At Waterloo  (Jody Stecher) 

The events that inspired “At Waterloo” and “The Southwest Train” were experienced in sequence on the same day. They were composed one after the other, using the same guitar tuning (DGDGBD),  and I sing them in sequence as well. I was sitting on a bench at London Waterloo Station, with hours to spare before my train was to arrive. I was so jet-lagged I barely knew my own name. The bench was beside a WH Smith cubicle. I had a suitcase, a mandolin, and the weight of my exhaustion. Off to my left side I could see a guitar case approaching. 

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  I had gotten interested in nineteenth century banjo music and in nineteenth century English banjos. I had been bidding on English eBay and winning. I live in San Francisco and the cost of shipping from the UK is high so I had the banjos shipped to the home of a good friend in England who kept them under his bed until I could come and retrieve them. Coincidental with my winning my fifth English banjo auction I got a notice from an airline saying that I had a lot of award miles piled up,  and if I didn’t use them very soon they were going to feed them to the alligators. So I decided to take a December holiday in England, visit my friend, retrieve my banjos, disassemble them for easy fitting in my luggage, and come home again. I also was delivering a large mandolin to a friend with large hands. So there I was, and off to the left I could make out the approach of a guitar case. It advanced quickly and I perceived that the case had a handle and the handle was in contact with a hand. Connected to the hand was an arm and a body, which I recognized as belonging to a friend of mine. His trajectory was so deliberate and steady that he seemed to be moving along a track. He got very near and I became embarrassed and looked down for perhaps 2 seconds. When I looked up he was gone.  My embarrassment was due to my reluctance to greet him. My reluctance was due to my extreme jet lag which made it difficult to think, talk, or move.  This was a good friend and I here I was in his country, and I had been here for several hours and hadn’t contacted him. Because what could I have said? I’m here but I haven’t planned to see you?  Another few seconds passed and I determined that his disappearance was due to his train track having led him into the WH Smith stationary cubicle. I told myself I was being ridiculous and I went in after him. He had vanished. Before my belongings vanished into the hands of very vigilant station police on the alert for unattended baggage which might explode, I left the cubicle, gathered my things, and re-entered the shop and looked around more carefully. I did not find my friend but I did find a back door. Aha! The train track must have led him out that way. 

I went back to the bench and sat and thought things over. Did he see me? Did he see me look down? Did that hurt his feelings? Or did it afford him an opportunity to escape without having to interact with me? Why would he want to avoid interaction? Maybe he was on his way to a recording session and didn’t want to be late. I wonder if the session  could use a mandolin player? My train isn’t for hours; why  should he not want my mandolin on his session? I began to contemplate alternate futures. What if I had looked up and spoke to him? Would it still rain on tuesday?  That’s how the song “At Waterloo” got started. The mood is of regret and exhaustion. I felt like a bad friend and was ashamed of my momentary looking away. But the song also contemplates habitual behavior and how the possibilities for various futures are narrowed by staying on the familiar track. 

The line about “Shirley is a train” is an ancient pun from the song Long Journey Home. “Black smoke a-rising and it surely is a train”. “Surely” sometimes sounds like “Shirley”.  The line about “stream or habit stone” was originally written as “soup or habit stone” but it provoked too many blank looks from listeners. 

At Waterloo 

© Jody Stecher,  Vegetiboy Music (BMI) 

Like two ships in the night we were trains in the day 
Your engine moved in the old familiar way 
Turning at my station where I rest my weary bones 
I caught a glimpse and you were gone 

Black smoke a rising and Shirley is a train 
Her engine moves in the old family way 
Her carriage a future of stream or habit stone 
But she caught a glimpse and she was gone 

How many futures exist side by side? 
How many presents does our presence decide? 
Did I speak, did I greet you, did our engines collide? 
In this one my poor tongue was tied 

I was a pilgrim and a stranger 
Traveling the road now an old familiar way 
One turn of solar cycle in your path did return me 
Did you turn, did you speak, did you see? 

So many futures exist side by side 
So many presents does our presence decide 
In this very present my poor tongue was tied 
In another did our trains collide? 

How many futures exist side by side? 
How many presents does our presence decide? 
Did I speak, did I greet you, did our trains collide? 
In this one my poor tongue was tied 

Jody Stecher: vocal and guitar