The Maniacs and Me

It’s not unreasonable to say the story starts with Michael Stipe.

Maybe, though, it’s more accurate to say it begins with Stacey’s admiration of REM. It was probably sometime in the spring of 85 that Stacey began playing them for James and me in our dorm room, almost certainly Reckoning. Fables of the Reconstruction came out that summer, and “Can’t Get There From Here” actually got some radio play. I don’t remember exactly why I didn’t go along with James, Stacey, and the others (who else went?) to see them play Memorial Coliseum that November. Perhaps I was caught up in the fog of my own world around that time–I had been going through a short arc of dating. What I do recall is my friends’ description of the lead singer for the opening act.

“You should have seen her up there on the stage, dancing and flailing around!” “She looked just like Maura!” (Not the real name–it was a reference was to one of our classmates, the daughter of a faculty member.)

Such was my introduction to Natalie Merchant and 10,000 Maniacs.

Not long after I began atoning for the sin I’d committed of ignoring Stipe and Co. to that point. I bought Fables as part of a Columbia House membership in the summer of 86; a copy of Lifes Rich Pageant came my way that fall by being the right caller to a radio station soon after I moved to Illinois; a friend put their first two albums on a tape for me in spring 87; I saw them in concert at the Assembly Hall in Champaign in fall 87 as part of the Document tour.

And right around the time Document was released, they showed back up. I’d pretty much forgotten the whole Maura look-alike thing, but all it took to bring it back was seeing the name of the band. It was my first fall of teaching, a couple of recitation sections of Calculus I on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Afterwards I’d often stroll over to Record Service, THE place on campus to buy new music. They loved to promote recent releases over their in-house system. I have to believe that was how I first heard pieces of In My Tribe (released 30 years ago today). Yes, VH-1 was also playing their now-shunned cover of “Peace Train” around this time, but it would have been at “the Service” that I wound up captivated and practically willed to purchase the LP.

It was impossible for me not to try to mimic Merchant’s vocal inflections as those twelve songs became embedded in my consciousness (I still do it–I’ve had the chance to sing along to “What’s the Matter Here?” and “Hey Jack Kerouac” on the radio in the last few months). I was also struck by the presentation of the lyrics to Tribe, written in prose form (maybe pretentious, but I found it darn effective, as well as true to their spirit).

Reviews of Tribe regularly noted the discipline imposed on the Maniacs by producer Peter Asher. I found out what they meant when I bought The Wishing Chair, the release they’d been supporting in 85. It’s a solid disk, assuming they’re your cup of tea, but truth be told the playing isn’t all that tight, and Natalie sometimes wails away (at times you can practically visualize the writhing my friends witnessed). There are some fine moments, though: “Lilydale” is a charming tale of two friends strolling around a cemetery (it came to mind when I was recently searching for the mathematician David Hilbert’s grave in Göttingen, Germany), and “Scorpio Rising” hints at Merchant’s developing eye/ear for capturing tense relationships.

(Aside: Joe Boyd of Fairport Convention produced both Fables and Chair in London in early 85–makes me think this is how the two groups came to tour together that fall.)

Blind Man’s Zoo came out in 89 and they re-released their pre-Elektra recordings as Hope Chest in 90. Zoo, also produced by Asher, wasn’t as good as Tribe, but that was no real surprise–it might have been more of one if it had been better. Zoo is most notable on a personal level for having been one of the CDs I played on Halloween night, 2000, the day before my son was born–the last time Martha was “eating for two.” (Insert smiling emoji.)

In Fall 90 I was faced with a big dilemma. Toby and Karl were after me to see ZZ Top in Peoria with a few other friends. That same night, the Maniacs were scheduled to appear in Bloomington/Normal; Greg offered to go with me. What to do?

The Top show was pretty good (Greg still gives me grief about my choice). The most memorable thing about the evening, however, was the introduction of the phrase “administer the bird” to our group’s lexicon after I saw Jay flipping off the driver of a car that cut us off as we were trying to get out of the parking lot (“Jay, did you just…?”). “Administering” got a lot of mileage in our bridge conversations after that (it became a synonym for doubling a contract). But of course I’d blown my second chance to see the Maniacs perform.

By the time Our Time in Eden was released in fall 92, I had started my job at Georgetown. While I don’t love it quite the way I do Tribe, Eden is every bit as good, maybe better. Merchant’s lyrics and vocals are fully mature now, and the band feels both focused and confident.

Jay and his sweetheart Michelle got married in New Mexico in June 93. I rode out and back from St. Louis with Greg, Katie, and Karl, and it just so happened that the day after we returned, you-know-who was appearing in an outdoor venue just outside Nashville. My college friend Jim lived in Murfreesboro and we made arrangements to meet up. We didn’t sit particularly close, but at last I was there!

Just in time, too. After the tour ended, Natalie announced she was going solo. Somewhat anti-climactically, the “posthumous” Unplugged album produced their first Top 40 hit. Merchant enjoyed pretty strong success with her solo debut Tigerlily in 95. The group, meanwhile, brought back John Lombardo, who’d left before Chair and recruited Mary Ramsey as vocalist; they had a #25 hit with a cover of Roxy Music’s “More Than This” in 97. To me, however, it was never the same post-Eden (hmm…that feels like a sentence that could be applied elsewhere).

But.

As Jim and I were waiting for that Nashville show to begin, we caught a buzz from folks nearby that the vocalist for one of the biggest groups around would be making an appearance that night. Right, I thought–why should he show up? It’s true that he did a guest turn on one of the songs on Tribe, but still…

The show was great; they played many of their songs I really wanted to hear. For the first encore, someone–I never figured out who it was–came on stage and joined Natalie for a fine duet of “Dallas.” Could it have been Jimmie Dale Gilmore, who wrote it? I wouldn’t be aware of him and his music until a little while later, so I wouldn’t have recognized him if it were he. Natalie did pair up with David Byrne for a version of it as part of their Unplugged show, but I’m pretty certain I would have sussed him out.

It was the second encore that proved the whisperers correct. The rumored one came out and he and Natalie sang two songs together. I don’t remember now what they did first, but the second was unforgettable: “Because the Night.” Months before Unplugged came out and the version on it became the single that hit #11. Honestly one of the most magical concert moments of my life.

Yeah, I guess it’s not unreasonable to say that the story ends with Michael Stipe, too.

3 thoughts on “The Maniacs and Me”

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