The story behind the Grammy-award winning “From A Distance” and the miracles a song can bring, as told by the writer, Julie Gold.
In 1978, at the age of 22, I came to New York in pursuit of my dream of being a songwriter. And while dreams are essential, they 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 proofreader, for a dentist and at a venetian blinds factory.
It 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.
I 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.
In 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.
I 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.
It 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.
The 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.
I sent “From a Distance” around to all my contacts. As usual, most did not even reply. Those who did found fault with my song. My friend and fellow songwriter 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.
Nanci 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.
Nanci 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. What 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.
On 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.
Even 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 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 at last.
They 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. I 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 it.
People seemed to love it, and I won a Grammy for Song of the Year in 1991. 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?
I am now 55. 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 met Paul McCartney. 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 on music boxes and in elevators. I have read it on greeting cards and in children’s books. And it has been played for astronauts in space. It is nothing short of a miracle, and I am never anything but amazed and grateful that the miracle happened to me.