I first heard Tom Jobim’s “Águas de Março (Waters of March)” over ten years ago, while walking down the street in Brazil. It’s one of the few distinct memories I have of what amounted to a glorified Christian mission trip. I roomed with a former neo-Nazi who talked in his sleep, I learned how to play soccer, and the place our group stayed was situated in a portion of forest where monkeys and massive spiders hung from the trees in the morning. Mostly I remember asking one of the neighbors down the street from our accommodations if they knew what the name of that song was after catching a few lines of it. This neighbor didn’t speak much English, I didn’t speak any Portuguese, but I hummed the melody and they knew what I was trying to say. “Águas de Março” is an ode to March — a list of images, sounds, and emotions that Jobim wrote down after a particularly rainy day in Rio de Janeiro. In Brazil, March marks the end of summer and the beginning of autumn when the rain tends to fall hardest. “The plan of the house, the body in bed, and the car that got stuck, it's the mud, it's the mud.”
It’s always felt fitting to me that, despite the difference in seasons in other parts of the world, March acts as an anchor of transition, one of the few months of the year where I feel a palpable sense of change. In the southwest, it’s either cool or warm (the last few years have been inconsistent), but the sun shines and better movies start coming out regardless. It’s also Lent. During mass this past Ash Wednesday, the priest — an elderly man who moved about the center of the church like a spry teen — gave a homily about death. “Remember you are dust,” and so forth. He talked about reflection, about the ways we can try to be better people, why Catholics give up something they enjoy during this period, why fasting is necessary, all things standard for the Lenten season. Even if you aren’t Catholic, these observations tend to worm their way into the periphery, leaves turning, snow melting, the distance between you now and you last year a little more comfortable. Then, at the very end of his monologue, the priest said, “It’s also March, and what better month to do all of this in?”
Over the course of his life, Tom Jobim, who also composed “The Girl from Ipanema,” recorded several different versions of “Águas de Março,” both in English and Portuguese. Lots of people think that his duet with Elis Regina from the 1974 album Elis & Tom, the one I happened to hear in Brazil, is the definitive one. Not just for the playfulness and lightness that Regina’s voice brings, but because often Jobim, a soothing baritone in his own right, steps back from his own song and lets a far more musical voice take over. You can hear it throughout, his vocalizations sung softly behind Regina, who sings the lyrics like little prayers. “The wood of the wind, a cliff, a fall, a scratch, a lump, it is nothing at all.”
This is the whole song: commas and commas and the cycle of life. Somewhat shamefully, I didn’t understand this until I heard Art Garfunkel’s English-language cover at the end of The Worst Person in the World. Before this, when I listened to“Águas de Março” I only knew what the melody made me feel. I will say that there are few pieces of art as beautiful as that song that can simultaneously give hope for the future, whatever that might mean to you, while reminding that the end, whenever it comes, is inevitable. It’s March now and I know that there’s more bullshit happening around me than ever. I know that I have friends who are hurting and family who are nearing the end of their time here. I often don’t know if what I’m doing is right and sometimes the things that feel good are so fleeting it makes nihilism seem irresistible. One song can’t change that. But for me, this month, this turning point in the year, teetering on the edge of something new, is about finding some sense of balance. St. Pathos says, “Do not believe your thoughts, neither when they tell you that you are terrible, nor when they tell you that you are a saint.” Jobim is less straightforward though possibly more profound. It’s a “stick, a stone, the end of the load, the rest of a stump, a lonesome road, a sliver of glass, a life, the sun, a night, a death, the end of the run.”
Nicholas Russell is a writer from Las Vegas. His work has been featured in The Believer, Defector, Reverse Shot, Vulture, The Guardian, NPR Music, and The Point, among other publications.