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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.

2 comments on “Song of the Day: Suzanne Vega – Angel’s Doorway

  1. Anonymous says:

    I know that smell. My hubby and I visited NYC on a flight-connection-pause in November, 2001. We took the train from Newark, switching in New York, and then the Twin Towers stop was ‘closed’. A passenger told us where to get off, and you could smell it before you walked up the steps to ground level. It was horrid and weird, and we walked the fencing, full of notes, teddy bears, toys, candles, letters, flowers, mourners, visitors….it’s like the smell of an electrical fire mixed with the smell of a death and molten metals and plastics still burning. This was about 2 months after 9-11. For those who don’t know, it was still burning then, still being put out continually, still collapsing and still smoking. Water trucks came down the streets about every half-hour or hour, hosing down the dust-mud-particulate fall-out in the area. A parking sign was blasted flush with the sidewalk, a flush horizontal, about 2 blocks away, and directly across the street from the church that still stood. It was simply stunning in every hurtful way, as well as amazing in the resilient determination of the men and women working there then, through damage and danger. It was like this is what you did if you clutched for life at the moment of death and managed to claw your way back. We know a couple whose son worked there then in the fire department, and had long-lasting serious and debilitating health issues years later. This is also so sad. Someday I hope to visit that place again. And always mark 9-11 as a day for personal mourning.
    Love Susan Vega. I was going to guess someone returning from war – but that was what it was, in effect.


    1. graemecoffin says:

      Thanks for taking the time to share those vivid, harrowing memories. When I first visited what was then Ground Zero, the cleanup was complete, and there were two great holes in the ground, stable and reinforced, like sockets waiting for somebody to screw something into them if they could ever stop arguing about what. Could this really have been the same place we’d visited years before? – we’d been to NYC in the mid-nineties, and like millions of out of town rubes, had taken the ride to the top. I remember standing on the roof of one tower, looking at the other, and the yawning gap between them that somehow made the extreme height more real, and more frightening. The towers were enormous, far bigger than any habitable structures in my home town, which has some pretty high buildings in the thousand foot range, and the CN tower, which is 1800 feet tall but nowhere near as impressive as the Twin Towers were. Now they were just gone. It was, and remains, a little hard to process properly.
      We’ve been back to the completed new tower, and ridden to its top too. But for the memorial and associated museum, there’d be no sign that anything horrible had ever happened. The memorial, two large, square sunken fountains where those empty sockets had been, is astonishingly moving, with the water pouring down and all the names of the dead arrayed along the sides, listed not alphabetically, but grouped together according to affinity, the names of friends and co-workers close together. One wonders what future generations will make of it, and whether the events of that day will seem real to them, given that even some of us who were around when it all happened can still barely believe it.


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