Retrofit Digest: Amy Rigby’s “Knapsack”

A voice, an acoustic  guitar and that crushing instant when one glimpse is enough to fill your head with blossoms, interlocking fingers, the brush of new lips against yours.

He took my knapsack just inside the revolving door. . .wasn’t looking for anything more than a book/But I looked/Isn’t that what eyes are for?

The opening bars of  “Knapsack,”from Amy Rigby’s brilliant 1996 album Diary of a Mod Housewife, presents a haze of micro-details. Biographies, magazines, the casual glance in his direction, the yearning.

Something about him made me feel seventeen — stop/So I’m not/Isn’t that what life is for?

Yes, and music is for kneading the words and melodies into a performance that projects far beyond the realm of anything that can be expressed in letters or musical notation. It’s not in the airy inversions of the guitar chords or the taut, almost angry way she attacks the strings. It’s not simply a question of the intensity in her voice, and the occasional cracks that make her vulnerability so clear.

It’s in all those things, and way beyond them, too. For while the song’s physical structure — the rhythm, the easy chords, the declarative melody and Rigby’s vocal pitch — are clockwork, the thing feels like it’s  reeling out of control.

Now every day I can’t wait to see him/Gonna ask his name/But every day I just hand him my bag and/Everything remains the same…

For all her yearning, for all her hard-wired need to feel the thrall of love; to be swept up in that adolescent whirlpool of sensation, she can’t let herself do it. She imagines what she’d say to convince him of her appeal —  Hey, listen man/I got a band, I understand what life is for –but she’s really lobbying herself. And losing the debate. He smiles at her but she can’t look into his eyes. She loses one job, lands another in another corner of town; she knows it’s all over, well before she had the courage to let it start.

I’ll think about him when I’m in my bed at night/Deep in my sleep/Isn’t that what dreams are for?

But she can’t stop playing those chords, can’t stop remembering that vision, and that feeling.

He took my knapsack/He took my knapsack/He took my knapsack…

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