WHILE 10,000 MANIACS ARE UP, UP, AND AWAY, SINGER NATALIE MERCHANT IS IMMERSED IN SOME GRAND DIVERSIONS OF HER OWN. SHE TAKES A SPRINGY STEP OFF THE UP ESCALATOR TO TELL JONH WILDE ABOUT GREAT MISUNDERSTANDINGS, JUMPING OUT OF AEROPLANES AND WHAT IT’S LIKE TO SING TO 30 MILLION PEOPLE.
WE ARE going to do the interview on the third floor of the west London hotel, at the end of the corridor. It smells of paint. That doesn’t bother me though. It will be great fun, I tell Natalie. We can place bets on which of us will blackout first. Are you insured? There’s something unavoidably romantic about catalepsy don’t you think? Natalie is not a betting woman. We climb a floor to her room, a pastel coloured nirvana with four-poster bed. Sir Walter Raleigh allegedly once slept in it the night before he went off on his Huguenot jaunt. This does not spoil Natalie’s sleep in the slightest.
“I’m expecting some very full-bodied French woman in a powdered wig and gown to start swinging into the room. Then her lover is going to come dancing through in satin trousers and a long waistcoat. He’ll be wearing a wig too. Then they’ll sing a duet from Figaro.”
It’s going to happen any minute now. Let’s say nothing. Let’s just wait. Concentrate very hard until it happens. Then I can go home with a story.
We sit for 20 whole seconds. Nothing happens except a wasp lands on my collar-bone. I can’t go home yet. A wasp on the collar is never enough for a front-cover at The Maker.
“Language is pretty useless most of the time,” Natalie Merchant suddenly reveals. “I’ve been enjoying saying nothing lately. When I’m home, I say nothing because there’s no-one there.”
Well, it’s a lot easier when no-one is there. In fact, it’s a piece of piss. (I only think that second bit. I would never use language like that in front of a lady.)
“There are a few children in the neighbourhood that I talk to. If I stay in my house and don’t answer the door though, there’s no threat of anyone coming to the door. No-one knows where I live. No-one knows me in Jamestown. There’s really no-one to know. It’s possible for me to go one week without leaving the house, speaking to no-one.”
We could sit here and say absolutely nothing. Okay, the lads at the office would pick the nits about it for a little while, but I could claim that the wasp chased us around the room and we had no time for questions and answers. They’ll believe anything up there.
“Let’s think about it. So many things are said where other layers are intended. To me, they are there. I like those kind of things. One of my favourite things about language is misunderstanding what people say.”
One of my favourite things about being stung by a wasp is there is no misunderstanding whatsoever. Sting, sting, ouch ouch, so to speak. There’s not much doubt there. That’s the nice thing.
“I was walking down the street with my friend Tom and he pointed out a sign saying ‘Quick Service Breakfast’. But I thought he said, ‘Quick, Surface, Breathless’. I thought he was drowning. But he was just eager for ham and eggs.”
Again, I must say, that is admirable.
“It’s a laugh. When I’m writing, it’s the same thing. I’ll write something that is utter nonsense because I like the sound of the words. Maybe one day I’ll release a record that has all these nonsense lyrics on it.
“I remember trying to explain the beauty of this to a foreign journalist years ago. I was attempting to explain that it had something to do with the way ‘k’ follows ‘h’. Like hk, hk (makes a noise like a frog choking on a boiled sweet). Or the way ‘m’ sometimes follows ‘b’. Like bm, bm (like a small motor car going through a tunnel). I love listening to music in a language I don’t understand. That’s even better than listening to nonsense in English.”
There is a lot of commitment in the air. You are extremely committed to “things” these days. Not that you are about to turn into Joan Baez…
“Sometimes I’m committed to too many different things…”
It’s rare and unfashionable these days. You’ll end up in the Tower you know. What is this thing? A commitment to humanity?
“The humaneness. Tracy Chapman. That’s the reason I’m here. Because I saw something honest and rare and I wanted to share a stage with her. Our songs have a parallel subject matter that doubles our message if we perform together, which we are about to do in The States. It’s not necessarily the lyrical content. It’s just that she gets on stage and sings something she feels deeply. Maybe something abstract, just a melody. She might play three notes on the guitar and those three notes are enough to make me cry. Last night at the Donmar, I started sobbing during one of the introductions to a song. I think it’s incredible she can do that to me. That’s what makes me love music.”
I can understand why people sneer at commitment.
“Maybe they believed in something false and were disappointed. Now they feel foolish if they commit themselves. To believe in anything… it’s like believing in God… a lot of people find it embarrassing to admit.”
People seem to be escaping into their own worlds, creating a fictional space for themselves. People are more interested in re-inventing themselves than saving humanity these days. I understand this. You can go six months without thinking about South Africa. Then you’ll buy some Cape grapes from Safeways and it will get you reading the international section in the paper again. But that can make you feel completely useless and more indifferent than ever. So on and on it goes.
“What can I do about 12-year-old South African boys detained and beaten in prisons for participating in small demonstrations. I can write a letter. I can find someone to send money to. I can talk about it in interviews. But I don’t think I’m an authority on the subject. So I start to feel powerless. I start wondering what I can do today to make the world more pleasant. There’s an old woman walking down the street with five large packages. She’s in pain. It’s very simple. I can walk up to her and ask if she needs help carrying her things home.
“It’s a small gesture but it does a lot more for the world than sitting in a room, crying over that small boy in South Africa. When people start feeling powerless, they should look around themselves. Have they called their grandmother lately? Maybe she’d like them to come over and massage her back because she’s in pain. How about picking up a piece of trash? It’s all so simple. It should be the most natural thing to do.”
You seem in control today. You are looking out at the sky. It’s spring. You might be in control.
“I don’t know. No. No-one’s in control of anything. If I was in control, I could go one year without eating. I think about losing my mind a lot. I get this huge panic that I’m doing something wrong. I’ll get on an aeroplane, get to my assigned seat, put my things in the luggage compartment and think, ‘I’m on the wrong plane! Where am I going? Who arranged this trip? What if they didn’t look at my ticket properly and I’m heading to the wrong country? Now they’re closing the doors! Let me out of here!’ The panic lasts for just a minute, but it goes deep.
“Last night was my first solo performance. I came out and thought, ‘I don’t know how to play the piano! Don’t even try!’ For a second, I was convinced I had no business being in front of these people. I felt I’d made a big mistake. Then I proved that I could do it.”
Things change. Things are changing for you. You are now known.
“Things change. It’s comforting to know that we can change. Then again, people can change for the worse. Like having a friend turn into a junkie.
“Things are changing for 10,000 Maniacs. In My Tribe is nine months old now. I just received a call saying we sold 30,000 records in America this week. We knew it would be a gradual record. Today, we will sell 7,000 albums in America. Four years ago, it would take 12 months to sell that many records. It’s hard to comprehend. I have a distance from that side of things. I try to think of the people. Today, 7,000 people will walk into an American store and walk out with In My Tribe.
“I know it’s precarious. Maybe this is why I won’t indulge in it too much. I know it will end and, in a way, I want it to end. I don’t want to be the centre of anyone’s attention for too long. I don’t think I’ll ever stop it myself. It will just take its natural course. A time will come when it will be apparent that it should stop. I don’t think I’ll panic about it.”
It won’t be through lack of interest…
“Oh no. I’m the most easily amused person. I can sit at the piano and play D-A-C for hours. It thrills me.
“I’ve been looking at this tree and that cloud all this time. The space where the clouds are passing through. I could do that for the entire day. Maybe that’s simple-minded. I lie on this bed and just look at these drapes, the way they fall. Magnificent.”
I should be asking what you’ve been doing. Is there anything unusual?
“I’m in an output stage so I’m not taking much in. It’s spring so I’m distracted by the smell of everything, the way things feel and look. Just watching. Especially coming from a place like Jamestown; it’s been encased in snow for months. This energy! It’s incredible.
“My brother and I are making a film documentary on a woman and her son. Her name is Florence and his name is Ronald. He has Down’s Syndrome. They are both extremely devoted to Jesus Christ and belong to the Fundamentalist Church — The Living Word Tabernacle in Jamestown. Florence plays the organ there and also plays in a Christian polka band called The Chordettes. We made friends with them and started going to their house, just filming them as they talked and performed for us. We’ve got some really good recordings of them, with Ronald playing guitar and singing ‘Hi Fly Away’ in a Down’s Syndrome monotone with this great vibrato at the end. It’s incredible what he can do with his throat. He can’t remember the words but he remembers the melodies.
“The Fundamentalist Church is getting a lot of attention right now. Pat Robertson was running for President. Then there was Jimmy Swaggart… I delight in all that because I think those people get what they deserve. We refer back to the; victims of these people who are just so desperate to believe in something. I was going to say a lot of their clientele. A lot of their congregation is rural and come from a strong Fundamentalist background anyway. Couple that with their love for television and the mystery box that television is. You have the TV evangelist who is almost like the TV magician.”
Is that what you call it? The mystery-box?
“I just made that up, but that’s what it is. It’s very mysterious to people in remote regions. Even for people who live in cities. Now that I’ve been on television, it’s different. I’ve been inside the box so I know what happens.”
You’ve been on The Johnny Carson Show. That’s something.
“He’s King Of The Mystery Box. It’s his kingdom. His show is so established, as regular as the Sunday morning paper comic strip. Thirty million people… at one time! It was like being in the Olympics! We did ‘Don’t Talk’. It was completely live. I was thinking, ‘No-one has sung about this the way I’m singing about it at this moment. I was thinking about 30 million Americans in cosy living-rooms and some in not so cosy living-rooms. I had decided to look at the camera as if I was looking at these people, as if I could see every one of them. It was like this embodiment of America. I wanted to scream at America, so I stared right at the camera with the red flashing light and gave it the most piercing look I could.”
If it was me, I’d have had an attack of hiccups. Or my iron lung would have started playing up.
“Not me! I was actually thinking about the lyric of the song. And how nobody has ever done it the way I was doing it. Even as a kid, I used to think this way. If I jumped off the garden wall and landed on my left foot and there’s an apple in my right hand and an umbrella in my left hand… the idea that I was doing something nobody had done before.”
I can just imagine! No wonder you’re bonkers!
“Or I’d walk up a hill backwards, breaking a twig, singing ‘When The Saints Come Marching In’, knowing I was the first person to ever do it exactly like that. It gave me pleasure because I thought there was so little to do that no-one had done before. But if I do it this way…”
A lot of bad art comes out of this way of thinking.
“Imagine being the man who invented the television though.”
That was my uncle. My uncle Harry! That was his doing!
“Really! No, you’re kidding! Well, imagine! Thinking you’re going to make a box out of which you can see and hear images. He must have thought he was insane. Everyone who knew him must have thought he was insane. Someone told me Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone as an offspring of his attempts to speak to his dead brother. I don’t know if that’s true. I wonder where I heard that.”
You’ll believe anything, you will.
My Uncle Harry didn’t invent the television. It was someone else. Some bloke from Scotland by the name of Baird. My Uncle Harry was a trawlerman. He never even owned a blooming telly the poor ol’ bugger. Times was tough.
WHILE NATALIE Merchant is back in England giving Tracy Chapman’s career one hefty, helpful nudge in the rib-cage, other things are happening. There’s a new 10,000 Maniacs single, already given two loud cheers, a barrel of rum and a Single Of The Week hosanna from one astute Maker ink slinger. It’s called ‘What’s The Matter Here?’ and clever-dicks out there will recognise it as the biggest flea in the large ear-lobe we all know as their third and finest LP, In My Tribe.
Those in the Sutherland camp who dismiss these five lithe angels as no more than “hillbilly pubrock”, will have switched off long ago. I’m not about to get self-righteous about this either. We are right and they are wrong. That’s all. It’s easy. I’m not about to shoe-horn my thigh boots on again and start ranting about In My Tribe and its svelte glory. Representing the Messy Beat Angel chapter of this paper, I spent the second half of 1987 reciting the bleeding rosary and worshipping its every gust and godforsaken gulp. Then what happens? It slumps in at Number 16 in the Maker Vinyl Curtain, with wet cardboard like The Replacements and R.E.M. (even!) more loved.
I have no new adjectives but I might refer the as-yet-unswayed among you to my previous Maniacs screenplay from September (the one with the large court jester obscuring most of my fierce words), where I described their new LP as “the sound of a group fully realising itself… 12 new songs rattling with fever, wish-fulfillment and words that manage to sound, for once, like liberating things… sweet secretions of the imagination… Charlotte Rampling’s voice and Ian MacCulloch’s wig… a lake of latex.” That’s the Reader’s Digest version by the way.
Since then, 10,000 Maniacs have consolidated over here and gone a large boom at home where they’re being taken very seriously indeed. By the time they return to England later this year, their fourth album will be gurgling and preparing to take wing.
“Thanks for making us Single Of The Week! That was nice. I’m not sure about giving Bill Withers a piggy-back ride though.”
It was Barry White actually. Bill is good but not as good as Barry.
“Oooooooohhhh baby baby baby oooooooohhhhh.”
Natalie has just attempted a Barry White impersonation, possibly the beginning of ‘I’m Gonna Love You Just A Little More Baby’. You’ll have to get a bit lower on the register there Natalie…
“Where did you get that image? How about Burl Ives? Is he still alive? I’d be dragging a corpse around on my back wouldn’t I?”
It would be worth it.
“Let me say about the single… it’s just as much the neglect as the physical abuse I’m talking about in this song. ‘Her screams and cussing, I heard ’em every day’. That’s the kind of thing. A large percentage of people in the area where I live are underprivileged and, sometimes, I just want to take these children away from their parents. Often, it’s not even as though the parents are brutalising the children. They just don’t know how to raise them…”
There’s a big difference between a smack and a beating.
“There’s a line between discipline and abuse. Abuse is hidden usually. It’s the kind of thing you hear through a wall. You don’t really see it in the shopping-mall. Some women treat their children in a way where you can tell treatment in private is much worse.
“I wouldn’t say any of the songs moralise though. Little morality plays maybe. The characters are presented, there is dialogue and action but nothing is resolved at the end. It’s left up to whoever is listening to make the decision. I prefer that. I’m not sure I know the moral of some of the things I write about. It’s like conditional prose. I’m in charge of creating the situation. I pick the constraints. I can define the perimeters and, after that, everything happening inside of there is destined to happen in there because I have already determined who is going to be saying what and doing what.”
Is this a life of big turning-points? Or is it more like an ocean? Splash, splash!
“It’s a gradual continuation. It’s the same for this group, 10,000 Maniacs. It’s more promising now. There have been points when it felt like a trap, mostly because no-one was coming to see us. We didn’t have a label deal. We were sleeping on people’s floors and I was changing my clothes in the parking-lot of the club, sleeping in tents at rest-stops.
“The older I get, the more I can ignore the future. I don’t even look forward to old age. I’ve stopped thinking about it. When I was younger, I was terrified of growing old. I told everyone that, when I was 25, I’d commit suicide. It means I’ll be dead next year if that’s still the case.”
You grow ever more silent on the subject of love. Your last reported announcement on the matter amounted to a wry confession that you care more about nuclear arms depots than you do about boys.
“That was just my way of saying that it’s nobody’s business. The readers of NME don’t need to know who I make love to, how I make love to them and how I feel afterward. That seems like a real private thing. I don’t want to reveal those things to anyone, not even my lovers. It’s just private.”
What are the sacred things?
“The natural world — animals, plants, the air, the sky… I don’t want to sound like a hippy guru. It’s true though. The natural world is the sacred world.”
Maybe, to most, you do sound like a Sixties child or whatever these things are called. Today, though, you seem quite wary of floating off.
(Laughs). “Yeah, that’s true. It’s a cynical musical world most of the time. A lot of people might not understand what I’m saying. There goes an aeroplane! Spewing exhaust fumes into the environment. There’s a hole being burnt into the ozone the size of my country. I happen to think that’s a sin. The natural world is perfect, regenerating constantly. We are the only creatures who have been able to disrupt it beyond repair.”
These days, they think they can explain everything away. Everything from an orgasm to a dimple has an explanation these days.
“Someone told me that dimples happen when your mother sleeps on a pillow with marbles in it when she’s carrying you. Don’t change that for me!”
Well, that’s what I believed up to yesterday. Then I read that dimples are caused by the adherence of the skin to deeper tissues. Ruined my entire day!
“I wish you hadn’t told me that. To discover more about exotic animals, we either have to trap them and keep them in captivity or else kill them and take them apart. Now we understand the gibbon!
“I wear glasses. I have weak eyesight. Well, I’m supposed to wear glasses. Perfect vision seems like a fascistic concept. I don’t think I want everything to be in focus all the time. It’s like the idea of having a hearing-aid and turning it down when someone’s talking to you and you don’t like the tone of their voice. I just take off my glasses.”
What were you thinking when you said that?
“I was thinking about escalators. I like taking escalators. When I was a kid, we used to go down to the big department store in town, the one that had an escalator and an elevator. We’d take the escalator up and the elevator down, the escalator up and the elevator down… until these old women would kick us out.”
That might explain a lot about you.
“Then we’d spit down the staircase. Not onto people! Not if we could help it. It had one of those bannisters that went back and forth so there was this little space to spit into. You could stand on the top floor, the fifth floor, and spit all the way down. It would fall on the tiles and make this marvelous wet noise.”
What will you be thinking about for the rest of the day? Outer space?
“Not outer space. I’ve been thinking about babies a lot. How they happen and how they grow. When I look at grown people, I can’t help wondering that, at one time, we have all been the size of our heads. Our entire bodies could have been compressed into our heads, in a tiny ball. Floating in our heads or in our stomachs.”
We might need a moral to finish off.
“If it’s ugly, face up to it. If it’s beautiful, accentuate it. It always works for me. Every time something bad happens, you have to turn it into something good. People should become comfortable with change. It’s the only constant thing. Even the sun has moved since we started sitting here. The water in the bottle is gone. I can’t get upset about these things. I can get another bottle of water and, tomorrow, the sun will be in the same place. But I won’t be here tomorrow. I’ll be gone.”
You’ll be on a big plane.
“… And that’s fine too. I move around a lot. I still like it.” You still should.
© Jon Wilde, Melody Maker, 23 April 1988