Mark Olson – Pick me up on your way down
Of Wasserman, he says, “She does some good parts, and it’s not really that it hits you in the face. I’ve always liked the two-voice thing. It’s not any sort of chorus with a bunch of people singing, it’s just the two voices. It’s me with either Cindy or Gary.”
Wasserman’s subtlety tells its own story on “Clifton Bridge”, inspired during Olson’s travels. A girl figures into the song, but less as a principal character than as a catalyst for Hamlet-like musing. The Clifton, a suspension bridge opened in 1864, is the symbol of the English town of Bristol. It spans the drama of the Avon Gorge on the river of the same name. The song turns on an inevitable decision point in any life, any relationship: “Which way will it be? Up or down?”
Olson offers “Clifton Bridge” as an example of his writing process. “It’s pretty much how I go about this thing,” he says. “It’s what happened to me on that day. Pretty much at the end of the day, I wrote the song out on a napkin. But I was writing songs at the time.
“I had been invited to someone’s house in Bristol and it was kinda crazy there…and then I met someone and she took me to this bridge. It’s an old bridge and it’s steep and there’s a sign about calling the Salvation Army if you’re feeling weird or whatever…and then we went into a pub nearby. Pretty much every word is about that.
“I remember popping up that morning, you know, ‘Daylight comes…’ and ‘We walked across the Clifton Bridge’ [the opening lines of the lyric]. And then we get to the decision part — that would be between two people forming lives together — and some ways there can be circumstances that can drive people to destructive behavior, destructive actions.
“But the other side of that story is then thinking about how we live our lives, whether we live our lives in a way that leads to life or leads to death, basically. There are a lot of different things you can do in that, and philosophies that lead to life and philosophies that lead to death. And so that’s what led to that song.
“It’s not some song about whether you’re going to jump off a bridge or not. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about other things. And then I get into that personal story of my childhood and stuff like that with people you’ve met in your childhood that know all about you. Those are some deep feelings you have.”
This is all good to know, because, given that Olson’s father committed suicide, it would be easy to read much more into “Clifton Bridge”. His father does figure into “Keith”, a song Olson says came directly from a dream. “I just woke up from a dream and that was basically there. I actually found this ‘coin in the dirt.’ I was taking somebody to my father’s bar, and I stood him under a willow tree to have a talk with him in this dream, and I wrote it down.”
Like a dream, “Keith” is intense and inscrutable. Sisters seem to offer comfort in times of sorrow, uncles just go back to work, and in the end, bewilderingly, “You will only shoot the songbirds/The little ones have only friends.”
In Norway, Olson’s sense of loss, particularly loss of innocence, was compounded by world affairs. He was riding on a train in July 7, 2005, when suddenly it was stopped. Olson and the other riders eventually learned that Norwegian authorities had stopped the train as a precautionary measure after getting news of the suicide bombings on the London subway which killed more than 50 commuters.
“I was touring that day with a group that did Fairport Convention-type material,” Olson recalls. “We were going to a festival, and they were singing at the festival, too. So they stopped the train and we got off and we were standing there and we started talking about Sandy Denny [the vocalist on many of Fairport Convention’s best-known songs, who died in 1978 of injuries from a fall].
“I knew about Fairport Convention; I knew about Sandy Denny. ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes’ — what a great song! And did you see her when she was young? What a beauty! She had freckles, and there are pictures of her in a schoolgirl’s uniform, and I kinda thought, well, that’s a picture of innocence. After that day, having to think about getting blown up on a train, it’s not a very innocent thing. It’s a very cruel and horrible vision, and people had just died about it.
“So I thought at that time that I was gonna write a song about innocence, and about her innocence, because there’s always been [a sense that] Sandy Denny never made her great record. She always had all this promise, and what it is like for a person with all this promise and not possibly achieve it? What could’ve been the things that held her back?” The result was a song titled, simply, “Sandy Denny”.
Which way will it be? Up or down? Perhaps you might as well ask yin or yang. Most days nobody gets blown up on trains; and for a time, Sandy Denny could be seen as innocence personified. The choice is yours about which you want to focus on, and that choice becomes the philosophy that guides your life.
On the album’s title track, Olson makes the point that “There’s such joy and sweet moments/To be found in this world/We know they’ll come to an end/Just how makes our hearts hurt/Salvation blues/And these blues will help us all.”
Olson chooses “up.”
“I think it’s a good record and I’m ready to work. I have a really good little band now — a violin player and a harmony singer and me — and hopefully everything goes well. It’s the first time I’ve stepped out.
“This is kinda like my chance.”
ND contributing editor Linda Ray knows how the desert can shape a person’s spirit, and that occasionally it’s good to get as far away as possible.