Thursday, July 21, 2011

Frozen Charlotte

Frozen Charlotte (from the album Ophelia)

Blue like the winter snow in this full moon
black like the silhouettes of the trees
late blooming flowers lye frozen underneath the stars
I want you to remember me that way

Far away
I'll be gone
will you wait for me here?
how long?
I don't know
but wait for me here

Still as the river grows in December
silent and perfect blinding ice
spring keeps her promises
no cold can keep her back
I want you to remember me that way

Far away
I'll be gone
will you wait for me here?
how long?
I don't know
but wait for me here
follow
don't follow me to where I'll go

Far away
I'll be gone
will you wait for me here?
how long?
I don't know
but wait for me here
follow
don't follow me to where I've gone
someday you'll take my place
and I'll wait for you here



When I first started writing this blog, readers e-mailed me more than once asking me to write about Natalie's song Thick As Thieves. I could understand why. The lyrics to that song fascinate listeners. A lot of people have their pet theory about the meaning of the words and are curious to know what others think. Although I agree that Thick As Thieves is a very intriguing song, the song in Natalie's catalogue that most ignites my imagination is Frozen Charlotte.

Whenever possible, I like to include quotes from Natalie about whatever song I happen to be writing about. I have often found that learning about Natalie's inspiration for a song has deepened my appreciation for it, as in the case of My Skin. But in all my searching, I haven't been able to find any particularly revealing clues from Natalie about the inspiration and meaning of Frozen Charlotte. Although I would love to hear her insights about the song, I figure this is my chance to engage in a bit of theorizing - a favorite past time, indeed! So without further ado, let's dig in, shall we?

The first possibility for the meaning of Frozen Charlotte? Death. I know, way to start things out on a light note. But this theory is one that surely has some validity. 

"I want you to remember me that way."

That lyric is all it really takes to make the connection to death. The desire to be remembered is something that seems to be fundamental to our emotional makeup. No one wants to be forgotten. And more than merely remembered, we have a specific vision for how we want to be remembered - sometimes a not-entirely reasonable one. If I die, I would like the readers of this blog to remember me as "A passionate and sensitive writer, one who perfectly captured the spirit of Natalie Merchant's music with simple but profound expression" as opposed to the more realistic "She was kind of long-winded and thought we cared a lot more than we did about her opinions, but sometimes she was mildly humorous and we always enjoyed the video links." If you are about to perish from this earth, you can't help but romanticize yourself a little bit.

How does the protagonist (let's just call her Charlotte, for the sake of simplicity) of Frozen Charlotte want to be remembered?

"Blue like the winter snow in this full moon
black like the silhouettes of the trees
late blooming flowers lye frozen underneath the stars

Still as the river grows in December
silent and perfect blinding ice
spring keeps her promises
no cold can keep her back"
 
These words, all describing beautiful aspects of the natural world, make it clear that Charlotte wants to be remembered as a figure of beauty. But there could be additional layers of meaning here. All of these natural wonders are sheathed in ice. Does she want to be remembered as beautiful but distant, impossible to reach, to penetrate? Maybe. Still, she also likens herself to a promised spring, one that never fails to break through the winter. Perhaps distant, then, but not entirely unreachable.

I've heard more than one person hypothesize that this song can be interpreted as a parent singing to their child. The additional voice you hear singing with Natalie on this song is Karen Peris, a singer with a uniquely childlike timbre to her voice. When matched with Natalie's soothing and reassuring tone, the call-and-response portion of these lyrics can certainly read like a conversation between a mother and her child. Perhaps, it has been supposed, Charlotte is preparing her child to lose her mother. She doesn't have all the answers ("I don't know..."), but she is trying nonetheless to comfort her child ("...but wait for me here...") and keep her safe ("Don't follow me to where I'll go.") With this idea in mind, it makes the plaintive cry of her child singing, "How long?" piercingly painful.

But I have my own pet theory about this song, a twist on the idea presented above. Maybe all those enigmatic references to being black and silent and frozen accurately portray a person, a mother, who is distant and inscrutable. She might be beautiful in the mind of her adoring child, but she is off living her own life, making promises she may or may not have any intention of keeping. Her child keeps pining for her mother's attention and affection, but her mother keeps putting her off. "How long?I don't know, but wait for me here." I guess the lyric that brought this idea into my mind was the final one:

"Someday you'll take my place and I'll wait for you here."

You know what happens to the parent who ignores their child, who pushes them away and tells them, in one way or the other, that they are on their own? The child figures it out. They learn not to need that parent anymore. And as that parent grows into their old age, a funny thing starts to happen. The roles reverse. The selfish life they once pursued is no longer available to them and now they begin to experience the loneliness they inflicted upon their now adult child, who no longer has any need for them. Maybe all along there was part of the selfish parent that knew this would happen. 

"Someday you'll take my place and I'll wait for you here."

Well, that, or I've just given you all a look waaaaaay too deep into my psyche.

When I wrote about Thick As Thieves, my final hypothesis was that the song wasn't really about anything in particular, it was just clever words. Natalie herself claimed not to know what the song was about. Maybe that's the case with Frozen Charlotte too. Maybe we're supposed to layer on our own meaning. It's kind of fun, isn't it?

So what are your thoughts on Frozen Charlotte? Any theory here you are particularly fond of? Have your own idea? Feel free to share with me by leaving a comment below or by e-mailing me at nmcompendium@yahoo.com. Thanks for reading, see you soon!

Download Frozen Charlotte from Itunes - Frozen Charlotte - Ophelia

Thursday, July 7, 2011

You Happy Puppet / The Lion's Share

You Happy Puppet (from the 10,000 Maniacs album Blind Man's Zoo)

How did they teach you to be just a happy puppet dancing on a string?
How did you learn everything that comes along with slavish funnery?
Tell me something, if the world is so insane,
Is it making you sane again to let another man tug at the thread that pulls up your nodding head?

How did they teach you to be just a happy puppet dancing on a string?
How do you manage to live inside this tiny stage you can't leave?
Tell me something, if the world is so insane,
Is it making you sane again to let another man tug at the thread that pulls up your nodding head?

A dullard strung on the wire.
When the master's gone you hang there with your eyes and your limbs so lifeless.
How did they teach you to be just a happy puppet dancing on a string?
How do you manage to speak, your mouth a frozen grin?

A dullard strung on the wire.
When the master's gone you hang there with your eyes and your limbs so lifeless.

Tell me something, if the world is so insane,
Is it making you sane again to let another man tug at the thread that pulls up your empty wooden head?

Your hollow head, your marble eyes, your wooden hands and your metal jaw pins
All wait in limbo for the man who knows how to move you this way.

______________________________________________

The Lion's Share (from the 10,000 Maniacs album Blind Man's Zoo)

Can I be unhappy?
look at what I see
a beast in furs and crowned in luxury

He's a wealthy man in the poorest land
a self-appointed king
and there's no complaining while he's reigning

The lambs are bare of fleece and cold
the lion has stolen that, I'm told
there must be some creature mighty as you are

The lambs go hungry (not fair)
the biggest portion is the lion's share
there must be some creature mighty as you are

Can I be unhappy?
listen and agree
no words can shame him or tame him

The lambs are bare of fleece and cold
the lion has stolen that, I'm told
there must be some creature mighty as you are

The lambs go hungry (not fair)
the biggest portion is the lion's share
there must be some creature mighty as you are as you are

Razor claws in velvet paws
you dunce in your guarded home
'til a stronger beast will call on you and
pounce upon your throne

Do we pay?
dearly, for the lion takes so greedily
and he knows that what he's taken, it is ours

That's how the wealth's divided
among the lambs and king of the beasts
it is so one-sided
until the lamb is king of the beasts
we live so one-sided.



My love for music started at a young age. I would hear the music emanating from my older sisters' rooms and get so excited. One of my sisters in particular had a music collection that I envied greatly. Unfortunately for me, she was not keen on sharing her collection with me. In fact, if I even attempted to strike up a conversation with her about a song or a band I knew she liked, she would hit me with the kind of withering stare that made me want to crawl under a rock. I was simply not permitted to act as if I could possibly understand the music that she loved. I was too young, too awkward, too uncool.

And so I learned to be stealthy. I was determined to listen to all of her CDs - CDs that I certainly couldn't afford and CDs from bands I had often never even heard of. So I would wait until I knew she would soon be leaving the house, and with the Mission: Impossible theme song playing in my head, I would plan my attack. First, I would calculate the approximate amount of time she'd be gone. Was she going to see a movie? That gives me at least 1 1/2 hours, plus 20 minutes of drive time each way. Also, if she was going with a group of friends, then odds were they would go somewhere after the movie to eat, affording me at least another hour. I knew exactly how much time I had and as soon as the front door shut I went in for the kill.

I went into her room and studied her CD rack in detail. If I took a CD out, I made sure I knew exactly what slot I took it from so that I could return it to its rightful place. If it was inserted in the CD rack upside down, I made sure I placed it back in that position when I was finished with it. I had no idea if she carefully studied the positioning of her CDs, the way I did with my own tiny collection, but I wasn't about to take any chances.

I was very careful to choose these CDs wisely because I didn't want to waste my precious little time with something that was anything less than musically thrilling. And so, one day, when I saw a new CD in her collection called Blind Man's Zoo by 10,000 Maniacs, I decided I didn't have enough time to mess around with anything I hadn't heard before. But the cover art made me curious and I vowed to pay attention next time I thought my sister might be playing that album. Eventually the day came when I walked by her opened door and saw that the case for Blind Man's Zoo was sitting out on her CD player and music I hadn't heard before was coming out of her stereo. I stopped and listened carefully. Would this new band be another exciting discovery in my growing musical awareness? Would it make me desperate to get that CD into my own hands so I could play it for myself? Would it be my newest musical obsession?

Nope.

I listened for a few moments and knew almost instantaneously that this music was not for me. I didn't like the melodies and I definitely didn't like the voice of the girl who was singing the song. Within a short amount of time, 10,000 Maniacs would hit the apex of their popularity with the MTV Unplugged album and soon after that their former singer, one Natalie Merchant, would put out her debut solo release, Tigerlily. Given that I was, like so many of my peers at the time, raised in large part by MTV, I spent the early and mid-nineties seeing Natalie Merchant's face constantly. And here is what I would say when I saw her: "I can't stand Natalie Merchant."

I know. This is a lot to take. You've been reading this blog for some time, you think you know me a little by now and then boom, I hit you with this shocking revelation. Well, I want to make something clear right now: I take full responsibility for my past mistakes. I made grave errors, but I am committed to making amends for those errors. Regardless, I want to make it known that I AM NOT STEPPING DOWN FROM MY POST! I can make things right if you just give me another chance. I only ask that you give my family and I privacy during this difficult time.

Now, the story of how I began transitioning from a Natalie-hater to a Natalie-blogger can wait until another day. For now, I want to examine a few of the songs from the album that brought my very first taste, although unappreciated at the time, of Natalie's music.

If you had asked me a few months before I started writing this blog, I would've told you that I quite liked Blind Man's Zoo, that I liked it as much as any other Maniacs album. But when I started writing the blog, I discovered that the songs on Blind Man's Zoo, more than any other album in Natalie's catalogue, are the most difficult for me to write about, which perhaps explains why I have written about so few of them up until now. While I still like the album, I've come to feel that the Maniacs albums that directly preceded and followed Blind Man's Zoo, In My Tribe and Our Time In Eden, respectively, are much better albums than Blind Man's Zoo is.

I think the reason I feel this way is because several of the songs on Blind Man's Zoo don't tell a story so much as they make a statement. I don't feel like there are a lot of blanks left for me to fill in. Songs like Don't Talk or Jezebel draw you into their character's lives and yet still give you room to interpret and fill in details. Songs like You Happy Puppet and The Lion's Share are so straightforward that, while still being pleasant songs, they don't resonate with me for very long after I've heard them. I'm being told and not shown.

One area where You Happy Puppet and The Lion's Share do give room for interpretation is regarding who these songs are directed towards. Given the tone of the album in general, it's hard not to think of the potential political applications of these songs. But spinelessness and greed are qualities that make themselves apparent in so many other areas of life. You Happy Puppet, in particular, is a song that will no doubt make you think of specific individuals you have known at some point in your life, people who are content to mindlessly follow the crowd, never to make a decision or a stand of their own. The lyrics to this song are smart, and the word nerd in me loves the use of words like "dullard" and "funnery," which I'm not even sure is a word at all.

The Lion's Share is a little harder to divorce from political connections. After all, it's very difficult to abuse power when you have little power to speak of. But power can be had on other levels too, like the power a religious leader has over his adherents or a parent has over their child, a power that is too often used to hurt instead of nurture. I appreciate the righteous frustration expressed in this song, even if the song itself isn't especially moving to me.

Here is a quote from Natalie about 10,000 Maniacs music prior to Blind Man's Zoo:

"So many times, I felt the music was at odds with my lyrics. The music was beautiful, melodic and friendly, and then my lyrics over that would be so disturbing."*

The band started to move away from that style a little with Blind Man's Zoo, but songs like The Lion's Share, and music from their next album, proved that they never really left that trademark completely. I don't mind. It was part of the 10,000 Maniacs signature sound and, I suppose, part of the reason people liked their music in the first place. Even those of us who took a little while to be won over.

So that's all for this week, folks, but before I leave you I want to mention a little change I'm making to the publishing schedule of this blog. I am now over halfway through the Natalie Merchant catalogue and am now on the downward slope of this project. I'm still having lots of fun and have a lot more songs I can't wait to talk about, but that being said, I've become a bit overwhelmed by trying to publish a post every week. So as of now, I will begin publishing new posts every other week, on Thursday evenings, as usual. I know some of you will be disappointed (and some of you relieved), but it's the best I can do for now.

As always, I really appreciate you reading my thoughts about these songs and sharing your own. If you have any thoughts you'd like to share this week about the songs or about Blind Man's Zoo in general, I'd be happy to hear them. You can email me at nmcompendium@yahoo.com or leave your comments below. See you in two weeks!

*Melody Maker - May 1989

Click here to watch the music video for You Happy Puppet. Slightly creepy, no?

Download You Happy Puppet from Itunes - You Happy Puppet - Blind Man's Zoo

Download The Lion's Share from Itunes - The Lion's Share - Blind Man's Zoo