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wishing chairI can thank the band Translator for introducing me, indirectly, to 10,000 Maniacs. It was the summer of 1985 and I had just moved to Washington, D.C., to work for a magazine there. I was sitting at home in my basement apartment one weekend evening listening to the radio when WHFS played Translator’s “Everywhere That I’m Not.” I liked that song. I liked it a lot. Hearing it gave me an itch to go see some live music. I grabbed my copy of City Paper and saw that a band called 10,000 Maniacs was playing at the 9:30 Club. Probably a punky, high-energy ensemble, I thought, so I called up the art director from the magazine, one of the few people I knew in town, to see if he was interested in checking them out. He was.

The name notwithstanding, 10,000 Maniacs turned out to be not punky at all. The lead singer looked a hippie chick. She wore some kind of white muumuu thing, like Zippy the Pinhead’s but without the polka dots. She had hair down to her ass and often did this awkward whirling dervish spin when she wasn’t singing. She had a clear but throaty and very beautiful voice like nothing I had heard before. She was, of course Natalie Merchant. The band behind her was excellent, too, especially lead guitarist Robert Buck, who looked something like a portly English squire but, to quote Chuck Berry, played the guitar like ringing a bell. But the thing that really knocked us out was the lead singer. That voice had star quality written all over it.

Back at work on Monday I called Elektra Records to request a review copy of The Wishing Chair, the band’s major-label debut, which was just being released. The album was produced by Joe Boyd, who also did work with Richard Thompson (and recently wrote an excellent book about his life in music called White Bicycles. Check it out.) I don’t have The Wishing Chair in digital form so it’s not on my iPod, but I do have their next album, In My Tribe. The other day “The Painted Desert,” one of the songs from that album, popped up as I walked and it got me thinking about the band.

in my tribeIn My Tribe is a good album but you can sense the heavy hand of the record company at work. Boyd was gone, replaced by Peter Asher (of Peter and Gordon fame). Gone, too, were most of the folky influences of The Wishing Chair. In My Tribe sounds cleaned up, buffed down, and polished. By the time the album came out Merchant had a completely new image, too. Instead of a muumuu she was wearing what looked like business clothes and pearls. Her hair was bobbed. Singer and band had obviously been worked over by the star-making machinery behind the popular song. Still, In My Tribe had a bunch of great songs, including “Hey Jack Kerouac,” “Like the Weather,” and “Don’t Talk” (the latter featuring some great chiming guitar by Buck).

There was also “What’s the Matter Here?” which led to a snarky review in Rolling Stone that still makes me snicker. The reviewer said, and I quote from memory, “In ‘What’s the Matter Here?’ the Maniacs take a stand on child abuse. They’re against it.” Indeed, Merchant could display an irritating knack for self-righteousness. I recall another writer remarking how all the injustice in the world made Merchant mad enough to stamp her slippered feet. There was also a story making the rounds—and I can’t vouch for its veracity—that the Maniacs once did a show at an aquarium to support animal rights, but the volume from their speakers killed fish in the tanks.

As a Steely Dan fan I’m hardly someone who can complain about studio polish. Still, as much as I like In My Tribe, it was missing something. I think I bought the next album, Blind Man’s Zoo, but I never got My Time in Eden until I recently found it in the library. Merchant left the band after that album. I never really followed her solo career. As much as I like her voice, I like it a lot more with Robert Buck’s guitar behind it. I didn’t hear much from 10,000 Maniacs after Merchant left, except for a nice cover of Roxy Music’s “More Than This” recorded with a new vocalist. Sadly, Robert Buck died not too long ago of liver failure.

Come to think of it, I haven’t heard much about Translator, either. But on those rare occasions when “Everywhere That I’m Not” comes over the radio it still makes me want to hear some live music. And it still makes me think of 10,000 Maniacs.



June 2013
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