|Day 304: 10,000 Maniacs (Don't Talk)
November 27, 2023
As with many fads, hits, popular culture phenoms, MTV Unplugged quickly got tiresome for me. Initially, it paired two or three lesser-known artists into a single show of acoustic music, a suitable venue for showcasing artists on the edges of popular culture. That started to change with Don Henley (who else?) demanding his own show, rather than appearing with Joe Walsh to play “Desperado.” Thus, a cool idea in 1989 by mid-1990 was already jumping the shark. To see Stevie Ray Vaughn and Joe Satriani in intimate settings playing acoustic sets was innovative and must-see T.V. However, did we really need to see Elton John, Paul McCartney, or Aerosmith in such settings, let alone the later performances of Ratt, Poison, or Mariah Carey?
Equally as obnoxious were the Unplugged performances released as albums. Once Eric Clapton wrought every ounce of emotion he could with “Tears In Heaven” in 1992, everyone, including Mariah Carey, Rod Stewart, Nirvana, and Tony Bennett had to release their own Unplugged album. It got so predictable that Bruce Springsteen shook the world with his MTV Plugged release. If you plug all the instruments back in, Bruce, aren’t you just delivering another standard Bruce concert (even without the E Street Band)?
In the end, an unplugged album is like doing an album of cover songs. What am I going to find that is significantly different? What can get highlighted that is lost in the electric version of a song? In some ways, this has always been best exemplified in 10,000 Maniacs' 1993 MTV Unplugged, most notably with “Don’t Talk.”
“Don’t Talk” off of 1987’s In My Tribe, is a lovely song partially obscuring a sobering topic, a vignette of a woman being awakened by her drunken, abusive boyfriend/husband. I say “obscuring” because the song has such a catchy rhythm, keyboard swells, piercing guitars, and vocals by Natalie Merchant that sound way too poppy for the lyrics (at the time of In My Tribe's release, I could have sworn that one review called it something like “protest music you could dance to”). After all, the lyrics perfectly capture the woman’s vulnerability:
Don’t talk, I will listen/
Don’t talk, you keep your distance/
I’d rather hear some truth tonight/
Than entertain your lies/
So take your poison silently/
Let me be, let me close my eyes.
In the second verse, we get an even better sense of how dangerous the drunk man is.
Don’t talk, I can guess it/
Don’t talk, well now you’re restless/
And you need somewhere to place the blame/
For how you feel inside/
You’ll look for a close and easy mark/
And you’ll see me as fair game.
These lyrics are so personal, so devastating, that when you see Merchant perform an electrified version of the song (I post a link below), she sings as if in a trance, as if retreating into herself in the only defense she probably knows in that situation. Such performances help to hear this song as more than just a beautiful prayer for someone to keep quiet, as a prayer for someone to leave her alone.
So, when 10,000 Maniacs break out “Don’t Talk” for their MTV Unplugged performance, much of the swagger of the original version is gone, replaced by hesitant truce. The band purposefully slows the song down (slightly), brings more emotional instruments (piano, cello) to the forefront, all to accentuate Merchant’s exquisite singing, that slower tempo helping to build even more methodically to an amazing outro, done on cello for the acoustic version versus the guitar for In My Tribe. In either version, the way the song ends without closure on the narrative, outside of Merchant’s “I’ll discuss this in the morning/but until then/you may talk, but I won’t hear," is part of the song's charm. The talk will go on, the situation will not change.
With this acoustic version, a lot more of the world heard you, Natalie. We all just needed to unplug.
10,000 Maniacs. "Don't Talk." MTV Unplugged. Elektra, 1993. Unplugged version here. Live electric version here.
Day 303: Hall & Oates "I Can't Go For That (No Can Do)"
Day 305: Cheech & Chong "Basketball Jones"
Unfinished list here.