Friday, November 19, 2010

Over the Rhine, My Muse

In Lilac Wine, Robert is tormented by nightmares and has been his entire life.   While on a trip to Chicago with Abelia in the Autumn of 1917, he has a particularly haunting vision---a vision that brings him to Abelia in the middle of the night: 
The knock came early in the morning, jarring Abelia from a sleep that had not come easy. Throwing on a housecoat, she stumbled in the dark toward the door.
     The knock came again, softer this time. Grasping the knob, she cracked open the door and peered into the hallway.
     Robert was there, disheveled and fraught. His cheeks glistened slightly in the low glow of the incandescent lights that lined the hallway.  “Robert?” she said, pulling the door open further, ignoring the immodesty of standing out in the open in a mere housecoat and nightgown. “What’s wrong?”
     Robert looked up from the floor, his eyes red. “Can I come in?”
I often write with music playing softly in the background or I listen to certain songs just prior to a writing session, in order to get my mind into a particular mood.  The crucial scene excerpted above was inspired in part by one of my all-time favorite songs: “Etcetera Whatever” by Over the Rhine.

Don't speak.
Words come out your eyes.
You're wet with this nightmare.
Like thorns you hold these secrets to your breast,
your slender fingers closing into fists.
(Words and Music: Linford Detweiler. Album:  Good Dog, Bad Dog 1996)

So much of Lilac Wine is connected in one way or another to the music of Over the Rhine.  It’s amazing that inspiration is so often wrapped up in the creative impulses of others. Music has that effect on me and Over the Rhine has been my muse.

I first became acquainted with Over the Rhine in 1993 when I heard “I Painted My Name” on a local radio station. I listened for the DJ to give out the name of the song and soon found myself in a local cd store purchasing the album Patience, their second studio album.  Little did I know then that a song from that album would provide the seed of inspiration for my first novel, Lilac Wine.

That song was “Flanders Fields,” a mournful reflection of a love lost.  With obvious connections to the First World War, I had used the song in class when discussing the war and as an introduction to the poetry from the war itself. It is a beautiful, yet mournful song.

In Flanders Fields far away
I lost my love one day.
(Lyrics:  Linford Detweiler.  Music: Ric Hordinski. Album: Patience,  1992)
One day about 15 years ago, I was driving home from work, the album playing on the cassette player in my car. “Flanders Fields” began.  And there it was, suddenly, as if it had been there in my mind the entire time: images of the Great War.  A young man swept up into the conflict. The eccentric, small town of Lily Springs on the upper Mississippi River coping awkwardly with the challenges of modernity. And a woman who had given up on love long ago, retreating into the comfort of her garden.  Lilac Wine had been born.

That was 15 years ago.  I wrote a few chapters and then shelved the story, unable to work out certain plot elements.  But the characters never left me, however.  The town of Lily Springs was always in the back of my mind, waiting patiently for me to pay a visit once again.

In the years since I first started Lilac Wine, Over the Rhine has become an indispensable facet of my musical library. There probably isn't a day that goes by without at least one song of theirs playing sometime during my day.  The core of the band is the husband and wife team of Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist. Their music speaks like an old friend, sitting at the kitchen table talking over a cup of coffee.  They have a magical ability to express everyday emotion in heartfelt, bittersweet tones.   Through their melodies and Karin's sultry, sometimes gut-wrenching vocals, the everyday is transcended in an almost cathartic expression of the real.  And that is what Over the Rhine does best: express the various emotions that we all, at one time or another, have felt and they do it in such a way that it feels like it was written just for us.  

Last year, I rediscovered Lily Springs once again.  I was driving home from work, a mix cd playing in the car.  And I began thinking again about Robert Bishop and Abelia Brody.  And all of the problems I had with the plot were suddenly resolved.  I often get my inspiration while driving in the car with music playing.  And one of the songs that helped break the writer's block was Over the Rhine's "I Want You to Be My Love."  It has somewhat become the theme for Abelia and Robert.

I want you to be my love
I want you to be my love
'Neath the moon and the stars above
I want you to be my love

I want you to know me now
I want you to know me now
Break a promise make a vow
I know you want me now

Like I want you
  (Music and Lyrics: Bergquist/Detweiler Album: The Drunkard's Prayer,  2005)

I Want You To Be My Love by Over the Rhine on Grooveshark

For me, music helps set the tone for what I want to write.  I have a particular playlist that I use when trying to get into a "Lilac Wine mood."  The playlist includes artists such as Jeff Buckley, Billie Holiday and Etta James.  Over the Rhine, however, dominates the list.  Although some songs might not have a tangible relationship to the narrative of Lilac Wine, the sentiment and the mood of particular songs provide a means to channel certain feelings into the text.  Songs like "Long Lost Brother,"  "Changes Come,"  "Suitcase," "Desperate for Love" and "Latter Days" have, in one way or another, been the soundtrack to my writing sessions, providing a necessary state of mind. There are other songs that may have helped shape some of the narrative as well.

For example, Robert and Abelia share a bottle of lilac wine early in their relationship.  Abelia has a penchant for concocting some amazing varietals using the fruits from her garden. They get drunk and do something neither of them had ever done at length before: talk.  They discuss dreams, fears and, of all things, Chinese food.

Pour me a glass of wine
Talk deep into the night
Who knows what we'll find? 
("Born" Music and Lyrics: Bergquist/Detweiler Album: The Drunkard's Prayer,  2005)

Over the Rhine is currently on tour.  And next month they will be playing two shows at the Old Town School of Folk Music on December 11.   My wife and I have tickets to the first show.  Plus, my sister and brother-in-law will be coming as well.  In the 17-plus years of listening to Over the Rhine, this will be my first concert.  Needless to say, I am excited.

In the meantime, I will continue writing and listening.  Robert and Abelia's journey will undoubtedly take some twists and turns unforeseen at the moment. And through it all, Over the Rhine will be along for the ride.  Thankfully.

*Note:  The above clips are hosted on Grooveshark.  This service claims to have an agreement with artists and note that artists are paid:  "Grooveshark has an artists/label program to ensure that any owner of content will be compensated fairly for each time their content is played via Grooveshark."  I hope this is true and if not, I will remove the links to the clips.


Update 12/4/2012: For more information about Over the Rhine, please visit their website at   Check out their online record player.  Currently, you can download their Christmas album, Snow Angels for free or a donation at NoiseTrade.  Be sure to check out the latest album, The Long Surrender.

Friday, November 5, 2010


Cantigny.  May 28, 1918.  This small French village was the epicenter of the first American offensive in World War I.  More than anything, it was a test for the American Expeditionary Force.  The allies wanted to see what these so-called "doughboys" could do.

The battle figures prominently in Lilac Wine.  Robert Bishop, prone to nightmares which have a tendency to come true, is haunted by images of the war.  Cantigny is in his dreams:

The sky to the east was just beginning to lighten as the first of the artillery exploded overhead. As the shells found their marks, blasts revealed the silhouetted ruins of a small village in the distance. Except for a lone chimney standing defiantly against the barrage, rubble and fallen walls were all that remained; nothing but piles of brick and branchless trees.
     The men were packed tightly in crudely dug trenches, not more than three feet deep. Several hundred yards of wheat, pocketed here and there by large, blackened craters, lay between them and the decimated village. In the darkness, disrupted by sporadic flashes of light, those craters looked deep and endless, like mouths waiting to swallow up the unsuspecting.
     Some men looked up to the sky, struggling vainly to discern the stars that tried to shine beyond the smoke that drifted overhead. Some curled, face down in the dirt, clutching their rifles tightly to their chests. Others, with eyes closed, repeated prayers over and over. Each man contemplated what was to occur in his own way. Most thought about home, though---of loved ones they hoped to see once again.
     The artillery was answered with thunderous replies from the other side. Chunks of earth hurled through the air with each explosion, sending dirt and rock upon the helmets of those who sat in the trembling ground awaiting their orders. The pebbles striking the metal of the helmets were not unlike the sounds of hailstones pelting a roof during a heavy storm.
     The back and forth exchange continued from some time. The explosions were deafening. Screams would occasionally punctuate a burst. Men cupped their ears with their palms, not knowing if one of the whistles was going to bring instant death from the sky. That was the worst of it: not knowing where they were going to fall and knowing full well that there was nothing that could be done.
     The sun gradually peeked over the horizon and the men were told to get ready. An officer’s whistle cut through the clamor as the detonations faded and a momentary silence fell over the land. Although the artillery was now quiet, the explosions lingered in the ears of every man who now stood from his position and stepped up over the edge of the trench. Their bayonets caught the rising sun as they slowly walked forward through the wheat, the equipment in their backpacks gently clanging with each step.
     Suddenly, a deep rumbling sound came from both sides of the line. Large tanks rolled out of the woods. Like mechanized haystacks, the tanks led the men across the field, opening fire on the helpless village. Machine guns started to clatter overhead, providing cover for the soldiers while they ascended to the ruins. As they approached, men walked out of the rubble with arms held in the air. They were quickly apprehended by the soldiers and told with the barrels of their rifles to lie on the ground. Here and there soldiers of a different sort followed closely behind the tanks. They wore dark blue overcoats, the tips of their weapons glowing with flame. Their eyes searched the rubble for shadowed holes and remnants of cellars that once held fine French wine and wintered grain preserved from the last harvest, but were now home to enemy soldiers.
     “Raus mit ihm!” screamed one into a cellar just before pulling the trigger. Orange jets of flames shot from the tip, roaring like a waterfall. The air shimmered in the heat as rock and brick caught fire. Screams peaked for a moment from within the bowels of the darkness and then were silent. (Lilac Wine, Chapter 9)
American memorial outside of Cantigny.

The 28th Regiment of the American First Division successfully wrestled this French village from the Germans, marking a successful first offensive for the inexperienced doughboys.  For three days, Germans pounded the village in a vain attempt to regain the territory.  The village was destroyed and the Americans suffered over 1,000 casualties. But they held the line until reinforcements came.

Cantigny may have been a small battle when compared to others.  However, Cantigny's influence was enormous.  This was the first step Americans had made on a world stage, tipping the scales in a war that had consumed the youth of Europe for almost four years.

Next week is Veterans Day.  Originally "Armistice Day," the holiday was created to commemorate those who had fought and died in the Great War and is still celebrated as such the world over.  Poppies are symbolic of Armistice Day as it is believed that poppies grew where soldiers had died.  In 1954, Congress changed the name to "Veterans Day" to commemorate all veterans who had fought and died in America's wars.

There aren't too many veterans left from World War I.  In fact, there are only three worldwide. Frank Buckles, now 109, is the only living American veteran from the Great War.  He was a mere 16 years old when he served, driving cars and ambulances in both England and France.