The Dam at Otter Creek

It’s been a few years since I used this space to write about the band LIVE.  They will always be one of my favorite bands, but like all artists, their prominence in my life waxes and wanes.  Seeing as I recently returned to the midstate after a lengthy absence and the once-broken-up band recently reunited, they’ve been top of mind lately.

As such, it also occurred to me recently that, having lived so close to the birthplace of a band I am passionate about, it is perhaps a shame I never took an opportunity to explore the landmarks they’ve created.

LIVE is, to my knowledge, the only rock band, of any era, to call Central Pennsylvania home and to also make that geographical fact an integral part of their identity.  Many bands exist that you don’t know anything about where they’re from–personally I have no idea where Queensryche or Deftones are from (and if you do, it doesn’t disprove what I’m saying, so can it) and many bands claim places like California or cities like Boston or New York, or regions like the South or New England.  But LIVE is from Central PA, and York specifically, and their (early) songs are unabashedly about this region.  Ed (the singer) mentions York often, from the stage during concerts all around the world.  So they’re not just a band from Central PA.  These are contemporary artists who have made incredibly successful art about our area; music that is sung by fans all over the world; Ed Kowalczyk crafted lyrics inspired by the very specific blend of elements present in this region and mined universally recognized themes from them.

Their second album, “Throwing Copper” was really the first that most people heard, and it was an international phenomenon.  Their fall from public favor over the years may have obscured the degree to which they were succesful at the time, but “Throwing Copper” was a truly behemoth hit.  Rolling Stone named the band their entertainers of the year that year.  And as popular as the album was in America, it exceeded that breadth in Europe (as the band continues to, to this day).  And “Throwing Copper”–the album the whole world was hip to in 1994 (it would eventually sell 8 million copies) opens with a song called “The Dam at Otter Creek”.

Most of “Throwing Copper” consists of taut, pop-inflected rock with singable choruses. Not so “The Dam at Otter Creek”.  The song opens the album with quiet melodic guitar fuzz, as if an imagined sound from far away.  Like music that had been read in a book, or dreamed. A man’s indistinct voice can be heard.  Is he on a megaphone? What is he saying?  We can’t be sure.  Slowly the sound coagulates, forms into simple repetitive chords, and, like a slow roll of thunder, Ed intones,

When all that’s left to do
is reflect on what’s been done
this is where sadness breeds.
The sadness of everyone.

This is not the typical stuff of radio rock.  This is a song about not living in the past–a common theme, for sure, but not presented in a typical fashion.  For the rest of the song, Ed makes a very bold decision as a lyricist.  In the first stanza (the one above) he presents to us his thesis: if all you think about is the past, that is some sad shit. But then instead of just presenting more lyrics about that idea, he tells us a story, about a time “the guys” built a dam at Otter Creek, and a man dove into the deep water and died.  It is up to the listener to decide how this story relates to the thesis.  Then, after the story, Ed treats us to the wailed refrain:

Be here now.

Of course, if you simply remove the story about the boy at Otter Creek, you have this:

When all that’s left to do
is reflect on what’s been done
this is where sadness breeds.
The sadness of everyone.

Be here now.

So that is a fairly neatly encapsulated philosophy: live in the moment, living in the past is sad.  BUT the “Be here now” line also interplays with the Otter Creek story; is Ed asking us to place ourselves in the shoes of an observer, on the bank of the Creek, watching the boy get carried out in the stretcher?  The listener can make choices about how they want to hear this song; Ed has left some of it in our hands.

Musically, the song builds to an unforgettable crescendo as Ed implores us to Be here now in a vocal rhythm that can only be described as highly unusual.  As a teenager, I had to consult my liner notes to figure out what he was saying.

Before I go on, I will present the complete lyrics and a YouTube of the song itself:

“The Dam at Otter Creek”
Ed Kowalczyk

When all that’s left to do
is reflect on what’s been done
this is where sadness breeds.
The sadness of everyone.

Just like when the guys
built the dam at Otter Creek
and all the water backed up.
Deep enough to dive.

We took the dead man in sheets to the river
flanked by love.
Deep enough to dive.
Be here now.

We took him three and three
in a stretcher made from trees
that had passed in the storm.
Leave the hearse behind.
To leave the curse behind,
be here now.


A few weeks ago, it occurred to me that I live awfully close to York, and so I probably live awfully close to Otter Creek.  So I started researching it.  Where is the creek, where is the dam?

Well, it’s a thorny question to ask.  A lot of people on the internet have a lot of answers.  Where the creek is is simple enough–it meanders for a few miles in the rural farmland outside of York, eventually emptying into the Susquehanna near a tiny place called Airville.  But the dam?  Some say there used to be one, some say there never was, others that the song tells a true story about kids who made their own dam.  Ultimately I decided I’d go see for myself.

There is a famous picture on the back of “Throwing Copper” that shows a sign for the Otter Creek Recreation Area.  This is that album art:



I was able to figure out quite easily where this was.  This is a parking lot that belong to the Otter Creek Campground, but is open to folks who are not campers at the campground.  The interesting thing about this parking lot is it is RIGHT AT the spot that Otter Creek empties into the Susquehanna River, AND it is in a spot that there is a river island about 150 yards from shore, making the Susquehanna look very small, so people pulling into the parking lot might be confused as to what body of water they are really looking at.  It’s, quite frankly, a little confusing.  Here is a picture I took of this confusion:


Alas, the famous sign from the album art has been changed, as one would imagine it would be after 25 years.  Here are the sings there now:



While the sign has been changed, after having been there, one can clearly tell it is the same parking lot as the one in the album photo.

Here are a few more pictures I took while in the campground parking lot:



Interesting, right? Given the lyrical content of the song. However, this is ALL Susquehanna River right here. If one dove here they would not be diving into Otter Creek,

One immensely interesting takeaway here is that the creek emptying into the Susquehanna finally sheds light on the lyric “They took the dead man in sheets to the river”.  What a perplexing line that has always been for me! I’d often wonder if we were talking about a creek or a river, and why/how do you take a dead man from the place he got hurt…to the place he got hurt?  But standing there, I can see that they would be moving him from the small creek to the large river.  Now…why they might do that would still be a mystery.  Also, this geography coupled with the lyric almost makes it certain Ed’s lyric is about this very specific spot.

And so, voila, that being the case, I will tell you, there is no dam there.  Maybe there was at some time, of that I have no idea.

Yes, some people will say this: there is a dam on the Susquehanna about a mile downriver.  I’ve seen some folks say THAT is the dam in the song.  That’s clearly poppycock.  Admittedly, it would be more clear if the song was “The Dam ON Otter Creek” instead of AT; the at does leave room for interpretation, but it is my assertion that the line “we carried the dead man in sheets to the river” authoritatively places the story at the confluence of Otter Creek and the Susquehanna River, dam be damned.

After I spent some time in looking around the confluence area, I got back in my car and drove for an hour or so around the country in the area, criss-crossing back and forth over the creek as many times as I could, looking for more access points; maybe secretly hoping for signs of a dam, but also just vibing in the origins of LIVE and remembering there are things about the midstate that are worthy of high art.  Yes, it is beautiful, serene, and contemplative, but as Ed is aware in plenty of other songs, it can be dark, derelict, and sinister.

That being said, here are a few other shots I took of the creek at other points on my drive:



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