I jokingly call this the greatest love story I’ve ever written. I say it with tongue in cheek because it’s the only love story I’ve ever written. But also because it’s a seedy, salty, nasty little story, with pain, hurt, desperation, heartbreak, rage, violence, and passion as its main ingredients. But make no mistake, a love story it is. The story of Arthur and Ophelia is one that originated in my novel The Assassination of Gabriel Champion. The book is a modern fable and a meditation on violence and redemption. And Arthur’s and Ophelia’s story is only a small part of the overall landscape of the book, yet it’s a pivotal one. In writing the story, creating these characters, and then living with them over the years of refining and rewriting the book, I fell in love with them. They are the most imperfect people you could possibly conceive of, they are rich in pathos and pain, they are complicated, infuriating, and they are forever sewn to my heart.
Somewhere along the line, during the years of nursing this book into its rightful being, I was inspired to write a song about Arthur and Ophelia (not even the main characters). And of course, considering the source, the song HAD to be blues.
Wake Up Ophelia would end up debuting on my first album of original songs, Resting On the Rock, a few years later, although many years before the book itself would be published.
I thought the writing of the lyrics would be easy, because their story was already there. But in taking it on, I discovered that there were actually quite a few challenges ahead. First off, I needed to decide which angle would be the focus of the song, because Arthur and Ophelia are sort of epic within the scope of the novel, yet suddenly we’ve got 3 verses and a chorus in which to tell their story, not the luxury of an entire book. And that proved tricky. I eventually came to the conclusion that Ophelia’s death was the moment that merited a song written (yes, it’s a bit of a spoiler; but if you haven’t read the book yet, believe me nothing’s ruined . . . now, go read the book!). And so, the song would become Arthur’s plea to Ophelia after snuffing out her life. I needed to find a way to express the arc of their love, their substance addiction, their desperation for and violence upon each other, and finally the deed, all within the confines of five 4-line stanzas, two of which are a repeated chorus.
I knew that what would aid me would be to approach the whole thing as poetry. There’s a different palate for poetry than for prose. Prose begs linear detail and chronology (not always, but as a matter of standard), whereas poetry can, through the artful twist of a word or phrase, illuminate everything. For example, I think “he made his arms erupt” is all that’s really needed to capture the entire nature and scope of a man’s addiction. And I had an entire story to re-work in this way. To get it all in, within the space of few words. Poetry.
Once I was able to figure out the basic prosody of the verse, the words began to fall into place, and so next came the music. Now, like I said, it couldn’t possibly be anything other than blues. And so inevitably the thought is: What’s there to write? The blues is the blues. The form is universal. Well, the lesson I would come to learn in the years that this song came into being, grew its legs, and was eventually recorded, is that the blues ain’t jes’ one thang. And as hardheaded as I have been known to be, it took some years for that to really sink in, but we’ll get to that.
At the time I was first conceiving of Ophelia’s story as a song, I had been listening nonstop to Tito & Tarantula, the stoner rock band out of East L.A. There’s a song of theirs called The Strange Face of Love that is this enigmatic, engine-revving shuffle that cannot be stopped! And I instantly thought, “Well, that’s it! That’s what I need for my song.” But it wasn’t only the feel that struck me. It was that their song was a minor blues. That’s certainly not unheard of. It’s just not the more common dominant seventh environment that’s so familiar to our ears. Wake Up Ophelia in a minor key would lend an even further dankness to the proceedings. Done. Decision made. Song written.
I sang it around town for a few years. It never even had a chart. I would just say, “blues in A minor,” tell the musicians it’s a shuffle, count it off, and go. And while it worked perfectly alright, I can’t say I felt especially connected to the story in the song, nor did I feel that it had the emotional heft of an opus, when in truth that IS how I felt about Arthur and Ophelia’s story in book form. And honestly I don’t even think I was aware of just how unsatisfying the song was for me. I just chalked it up to being “not one of my best,” and didn’t really feel any need to do anything about it. Or so I thought.
Fast forward to the year 2000, and it was, at last, time to start writing songs for Resting On the Rock, which I had conceptualized as a project that would take its inspiration from the folk vocabulary of other cultures, including America’s roots and blues movement. Wake Up Ophelia fit that bill, so I took it into the studio with some musicians to record, with the hope that it would jump start the rest of the canon for me. And I did exactly as I had done every time I’d ever sung it on a gig. I just called the key, said it was a shuffle blues, counted it off, and sang. We did a few takes. I got quick mixes. And I took all the takes home to study, and to determine which I liked best. It was sort of ZZ Top meets saloon music. And as I listened back, there was something unsatisfying about all of it. Every take. It wasn’t the playing. Let me be very clear about that. These guys, Ken Rosser, Ross Wright, David Arana, and Chris Wabich, are some of the best I know. They played their asses off. And had the subject matter of the lyrics been anything else (my baby done left me, blah, blah, blah . . . ) perhaps I would’ve dug it as I dig everything these guys play.
But in this case, I heard my song’s meaning and power just get lost in what sounded like nothing more than a romping bar blues, the kind you get up and dance to, not the kind you shudder to hear and to witness, and are forever changed.
Forgive my hyperbole. I do have visions of wanting to change the world in whatever tiny ways my talents can achieve. So, yes, I wanted shuddering.
I lived with the recording, and listened to it a hundred times, a thousand times, realizing that I’d been singing this song, played just this way, or close enough, for years, but not until locking it into recorded history, and actually having the luxury to study it did I realize how unrepresentative it actually was of Arthur and Ophelia’s dark tale. And then to try and figure out what exactly wasn’t working. And whatever that was, this much I knew, was my fault. Because I hadn’t bothered to take the time to actually compose. That’s the tricky thing about blues. You can dismiss it without even realizing you’ve done so.
The first thought that struck me, after so many listens that I’ve lost count, was that the driving shuffle was not right. Not exactly. It was precisely what was needed on the chorus, because the chorus is the plea. The begging, imploring plea. That energy is required. But the verses are expository. The verses describe their world. And their world is a place of sadness and despair, and begs sobriety. So, I decided that the verses should be played with a half time feel, and at a tempo of about 64. Very sparse, not note-y, not chops-y, but vibe-y. And that vibe needed to be messy, crunchy, grungy, but with texture, not with busy-ness. When I thought back to the Tito & Tarantula tune, I realized that that’s exactly what they do. I’d been so hypnotized by that burning shuffle of theirs that I hadn’t really noticed what they were doing on their verses. This would give the song some actual shape and dynamics. Places to go TO, places to come FROM. A meditation, to a full-on assault, back to a meditation, back again to the assault, and so forth.
Next were the chord changes. Something about what had been played didn’t sit right. I realized that clashes were actually occurring between chords and melody, because the melody I’d written didn’t resolve to the tonic by the end of a phrase, the way blues traditionally does, but instead to the dominant, and only resolved to the tonic once we were into the next verse, as opposed to the dominant merely being used as a passing chord. So, I dropped everything, and I just listened to a LOT of blues for awhile. Now, you can never go wrong with the brilliance of a Son House, or a Big Mama Thornton, or a Howlin’ Wolf. Those singers are special stars in the firmaments. Or even contemporary folks like Chris Whitley and Jack White. Yes, I was listening to everyone I could possibly consume from every walk of blues life. But the changes, the changes, were still driving me crazy. Of course, I was able to make sure a chart would resolve the verses to the dominant; I just wasn’t especially crazy about the traditional changes. I plucked around on the piano for weeks, trying to discover something different, when I just happened to find my answer in the most unlikely yard. I ran across a Daniel Lanois track called Blue Waltz, and my mind was blown by an absolutely simple set of chord changes on what was ostensibly the blues, and which were so left of the middle that I was stopped in my tracks, and knew that this chord progression was what my song was screaming for. What’s so funny to me is that it’s only the last four bars of a 12-bar blues that he does anything even remotely twisted with. So simple, and yet so profoundly odd.
Now, I have improved somewhat over the years, but at the time my ear was pretty poor for hearing changes and being able to transcribe them; what’s called a “take down.” So I asked Ross Wright, the bass player on this song, if he would listen to the Lanois track and help me jot down the changes, because, yes, he’d already been informed that we were going to redo this song. Those four bars are a set of changes that actually yank the Lanois track right out of the blues palate altogether for just an instant, to something more squared, if that makes any sense. No real blue notes. And yet there was still the issue of how to take the establishment of those changes, whatever modal construct they came from, and resolve them to the dominant. And this was where Ross was incredibly helpful.
So, finally I was starting to have a structure that was specific and fixed, and not just a case of calling blues, describing it as a shuffle, and having everyone play what they’ve played a thousand times on a thousand gigs.
I had called up Ken Rosser shortly after our session, in the midst of my song’s identity crisis. I confessed I wasn’t happy with how we’d done the song, and that a lot of it was in the structure . . . that there was none! Because I had not fine-tuned a specific set of mechanics. But that a good deal of it, as well, maybe even more crucially, had to do with concept and interpretation, which I hadn’t bothered to relay. I guess I thought the emotion could all come from me. That I wouldn’t need to communicate it to the musicians playing it. But that is so wrong. We talked very intimately about color and mood and shade and dramatic arc. He was SO on my wave length with this! We each discovered in that conversation how much a fan we both were of ambient tone and atmospherics, texture more than notes, manipulation of sound, all in the service of emotional connection. And as much as I like to talk (and have done so several times already in this song series) about Ken and me being musical soul mates, let me say here that this moment of discussing Wake Up Ophelia was truly the breakthrough moment for us, and would firmly establish the musical relationship we’ve now had for nearly 15 years.
As far as my own part in this, I had originally, and for years, sung the song in A minor, which is a perfectly comfortable key for this old alto. But as everything in the song was being revisited and re-envisioned, I decided to lower the key to where the first notes out of my mouth (which are the lowest notes in the melody) would be at my lowest possible register. It’s not the most attractive part of my register, and with not a lot of physical power there, but it does lend a quality of something intimate and fragile, almost struggling. Plenty of room to move up to the shouting chorus, but at least in the new key of F minor it would start off with a vulnerable simmer.
One of the final things I decided on, before we went back in to re-record, was to eliminate the keyboard. David Arana is a wonderful player; I’ve done countless gigs with him, the most prevalent of those being with The Orchestre Surreal for the past 18 years. But the presence of piano on this blues most definitely gave it its saloon vibe, which I realized only afterwards that I did not want. I wanted something sonically dense, where a piano really pierces sharply through any kind of texture. Plus I didn’t feel I needed two chordal instruments. The guitar was plenty on that front. And we’re talking Ken Rosser here! Known for texture and aural layers of richness, even within one single pass. He was all I needed. In fact, it was that decision about instrumentation that would set the tone for the rest of the songs I would eventually compose for Resting On the Rock.
On the day we were scheduled to re-record, Chris Wabich wasn’t available (he, the working-est drummer in town), and so our recording engineer, who also just happens to be a drummer, offered to step in and do double-duty. Michael Kramer has been my mixing engineer on every record I’ve ever helmed, but this song goes down as the only song of mine he’s ever played on. And he was great! Running back and forth from control booth to drum booth had to take a toll on his concentration, and yet both drumming and engineering that day were stellar.
We assembled at the same studio for round two. We’re talking months later, after all the soul searching I’d had to do. I had Ross bring in his F-Bass fretless instead of the Alembic fretted bass he’d used on the prior recording. I thought the new approach, the new texture, the new mood, really called for that quality. And my only instruction to him, a man known for very note-y, virtuosic playing, was to just simplify, leave space, yet without sacrificing pulse. And I handed everyone the chart of my (finally!) structured composition.
Here’s where I’d like to mention that Ken Rosser walked into the session with a fever of 102, and was, understandably, not in the best of moods. Oh boy! But what a trooper to still show up instead of asking if we could reschedule. He set up his gear in a corner, far away from everyone else, and had little tolerance for the chatting and laughing and all the things we do in the studio between takes. I think it’s safe to say we were all kind of afraid of Ken that day :). He used the house guitar amp, which was a beat-to-shit small vintage tweed Fender combo amp with a Deluxe Reverb, and he’d brought in a cheap Danelectro guitar, where one of the switches was intermittent and it wouldn’t stay in tune, which Ken confessed was a purposeful choice that, based on our talk, he felt would be perfect for the raw, urgent vibe. That conceptual idea, for Ken, translated into cranking up the amp until it was rattling and shaking, or as he has said, “It’s Hendrix at the Fillmore West, or Neil Young in full meltdown mode . . . there’s no way to get that sound and not endanger something or someone,” and with the plan to use reverse delay effects during the verses, and three fuzz boxes chained together at the same time during the choruses and solo. I just needed one last whispered caucus with the fevered lion before we did a take, to reiterate the concept, and at this point I simply said that since it was about a woman dying I wanted the guitar to sound like a man on his last manic leg in this life, and that I wanted the solo to sound like a woman wailing, like the cries of the damned.
Well, folks, I don’t know what Ken Rosser was channeling that day, but I suspect all credit is owed to that 102° fever, and I, for one, thank God for it. It was some of the dankest, darkest, most connected, plugged in, tapping something ancestral, killer music I’ve ever heard created.
Which brings us to the ending of the song. The ending on this recording is such a far cry from that of our original. That one resolved with the typical blues tag ― the classic 12/8, triplet-y, descending, Robert Johnson turnaround sequence, that almost begs an “ohhhh yeahhhhh” on the ending fermata, with jazz hands! I know. I’m being facetious. And I truly do love Robert Johnson. It just was not the call for my song. Though in all fairness, because there are traditions, it’s what you’re likely to get when all you do is call some blues, and you haven’t bothered to architect it. The new ending was designed to be a vamp on the tonic, still in the full shuffle, and for everyone to play out in their momentum, which we would gradually fade in the mix, the dramatic metaphor being that life goes on even in the midst of death, even after “The End.” I liked the idea of a song about death having no ending.
And, on how we ended up doing it, a special note of credit needs to go out to Ross Wright.
We were recording live. No isolation booths (except for the vocals). No punching. No cutting & pasting. Yes, I did later overdub some harmonies on the chorus, and Ross did grab a Gretsch guitar off the wall after the session was officially wrapped (and Ken went home to sleep off his fever) and added a few wobbly chords at the beginning for mood. But otherwise this was live, so if we screwed up we started over. We were 98% through our first take, which was clearly a winner. And as we landed on the tonic for the ending cadence, there we were, just sizzling on the F minor, and on bar 5 of this vamp Ross suddenly went from the tonic to the sub-dominant, as if we were going back through the form changes (those wonderful Lanois-inspired changes). I had eye contact with everyone from my booth, and I shot a look at Ross, as in “No! Oh shit! You weren’t supposed to go there.” And he shot a look back at me that said, “Sorry! But now we’re here. It’s a great take. Let’s just keep going.” We all shot a look at each other ― all except for Ken, who was in this world of his own, curing the freaking common cold and uncovering the secret to eternal youth ― and we all agreed to just keep going. Well, progressing to that chord change, which Ken hadn’t expected, only propelled him into an even deeper, danker level of depth and depravity and marvel and wonder and amplifier overdrive. Even Ross had this crazy instant during that cadence of slowly sliding his fingers across the neck of his bass for this pedal-to-the-metal grunge moment that just exploded everything. And so, what had been instructed to be just this simple vamp-out became a whole second solo for Ken, with a second life, and which flung open the doors of Heaven and Hell both. MY GOD was it stunning. More hyperbole, yes. But this is how I think of Ken. He’s a transporter of souls, a deliverer. We eventually did settle on that tonic, which would be faded later in the mix, but the world was on fire by that point. And I smiled at Ross, shaking my head, who, instead of yelling “cut!” or “my bad!” had managed to remain calm and turn his little mistake into a stunning afterlife moment for all involved, and for the song. I defy you to tell me that you don’t hear Ophelia’s cries in that outro solo.
When the take was done, the general consensus was that it was a great take, “now let’s do a few more.” And my only response was “why?”
Quarter note = 64. The tempo of big, bad, tragic, Shakespearean pathos.
Wake up Ophelia. Don’t lay so still.
The sun’s goin’ down, and it’s time for a meal.
I’ve got the whiskey if you’ll bring the buzz,
and together, like in a story, we can fall in love.
With a tremble and a whisper he cried, I know you’re there.
I can see you hidin’ deep inside those dark eyes somewhere.
Where’s my feisty woman? Where’s my sweet honey bee?
Please, please, Ophelia, don’t leave me!
Wake up Ophelia. Don’t you dim your bright eyes.
Wake up Ophelia. Never listen to my lies.
Better get yourself away from danger, girl.
Please wake up and rise.
That man, oh how he begged. Pleadin’ hands around her throat.
“Wake up Ophelia” were the desperate words he spoke.
And he leaned into his whiskey, and he made his arms erupt,
as he begged his sweet Ophelia to please wake up.
Wake up Ophelia. Don’t you dim your bright eyes.
Wake up Ophelia. Never listen to my lies.
Better get yourself away from danger, girl.
Please wake up and rise.
Angela Carole Brown is the author of three published books, The Assassination of Gabriel Champion, The Kidney Journals: Memoirs of a Desperate Lifesaver, and Trading Fours, is a recipient of the Heritage/Soulword Magazine Award in poetry, and has produced several albums of music and a yoga/mindfulness CD. Bindi Girl Chronicles is her writing blog.