What a long history this song has. I wrote version #1 in a rather bleak mood one day in February ’79, as students in my three Freshman Comp sections were writing in-class essays. By the end of three dreary back-to-back hours enclosed in a windowless room, I’d finished a draft of seven verses, in one of those blue composition books I forced the poor kiddies to use in those early days of my teaching. Maybe that first draft is still in a box some place. Who knows?
The song arose out of my unconscious from memories of 1972 European travels during a study abroad experience and the overwhelming feeling, in 1979, that that transformative semester was far behind me, perhaps never to be seen again. With just my Gibson Dove acoustic guitar in the summer of 1980, I recorded the original alone one day in my dank basement on Cortelyou Place, on a simple Akai stereo reel-to-reel with sound-on-sound capability for one overdubbed lead guitar before it would all degenerate into audio mush.
Still, it was a breakthrough for me at the time, lyrically a significant leap forward from anything I’d written before, and so it lifted my spirits and got me through dark times, in spite of the depressed theme and the crude recording. For one thing, this was years before I discovered my best voice. The song deserved better, but, for whatever reason, I didn’t even attempt to record it with the songs I did for the Kangaroo album in 1985. I think its vision was just too grim for that essentially upbeat collection. Thus the song languished for years.
Finally, in 2011, I dug it up again, significantly reworking many of the original seven verses and chord structure, and messing with it over the next few years before attempting another recording in 2016, with a grungy electric punk sound, the rough and tumble demo version included here.
Still unsatisfied, however, I wrestled with it some more last year, added three new verses, extending the thing to close to 10 minutes long, and further revised the original seven. I think it has a more comprehensive vision than the original, something closer to the potential I always saw in it. A few of the original lines still survive though, and the mysterious Ramona’s still with me. I couldn’t begin to tell you who she is. I keep fiddling with them, but the lyrics below are up-to-date, and I promise to post a brand new recording soon and maybe a video if all goes well. I’ve been tinkering with synthesizers again.
I’d say enjoy it, but that’s hardly the word for a song like this. You might find it an endurance test to make it to the end. Go ahead. See if you can.
Sitting with Ramona in an ancient empty tomb,
We talk of Barcelona when the lilacs were in bloom.
The past is full of shadows as we try to reminisce,
So we light another candle on the edge of the abyss.
A corpse face down in the Tiber floats by San Angelo
And the hollow coliseum, where the martyrs make their show.
If you climb to the top of the Spanish Steps, you can hear the vipers hiss,
And poor John Keats draws one last breath on the edge of the abyss.
Von Aschenbach’s in Venice, strolling by the Grand Canal,
While from an upper window young girls sing that sweet chorale.
And D’Annunzio in a gondola fingers him some bliss,
As Hemingway lifts another glass to the edge of the abyss.
There’s a snowfall in the valley, as the train blows straight on through.
Kafka checks your passport, and he sends you to Camus.
The dying gods of glaciers whisper secrets to the Swiss,
Six hundred stripped stark naked on the edge of the abyss.
Let us bow to Victor Hugo, sitting somber by the Seine,
As Quasimodo and Esmeralda taste the cold December rain.
We fall into le rouge et noir of a long and fretful kiss,
And Gustav Klimt will paint us on the edge of the abyss.
The four winds blow ‘cross Normandy through the gardens of Flaubert,
As seabirds on the beaches sense that something’s in the air,
Trying to convince themselves there’s nothing much amiss,
When waves of blood crash in to shore on the edge of the abyss.
By the Tower Bridge of London, where the princess lost her head,
The Thames turns dark and crimson, as we remember all the dead.
As John Donne duels with Darwin and they take their aim and miss,
The thief retreats to Bedlam on the edge of the abyss.
In Edinburgh Castle, as it’s seen from Arthur’s Seat,
Mary Queen of Scots can smell the victory and defeat.
Down by the docks of Liverpool, there’s a sound you can’t dismiss,
John Lennon slain on Mathew Street on the edge of the abyss.
So we tramp on through an ice storm and slip across a frozen lake,
From Conwy to Canaervon, half asleep and half awake.
In dear old dirty Dublin, the Liffey’s filled with piss,
And Connemara calls us to the edge of the abyss.
Now we scull the North Atlantic, which licks its icy lips.
Beneath the iron waters, we can see Ulysses’ ships.
A journey through the ages, yes, and all we’ve got is this—
A fog in New York harbor on the edge of the abyss.
1979, 2011, 2015, 2019, 2020
The Edge of the Abyss (1979)
Sitting with Ramona, in an ancient empty room,
We talk of Barcelona, when the flowers were in bloom.
The past is full of shadows as we try to reminisce,
Peering into darkness on the edge of the abyss.
The mystery of the Tiber flows by Saint Angelo
And the hollow coliseum where the ghosts of martys go.
Behind the gates of silence, you can hear the serpent hiss
Waiting for some sinners on the edge of the abyss.
There’s a snowfall in the valley as the train comes whistling through.
The conductor checks your passport and he stares right into you.
The mountains loom above you, keeping secrets from the Swiss,
And you run from your unconscious on the edge of the abyss.
The bells of the cathedral by the waters of the Seine
Ring out a somber message that is swallowed by the rain.
We laughed and then we melted in a long undying kiss,
Courting with a demon on the edge of the abyss.
So we drifted into London, feeling lost and so afraid.
The Thames ran deep and murky where our shadows wept and prayed.
In the darkness there’s a target, so we take our aim and miss,
And the thief retreats to bedlam on the edge of the abyss.
We traveled through an ice storm and spent the night out in the snow.
From Bangor to Canaervon we fled a nameless foe.
Upon the slopes of Snowdon, we could feel the touch of bliss,
But we fell back into chaos on the edge of the abyss.
So we sailed across the ocean, which licked its icy lips.
Beneath the cold blue water, we could see Ulysses’ ships.
A journey through the ages and all we’ve got is this,
Silence in the midnight on the edge of the abyss.