The sudden popularity of 'From a Distance' amazes songwriter Julie Gold


February 08, 1991|By Jean Marbella

Imagine that you hate war -- its senselessness, its destruction, its all-out inhumanity -- and so you write a song expressing all that.

But no one's particularly interested in hearing it . . . until an actual war starts.

"It's sadly ironic that the song is meaningful now," said Julie Gold, who has watched "From a Distance," a song she wrote five years ago, become an unofficial anthem of the Persian Gulf war. Nominated for three Grammys, it is one of the most frequently requested songs both on radio stations here and on Armed Forces Radio in Saudi Arabia.

The wistful, affecting ballad, a version of which was released on a Bette Midler album in August, has struck the proverbial chord in the nation. Perhaps it is emblematic of the mood surrounding this war -- it's not an angry song, but a rather melancholy one, a call to harmony rather than to arms or even to protest.

"To hear people tell me what I've done to affect their lives . . . I had a woman crying on the phone to me. They say it's given them strength," Ms. Gold said in a recent interview as she prepared for an appearance at the Birchmere nightclub in Alexandria, Va.

Ms. Midler's version of "From a Distance" has been No. 1 on Billboard magazine's top 100 chart and on its Hot 100 list for 19 weeks. It is expected to be a big winner at the Grammy ceremony Feb. 20, completing the fairy tale for the 35-year-old songwriter, who never before had one of her works recorded.

In fact, it wasn't so long ago that Ms. Gold -- a face-scrunching, arm-gesturing, instantly endearing sort -- supported herself by demonstrating vacuum cleaners and working in a Venetian blind factory. A native of Philadelphia who moved to New York after college, Ms. Gold has been writing songs just about forever. Although she quit her last "day job" 18 months ago to concentrate on song-writing, it was not until "From a Distance" became so popular that she felt she'd arrived.

The song was rejected all around until her friend Christine Lavin, a folk artist, started pushing it and struck home with singer Nanci Griffith. That version, recorded three years ago, became a No. 1 hit in Ireland.

"That was the first country to adopt it. She sings it in Belfast, and Catholics and Protestants embrace," said Ms. Gold. "It's in hymn books in Ireland."

Since then, some 20 artists, including the Byrds, Judy Collins and Kathy Mattea, have covered it.

The song sprang naturally from her own life and times, said Ms. Gold. "Growing up in the '60s, the Vietnam War, civil rights -- I write from that experience. To me, it's a larger comment on humanity."

She said she hates war, but supports the warriors in this case.

"I'm heartbroken that we are at war again. But I support the president. I do," she said. "What's happening right now is a necessary evil. I wish it wasn't."

The song's appeal is remarkably broad-based -- everyone from anti- war activists to the troops overseas have adopted it as a sort of anthem. Ms. Gold is particularly proud that Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., called to request a copy of its lyrics. And Rep. Barbara Boxer, D.-Calif., read the lyrics during the debate on authorizing the President to use force against Iraq.

Sgt. Maj. Bob Nelson, program director for Desert Storm Network radio in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, thinks the appeal of the song is that it's open to interpretation.

"Everyone who listens to it gets something different out of it," said Sergeant Major Nelson, who grew up in Middle River and Hagerstown. "It doesn't ascribe to any one point of view. The lady who wrote it should be congratulated. She's written a very poignant song."

He added, "It's a real heavy reflection period over here now. People are thinking back, starting to re-evaluate things. As we get closer to a ground war, people are getting more introspective."

The song has done well on the home front as well.

"It was popular before the war, and I think the war may have sustained its popularity," said Steve Perun, program director of Baltimore radio station B-104. The song has been one of the most frequently requested by listeners for months, he said, and is played several times a day.

Ms. Gold still seems amazed by it all, for her song to be mentioned in the same breath as "Give Peace a Chance" by her idol, John Lennon.

"It's too big to even express. It's so overwhelming. It's beyond my wildest dreams," she said. For her song "to be a single and a hit single, and then to be adopted as this anthem -- it's incomprehensible to me."

A Grammy -- or two or three -- would be icing on the cake, she said.

What she considers the real prize, however, is way beyond any statuette. "The next time we talk," she said hopefully, "world peace."

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