These Are Days

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I got to see 10,000 Maniacs (sans Natalie Merchant) perform at City Winery this week in celebration of the 25th anniversary of their breakthrough album, In My Tribe.  They’re one of my favorite bands of all time, In My Tribe is one of my favorite desert island CDs and City Winery is one of my favorite venues in New York City.  (The place only holds a couple hundred people and they serve piquant Pinot Grigio and sumptuous fried-risotto-shrimp-ball thingies.  What’s not to love?)  Original band members Jerry Augustyniak (drums), Dennis Drew (keyboards) and Steve Gustafson (bass) were joined by Jeff Erickson (lead guitar) and Mary Ramsey (vocals) for an inspired set that included their greatest hits of the past quarter century and some amazing covers, like Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall Pt. 2” and The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven.”  It was… just like heaven.

Hearing all of those great songs took me back to the first time I saw the band live.  I was 23 and visiting New York City for the very first time.  My buddy Andy and I came to the Big Apple to hang out with three friends from college — Boomer, Paul and Maria — who were teaching high school here.  I somehow managed to score tickets to the dress rehearsal of Saturday Night Live on February 27, 1988.  (I also somehow managed to score tickets to Cats, but I tend to block out that little tidbit.)  The host of SNL that night was Judge Reinhold, he of Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Beverly Hills Cop fame.  And the musical guests were 10,000 Maniacs.  My pals and I cracked up when we found out that this band we’d never actually heard — but whose name we had mocked our senior year — was going to be gracing the stage at NBC’s famed Studio 8H in Rockefeller Center.

Here’s the deal:  Because of their name, we assumed that 10,000 Maniacs was a hardcore alternative/punk band along the lines of the Dead Kennedys or the Butthole Surfers.  The really hipster kids in college listened to 10,000 Maniac’s 1985 release, The Wishing Chair.  On vinyl.  I was not one of those kids.  We mocked the likes of our friend Peggy for loving crazy-named bands, and 10,000 Maniacs was the prime example.  Although I had embraced R.E.M. and XTC at that point, I had not quite evolved into the alternative rock fan I would become.  I mean, I still had some Lionel Richie and Mr. Mister in my record collection.

Waiting in line to see SNL that night, I saw a cute girl in a white blouse, blue skirt, white tights and black chunky shoes (it  was 1988)  who smiled at us before ducking into a stage door.  I assumed she was part of the NBC page program.   It wasn’t until the band came out to perform that I realized that this was, in fact, Natalie Merchant, lead singer of 10,000 Maniacs.  They sang two songs — “Like the Weather” and “What’s the Matter Here” — and I was hooked for life.

10,000 Maniacs performed at the Vic Theater in Chicago that spring and I got to attend with some good pals from work.  Their opening act was some chick we had never heard of, so we decided to get pizza instead of suffering through the musical stylings of some wannabe, timing it so we’d stroll into the show just as Natalie Merchant and company were taking the stage.  But the pizza was devoured quickly and the show started late, so we walked in just as the opening act started to strum her guitar for her first song.  Her name was Tracy Chapman.  You could have heard a pin drop as she performed soon-to-be hits “Fast Car” and “Talkin’ ’bout a Revolution.”  Tracy came back out during 10,000 Maniac’s encore and sang an a cappella duet with Natalie. (Sadly, I can’t remember what the song was.)   To this day it remains one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen.  (BTW, Natalie wore the same white and navy outfit I’d seen her in at the SNL rehearsal.  I guess up-and-coming alt rock stars are not given wardrobe allowances.)

The following year I went with my friend Molly to the Riverside Theatre in Milwaukee to catch them on their Blind Man’s Zoo tour; a few years after that I saw them again at Poplar Creek outside Chicago during their Our Time in Eden phase.  When Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, 10,000 Maniacs and R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe serenaded him with a cover of “To Sir, With Love” at MTV Inaugural Ball.   Politics aside, that’s when I knew a new generation had its president.

In April 1993 I was still living in Chicago but had an office in New York where I’d work for several days each month.  On one particularly fine spring day that year, I received a call from my friend Steve who worked at MTV at the time.  He had a vague memory that I was a 10,000 Maniacs fan and asked me if I wanted to sneak out of work that afternoon to attend the taping of their MTV Unplugged concert at the Sony Music Studios on Manhattan’s west side.  I feigned a diarrhea cramp to get out of my afternoon meetings and ran straight to that taping as fast as my legs would carry me.  Seeing them in such an intimate setting at that stage in their career was magical.   Well into the concert, I remember hearing the first couple of notes from the piano and turning to Steve to whisper, “they’re covering the Bruce Springsteen/Patti Smith classic “Because the Night!””  They had to restart the song due to technical difficulties, so the applause you hear on 10,000 Maniacs’ biggest hit is more subdued than it was the first time they began to play it.  At the end of the set they brought out David Byrne to do guest vocals on a few songs, including a cover of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.”  I still can’t believe I had the privilege of witnessing such a great moment in mid-1990s pop culture history.

All these years later, I still get a primal thrill when I hear them perform, as I did this week.  And I’m so grateful that I got to see them in small clubs and large amphitheaters, on SNL and MTV Unplugged, with Natalie singing lead and with Mary. Over the years I’ve often wondered if they would have been even more successful if the band had a different name, one that wasn’t so off-putting to a potentially broader audience.  I wonder the same thing about Toad the Wet Sprocket.

What’s your favorite 10,000 Maniacs album?

In My Tribe

Blind Man’s Zoo

Our Time in Eden

MTV Unplugged

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