Rock & Roll Acid Test: 10,000 Maniacs

TURNING POINTS in the history of rock ‘n’ roll are moments frozen into the souls of those who witness them. Up in the Northeast Tundra Country, where the state of New York merges with Pennsylvania and from October to May feels like Canada, bands rise up from the great vast nowhere with their hands deep in their pockets and cover the night with tears on the wind.

At a place called Molly B’s in Erie, PA, on February 27, 1981, such a moment occurred, but few in the crowd sensed the historical import of the occasion, except for the Jamestown, New York band in question, known then as Still Life, opening that night for the Ex-Whites and Giraffe.

“Rob, Dennis, Natalie and I practiced for about three weeks,” their bass player, Steven, related. “We wrote about five or six songs, all about 12 minutes long — no beginning, no ending, a lot of feedback. After the set, Natalie and this other girl started fooling around on the dance floor and the owner didn’t like it. Our drummer was sitting at a table and there wasn’t an ashtray so he flipped his cigarette out onto the dancefloor, and the owner, who was this big greasy haired man, came over and started yelling about that. And then Rob’s wife, who was in the band, stood up and tried to reason with the guy, and he yelled some four letter words at her. Dennis stood up and said them back to the guy and he eventually chased Dennis out the front door with a big leather blackjack. We threw our equipment out the back door and as we drove off I smashed Dennis’s car into this marble bench. We were all laughing; it was like, the Sex Pistols would have been proud of us.”

Not quite the stuff of grungy documentaries, this inauspicious debut would nevertheless fuel enough fantasies to warm the edges off the Jamestown winter, and if reciprocity was denied the members of Still Life there and later, they could always nestle in the soothing heat of Natalie Merchant’s voice and recall the molten sparks of the day short months before, when she walked into their lives. They were only collegiate musicians then, Steven Gustafson, Robert Buck, Dennis Drew and the rest, playacting Tom Wolfe’s candy-colored vision of hip in the frozen landscape when this songbird opened her mouth and the world dropped out. She was 16 years old.

“I met her at the college radio station and just thought she was a very strange young girl,” Steven Gustafson continued. “She was probably the strangest person in Jamestown who was still coherent. I was booking Rob’s band for our little new wave coffee house. We’d rented this warehouse, this cool looking place no one knew about, and we’d throw parties to pay the rent, and I said, ‘Natalie, we’re just going to have a little party and play and make some noise. Why don’t you come down and sing?’ She had a magnetism then and she didn’t even know it. She’d have to sneak out of her house at night ’cause her mother didn’t want her hanging out with the likes of us. Then we started booking ourselves gigs at the local dives and Natalie would come down and sing and there’d be a couple of hundred people there, slam dancing and stuff, and her mother would come in and drag her out. In those gigs we had plants hanging from the ceiling and movies. I’d just read Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and we were trying to be as strange as possible.”

Up in Tundra Country the tides of fashion take as long to reach the citizenry as the forlorn wisps of a forgotten spring. The cats and kitties of these frozen towns are so mouldered in their musical perversions that not even an event so momentous as Still Life officially becoming 10,000 Maniacs, at a Christmas dance at Fredonia State, somewhere out in the wilds where skiing home from school without your shoes on is just another sock hop, was enough to stir their fermented juices.

“We’d play a set and when we were done they’d all get up and play Christmas music, like Bing Crosby, and big band stuff, and the kids would dance,” said Steven. “The guys were in their tuxes and the girls were in their gowns in the big cafeteria, and boy, they hated us.”

Seven years and many miracles later, the band behind Natalie Merchant’s voice, and the collaborating musicians behind the tone poems that are the songs she creates, has spun out into a world much bigger and warmer than their dreams. Opening for musical brethren like R.E.M. and the Cure, their guitarist, Robert Buck (no relation to R.E.M.’s guitarist, Peter) marvelled at the stage onto which the Maniacs had just ascended.

“Things get much larger than life physically,” he said. “I find the need to actually push more air. We’d never played that loud, or had to. It’s really difficult to project just because you feel so small inside that big hall. Also people are still getting to their seats, talking, milling around. I’m a pretty quiet player and I’ve needed to be much more aware of monitor mixes, which we learned about in the last couple of years. That’s a real key factor to sounding good on a large stage. Even in a big place there’s a difference, even if it’s your own equipment. The room does affect the sound and from night to night you have to change things, like reverb. After those 16-18 dates with R.E.M. we went back to England and it was back to the real world. The sound changed drastically.”

“When you’re in a club and people are right on top of you, it’s like, whoa, get back,” Steven added. “In England the people were nuts; they were slam dancing to our music; the crowds were crushed up against the stage every night and they were pulling people out of the front of the audience. There’s definitely less pressure as an opening act in an arena. But I enjoy the rather expansive and epic nature of a large environment, beyond all the people who are there, because it’s best if you can’t even tell if anyone is there. You look around and realize how huge the whole thing is — that’s exciting. I kind of rely on the feedback from the crowd, some excitement really gets me going and helps my confidence and helps me relax and I don’t have to think about playing so much; I can just play.”

From a history rife with as many false starts, management snafus, revolving drummers and other assorted internal misadventures as the typical Everyband, the men and women of 10,000 Maniacs have evolved into a sterling machine, as glittering as a snowflake. Epitomizing their determination to find in defeat the seeds of victory at every turn is their chameleonic adjustment from set-less, free-form bohemian improvisers, into a drum tight working musical unit when their elder statesmen, John Lombardo, rhythm guitarist, left them.

“When you think about losing someone like him, you’d think everyone would have to cover more space, but that isn’t true,” Rob explained. “Instead of being able to loosen up we found that we had to tighten up in every aspect and simplify things more. Now that I’m the only guitar player, I have a much stricter role to play in the band, to hold down a real rhythmic sense in the string section. I think it’s a really good thing to learn to do it; it’s really been a help in developing a style, to hear things and to be able to play rhythmically with a certain voice as well. To voice a C chord and an E chord in your own way and not just play it sort of standard; that’s where you really learn a lot about how to stack chords. There’s usually one song a set where I go wild; it’s kind of funny because nowadays it feels almost foreign.”

Their second album for a major label, In My Tribe, produced by Peter Asher, certainly represents an instrumental and compositional coming of age for Robert Buck. “Peter Asher kept things very subdued as far as the guitar sounds,” said Buck. “He simplified things a lot.” Supplied on the album by a Gibson Sonax Artist and a Hamer prototype, those guitar sounds were the propelling force behind Natalie Merchant’s epic winsome folky vision, swirling tone poems called ‘Hey Jack Kerouac’, ‘What’s the Matter Here’, ‘City of Angels’ and ‘Cherry Tree’, on which Buck served as her co-writer.

“Generally, our songs always start with the music,” he said. “Natalie will start to sing, making noises instead of words. She’ll find a melody, and as we start to play, things will start to change a little around the arrangement. So we all pick up on a certain melody and accentuate it. Eventually she works it into actual lyrics. She starts with tones and finds the lyric, the subject, and then finds words that will match a lot of those tones. So it almost starts as a tone poem and then goes into lyrics. I certainly put a lot more time into writing songs for this last record than I did figuring out guitar parts. But I wrote the songs with the guitar in mind. I didn’t have any solo things in mind when I went into the studio; I knew all the chords I was going to play, I knew how I phrased them, and I knew the songs. I found that role to be just as enjoyable as learning a new arpeggio or something.”

From the inspirational school of songwriting, Buck claims as his earliest model his grandmother, who received her songs straight from the central Source. “She’d get up in the middle of the night and write at the piano and she’d wake me up and bring me downstairs and go, ‘Jesus just gave me this song in my sleep’ and she’d explain how the angels came to her and gave her these chords and sang it for her. I’ve been playing since I was 5 years old. I took lessons for a long time and I used to sing in church. I never wrote songs until I was in my 20s, but I knew how to play the instrument fairly well when I started. As a kid all my learning was basically songs. I used to go to teachers and they’d teach me pop songs, country songs, whatever I wanted to learn.” His grandmother’s mysticism has remained as a constant humbler. “You learn the craft of refining those raw products, but it’s certainly out there. Like one day you play a D chord and you go, ‘Yeah,’ where it was never there before. For me it’s a matter of hanging out, spending actual time sitting with the instrument and just waiting for something to happen.”

While he waits, he listens, and not only to the startling voice of Natalie Merchant. “I think James Honeyman-Scott is a great pop guitarist; Billy Gibbons has a grabbing style. I liked Andy Taylor on the Robert Palmer single, ‘Addicted to Love’. I like bluegrass players like Bill Monroe. I’ve been listening to a lot of pedal steel players lately and horn players. At points I try to get tones like some singles I have by these great African guitar players.”

Like his influences, Buck’s guitars are the selections of a confirmed individualist. “I use the Robin Ranger and I really like them now; they’ve kind of replaced the Gibson, which was my standard guitar for years. I’m pretty picky and I don’t usually like the standard type Fender or Gibson; that’s why the Gibson I have is very odd looking, silver and gun metal gray. The Hamer is gun metal gray and the Robins are pretty basic guitars, too. I never tried to imitate any other guitar players when I was growing up. I never learned a Rolling Stones song or a Led Zeppelin tune or anything like that. I always knew that the only way to have my own voice was to try and sound like myself and not like anyone else. I knew I couldn’t be as good on anyone else’s terms; I had to make my own terms.”

And so, in their decidedly unslick fashion, have 10,000 Maniacs. And certainly not in their wildest midwinter fantasies could they have conjured a recent scenario of back to back showcases on the cream of NBC’s televised nightlife, one week on Carson, the next on Letterman, that would effectively rescue In My Tribe from the lower ledge of album chart obscurity, breathing new life into the band’s current tour and future prospects. Purists may deride such conspiracies of the fates as selling out; the Maniacs are cosmic enough to know that selling out these days is just another term for buying in.

“In the beginning we almost made up our own kind of big plan, even though it changed every inch of the way and we changed with it,” said Steven. “We had friends in Atlanta who said they could get us a lot of bookings, so we went there in the winter of ’82 for a few months. Some friends rented a little house and we slept on floors and played a handful of gigs and it was miserable and we went right home. We knew there was no way we could move to New York City and live without having to get jobs. So we said, ‘We’re just going to have to tour.’ We’d had a couple of independent records that we made at the university near us for $500; we pressed up 1,000 copies each and stuck them in the back of the van and hit the road, booked all the dates ourselves, slept on people’s floors. On one tour we took a big seven man tent with us and used that. We were like a band of migrant musicians going where the weather suits our clothes. We got some financial backing from our families and went to England in September of 1984 and played three shows in London and got pretty good reviews. In those days we were always looking for the ultimate set. The set would change all the time and we were always arguing about playing setless. In our songs there was no structure either; it was just sort of a couple of chords, Natalie had a verse/chorus sort of thing and Rob could definitely go nuts. When we came back from England in November, Elektra offered us the contract.”

When you see them on the big stages these days, taking a break from clubland, and looking a little lost up there mingling with the ghosts of Bloomfield, Hendrix and Rhoads among the Marshall stacks, you know there’s little doubt these 10,000 Maniacs will remain faithful to their singular vision. The songs may be tighter, more tunefully accessible, but at heart they’ll always be true blue Tundra kids, just muk-lucking out. This year, for the first time, they hired a road crew. They paid them more than they paid themselves. Which is why, when all is said and done, as folksy and pristine as is their sound, with backwoodsy and wallflowery Natalie surrounded by these sometimes smalltown, somewhat artsy guys, who are still kicking the dirt with their shoes, the Sex Pistols would still be proud of them, wherever they are.

“A lot of kids from my high school got factory jobs,” Rob Buck recalled, an old factory hand himself, who left a job making windows to play music. “I used to think, boy, if I could just make as much money playing in a band as I would if I had to work in a factory, I’d be a very happy person.” Nothing much has happened since to change his mind, “I could live with that,” he reaffirmed.

© Bruce PollockGuitar, May 1988

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