Natalie Merchant slumps deep into the back seat of a taxi on her way to an inaugural-week cocktail benefit for Rock the Vote. That the event is one of the hottest invitations in town is lost on the notoriously moody and publicity-shy lead singer of 10,000 Maniacs, who holds such empty concepts as fabulous parties in rather low regard. Not to mention that after a long day of rehearsals for the MTV Inaugural Ball, she's thoroughly exhausted and feeling less inclined than usual to meet and greet – which is to say, not at all. Traffic has clogged the streets of D.C., and so she hops out of the cab and walks the last three blocks to the Sheraton Carlton, eluding a horde of paparazzi staked out on the hotel drive-way and slipping through the hedges unnoticed. Once inside the hotel, she finds herself a nice, anonymous wall to lean up against and then sips her mineral water in peace.
A nervous teenager dressed in black with Gothic makeup approaches and introduces herself. "In My Tribe [the Maniacs' 1987 record] is one of my favorite albums," the girl giddily exclaims. Merchant thanks her and, unaware that this particular nervous teenager, Sara Gilbert, is the costar of the hit TV show Roseanne, looks her in the eye and says, "Do you work for Rock the Vote?" After it is established that her young fan is a very successful TV star with no small following of her own, Merchant, flustered, apologizes. Gilbert then apologizes for being on TV. Merchant sighs, shoots a look at the reporter next to her and says, "You're going to put that in the story, aren't you?"
Merchant's band mates, who spend the lion's share of the evening ogling Kim Basinger, shrug this off as vintage Natalie. "She'd know who Jack Nicholson was," says keyboardist Dennis Drew, "maybe Kate Hepburn, but that's about it."
The Maniacs, poster children for political correctness in the terminally un-PC Eighties whose previous album, Blind Man's Zoo, was a critical and financial disappointment, have rebounded big time with their most recent effort, Our Time in Eden. The album has earned the band a whole new audience of earnest young things and recently went gold. An atypically optimistic hit single, "These Are Days," as performed by an exhilarated Merchant at the MTV Inaugural Ball, was a highlight of the evening – the "Don't Stop" of the MTV generation. So deeply have the Maniacs (most of whom are well into their thirties) permeated the coveted twentysomething demographic that "These Are Days" has played over promo spots for the new Fox series Class of '96 (much in the same way that R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion" was Beverly Hills, 90210's unofficial theme song a few seasons back).
The members of 10,000 Maniacs are fond of saying that the group's career has been one big happy accident after another, and that definitely extends to their alliance with Merchant. "We boys have joked about what it would've been like if we'd had someone like Janis Joplin, someone totally opposite of Natalie," says Steven Gustafson, the band's effusive, good-naturedly sarcastic bassist. Dennis Drew adds simply, "We wouldn't be a band without Natalie." When Merchant is asked, she pauses, then says, "Maybe Edie Brickell would've been better with 10,000 Maniacs, I don't know." For four regular guys like Drew, Gustafson, guitarist Rob Buck and drummer Jerome Augustyniak, there must have been times when a goofy party girl like Brickell would have been preferable to the interminably serious Merchant. But this very incongruity may be the reason they've gone gold at a time when many industry wags were predicting the death of their collective career.
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