily name dozens more. No, what ultimately sold me on Juliana wasn’t either of her solo albums, but a 1993 British “For the Birds” CD single that included, as a bonus track, a piano-only version of “I Got No Idols.”

If you’re not familiar with the song, on Become What You Are it’s a guitar-driven, two-verse gem that seemingly addresses and expounds on her celibacy in a roundabout way:

“Love me, love, but just don’t touch/I don’t like to be touched/You might think we all need that stuff/but I don’t think about it much.” As quickly, however, the lyrics dovetail into a deconstruction of false gods, be they religious or secular: “I’m a goddess in your eyes, and I will never die/I was born of people’s needs/and what they want to believe/But I’m a liar, that’s the truth/go home and think it through.”

Slowed down, stripped of guitars, bass and drums, and with Juliana’s voice front and center, the song transforms into a stark, dark and haunting confession, as if she’s laying bare her essence for all to see – which, if we take her lyrics at face value, she’s not.

She’s one of the false idols she’s singing about. At its heart, the song’s a conundrum slipped over the enigma that is Juliana, who – for those two verses, anyway – is someone almost any English major could love without fear of unintended grandiosity.

Glancing over the song titles on Bed, I remembered the specific moments, though not the dates, of when I stumbled upon that single and her first two post-Blake Babies albums – the single at the Tower Records on Philadelphia’s South Street, aka “the hippest street in town,” and the albums a few miles north at Third Street Jazz, a legendary independent store that closed its doors earlier in the year, primarily because of competition from Tower. Third Street Jazz was everything the Ambler store was not: well-stocked and staffed by knowledgeable workers who left you alone to browse while gladly fielding questions if and when you asked. It was also where I’d picked up, in 1995, Juliana’s third album, Only Everything. Critics gave it good marks, but I’d found its production sterile and the songs weak. “Universal Heartbeat” was its best moment and even that… eh. “A heart that hurts is a heart that works” didn’t pack much of a punch for me. I filed the CD in our stacks not long after buying it, and had rarely returned to it.

I’d yet to see her in concert, and wouldn’t for 10 years, so the personal connection the live experience engenders wasn’t there. As I mentioned above, the year before Juliana had left Atlantic; I wasn’t aware of it, nor that she’d released an EP on the independent Bar-None label not long thereafter. If I saw her name in Rolling Stone or another music magazine post-Only Everything, I skipped past it. Fandom, even one as tenuous as mine, is as fickle a thing as love, and post-breakup few want to hang out with an ex. We’re heartless, we fans, Jack Blacks flipping out on the customer in High Fidelity for choosing the wrong Stevie Wonder song to purchase for his daughter. Right?

At times, yes. At other times, no. At the end of the day, at least as I’ve lived it, being a rock ‘n’ roll fan is about faith, second chances and redemption, about buying the next album regardless of whether I liked the last. It’s sticking with Neil Young after Landing on Water and Bruce Springsteen through the Human TouchLucky Town debacle. It’s about loving a sound that drowns our sorrow and fuels our joy, and that lifts us into orbit for mere minutes at a time. It’s about moments such as that piano version of “I Got No Idols” with Juliana murmuring a meaning so deep and primal into the verses that we can’t help but to hit repeat again and again.

So there I was, in a too-bright store, holding a copy of her latest release, aware that I’d written her off and thinking that maybe, just maybe, I shouldn’t have. Repeated disappointments breed and feed the grudges that turn us away from our favorites, but one?

What the hell. I took the plunge.

Bed opens with a nasty squelch of guitar that leads smack into “Down on Me,” as indignant, hopeful and funny a song about rejection ever written, and one that could easily have been directed at me: “You’re so down on me/I think it is a fad so I don’t feel so bad anymore.” It’s raw and rough, sandpaper rubbing against an open sore, and remains one of Juliana’s greatest accomplishments, as does the album as a whole. I won’t lie and say it’s her best. It’s not. Beautiful Creature (2000), In Exile Deo (2004), Made in China (2005) and How to Walk Away (2008) – one of them is that. But Bed is her most important. It’s when her little-girl voice became a woman’s.

It’s also much more. It’s a last-gasp blast from the end of an era, a time when unsigned artists had little hope of carving out careers. Affording studio time was one major hurdle they faced; distribution was another; and radio play a third. Nowadays, with sites like PledgeMusic and Kickstarter to raise funds, and CDBaby for digital distribution, the hurdles aren’t quite as high. Hell, they can skip studios if they so choose and use a computer to record and mix. Getting the music heard is another story, of course, but with YouTube and social media the slim odds of success have added some girth.

Weird as it is to say, since Diane and I had been online for seven years by then, for many folks in 1998 the Internet was something they read about in magazines and newspapers, or saw dramatized in the movies or on TV. Buying music meant buying CDs and stores that sold them were everywhere, or almost everywhere. For every Third Street Jazz that closed, a chain store opened. At one point or another, Best Buy, Borders, Coconuts, Strawberries and Tower Records were all within a half hour’s drive from our suburban enclave, in addition to a mall-based store and four independent shops. As was the corporate headquarters of CDnow, which was a new breed of retailer: online only.

Not that any of that was on Juliana’s mind during the six days she recorded Bed, apparently so named because she and her two long-time compadres, Mikey Welsh on bass and Todd Phillips on percussion and drums, threw a mattress on the floor of the recording studio and didn’t leave until they’d finished. For her, it was an exorcism, a way to expunge the self-doubts and recriminations that must have been coursing through her veins after the Atlantic debacle. That’s my theory, at any rate, and a quick scan of the song titles appears to back it up. There’s “Down on Me,” as I mentioned a few paragraphs back, and also “Swan Song,” “Bad Day” and “Let’s Blow It All.”

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Well, that’s that. As chance would have it, I used a previously pledged-for 20-questions premium on her then-current PledgeMusic project to ask a few pertinent questions – and, in the email exchanges we had, she seemed receptive to an actual interview if the proposal was accepted.

Me: “I Got No Idols.” What’s the story behind it? The first verse seems to respond to the media-hyped virginity brouhaha you found yourself in after the Interview interview (“you may think we all need that stuff/but I don’t think about it much”) while the second verse tackles false gods as well as how some ardent fans may perceive you (“but I’m a liar, that’s the truth/go home and think it through”).

JH: It was existential. (‘Become What You Are,” the title, was taken from Nietzsche, you know). I think I was trying to be tough, or to appear tough, to mask my fragility/weakness by claiming to not need anyone, and to not be impressed by anyone. But then acknowledging/admitting my weakness and fragility (“when I do i have to leave the room/i’m scared of what I might do” – I might get weak in the knees, I might fall in love). I am trying to convince myself, while trying to convince the listener, that I am a lone wolf, but not really believing it 100%, even as i am saying it. I don’t remember the specifics of what was going through my head. I think I was thinking of Sonic Youth and “Kill Yr. Idols” on one level trying/wanting to be ‘cool’ like them. I think you are right about the second verse. I wasn’t comfortable in the role of rock or pop star or objectifiable object and I thought it was all really stupid in a way and I never was any good at it because I could never believe the hype.

Me: After Atlantic, you released an EP on Bar-None and then wound up on Zoe Records for quite a while. Were you under contract? Were they a series of one-off deals?

JH: I think the Bar-None thing was a one-off license for a few years. and each of the Zoe/Rounder Records was a several-year license, and after each term the ownership of the masters reverted back to me. I think there might have been a contract with Zoe/Rounder for a series of multi-year licenses rather than one contract for each album.

Me: Why the title Bed?

JH: There was no good reason for the title. I think I just liked the sound of it, and I was thinking that Bed is so evocative of so many things. And I was kind of depressed and bed is where you lie for long periods of time without getting up/out when you are depressed and also bed is where a lot of the stuff that I reference in the songs – dreams, fantasies, sex/love–happens. kind of dumb/simpleminded, i know.

Me: Many of the Bed songs sound like you’re coming to terms (consciously or subconsciously) with leaving Atlantic. (For instance, in “Swan Song,” “you can’t fire me because I quit.”)

JH: It was definitely my “I hate the music business” album, for sure. Most people don’t get that about it. They think it’s all about some guy or guys (well, i admit that “I Want to Want You” and “Sneaking Around” were about specific guys) and not a series of metaphors for hating the record company and the industry (and the public) who dropped me/failed me/bailed on me.

Me: For these next questions, whatever you would care to share about the songs (inspiration for them, a memory from the recording session, etc.). “Down on Me”…

JH: Trying to make myself feel better about being written off – trying to depersonalize it (“I think it is a fad so i don’t feel so bad anymore”) as a way to rationalize my falling out of favor as merely a trend and not having anything to do with me personally or with my deficiencies but never really believing it wasn’t simply my own failings, as an artist or performer or person or whatever. There’s so much hurt and bitterness that i can’t disguise in this song.

Me: “I Want to Want You.”

JH: That’s about a guy that I got involved with too quickly. I got scared and pulled away. It seemed so easy for him to want to be with me and to think that for us to be together was simple and sensible. But for me, being with someone is always problematic and overwhelmingly complicated because of my deep-seated emotional problems (of which he was understandably not fully aware, that early in the game). He seemed, from my standpoint, to like me too much; too much for me to handle. He wanted to be my boyfriend. I wanted to want it as much as he wanted it because there was no real reason not to. He was great, a really cool guy, a good guy. I felt really bad about it.

Me: “Swan Song”

JH: That’s the classic “you can’t fire me because i quit” scenario. I tell everyone that I begged Atlantic Records to let me out of my contract, to set me free, and I did. I did have that meeting with one of the big cheeses, but in the end what it amounts to is that they dropped me, they agreed to let me go, which means that they dropped me. I had read a book compiling real actual suicide notes and one of them said, simply, concisely: “Dear Bill, I hate you. Love, Jane.” (Those weren’t the names – I can’t remember the names, but you get the point). I thought that to use the names of Jack and Diane from the John Cougar song would be funny. Like, this is what happened to those two young lovers – they grew up and it all went to shit.

Me: “Sneaking Around.” What led you to borrow the intro from “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around”?

JH: Referencing the Tom Petty/Stevie Nicks thing was just out of the blue, spur of the moment dumbness/laziness. It gets me going sometimes to borrow a melody or bit from somewhere else It gets a song started when i am stuck.

Me: “Backseat.”

JH: Feeling sad, trying to comfort myself, feeling like my life was out of my control, car/driving metaphors but also literally thinking of the Blake Babies tour in which “The Perfect Prescription” was in heavy rotation, listening to it at night in the van, also generally how music/moving car/touring is/was a comfort.

Me: “Live It Up.”

JH: This is the newly hardened and cynical me warning all up and coming young artists to watch out for the sharks and vultures (‘enjoy it now’ -type of thing -because it won’t last; they will stop caring about you and paying attention to you).

Me: “You Are the Camera.” (This is one of my favorite songs of yours, by the way.)

JH: Contemplating identity personally and professionally – discomfort with being an objectified (female/sexual) object, confusion about my own identity and also about what the entertainment industry and the public wanted from me, etc. Since we had to do this record really quick/cheap, I ended up using all of my few vocal takes all at once; I would sing a song 3 or 4 times and then to save time I would throw them all on a song without going through the trouble of comping them or having to listen down to all and choose the best one or the best bits…so you can hear in at least one place that two of the vocal are singing slightly different words (the reading the diary part) because I wasn’t sure about the words here. I couldn’t decide which I liked better, so on one vocal take I sang one version and on another I sang another version and they both ended up together.

Me: “Running Out.”

Sad again, trying to comfort myself (sometimes when i say “you” in a song i mean “me” but I like to alternate between “you” and “me” so that people don’t think I am totally self-absorbed. Sometimes, though, of course, “you” means “you”. Oh, and also, I get so sick of people saying “I’m a survivor” or “she’s/he’s a survivor,” like only certain people have a claim to that distinction – as if to imply that some people haven’t suffered enough as much as others – but i think that everyone suffers in his/her own way, and that everyone has a hard time sometimes, and that it isn’t always obvious who is having a hard time, and so everyone should be treated kindly and compassionately, in theory. “Promises are nothing” – I might have been thinking of/referring to the record company there, among other things/entities/people

Me: “Bad Day.”

JH: I see myself as a saboteur of relationships. Also, my brother and I had been held up at gunpoint behind Fort Apache Studios one afternoon and that made itself into the song. (The gun part.) It was the first and only time I’d been mugged. There were about five kids, teenagers, and they pointed the gun at my brother’s head. We calmly gave them our wallets and then they ran away. I felt so grateful to them for having not shot us (or my dog, who was with me and off-leash and running around). Somehow this became part of a larger bad day idea and also i guess I drew a line from the the muggers back to a bad boyfriend, maybe, and in doing so was able to empathize with the bad boyfriend by understanding that we are all damaged somehow by something, by things in our pasts/childhoods/past lives, so we are not to blame for all of our damaging relationship behaviors.

Me: “Let’s Blow It All.”

JH: This is a made-up story about a band getting signed with the knowledge of how it will end – taking their money and spending it on good stuff while knowing that there will be no more money or glory coming – knowing that the record company doesn’t care about the band personally – and the band somehow empowering themselves this way. By not getting attached (to the attention or the necessarily short-lived glory, or something).

Me: From your side of the fence, as an artist, how has the music industry most changed in the past 15 years? (Pre-Napster to now, basically.)

JH: People used to be wary about selling out. In my scene, it was important to have integrity and to not sell out. Now that seems like an antiquated idea. Now the goal is to sell out – sellouts are admired.