A Rose Mary Stretch of the Imagination
Everything I know about Watergate, I learned from Built to Spill
Some beliefs are held so tightly that they suffocate in our grasp—martyred and immortalized before we think to question their validity. That’s the kind of stranglehold I applied to this notion: Keep It Like a Secret, Built to Spill’s fourth full-length record, was a concept album about Rose Mary Woods, Richard Nixon’s secretary. Specifically surrounding her efforts to stonewall for him during the Watergate investigation.
That’s weird, right? That I would think that that were the case. I mean, it’s not. I asked Doug Martsch about it after a show in Ogden last year—and by asked, I mean that I ran down to the foot of the stage and shouted my question at him while he was packing up his gear. Doug looked at me warily. I knew I was emitting a real nutso vibe, but I didn’t care. I needed to know. In a fight-or-flight kind of tone he said “No…” I asked if he was sure, and he said he was “pretty sure…” and quickly skittered off stage right. So, I guess that’s that.
Even so, to this day any time I listen to a song like “Temporarily Blind,” I can’t help but feel connected to Rose, a woman whose world has collapsed around her—even though I know the song was never meant to be about her. Somehow, knowing the truth hasn’t weakened that connection.
Despite my best efforts, I don’t really know how I came to believe it in the first place. I have a vague memory of standing in line for Lazer Floyd at the Pacific Science Center and my friend Rohit telling me about it. I knew “Watergate” because I’d seen Forest Gump — the rest would have been a mystery. I am more and more convinced that I invented the specifics of this memory. I’ve tried to verify that something like it actually happened, but to no avail — my friend Rohit claims Rashomon (to his credit he was mostly interested in Modest Mouse at the time).
Vapors of the idea’s genesis have wafted up from the internet as I’ve searched: Jeff Golick wrote a review of KILaS for MTV News in 1999, wherein he explains in some detail the connections between many tracks on the album and Rose’s work for the troubled administration. His observations are compelling, though possibly completely fabricated. None of the lyrics that Golick quotes actually appear in any of the music on KILaS. Consider this passage from his 1999 review:
“Center of the Universe” finds Woods lamenting her relative position in the ongoing investigation — “I so miss the time I served up bagels and lox/ for Katharine Graham and Archibald Cox.”
Yeah, that’s not in there. Brilliant, but altogether missing. I was holding out hope that Jeff had received an (extremely) advance promo of the album for review purposes, but alas it wasn’t so. I reached out to Jeff over Facebook and he confirmed, “Honestly? I think I was just reaching for something ridiculous to link to the record.”
There is another compelling connection here in Built to Spill’s then-recently-added drummer, Scott Plouf. Around the same time that KILaS was released another up-and-coming Northwest band, The Spinanes (a solo indie outfit featuring female lead, Rebecca Gates) had put out an album, Arches and Aisles, with a track titled “72–74,” about—you guessed it—Rose Mary Woods. In another piece written for MTV News, Colin Devenish observes:
… “72–74” provides a peek into Gates’ feelings about the resilience of fallen celebrities, from junk-bond king Michael Milken to Watergate participant G. Gordon Liddy, as viewed through the eyes of Richard Nixon’s former secretary Rose Mary Woods.
Prior to Arches and Aisles The Spinanes had been a two-piece indie outfit. The second member of that outfit: Scout Plouf. Taking all of this into consideration, I’ve imagined the following exchange, in the offices of MTV News, in the late 1990s:
Jeff: Have you listened to Keep It Like a Secret? I’m writing a review on it, looking for an angle.
Colin: Oh, yeah! It’s great. You know the drummer for Built to Spill is the same guy from the Spinanes? They just came out with an album this year. Weird stuff. There’s this one track about Nixon’s secretary, like during Watergate.
J: Whoa, that is weird.
C: Yeah, total concept album.
At which point Jeff, slightly misunderstanding Colin, runs with that angle because who wouldn’t? Anyway, that’s how I imagine it going down, but you have seen by now that my imagination takes liberties.
Regardless, in 1999 I had no access to MTV—something I would reluctantly admit as a teenager, but feel fine about now. Someone I knew must have read Jeff’s article, and somehow communicated the gist of it to me—at which point the seed took root in my consciousness, even if the soil wasn’t fertile. Still, I struggle to reconcile such a vague origin with a concept that informed so much of my relationship with Music from that point on.
It was the late summer of 2000, and I was at the grand opening of the Experience Music Project in Seattle. Even though I had gone to see Screaming Trees, sonically I only recall Built to Spill. I had never heard so many guitars so mellifluously doing whatever the eff they wanted. Here were songs that innovated in ways I didn’t know were acceptable. They zigged, and zagged and coalesced into catchy choruses. It was my introduction to them and I was completely enthralled. I seared the lyrics of “Dystopian Dream Girl,” into my memory so I could find the song later.
These were the heady days of Napster; of dialup and downloads; of RealMedia players and Conan O’Brien guest appearances that took longer to buffer than to watch. I spent a lot of time on the internet burying myself in unfathomable depths of sonic discovery. In retrospect, it makes sense I would give carte blanche to any evidence that Doug Martsch was a genius—consider what you are reading here: I remain a man obsessed.
While I was quickly sold on the genius of Built to Spill, KILaS was nevertheless a grower for me. At first I listened to “You Were Right” on repeat. Then I started looking for other tracks that sounded like “Dystopian Dream Girl,” or “Big Dipper,” without much luck. The closest I came was “Center of the Universe,” the poppiest (briefest) song on the album. I also liked “Time Trap,” because of the jammy intro. As time went by, however, I found myself humming bits and pieces of other tracks. The jangling strum that builds and fades throughout “Else,” the groovy wall of sound that closes “Carry the Zero,” or that hopeful, melancholy — distinctly Doug Martschian — guitar wail that was everywhere on the album.
But something else was happening, too. After my (imagined) encounter at the Pacific Science Center, the idea that Doug Martsch was really saying something about humanity with KILaS through the lens of one woman’s lonely, misunderstood perseverance spoke to me. Eventually I was listening to the album start to finish on repeat and constructing a narrative of the Watergate Scandal that dovetailed with every changing time-signature and layer of guitar.
Believe it or not, the preceding is merely introduction to what I really set out to do, which is: Give narrative form to an understanding of one woman in american history that has incubated in the back of my mind for 16 years.
The following is the story of my Rose Mary Woods.
This is not an account overly concerned with historical accuracy — just the opposite in fact. The following is the story of my Rose Mary Woods. The biography of a woman whose place in history I’ve imagined for the better part of two decades with my only text the greatest achievement of the “Northwest Sound,” and pondered questions of ambition, loyalty, trust and love. So without further ado, I present you: