Sunday, July 13, 2014

On Swamp Ophelia

I stood without clothes.
Danced in the sand
I was aching with freedom
And kissing the damned
I said, “remember this as how it should be.”

The refrain above closes “Fugitive,” the opening track of Swamp Ophelia, my favorite album by one of my favorite musical acts, The Indigo Girls. I first heard this CD in the mid-1990s not so long after its release, and though over time I’ve come to love the whole album, this stand-alone song may stand out most for the sheer fact that I’ve never not liked it. It sounded profound the first time I heard it, sitting at an oak card table playing pinochle with my sister and my grandmother. I loved it no less 18 years later, listening to the MP3 as I drove two hours back to my Los Angeles hotel after a first date that lasted 24 hours, highlighted by a lengthy stretch on a San Diego beach after which I felt every syllable of the sentiment of dancing in the sand. It’s a song about hiding, sure. But just much an anthem for release.

Jump jump
Jump so high
Watch me let you down
If I stumble
I will stumble
If I fall
I will fall

As much as I loved “Fugitive” it wasn’t my favorite track from Swamp Ophelia. In the early days, that distinction went to “Touch Me Fall.” It’s an epic in the tradition of a “Stairway to Heaven” or “Bohemian Rhapsody,” starting in a very dark place before a string interlude ups the tempo, only for an explosion of electric guitar and rolling drums to launch the final leg of the song. You’ll be hard pressed to find a song more emotionally complex and chaotic, yet strikingly beautiful just the same.

It feels so funny to be free.

We all have our demons. I spent the better part of my pre-collegiate years aspiring to a time when I would leave a house that felt far from a home. This is a song of escape. Of discovering freedom and all of the joy that comes with it. I hold no illusions that the origins of this song were much like the associations I applied to, but that doesn’t make the message resonate any less clearly.

Don’t you write it down
Remember this in your head
Don’t take a picture
Remember this in your heart

For me, “Dead Man’s Hill” is and always will be a coming of age song. I remember listening to it while trading AOL Instant Messages with a dear friend a few nights before I left home for what would be the final summer for each of us CTY students. I crafted a clumsy poem for her about leaving her camera at home, and getting ready for three weeks we’d never forget. She tactfully told me they weren’t my best crafted verses, but that she appreciated the sentiment and felt much the same way.

I’ve read that this song is a meditation on a childhood experience in which Amy Ray witnessed older boys setting cats on fire (and the last verse pretty literally supports this interpretation). Less inspiring, for sure, but no less potent as you weave element of shame all the more intrinsically into the power of memory.

“Least Complicated” is probably the best-known song from Swamp Ophelia, and second only to “Closer to Fine” and maybe “Galileo” as an iconic selection from The Indigo Girls catalog. Indeed, I won’t argue with anyone who suggests this song is the best of the album--a simple piece of music, brought to life by just as simple if universally true lyrics, “the hardest to learn is the least complicated.” Perhaps with a touch of clairvoyance, my younger self foresaw a time when I would listen to this song with a hurt heart, and sure enough, years later, spurned by girls who would not return my affections, I would turn to this song, accepting that so many of my attempts were anchored in the fact that “I never was cool.” This isn’t a song you have to work to understand. Nor is it one that you can easily deny.

Sometimes I ask to sneak a closer look
Skip to the final chapter of the book
And maybe steer us clear of some the pain it took
To get us where we are this far.

Maybe that’s all that we need
Is to meet in the middle of impossibility

It’s difficult for me to separate my two favorite songs of Swamp Ophelia--“The Wood Song” and “Mystery.” Growing up Indigo, I was squarely a fan of Amy Ray’s rocking melodies over Emily Salier’s mellower offerings. As such, I tended to gloss over these tracks, positioned in juxtaposition with one another on the album. Whether I’ve softened over time, grown more sensitive, or simply come to identify more closely with the messages embedded in Emily’s lyrics, these two songs are now the epitome of what I love about her as a songwriter--letting ambitious, wordly, but universal truths unfurl with the all the majesty of music and purity of lyrics they deserve. “The Wood Song” has always sounded like a small town song to me. One of community, family, richness and love. “Mystery” is more intimate. A song about a love that is not naïve, but is hopeful just the same.

I get flack for my Indigo Girls fanboy status. True, I don’t know many other men whose first concert was an Indigo Girls show, or who will go for a late night walk with Swamp Ophelia streaming through their earbuds. But for the better part of twenty years, this band, and more specifically this album has been a treasure to me. A means to cope. A vehicle of hope. A collection of stories worth every re-telling.

No comments:

Post a Comment