This Article Originally Published September 1998
by Julie Gold
I came to New York in 1978 at the age of 22 in pursuit of my
dream of being a songwriter. I would wait my turn to get a
chance to play one lousy song in some dark, smoky, noisy room
in hopes of being discovered. Waiting in the dark in pursuit
of the same dreams were Christine Lavin, Cliff Eberhardt,
Shawn Colvin, Suzanne Vega, John Gorka, and Lucy Kaplansky.
am very proud to have shared such a vital and rich history
with musicians who I hold in such high esteem. It was a special
and unique time, and, although it was filled with heartbreak
and despair, I wouldn't trade one second of that rich time
in my life.
I became friends with many of these special people, especially
Christine. We were very in touch with each other's ups and
downs. She'd have a new manager, and I'd lose my old one.
She'd get a gig, I'd get a gig. And we sent each other tapes
of our newest songs.
tell you all this because it really figures into my happy
are essential, but they sure don't pay the rent. For years,
I worked various temp jobs while gigging at night and sending
songs out whenever possible. I demonstrated vacuum cleaners,
Mr. Coffees and toaster ovens. I worked the flea markets,
as a proof reader, for a dentist, and at a venetian blinds
was a struggle. No health benefits. No money for recreational
purposes. Desperation. Self doubt. Fear. We all know what
that's like. But, all the while, I clung to my dream like
a life preserver. I knew why I was born, and no one could
discourage me from reaching my mountaintop. I was willing
to die trying. Honest I was.
finally gave in to taking a full-time job as a secretary at
HBO in 1984. It was a smart move. Ah, the magic of a steady
paycheck. In my spare time and evening hours, I was of course
still gigging, writing songs, and dreaming my big dream. Now,
however, I didn't have that horrible daily struggle of keeping
my head above water financially.
1985, just before my 30th birthday, my parents sent me the
piano I grew up playing. I had just served as a juror on an
emotionally trying case, my brother had just married, and
I was questioning my life to date, wondering what my future
could possibly hold.
took the day off work to be home when my piano arrived, and
I remember how it glistened in the sun as the movers lowered
it off the truck. My piano. My truest love and friend. My
confidante. Back together again after all these years.
came into my little, one room apartment and fit just where
I hoped it would. The movers told me that it had been on the
truck for 24 hours, so I had to give it a chance to settle.
They said I couldn't play it for a full day. So, there we
were in the same room, unable to make music. I remember hugging
it and polishing it. Then I went to bed. My bed was a high
loft bed, and I looked down on my piano all night to make
sure it was really there.
next day, I sat down and "From a Distance" just poured out
of me. On one hand, it took me two hours to write. On the
other hand, it took me 30 years. Pick whichever hand makes
you happy. I love them both.
sent "From a Distance" around to all my contacts. As usual,
most did not even reply. Those who did found fault with my
song. Christine Lavin loved it and requested copies to send
around to her friends and contacts. Within two weeks, my scratchy
demo was getting radio play thanks to Christine. Then I came
home one day to a flashing message on my answering machine.
There was a gentle, unknown voice identifying herself as Nanci
Griffith. Christine had sent her the song, she loved it, and
was asking to record it.
magic moment was the beginning of my big break. Allow me to
tell you a little bit more.
recorded "From a Distance" on her first album for MCA. I remember
sitting at The Bottom Line the first time I saw her perform
it live and observing her audience sing along. That's when
I realized that my life would never be the same.
sang that song all over the world, and I was still very much
a secretary. She would call me at work from Belfast and tell
me how the song was affecting people around the world. She
took me out on the road with her several times, just so I
could play the piano as she sang that one song.
incredible moments we shared. Me, away from my day job and
in the spotlight with a beloved world-class talent. Me, getting
love and honor from total strangers all because of one little
song. Me, basking in the light of my life-long dream.
June 16, 1988, I played Carnegie Hall with Nanci. All my relatives
came up from Philadelphia to share the miracle. Most of them,
including my mother, are immigrants. In many ways, I am their
American Dream. What an amazing dream it is. As I write this,
I can't even believe it's true. But it is. It really is.
with all this glory, however, I was still a secretary. I still
lived in one little dark room. I still barely made enough
money to survive. Believe it or not, I was depressed and despondent.
I remember crying on the phone to both my parents (who, incidentally,
were never anything short of supportive, encouraging, and
fully loving with regard to my dream). On this occasion, I
remember my desperation and how they tried to console me with
a stereo pep talk. It didn't work. Finally, they asked what
they could do to help me feel better. For the first and only
time in my life, I asked them to please pay my rent for six
months. They agreed, and July 7, 1989 was my last day of work
at HBO. I walked down Sixth Avenue, crying all the way. Free
were the best six months of my life. Finally, a musician full-time.
I made my hours. I wrote my songs. I called. I mailed. I pitched.
I played. I prayed. I sent songs to every singer in the world.
I walked tall. I felt good.
received my first royalty check from Nanci's foreign performances
of "From a Distance," and that bought me another six months
of freedom. During this time, I received a call from Marc
Shaiman, who identified himself as Bette Midler's musical
director. She was making a new record, and, in their search
for songs, they called Stephen Holden at the New York Times
for suggestions. Stephen told Marc about "From a Distance,"
Marc called me, I sent the scratchy demo, and Bette recorded
seemed to love it, and I won a Grammy for Song of the Year
in 1991 (it was for 1990). Here I was still living in one
dark room, no money, uncertain of my future, and yet my song
was on the radio and I had won a Grammy. If that isn't a dream
come true, what is?
am now 42. I live in a beautiful condo with air, light, and
a view of my beloved New York, the city of dreams. I earn
my living as a songwriter. I have hugged Burt Bacharach. I
have dined with Lamont Dozier. I have chatted with Carole
Bayer Sager. I have laughed with Cyndi Lauper.
I have heard "From a Distance" in many languages. I have felt it in Braille. I have heard it in music boxes and in elevators. I have read it on greeting cards and in children's books. It is nothing short of a miracle, and I am never anything but amazed and grateful that the miracle happened to me.