Tuesday, December 4, 2012

From the Archives: Over the Rhine, My Muse

A couple of years ago, I started to write my first novel, Lilac Wine.  I am still in the process; it is going a little slower than anticipated.  Unfortunately, life sometimes gets in the way.  However, this weekend I am off again to see my favorite band--the band that triggered my initial inspiration for Lilac Wine.  The band is Over the Rhine and I am eternally grateful for their music.  It has filled voids and it has provided creative inspiration and fueled a passion for the characters and the story that I hope to share to very soon. In honor of Over the Rhine and the concert this upcoming weekend, I am republishing an article I posted back in 2010, explaining how this band from Ohio has become the muse behind Lilac Wine.


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 8.   My wife and I have tickets to the first show.  Plus, my sister and brother-in-law will be coming as well.  In the 19-plus years of listening to Over the Rhine, this will be my third concert.  This has become sort of a tradition.  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 OvertheRhine.com.   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.