Julie Gold - "From A Distance"

by Bruce Pollock

They're Playing My Song is a column by Bruce Pollock, where he focuses on the one song that had the greatest impact on a particular artist or songwriter's career. Here, he speaks with Julie Gold.

"From A Distance"

Songwriter: Julie Gold
Introduced by: Nanci Griffith
Hit by: Bette Midler
Producer: Arif Mardin
Label: Atlantic
Year: 1986
Chart Position: #2 US, #6 UK
God was definitely watching Julie Gold that Saturday morning in the winter of 1985 when she sat down at her childhood piano and wrote "From a Distance." Delivered the day before from her parents' home in Philadelphia, to her pad in Greenwich Village, the piano had to thaw out overnight before she could play it. But as soon as it did, Julie was there to receive its welcoming message of hope and love and peace.

"I had come to New York with an electric piano," she said. "That was a hideous relationship, but it was all I had. And then for my 30th birthday, my parents thought it would be a beautiful thing for me to be reunited with the piano of my childhood. So they sent it to me in December, 1985 as my birthday present. I wasn't allowed to play it for a day because it was frozen like a block of ice. I slept in this loft bed that was over it and all night I looked over the edge and there it was. And then I came down that steep ladder in the morning and the first thing I wrote was 'From a Distance.'"

Julie likes to say the song took her three hours and 30 years to write, summing up in a song almost every relationship to music and the culture she ever had, especially to John Lennon's repetition of the line "Nothing's gonna change my word" in "Across the Universe." But she'd already come up with "God is watching us," repeated three times, along with the title, while doodling at her day job as a secretary at HBO. "I had some preliminary lyrics," she said. "My songwriting ritual is always scales and arpeggios and chords, but that specific day I remember just feeling so connected to my instrument. And when these majestic chords came out of me I knew they were going to be something I could use. Usually, if I get one good keystone, then I can build the house."

When she finished the song, she performed another ritual on the piano; she kissed the keys. "Why? Because I know what it feels like to write a song and I wonder if I'll ever be given that opportunity again. So I'm grateful every time. I certainly didn't think, 'Oh, my God, this is the song that's going to change my life.' I just knew it was a beautiful experience, a cathartic experience. Then, like I did with all my songs, I immediately went into the studio and made a demo and starting pitching it. And it was rejected by everyone I knew."
Julie Gold:
The first person I sent "From a Distance" to was a guy who in my notes it says, "Music man I met by accident in a shoe store." That was early in 1986. It's the fifth song on a tape that I sent to somebody at BMI. Let's see, I sent it to Kate Wolf and I got back that she had died. How do you like that? I sent it to a guy who worked with Ronnie Milsap who rejected it for Milsap Music. Then there was this guy who used to work with Tom Rush. Most of these things had no response at all.

The first person who loved it was Christine Lavin. Christine and I had met when I still lived in Philly and was coming up to New York to do songwriting workshops. She'd give me her songs, I'd give her my songs. We had management, we lost management; we knew each other's careers very well. She was playing at this little club on MacDougal Street called the Speakeasy, and she told me, "Bring me 10 cassettes and let me see what I can do with it." Within three weeks after that, Vince Scelsa played it on KRock. I sat down on the floor in my apartment and listened. Introducing it, he said, "So I play this for everyone out there who still cares." And then he played my demo of "From a Distance."

On May 5th, 1986, Nanci Griffith called to ask to record "From a Distance," because Christine had sent her a copy. This was the first song of mine anyone had recorded. Nanci has since recorded about 7 or 8 songs of mine and she has also recorded "From a Distance" live and multilingual, with Donna Summer, may she rest in peace, and with Raul Malo. And it's because of her recording that other artists heard it, like The Byrds and Kathy Matea, and Judy Collins, and, five years later, Bette Midler.

I was still working at HBO. I'd be at my desk and Nanci would call me from Belfast, and she would tell me, "Julie, you don't know what I witnessed last night. Catholics and Protestants were crying in the aisles, embracing." And I was like, "Wow!" And then I'd go right back to work. I finally quit my job in July of 1989, only because I had already played Carnegie Hall with Nanci Griffith, and I had heard my song sung by all these other artists. But I was still stone broke. I can't even begin to tell you the difference between an album cut and a hit. It's like when you look at a map of the galaxies and you see Pluto next to Jupiter. Album cuts don't get airplay; even if it's on college radio, it doesn't compare to the Top 40. So your royalties are all based on sales.

Yes, I got significant royalties from all the covers; it bolstered my income as a secretary, but I was still in one room. I couldn't go anywhere, I couldn't buy anything.

Here I have to thank the love and support of my parents. One night I was crying on the phone to them. My father would be on one extension, my mother would be on the other. And they would tell me how great I was and that I shouldn't get discouraged and these things take time and blah blah blah. And my mother said, "Julie, what can I do? What would help you?" And I said, "Truthfully, pay my rent. Please, please, please, please, please, please pay my rent." And my mother said, "Do you want it one month at a time or you want the whole six months?" I said, "One month at a time so I feel like I'm working and getting a paycheck." That was $500 a month and during that time I did God's work with my music. I sent out songs to "Dear Ms. Streisand, Dear Mr. Manilow, Dear James Ingram, Dear Natalie Cole. Everyone was looking for songs then. I knew my UPS man, I knew my FedEx man. I knew my copy center man. I knew my mailman. I knew everyone. For six months I did the greatest work of my life. But I didn't catch one single fish. And at the very end of those six months came a check from BMI for Nanci Griffith's accumulated royalties overseas. And that let me have another six months, which brought me to 1990.

Meanwhile, another interesting thing that happened with Nanci Griffith's version was that it was seen by the editor/publisher of American Way, which is the magazine for American Airlines, and they did this 16-page magazine spread with an accompanying video on all their international and national flights. It was Nanci Griffith singing "From a Distance" and it was called "From a Distance: The '80s." There was the guy in the tank. There was the guy who was married to Tammy Faye Bakker. It was every world event that happened in the '80s set to "From a Distance." Steve Popovich [from Polygram Records] was already a champion of the song. He called me and said, "Jules, who do you want to get it to?" So I said, "Clive Davis; that's my number one goal." Popovich says, "Okay, he's waiting for you. Bring him the 'American Way' video." So I brought it and I wrote him a note. One day later the note was back in my hands and it said, "'From a Distance' is a beautiful song worthy of a Joni Mitchell authorship. Unfortunately, I am only looking for hit songs, as the writers have their own album cuts so I have to pass. But thank you and congratulations."

That didn't stop me. When I teach songwriting, the first thing I say to my students is: "Let me teach you my mantra." And I say, "Are you ready?" And they go, "Yeah." Then I say, "They're wrong. Repeat that. They're wrong. Repeat it. Louder. Louder. THEY'RE WRONG. THEY'RE WRONG. THEY'RE WRONG." And then I tell the Clive Davis story and I say, "So what did I say to myself when he rejected it? I said he was wrong! And guess what? He was."

Because I came home one night to my answering machine flashing. And the guy said, "Hello, my name is Mark Shaiman and I work with Bette Midler. Steven Holden at The New York Times told us you have a song called 'From a Distance,' and we would love to hear it." I sent it out to him, but I always tell myself it's not going to happen. That's the only way you can protect yourself. But I heard back almost instantly. And that's when my life changed.

I started getting courted by publishers and one of then was Lance Freed at Almo/Irving. I remember they flew me out to LA while Bette was recording it. I was 35 years old and it was the first time I ever went to the West Coast. At the airport they had my name, "Gold," on a placard. And a limousine drove me to my fancy hotel that had a switch where the fireplace went on in the summer. It was crazy. Mark Shaiman picked me up at the hotel in this little white 1967 Mustang convertible and he took me first to a Chinese restaurant called Genghis Cohen. Do you believe it? He excused himself to make a phone call and he came back to the table and he said, "Guess what. We're going over to the studio and you're going to see Bette Midler and Arif Mardin." I was tingling. I had never met Arif Mardin, but he'd just won a Grammy for Bette's last hit, "The Wind Beneath My Wings," so I knew what he looked like. He came running up to me with childlike jubilation. He's wearing a plaid madras shirt and he's holding a Walkman in his hand. The Walkman had an external speaker on it, and he pushed "play" and I heard Bette Midler singing "From a Distance." Then in his heavy accent he says, "But don't tell her I played it for you. It's a scratch vocal and she'd be very upset with that."

Bette Midler arrived, hours late. During that time Diane Warren showed up. So when Bette finally came, she was much more attentive to Diane Warren. Not only that, we sat in a room with Diane and Diane said, "Will you call my mother?" And so Bette Midler called Diane Warren's mother and said, "Hello, Mrs. Warren, this is Bette Midler." I wanted so badly to say, "Can you call my mother, too?" but I didn't dare. So Diane Warren watered down my first meeting with Bette Midler. But it was still thrilling.

However, nothing gave me a clue the song would be a single. But then the first ground war for the Persian Gulf War broke out. I don't know if they debated what would be the first single, and what wouldn't. But when the song was released it was unstoppable. It became completely and entirely intertwined with the Persian Gulf War. It was the most requested song on Radio Saudi and I found myself being invited to these military events where I was presented with honorable awards thanking me for what "From a Distance" had done to boost the morale of our troops. The whole period while it was on the charts was surreal. On the other hand, I had wanted it, envisioned it, and I believed in it for so long that it almost seemed natural. I had rehearsed it in my mind for so many years without a moment of doubt that it would happen.

Nevertheless, I still lived in my one room apartment. The expression is 'the money's not in the pipeline yet.' So I was still stone broke. My song was playing on the radio and I had nothing to show for it yet except that it was beloved. I remember one night when I was sick; I didn't have a thermometer, I didn't have an aspirin. I had nothing. I went to the drug store in the snow; my hair was greasy and I was feverish and wouldn't you know it, "From a Distance" is playing on the radio. So I run over to the pharmacist and I say, "Did you hear that song?" And he's like, "Yeah." And I said, "I wrote it." He looked at me as if he had just seen Elvis. And I realized how absolutely outlandish the whole thing was.

The next year at the Grammy Awards, let me tell you, my competition for Song of the Year wasn't too shabby. One of the nominees was Phil Collins for "Another Day in Paradise," and the interesting thing about that was that he was an Atlantic Records recording artist, and so was Bette. So if, in fact, record companies were encouraged to vote for their own, then they had a divided voting block. I was also up against Mariah Carey's first hit, "Vision of Love." Then there was the Prince song sung by Sinead O'Connor, "Nothing Compares 2 U." I don't know for sure, but it might have been around the time Sinead O'Connor came out against the pope, so that might have hurt her chances. And there was also the big Wilson Phillips hit called "Hold On."

I'd come there in a white stretch limo with an attendant, which Almo/Irving paid for it. Ultimately I had to recoup that, but, nonetheless, they paid for it. My parents came up from Philly, and my brother Danny was also with them somewhere in the balcony. I brought Christine Lavin with me and we sat next to each other. Earlier that day I got a call from the Recording Academy telling me, "Your seat has been moved up 10 rows forward." So I said to my brother, "What do you think that means?" And he said, "Well, what do you think it means?" I said, "Well, I don't think they would be so blatant." He said, "Well, just enjoy it."

I'm much more sophisticated now than I was then, but that whole world was unknown to me. So I had someone shop with me for something and I bought it at Bergdorf Goodman, this colorful jacket that was later trashed by the Globe - not The Boston Globe. It was in Radio City that year, so I hired a makeup artist who I had met from working at HBO, which was right at 42nd and 6th, and I used an old friend's office. I looked like a ghoul with a Halloween mask, if you ask me. The makeup ended right at my chin, so my neck is three shades lighter than my face. But nonetheless, I thought, I am nominated for a Grammy, I need to wear a jacket from Bergdorf Goodman and I need to have makeup.

I always thought the Song of the Year was one of the last awards, but this time it was on very early in the show. They had told me my presenters were going to be James Ingram and Natalie Cole. So I'm sitting there and all of a sudden I see James Ingram and Natalie Cole walk onstage. And I'm like, "Oh my God, this is it already!" I could have been in the ladies' room. I could have heard it from a stall in the ladies' room. But instead, they came onstage and they said, "The Song of the Year is a writer's award." And they read the nominations. Carnie Wilson was across the room, but we were in the same row. When they read my name, she leaned forward and she gave me a good luck sign. And I always thought that was really gracious of her, because she was up against me. It was really a loving, gracious sign. Recently I friended her on Facebook and I wrote her that, but I never heard back from her.

Julie won the Song of the Year award that night. Mariah Carey took Best New Artist, and Sinead O'Connor, who boycotted the ceremony, won Best Alternative Music Performance for her album I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got. The ceremony took place on February 20, 1991. O'Connor tore up the picture of the pope on Saturday Night Live on October 3, 1992.
I have to say, that period did affect my writing process a little bit, because I wondered what do they expect now? I kept hearing the word "anthem." "We need an anthem about popcorn," "We need an anthem about ear drops." "Anthem, anthem, anthem." It was like, come on, man. But it was never really a burden. Since then I think I have written many songs that have measured up to "From a Distance," but what can I say? If someone came into your garden and picked a beautiful rose, and then every time they see you they say, "We never got another rose like that," well, come back to my garden and you'll see that not only is there another rose like that, but there's an iris and a lily... but it's a strange business. Thankfully, I've always been grounded and I never saw myself in any way other than what I've always been. I still sit at the piano and I write with a pen, and I hope for an inspiration, and then I demo my song and I pitch it. I was signed to two different publishing deals along the way. For about 10 years I was a paid songwriter, which is a beautiful gift.

I can't say one negative thing about what that song has done for my life, for my family's life. It just continues to bless my life. Because of the Internet at least once a month, but sometimes once a week, a stranger will write to me and tell me what the song meant to them. I've traveled and I've met and performed for people simply because of that song. I heard from a lot of people who came out of the woodwork. But it was all about love. Nothing was opportunistic. I have a lovely life and my friends have always been my friends. So all this did was reverberate deeper from the love of my friends. No one came out of the woodwork that I was unhappy to see.

Eventually the checks started coming and they were amazing for years and years. I've never been a reckless person. I had a publishing deal for 10 years, so I was able to bank all my "From a Distance" money. I didn't buy a car. I didn't travel. I didn't do anything, except buy this condominium where I live. Because I am a struggling songwriter still. And thank God I have this gorgeous cushion to save me from being a secretary again, I hope. But I can't say for sure.

August 6, 2013.
Get more at juliegold.com.

More They're Playing My Song

Comments: 3

  • Leslie from VirginiaJulie, like millions of listeners, I have always loved your song From a Distance. Thank you for sharing your genuine, heartfelt story of how the song came about, and changed your life for the better. Your experience is an inspiration to others to pursue their dreams. Because without dreams to chase (and hopefully fulfill), where would we be in this life? Where would the world be?
  • Micheal Castaldo from Ny, Nygreat Story Julie. love the honesty. i recall meeting you for the first time when you graciously shared your time meeting me and many other aspiring songwriters at Ann Ruckert's songwriting workshop at SGA. continued blessings to you.
  • Jimbo from Just North Of NowhereWhat a great interview. I love Julie's wide-eyed yet grounded approach. Bless her.
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