• Old 'Stache

Returning to In My Tribe: 10,000 Maniacs’ Best Record

written by: on September 28, 2011

For the group 10,000 Maniacs, whose moniker allegedly was inspired by the B horror movie “Two Thousand Maniacs!,” In My Tribe was to be in many ways a make-or-break record.  Distinguished by the trebly alto vocals of lead singer Natalie Merchant and a lush, orchestral sound built upon the keyboard bed of Dennis Drew, the jangly guitar of Robert Buck (whose only relation to R.E.M.’s Peter Buck was inspirational), the snap-crackle pop rhythms of Jerry Augustyniak and the unfussy workmanlike bass of Steven Gustafson, it was their first record done without founding member John Lombardo, who had been an elder statesman of the local scene and co-writer on many of their early songs.

In addition, their 1985 Elektra debut, The Wishing Chair, although critically acclaimed, had not generated significant sales. Despite opening for underground favorites R.E.M. and The Cure, the end of each tour found the band deeper in debt. During an especially hot summer touring in 1986, Lombardo quit the band because of differences with the other members. After five years of trying to make the band a success and being one of its primary forces, he had had enough. Lombardo had given up, but the band continued to tour.

Recorded in the spring of 1987, the pairing of producer Peter Asher—who had worked with Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor—and 10,000 Maniacs was a perfect match. The previous record had sounded thin and tinny by comparison, so Asher worked his production magic to craft a full, rich sound. Although folk still is clearly an inspiration in the compositions, the electrified instrumentation, fleshed-out mix and leisurely pace of the majority of the songs anticipates what would become adult alternative radio.

But success of the record was by no means a sure thing, and Elektra chief Bob Krasnow really wanted the first single from In My Tribe to be a hit. Given Merchant’s penchant for left-leaning causes, the label pressured the group to record a cover of Cat Stevens’ “Peace Train” so that could be the first single to launch the record. The single failed to chart, and in 1989, when Stevens (now known as Yusuf Islam) made remarks interpreted to favor the fatwah against author Salman Rushdie for his novel The Satanic Verses, Merchant and the band campaigned successfully to have the track removed from future versions of the release.

The artwork on the album cover featured a 1950s-60s era photograph of children, presumably at summer camp, lining up their archery bows and arrows at targets off camera.  Of course, all of the children are caucasian; they have co-opted a survival method of Native Americans and turned it into a recreational activity, a frivolous practice of leisure as opposed to an essential skill of the hunter-gatherer life.  By framing the record as In My Tribe, Merchant and the Maniacs are juxtaposing the tribal imagery with their ironic position.

In other words, this is white people’s blues, and the record supplies 12 takes on various issues, with lyrics penned by Merchant for the most part. It’s masked in such sunny compositions and bright- and warm-sounding arrangements that unless the listener pays close attention to the lyrics, the dark messages conveyed are lost.

It’s telling that, like other lyrically focused records such as Los Campesinos’ We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed and The Weakerthans’ Reconstruction Site, the lyrics on the record jacket are reprinted like short stories or chapters in a novel.

The record kicks off with the slap-shot rat-a-tat of “What’s The Matter Here?,” an inquiry about a neighborhood child who is clearly the victim of physical and emotional abuse. On each chorus, Merchant’s alto ratchets up the passion, from, “I’m tired of the excuses everybody uses/He’s their kid I stay out of it/But who gave you the right to do this?” to, “He’s your kid/Do as you see fit/But get this through that I don’t approve of what you did to your own flesh and blood,” to finally, “All these cold and rude things that you do I suppose you do because he belongs to you and instead of love, [and] the feel of warmth, you’ve given him these cuts and sores that don’t heal with time or with age.”

And then finally, the dénouement: “I want to say, ‘What’s the matter here?’ But I don’t dare say.” That Merchant’s narrator in the song gives up, and doesn’t report this to anyone is a fact that gets lost in the narrative at the end, but it’s the most cutting indictment of all. She protests so much, but she doesn’t do anything about it.  The graphic imagery of the “kid half-naked” “looking for a place to hide,” the threats such as, “If you don’t mind, I will beat on your behind,” and, “I’ll take this belt from around my waist and don’t you think that I won’t use it!,” the “cuts and sores,” are all inflicted with no consequences to the abusers, and the narrator wimps out in the end.

Thankfully, the record steps back from its darker themes on the second and third tracks, “Hey Jack Kerouac” and what would become their breakthrough hit, “Like the Weather.”

On “Kerouac,” Merchant essays a meditation on the beat poets, their impact on their families and the culture at the time, and the legacy they left behind. The first verse serves as a salute to Kerouac and mourning for the loss that Merchant’s mother felt upon his premature departure (physically and emotionally). He chose his “words from the mouths of babes got lost in the wood/The hip flask slinging madmen/Steaming café flirts/Nights in Chinatown/Howling at night.”

The “howling” is clearly an allusion to Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” for on the next verse, Merchant sings, “Allen baby, why so jaded?  Have the boys all grown up and their beauty faded?”  She continues with a reference to William S. Burroughs and the notorious shooting death of his wife in Mexico (for which he was found not guilty) and which allegedly triggered much of his writing career and cemented his legendary status:  “Billy, what a saint they’ve made you, just like Mary down in Mexico on All Soul’s Day.” In the end, it proves to be a requiem for The Beat Generation: “What a tear-stained shock of the world,” Merchant sings, “You’ve gone away without saying goodbye.”

“Like the Weather,” the second single from the record, ultimately peaked at No. 37 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock Chart and No. 68 on the Hot 100. It eventually propelled the album to platinum status (it took almost a year to go gold and took more than two years to go platinum, in August 1989). It starts with Drew’s vibrato organ bed and the simplistic reggae guitar lilt of Buck’s ascending notes. Punctuated by Augustyniak’s rifle shot rhythms (although Asher allegedly made him play with a “click-track” to tighten the beats), it’s a paean to laziness and lack of motivation at the prospect of gloomy weather and “coal grey” skies.

The music video, which was played frequently on MTV, most prominently on the alternative show “120 Minutes,” was the first exposure that many Americans had to the group. It featured Merchant’s whirling dervish dance moves, a whirlwind of leaves blowing through her brunette bob haircut, and a house decorated with modern art at turns Wassily Kandinsky- and Salvador Dalí-esque. Throughout, silhouettes of the other band members are interspersed, but there’s no question that this is Merchant’s moment in the raincloud. She lipsyncs and alternates thrift-store babydoll dresses like a champ, despite saying later that the shoot was a miserable experience, most notably because the set people hadn’t filtered the bugs out of the leaf matter and hay that was being blown around her throughout. No doubt she would have rather spent the shoot in her “four-poster dull torpor” that would be pulling her “downward.”

In some ways, it’s telling that the biggest “hit” from the record was the song that had the least serious theme—even the bubbly “My Sister Rose” concerns a family’s rite of passage and a celebration of marriage.

Aside from the child abuse and historical cultural phenomena already addressed, other cuts addressed adult illiteracy (“Cherry Tree”), alcoholism (the simmering “Don’t Talk”), joining the military (“Gun Shy”), environmental destruction (“A Campfire Song,” which featured call and response vocals from R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe), and homelessness (“City of Angels,” inspired by Merchant’s time in Los Angeles during the recording process).

Next year is the 25th anniversary of In My Tribe, but will it get the same treatment as R.E.M.’s Lifes Rich Pageant did this year, upon its 25th anniversary? It’s their best, end to end, despite the folksy passion of The Wishing Chair, the dark, brooding intensity of Blind Man’s Zoo, or the pop confections included on their final proper album, Our Time in Eden.

But 10,000 Maniacs today are best known as the band that Merchant used to front before embarking on a solo career, and few are cognizant that the band is still around. Not only that, the group still includes bassist Gustafson, keyboardist Drew, and drummer Augustyniak from the In My Tribe lineup. Lombardo, who once said that seeing the band after his departure was like running into an old friend who had since won the lottery, rejoined on guitar and contributed to songwriting. He and Mary Ramsey, who plays viola and sings for the Maniacs now, used to be a folk duo that released records and opened for the touring 10,000 years ago.

Guitarist and songwriter Buck died of acute liver disease at age 42 in 2000, and Lombardo exited the band again in 2002. The group returned to touring the next year with former guitar tech Jeff Erickson on lead guitar, and they still play live. (This summer, they played a street fest in the Chicago suburb of Des Plaines.) Today’s version of 10,000 Maniacs started recording in January and planned to have a new record commemorating their 30th anniversary this year, to be released on indie Ruby Right Wristwatch Records.

Merchant, meanwhile, has had her own successful solo career on Elektra (and eventually married an Elektra executive).  Listen To Me, a tribute to Buddy Holly (released to coincide with what would have been his 75th birthday) features Merchant singing a version of his “True Love Ways.” The collection was produced by Asher, who as part of Peter and Gordon had covered the track in 1965, and also includes Linda Ronstadt’s 1975 Asher-produced “That’ll Be The Day” and a contribution from the band Cobra Starship, a member of which is his daughter, Victoria.

In fact, the simple piano and string arrangements that support the bittersweet sadness of Merchant’s delivery and the Holly’s innocent but eloquent lyrics in many ways echoes the delicate sadness of the track that provides In My Tribe’s coda. The extraordinary end of summer feel of her exquisite “Verdi Cries,” with its specific imagery of the elderly man in the next room listening to the score of Aida and her powerful unadorned alto, closes the record with the simplest laments of “Oh, no, no, no.”  Yet in the next scene she “draws a jackal-headed woman in the sand” and washes the sand from her hands in the sea, like the years being whisked away by the waves.

 10,000 Maniacs – In My Tribe Tracklist:

  1. “What’s the Matter Here?”
  2. “Hey Jack Kerouac”
  3. “Like the Weather”
  4. “Cherry Tree”
  5. “The Painted Desert”
  6. “Don’t Talk”
  7. “Gun Shy”
  8. “My Sister Rose”
  9. “A Campfire Song”
  10. “City of Angels”
  11. “Verdi Cries”