It’s been stated previously in these pages that Greg Keelor is my favourite Canadian songwriter. Keelor is one half of the twin-engine power plant that propels roots-rock institution Blue Rodeo. His scruffy appearance and low-key demeanour are the perfect foil for certified double-platinum lady-killer Jim Cuddy.
Keelor writes songs that cut across many genres – from punk rock to folk, from country-soul to Brill Building pop. But while he has the chops to write in practically any songwriting style, he is unquestionably a master at capturing late-night desolation and longing in words and music. The classic example of this is a song called “Dark Angel”, from Blue Rodeo’s 1994 album Five Days in July.
Like the other songs on the record, “Dark Angel” was recorded at Keelor’s farmhouse retreat. Freed from the omnipresent glow of Toronto’s city lights, you can hear the rural darkness creeping in around the edges of this haunting ballad. The album version of “Dark Angel” is very stripped down – just Keelor and special guest Sarah McLachlan singing, underpinned by piano. In concert, Keelor often rearranges the song for solo guitar, as featured in this link. Regardless of the accompaniment, the vocal melody and relaxed vibe have a way of burrowing into your soul and taking up residence forever. The lyric also manages to be relatively specific, while still being open-ended enough for the listener to superimpose his or her own meaning.
The first half of the song is ostensibly about a special lady friend that crossed paths with Keelor. He recalls how everything that she said to him made perfect sense, and how he was hypnotized by her presence. He sounds like he’s loitering in that state of semi-consciousness between being awake and falling asleep, when abstract thoughts sometimes occur to you with profound clarity. It’s a lyrical sentiment that is reinforced by the languid pace of the music.
My dark angel, she gave me diamonds for eyes
She walked by – now I’m hypnotized
By this dream that just won’t stop
And I feel like I’ve always been lost in this dream
In the second half of the song, Keelor tips his hand and admits that his muse is sadly just a figment of his imagination. To me, the lyric is about yearning and loneliness and the restless, universal search for something more. There is no literal Dark Angel in his past – he simply hopes to walk this earth long enough to finally find her. He’s melancholic, but he clings to the faint hope that it’s just a matter of time.
My dark angel shine your light on my curse
You are the other that I have to find
Until I do I guess I’ll see you ’round in my mind
The metaphysical dreamscape of isolation is revisited in the final refrain:
‘Cause there is this face that I know that I’ve never seen
Sometimes I feel I’m living in someone else’s dream
Still I thank you for stopping to talk
And I wonder just into whose dream did who walk
My favourite lines in the song are the ones where Keelor briefly shifts from dreaming to drafting a plan of action to finally find his special friend. I consider myself to be a pragmatist with a quietly romantic streak, so this seems like a wonderful idea:
So Colorado is the place I have to go
I heard a rumour she loves the mountains and the snow
Once upon a time, those very same words were rolling around in my mind as I moved west to pursue my graduate studies. I was hoping that a change of scenery would help to break me out of my carefully constructed shell. By choosing to live in a co-ed dormitory, I was also hoping to develop an actual social life, something that was I sorely lacking back in ‘the 204’.
One wintry day about a year later, I thought I met my dark angel in (of all places) our dorm’s laundry room. I was minding my own business, folding shirts and matching up pairs of socks, when she walked in with a hamper full of clothes. As a straight, unattached male I’m pretty much guaranteed to notice whenever a pretty woman walks into a room. But on this particular day, what really got my Spidey senses tingling was her operatic, perfectly pitched voice. She hummed quietly to no one in particular while she loaded a washing machine then cracked open a book. I was smitten.
After some initial awkwardness (my specialty), we became friends. We would chat in the hallway, swap CDs and musical recommendations, things like that. I lent her some Smashing Pumpkins and Pink Floyd discs, she lent me some Bowie. I know my league and she wasn’t in it, but I was simply transfixed by that wonderful voice. It turns out she was also a fantastic person – intelligent and compassionate and pragmatic and good-natured. No small wonder that she excelled at nursing.
She went home for the summer while I stayed behind in the residence. In theory I was working on my long-delayed thesis project, but most evenings and weekends I was pounding the hiking and biking trails, trying to make myself look and feel a little more presentable.
When the Lady of the Laundry reappeared in September, we picked up right where we’d left off. We would head out for groceries or music stores on weekends, and we helped to plan a variety of events in the residence. We even ended up at the Symphony Under the Sky together, where the local orchestra kicked off their fall season with Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms in a grassy amphitheatre. My Spidey sense peaked off the charts when she volunteered to stand up and sing that famous melodic motif from “Ode to Joy” for the concert master a cappella between performances. It was all I could do to not propose to her on the spot, but trying to be the master of the ‘slow play’ I somehow kept it together.
Not long after, I had finally resolved to dive head-first into the abyss and ask her out. I spent all week summoning every ounce of courage I had, preparing for the Saturday night party downstairs. But my vaunted ‘slow play’ was my undoing. By the time the party got rolling, I couldn’t help but notice that my dark angel had taken up relations with some Australian douchebag. Some knob with all the charm and charisma of a sack of wet mice. My waking dream had become a nightmare. To this day my blood pressure STILL spikes every time I hear that ridiculous Aussie accent.
I stayed friends with my operatic acquaintance for a few years, which was cool. But after she moved away permanently, I was haunted by the idea of what might have been. In a way, the experience made me appreciate Greg Keelor’s songs even more. I often hear the echoes of two ships passing in the night, or tales of star-crossed lovers that were never meant to be, in songs like “Dark Angel”. And though it sucks when you can’t be with someone that you’re profoundly attracted to, it’s somewhat comforting to know that you’re not alone in your moment of quiet desperation.
This weekend, I’m jetting off to Denver to do some shopping, go on a couple of mountain hikes, and attend a concert at the stunning Red Rocks Amphitheatre. Stay tuned for photographs and more stories from the road. By the time you read this, I should be rolling through the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. And who knows – maybe Colorado truly is the place I have to go.