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.
Our Time in Eden is indeed a departure for the Maniacs, and many fans insist it's the band at its best. Teetering on the edge of soft rock without quite going over the precipice, Eden is brightened by some flashy touches – like James Brown's horn section sitting in on a couple of eminently radio-friendly songs, "Candy Everybody Wants" and "Few and Far Between." The issue-oriented songs, long a Maniacs mainstay, are there, too, but much of the album concerns the intricacies of personal relationships. Merchant, who could have been called remote and even moralistic in earlier forays, displays an ability to get into other people's minds with a dexterity and empathy that was only hinted at on previous albums.
If Our Time in Eden sounds like the work of someone who has clearly stopped dividing the world into good and evil, us and them, it's because Merchant says she has changed. "I've learned to appreciate gray areas as I grow older," she says. And the band, which has given Merchant free rein with the lyrics, agrees. Augustyniak says of the old days: "When Natalie started singing that stuff, I was going, 'Hey, is this shit gonna wash?' And lo and behold, it turns out we're the forebears. It's an ugly fact of life that people who dress in dark colors can be subversive. But to an extent, as you grow older, it looks kind of pathetic to strike an anti-authoritarian pose."
It was a lesson the band learned the hard way when their 1989 release, Blind Man's Zoo, bombed. Steve Gustafson says it was a painful time professionally as well as personally. "Blind Man's Zoo didn't really reach expected sales," he says. "And it really felt like – I don't know if albatross is the right word – but it just really felt like something that wasn't really quite what we wanted to do. I feel like we just missed it . . . It was a very sad time." Buck concurs. "Most people around us thought that that was it," he says, "that it was over and we were never gonna make another record. But our whole career's been like that. We've never had any commitment to each other to do anything other than what we're doing at the moment."
The group was formed in Jamestown, an economically depressed town in upstate New York, the same year Ronald Reagan was sworn in for his first term in office. In any small community, fringe types tend to seek each other out, and Jamestown was no exception. High-school pals Drew and Gustafson started Jamestown Community College's radio station, WJWK. Though the pair was initially more interested in spinning records, acts like the Clash, Elvis Costello and the Sex Pistols inspired the two of them to create, and they joined a band formed by Rob Buck called Still Life.
On a whim, they invited Merchant – whom they knew only vaguely – to play a party with them and soon added rhythm guitarist John Lombardo (and later Augustyniak) and rechristened themselves 10,000 Maniacs, in a twist on an old horror-movie title, Two Thousand Maniacs!
They started performing locally. It was all very informal, and the guys never knew if Merchant would show up at the next gig – but she always did. "It's been amazing to watch her grow from a timid hippie girl to a woman," Gustafson says. "She was sixteen when we met her." She sang in short, jerky phrases, creating a dialect of her own with her unusual, lush voice. It was a perfect match with the music the guys were trying to create – an odd hybrid of punk, New Wave, art rock and reggae.
At first painfully shy (Merchant says she used to sing with her back to the audience), she quickly became known for a distinctive stage manner, punctuated by a trademark frantic tap dance and spin – Stevie Nicks meets Poltergeist. She still wasn't relating to the audience much, but the audiences were too transfixed to care.
Despite its love of punk, the band's songs were relentlessly perky. "Musically, we've always written these vaguely happy songs," Dennis Drew admits, "these toe tappers. It's just what comes out. I mean, we try to write scary stuff, and it comes out stupid."
Simmering beneath the upbeat surface were Merchant's lyrics, and they were teeming with confusion, bewilderment and at times baldfaced pretension. The band loved it. "In the early days we all encouraged it and got a big kick out of it," says Buck. "We told Natalie, 'Oh, this is so great that this song is so pretty and these lyrics are so depressing, this is genius!' "
Merchant begs to differ. She's less than thrilled, as most anyone would be, with the fact that her adolescent rebellion has been preserved for posterity. "I look at my early records as term papers that maybe would've been better buried in a box in the attic," she says, "and taken out ten years later and chuckled about: 'Oh, I was quite ambitious then, wasn't I?' "
Pretentious though it might have been, the band had no problem finding an audience. During a time when Bon Jovi ruled the charts and worrying about the ozone layer was considered, well, retro, the Maniacs were one of a handful of groups (including R.E.M., Hüsker Dü and the B-52's) that concerned themselves with politics, humanism and the environment. They toured as often as they could, filling Athens, Georgia's famed 40 Watt Club so frequently that many scenesters thought they were locals.
Elektra signed the band in 1984 and the next year released The Wishing Chair, which was not quite slick enough to gain the larger audience the label had hoped for. Shortly after that, John Lombardo – who had written most of the music and had been the Maniacs' nerve center – quit the band. Buck and the others took over song-writing duties, and Merchant took the lead in every other way. The next album, In My Tribe, was recorded with producer Peter Asher, known for his work with such middle-of-the-road acts as Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor. Asher cleaned up the band's frayed edges without producing something terrifyingly slick, and In My Tribe became its breakout album.
Merchant wrote the band's runaway hit "Like the Weather," about, well, a really, really bad mood. But so buoyant was the tune – and it came with such a shiny, happy video starring an adorably pouty Merchant – that it became easy for the hordes of newfound Maniacs fans to ignore the bummer lyrics if they wanted to and focus on the star.
After a long session rehearsing what would become their memorable "To Sir With Love" duet at the MTV Inaugural Ball, Merchant and her good friend Michael Stipe goof around in a hotel lobby like little kids, drawing critical stares from bejeweled and befurred Southern Dems in town for the Tennessee and Arkansas balls. No matter. As Merchant and Stipe pick each other up and giggle as they run through the revolving doors together, Merchant looks happier than she has all day. And it's clear, though Merchant will shed no light on it, that her oft-speculated relationship with Stipe is at least a remarkably close friendship. "He's one of the only people I know who just randomly quotes lyrics from one of my songs and goes, 'Brilliant, I'm green with envy,' " she says. "It overwhelms me sometimes."
And just as early-Eighties Athens denizens recall the cult of personality that built up around Stipe, many can remember that Merchant was attaining a mystique of her own. In her vintage dresses and Chinese cloth slippers, she looked like someone you might know, but not too well: the cool girl sitting at the corner table in the student union drinking chamomile tea and reading Proust. Unlike Stipe, Merchant still hasn't figured out how to handle her ascending fame. "If that's what's happening," she says, "then it's a very odd process, and it's happening like a slow leak in the basement." She mentions a young acquaintance's informing her that she was nice for a famous person: "And I'm going, 'I'm not famous.' And he said, 'But you're on MTV.' I said, 'That doesn't mean anything, that means I spent one night in front of a camera, and that's what you see.' "
Never was Merchant's discomfort more apparent than when the Maniacs first started playing larger venues to promote In My Tribe. She frequently behaved like a schoolmarm onstage, asking audiences to please quiet down so she could sing her next song or reprimanding them for applauding after she did something as banal as take the ribbon out of her hair. Rare indeed was the show during which Merchant didn't hold forth on whichever indignity she was currently appalled by. An antifur, antitobacco, teetotaling vegetarian, she wasn't always tolerant of those who didn't follow her austere lifestyle. Plenty of fans who were attracted by the Maniacs' infectiously catchy melodies and Merchant's lush voice were turned off by the lead singer's holier-than-thou stance.
So much of this lack of poise seems directly related to Merchant's relatively youthful beginnings with the band. A black sheep in her Jamestown high school, she took a stab at customary teen activities – swimming, tennis, editing the yearbook – but was miserable. "I felt I was much more mature and more an adult than a lot of the students," she says. "Most of my friends were teachers." And she hated following the rules. "I was so tired of asking for permission if I could go take a piss. I knew when I had to take a piss! I thought, 'If that teacher respects my ability to know when I have to take a piss and that I'm interested in what she's lecturing about, I can go have a piss, and I'll be back.' It just seemed absurd to me."
At sixteen, Merchant announced she couldn't stand high school anymore and was ready to be treated like an adult. She was permitted to enroll at Jamestown Community College, and it was there that she hooked up with Gustafson and Drew.
For Merchant, finding people who were on her wavelength was a godsend. Though she grew up idolizing folksters like Bob Dylan, Merchant says, "the first time I heard British punk music, it spoke to me in a way that no one around me was speaking to me at the time. This was in the pre-MTV days, when you couldn't just flick on the TV and see these bands. You would just happen to get a single or an album by chance or listen to it at someone else's house, and that was the message. It said, 'Someone else is thinking like you are.' " Which was all the encouragement she needed to go public with her crusade.
Merchant's political awareness, though sometimes hard to take, seems sincere, and her worries about the planet appear to affect her on a highly personal and emotional level. She is at her most impassioned when discussing the crime and homelessness in Brazil or the sun-cancer alerts in Australia: "I become really angry, and I think, 'Who's done this to our world?' I'm not being hysterical, either. I'm not the only person who feels this way . . . " Unlike other well-meaning celebrities who talk a good game but don't do much more than provide cash or show up at benefits, Merchant has always felt a deep-seated obligation, she says, to actively help those less fortunate than herself.
The summer she was fifteen, Merchant volunteered at a camp for handicapped children. She chalks her sense of duty up to being raised Catholic: "It's about being indoctrinated with that notion of service and giving up what you have to people who have less than you and giving of yourself in more than material ways." And her sense of obligation dovetails with a hefty dose of guilt.
"I'm still learning," she says. "I'm so selfish on so many levels." She admits that given the choice she prefers her own company to the company of others.
After Blind Man's Zoo, she says, the band scattered for a year, and Merchant divided the time between Manhattan and a rented house in upstate New York and volunteered at a Harlem day-care center for homeless children. When the Maniacs subsequently regrouped, Merchant immersed herself in the songs, writing the music as well as the lyrics for more than half the tracks on the new album. She felt inspired to try something different in the lyrics, too. "On Blind Man's Zoo," she says, "I made so many attempts to say really large things that on this album I just wanted to comment on small things."
Onstage, she doesn't whirl quite as furiously anymore – not as much nervous energy, she says. And not insignificantly, Merchant's look has changed, too. The unstyled, thick, dark hair has been cut in a simple yet stylish bob, and her frumpy thrift-shop schmattes have been replaced by smartly tailored suits designed by Christian Francis Roth. The twenty-four-year-old boy wonder of the fashion world, whose work retails for $2000 to $3000, heard In My Tribe on a friend's CD player and knew he had to meet the singer – and dress her. "I thought to myself," Roth says enthusiastically, " 'If my clothes could sing, I hope this is what they'd sound like.' "
"It's so great to have Christian dress me," Merchant says. "I have that girl side. I like to adorn myself . . . After I played Carnegie Hall last fall, everyone asked, 'Why were you so good tonight?' And I said: 'I'm a girl! I had a new skirt on!' " Her recent performance on Saturday Night Live in black bell bottoms and a tight orange top was the first time many of her fans could discern the shape of her body. "My Halloween outfit!" she says. "I caught a lot of flak for it, which I thought was good. I don't want to be typecast as the Emily Brontë of pop music."
As she scans the menu at an elegant French restaurant with vegetarian-friendly options, Natalie Merchant offers up a story as proof that she has, indeed, lightened up. "I once said I'd never have a lover who ate meat," she announces. "I sort of laid that down as the law. And I remember sitting across the table from this man I was living with years ago, and he ordered lamb, and I had to go into the bathroom and start crying because I just couldn't believe I was involved with someone who could eat lamb." She laughs. "I certainly can sit across the table from somebody who eats lamb now. The smell of it might put me off, but I don't feel like I can't trust that person anymore." And although she says declaratively, "My new project is not judging other people," everyone at the table orders fish, just to be safe.
For all her professed lightheartedness, though, Merchant hasn't totally made the leap. Offstage, she continues to dress simply, even frumpily, in slacks and blouses buttoned up to the neck. She wears no makeup and doesn't need to: Her strong, half-Italian, half-Irish features combine to create a delicate and quite beautiful face. She's surprisingly petite and speaks in a near whisper but is eminently composed. She thinks before she speaks and speaks in complete, well-constructed sentences. Still, something about her manner suggests a fragility, a touchiness, like a loud noise or sudden movement might startle her right out of her chair.
Though not an exuberant woman out of the spotlight, she does exhibit a sense of humor and a profound curiosity about others. Merchant confesses she can't get into a taxi without engaging the driver in a conversation. "The most interesting people I meet are cabdrivers," she says. She also tries to be accessible to fans: "I sit out in the parking lot for an hour after a concert and talk to people – sometimes for two hours, sometimes for so long it irritates everyone else, and they're like 'Natalie, let's go!' and I'm like 'I haven't talked to everyone yet!' "
But Merchant is as intensely guarded about the details of her own life as she is curious about the details of other people's. An inquiry into whether she's involved with anyone right now is met with an icy retort: "That's none of anyone's business. I don't discuss my sex life with journalists." And like a bored trigonometry student, after an hour she gets squirmy and starts checking the clock.
Besides being dear to Merchant's heart, issues serve the pragmatic function of attracting attention to something other than her emotional life. One gets the impression her hurry to escape adolescence precluded close female friendships of the spill-your-guts variety. 'I've just always had a lot of male friends," she says, "and very few female friends." But she's quick to add that her female friends are highly valued.
As for her taking the lead role in the band, Merchant pulls no punches. "I think it was a natural process that the older I got the more I demanded attention and power – and not in a negative sense," she says. And for the most part, the guys in the band are unruffled. The Four Stooges, as they like to jokingly refer to themselves, are growing weary of their rock & roll lifestyle. Everyone except Buck has gotten married. Drew quit drinking and became a father last year. Gustafson will be a dad in mid-August. Each of the men except Augustyniak has put on considerable girth (as they're getting their picture taken, Gustafson cracks, 'Okay, guys, everyone say, 'Jenny Craig!' "). All but Augustyniak. (who lives in Pittsburgh) continue to live in Jamestown. They like the quiet life.
"We tried to be in some of the videos," Drew says, "and it was such a horrifying embarrassment. I mean really terrible, terrible embarrassment. We just said, 'Fuck this.' I don't need to be in any goddamned video. We've got this beautiful woman: Do the video! Don't talk to me, I'll stay home with my wife. Boy. Did you ever see the 'Peace Train' video? Uccch."
"Natalie has always been the focus of the group, the lead singer always is," Drew continues. "Our kick is the music, really, and that's a democracy." Buck says the fact that Merchant's stardom has eclipsed the band's seems strange to people around him. But, he adds, "it doesn't seem strange to me."
Still, Merchant doesn't seem to have totally worked the kinks out of her persona. The second single on Our Time in Eden, "Candy Everybody Wants," takes on traditional Merchant themes, in this case, the American appetite for televised sex and violence – and big business's willingness to satisfy that craving. "The song is complete satire, and the fact that it might end up being on Top Forty radio is real interesting," Merchant says. "I think it would be the first pop song in a long time to have lyrics like 'If lust and hate is the candy, if blood and love taste so sweet, then give them what they want.' They're not typical pop lyrics, and it's very subversive."
But what about the video, a wry mélange of nonsensical advertisements in which Natalie – making fun of glamour and fashion and, of course, consumerism – looks drop-dead gorgeous in a glam green dress? Isn't she worried that some people will see the video and think nothing more than "Wow, Natalie looks hot"? "Satire," she says, "is sort of crafted in a way that escapes some people." Isn't she worried that she will, quite literally, be giving people what they want?
"That," she replies, "is beyond my control."
This story is from the March 18th, 1993 issue of Rolling Stone.