Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Peer Behind the Curtain

Does anyone remember the show "VH-1 Storytellers"? Along with "Behind the Music", it was one of the mainstays of late '90s and early 2000's programming, before VH-1 went the way of MTV and replaced virtually all music content with inane reality shows and C-list celebrity confessionals. I discovered the show is still on - I don't really watch television, though, but maybe I can catch some episodes online. As an aspiring songwriter I always enjoy getting the inside scoop from my heroes: Billy Corgan revealing that the song "1979" was a last minute addition to the "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness" record, that the album was almost finished and all he had was the main riff and the single line "Shakedown nineteen seven nine", and that the song came from a memory he had of being in a car stopped at a traffic signal in the rain. Or Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young reminiscing about the origin of the song "Ohio", about the Kent State shootings, and how they all decided that they wanted to do a song about it but didn't know where to start - so Neil Young walks off into the forest for an hour or so and comes out with the song ready to go.

I am not famous and highly regarded like those big rock stars, but as I've mentioned, I get compliments on my writing. I also get inquiries into what the songs are about, what the creative process is like for me, etc. So I'd like to follow up my Singing and Songwriting post and reveal the secrets behind that song "Distance Fades". I'd like to keep some mystique, and I like to let songs speak for themselves, but as I already talked about the song coming to me all at once through inspiration I'll go ahead and just pull the curtain back entirely.

First, here are the lyrics:

I was just searching,
For someone to answer
Look what I found,
You down in the water

Coming to me,
through bit-streams of data
Begging my heart,
This one time to shatter

Oh Well

'Cause though I have tried,
I just can't explain,
The feeling I get,
When you say my name
So far away
It fades

Last night I had,
This one perfect dream
Envisioned the sweetest,
Serenest of scenes

Where I was your one,
your only true lover
The one you exalted,
Above all the others

Children laughed,
Ran and they played
The branches of our tree,
Grew and they swayed

So Well
Oh Well

' Cause though I have tried,
I just can't replace
The feeling I get,
When I see your face
Doomed as it is
to fade  

Next, a little background, as the song is autobiographical. I deployed with 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, Headquarters and Service Company, Motor Transport Platoon in early 2005. Before the deployment, I went around on leave visiting my friends and family in several different cities, including a stop-off to see a lovely young woman who had been my pen-pal for several years. I had always had a crush on her, but there was never any chance...too much distance between us. Even when I first met this girl, she lived in the Phoenix suburb Chandler, while I lived a couple hours south in Tucson. I hadn't talked to her in person in over five years, and when I was heading off at the airport, we shared a tearful goodbye replete with "I love you's" and "You come back to me" statements.

So I arrived in Iraq via Air Force C-17, at Al-Asad Airbase, where we spent a little over a week acclimatizing, getting briefings, and preparing to move to our Forward Operating Base for the duration of our deployment. This was a strange and lazy between-time, which I am planning to elaborate on for War Story Wednesday tomorrow. One of the first nights we were there, I went to an MWR (Morale, Welfare, & Recreation) internet center; after a half hour or so wait, I got logged onto a computer to check my email.

Lo and behold, there was an email from my pen-pal...and, it had a video attachment. My adorable friend had been getting more and more spiritual, a topic we discussed at length when we went to dinner during my leave, and the video was of her being baptized. She had joined a large Baptist congregation serving the Arizona State University student population, and was 'born again' via full immersion in a large indoor baptismal font. I pondered her spiritual journey the rest of the evening and later when I slept, I did have a dream, wherein she and I were at a picnic with several small children. That's all I recall of the dream; She and I were smiling at a picnic table in a grassy field with one lone tree, and three or four kids were running around the tree and the table.

I woke up in the morning and as I was thinking through what had happened in the dream, trying to remember details, the song materialized in a single moment.

This isn't one of my strongest songs, but I am still partial to it because of how it came to me. It is pretty straightforward, both in music and lyrics - the metaphors are pretty thin, like, 'the branches of our tree grew' is, duh, about a family. Only the first verse has a little mystery, which I've now removed. Still, there are layers of emotion and memory beyond the simple lyrics. Like the chorus lines, about  the feelings caused 'when you say my name' - when she and I first met, I told her that I really like my full first name, to which she replied "I will call you by it always", and she always did - and  'when I see your face, doomed as it is to fade' - well I had always had trouble picturing her in my mind since we only met in person a handful of times, corresponding as we did at a distance, and I re-discovered her beauty each time we would meet. Towards the end of my deployment, I was having trouble picturing the face of anyone from back home. My parents, my old school friends, the guys in the platoon that didn't deploy - they were all very very hazy memories with little shape or definition.

So I suppose that is the overall meaning of "Distance Fades": that distance in space and time wears down your memories, absence makes the heart grow fonder...maybe even that the truth gets muddled more and more as time goes by. I always did have a crush on my pen-pal, and so it is a natural development that while in the stress of a combat zone, I would have dreams and fantasies of returning home, getting married, having babies, going to church - a fantasy of living a quiet domestic life.

I hope that any readers out there find this post insightful. I am glad that I wrote it, so that as more years go by still, perhaps my memories of that moment of inspiration will last and age well.

- Valentine, Out.

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