A powerful song that always affected me deeply, despite, I now know, having no clue what it was really about. Angel’s Doorway displays Vega’s gift for melody, formal song construction, and taut arrangement perhaps better than anything she’s done, and can be enjoyed on that basis however inscrutable the lyrics might be to the casual listener. Just soak in that piano as it weaves its way through the verses, the booming drums and droning bass line, the counterpoint from the penny whistles, the tasteful interjections of synthesizer, and the typically impeccable acoustic guitar work that backs it all up. You won’t hear anything with this many interacting layers outside of the Beatles, and classical music. It really is that good.
But what to make of the words? It seems to be about a woman who insists upon certain house rules that protect her psyche from whatever it is her husband, the “Angel” of the piece, brings home with him from work. She’s adamant. He has to check that shit at the door, and never discuss it.
Angel comes home
His clothes in a cloud
Of the dust and the dirt and destruction
She waits inside
She knows he’s arrived
She feels this with no introduction
At Angel’s door,
You have to leave it on the floor,
Don’t bring it in.
He can’t show
What she doesn’t want to know
Those things he’s seen.
What on Earth could it be, that she doesn’t want it anywhere near her? What’s he doing out there that has to remain unmentionable? How is it redolent of dust and destruction? It seems to be something he doesn’t much care to discuss either:
She knows the smell
Of that life he can’t tell
Of the fires and the flesh and confusion
Inside his brain
It’s never the same
Though he tries to maintain the illusion
She knows the smell. Was this literal or metaphorical? Surely the latter, and if not, what, he works at the dump or something? Maybe construction? Nobody would write a song about that, least of all Suzanne, and in any case nothing so banal could possibly inspire such music. For a while I toyed with the idea that hubby was some sort of unsavoury type, maybe mobbed up or something, who gets his money in ways she’d just as soon not think about. Yet that didn’t seem to suit the tone or the lyrics all that well, any more than anything else I could come up with.
See, I’m a dummy, no matter that I fancy myself a clever boots. It turns out that it’s not a metaphor, it’s not banal, and he’s not a mobster. “Angel” is Angel Ruiz, Vega’s brother-in-law, who was an NYC cop assigned to Ground Zero in the weeks following 9/11. He’d spend long days down there on the hideous pile, and come home with the vile smell of the place woven right into his uniform, covered in dust and debris, numb from the unthinkable horrors that surrounded him day in, day out. His wife, already overwhelmed in the immediate aftermath of the twin towers falling, demanded he take all that stuff off before he entered the house, and keep his peace about what he’d seen and done. None of it could be allowed to cross her threshold, not the soiled and smelly clothes, not the thoughts.
Having found this out, it all seemed so obvious. In cases like this you kick yourself for being so dense; “failure of imagination”, they sometimes call it. This is Suzanne Vega, after all. It was bound to be some sort of unblinking look at harsh reality, or in this case, a sympathetic portrayal of someone’s traumatized refusal to keep looking.