The Veridical Dream: Running on Empty with Etienne Daho

It’s funny how a dream, which has its basis in the intangible unknown and is full of fanciful fabrications, can lead to an indisputable truth. Daho soundtracks such dreams.

Imagine a strip of highway down America’s now defunct Route 66. Now imagine a late afternoon sun infusing the skies with purple and red hues. Then there’s you in a Bugatti, or maybe it’s a Mustang Fastback, cruising the endless strip into some nameless, indefinite eternity.

There are probably a hundred different soundtracks to suit such an impossibly fantastic occasion. Your travels from somewhere to nowhere could inspire thousands of songwriters to produce metaphors for such other-worldly exploits. This is usually a scene you may be accustomed to seeing in some road film from the ’80s, where lonely stretches of highway are meant to invoke some sense of innate freedom loosened from the bowels of inhibition. Most of these scenes are usually soundtracked with something by Springsteen or maybe Bryan Adams. For me, it’s Etienne Daho.

I don’t know what it is about his music that makes me sit around and dream up music videos that have never been filmed, but they usually involve long stretches of lonely highways, scorching in the midday sun. I have never been down a highway like this, though I have seen plenty like them in those aforementioned ’80s films. I don’t even drive. But there is a lodged-in-the-heart sense of escape, something tied deeply to my emotional recall. I’m probably riffing on a dozen so-called memories that have never really happened.

Hearing Daho’s music takes me back to the times when I was seven and eight and was free from any of the taxing responsibilities that were heaped upon my parents. Not that I even knew who Daho was back then. But it’s not like I’ve ever driven down Route 66, either…

A few years ago, I heard my first Daho song. It’s called “Duel au Soleil”. For non-Francophones, that’s “Duel in the Sun”. Released in 1986 from his third album Pop Satori, the song was a notable hit in his native France, and probably unheard of anywhere outside of it (save for some French-speaking countries). It sounds a lot like that stretch of deserted highway, the one that belongs to cinema. There’s a fey sadness to it, with a sun-baked hook sinking slowly beneath theta brainwaves.

With some not so difficult digging around, I’m able to deduce that the song is about abstracted ideas of love, in this case involving red moons and the Bermuda Triangle — metaphors which seem unintelligible to me but probably make a lot more sense in French. However, whenever I hear it, scenes of a filmic nature are summoned and the narrative threads of a bare story begin to weave.

It goes like this: some girl is stranded by the road along Route 66 by a deadbeat boyfriend. After much time sweating it out in the midday sun with a duffle bag at her heels and a jean jacket (because it is the ’80s) tied around her waist, another car in the far distance can be seen cruising down the road. It’s either a Bugatti or (if you’re a hopeless ’80s aficionado like I am and because they are makes often seen in ’80s road films) a Mustang Fastback. It pulls up next to the girl and the curious, gallant and always ready-to-help gentleman behind the wheel offers her a lift. Then along the way, inevitably, they’ll meet yet another woman who will join them.

Maybe they are all in some kind of trouble, each with some disconcerting affliction that forced them into fleeing panic. Now, together, they’re running away from it all to who knows where. Often, I’m an omniscient observer in all this, watching the scene the way any viewer in a movie theatre would. But on a few occasions, I swear it’s me in the passenger seat, and I, too, am running away…

Something in that song just works its way into the cognitive realities of my dreaming world. I guess the realities there seem far more manageable than the ones in waking life. I guess I’m making a lot more out of it than it really is, because the funny (and sad) thing about the song is that it’s probably nothing at all what I imagine it to be about, even though I would like it to be.

I could say this about another of Daho’s songs; this one called “Week-end à Rome”. It’s probably about a weekend in Rome. For me, however, it’s about the beach, probably in Venice, California or maybe somewhere in the Indian Ocean. But not anywhere near Rome. Or anywhere in Toronto, where I’m from (which, arguably, has no real beaches — at least not the kind people dream about).

The song is from 1984 and has all the requisite tropes of an ’80s pop song, particularly a French one: rippling synthesizers, chiming new wave guitars and a wailing sax all set to a programmed beat. Here on this beach I am alone, unlike the passenger fantasy of “Duel au Soleil”. I don’t know what I’m doing here or why I’m alone. I’m just glad to be by myself, though the beach is very crowded. So while I’m very much alone, I don’t feel lonely.

A weekend in Rome should be fun, romantic, exciting, etc., but the way Mr. Daho sings it, the way I’m hearing it, it doesn’t sound like he’s too happy. Maybe he should come to my beach instead because, as they say, misery loves company. Though I’m not entirely miserable; just a little pensive, which is how I feel every time this song plays. This beach is a lot like the ones in those ’80s teen thrillers my sister used to read as a 12-year-old and which I would surreptitiously swipe as an eight-year-old so I could ogle at the fantastically morbid paperback artwork. Typically in these books, some sorry, unsuspecting loser, who only wanted a vacation they could write home about, is murdered. Usually because they did something impossibly stupid, like hooking up with the resort’s most obvious resident pervert who has a rap sheet to line Interstate 90 in its entire stretch.

If I’m on this beach (and I am when I hear this song), it’s up to me to figure out whodunit — and it isn’t always the resort pervert. I’m always happy to start on a case, despite not being a detective or even having basic rudimentary deductive skills. I don’t mind if my time lounging on white sand is cut short; there’s a murder to be solved and now I’m on it. I’m useful here. On the beach, probably on a ghettoblaster or maybe a transistor radio, “Week-end à Rome” is playing. I can hear it as I saunter through the crowds, my bare feet on hot sand. The sky is impeccably clean, faultlessly blue. I know that they need me here. I have something of value, something they need. I don’t want to go home.

If there’s nothing in Daho’s perfectly French pop tune to indicate impending quandaries (i.e., murder, drowning beachcombers or lost luggage) — and there isn’t; the song is quite rightly about spending time in Rome for the weekend — then somehow, in the imagined reality of my wandering mind, Daho’s song becomes a trigger for some emotional event that I don’t think I’ve altogether experienced. I’ve been to beaches before. And I’ve seen decent people hookup with perverts. But why murder? Why this song? I suppose music has a way of finding the most insubordinate way of seeping into your consciousness. By the time it’s pressed onto record, or disc or uploaded in a file, or whatever, it is entirely a separate entity, now released and free from the artist.

I wonder what Daho would make of my inferences, my utterly outlandish evocations? I don’t speak French; I suppose this means his work is also something of a blank, indefinite field where I am free to roam and decide for myself what he wants to communicate. In a lot of ways, this hurts the song because I can’t take away from the work what it intended to deliver. But I can, in turn, add something to it, something of mine that has some significance to me. I’m not sure what driving down a highway or being at the beach means for me. Growing up, I was trapped in family car rides which I hated. I almost drowned at the beach when I was two.

Speaking of drowning (or at the very least, being submerged in water), Daho’s 1988 LP, Pour nos vies martiennes, in its entirety, reminds me of the time that my family and I went to a water park the same year that that album was released. I was eight-years-old and certainly had never heard of Etienne Daho or was familiar with any French music. Yet this album firmly places me back at a very strange moment of disconnect in my life. I don’t remember the name of the water park. But I do remember being an unintentional nuisance to the rest of my family.

I remember waves upon waves bringing my mother, who couldn’t swim, under again and again in the massive whirlpool. I remember her stark royal blue one-piece bathing suit and standing next to her along with my brother while my father snapped pictures of us. I remember being vaguely aware that my parents hated each other and wanted to pretend like we were any other family, which we weren’t because no family is like any other family, even when they’re pretty much all the same. I remember adoring my older sister, who sometimes loved me and then hated me, pushing me away that day and every other day. And I remember wandering, alone, inside an enormous rubber foam castle with colossal jets of water cascading, inside and out, on all possible sides.

I’m the only one inside here, it seems, and I hear only the constant rush of running water and the faint squeals of children in the distance. I find an alcove which has a little foam rubber perch to sit upon and I settle myself down. Staring down at my feet, a thought which has stayed with me for all of my eight years quietly descends in my mind: I wish my family would just disappear.

I’m suddenly aware of how nice the water feels falling all around me, how I’m not exactly drowning but I’m almost there. And how I can’t be drowned; I’m not the disposable eight-year-old child everyone wants me to be. Then I think nothing. I stare at my feet, the thought of wishing people away leaves me and I am as blank as water. The memory freezes here and, in an extradiegetic moment that can only happen in film, the sound of water fades out and Etienne Daho’s “Winter Blue” plays over the scene.

It’s a fragile, silly and passive moment, highly guarded in my mind’s eye as an event that I’m not 100 percent sure took place the way I remember it. Yet there can be no variation. “For a short time, life can be unkind”, Daho sings in a rare moment in English. His voice sounds like haunted summer air. It’s barely there, yet you still feel it. “One day you were gone, face the facts now, everything went wrong…” Hmm…

In 1996, as a 16-year-old bored out of my mind, I spent my summer at home watching TV. My mother at work and my brother at his volunteer job, I had the whole house to myself. Despite my summer freedom, the house still felt oppressive and I often imagined ways of escape through the television. In the area we lived in, there wasn’t much to do. I felt trapped, held hostage to a vicinity on the outskirts of the city and I often resented my mother (now divorced) for having brought us here. Flipping through channels on TV, I began to settle on foreign-language films. I never bothered to watch them before, but in the boredom and heat at two in the afternoon, there wasn’t much choice. I wasn’t dreaming as much back then as I was too preoccupied with the more complicated prospects of reality.

I also wasn’t speaking to my father at this point and my favourite memory of this time is lying across the carpet in front of the TV and, in some French film, watching those white sand beaches I would later dream about. French people on TV seemed to live the high life, even when they were poor. Even when life got them down, I have learned that characters in French cinema have a way of getting on with life and still laughing about it. Some of them were laughing about it on white sand beaches. When I hear “Les Passagers” from Daho’s 1996 release Eden, I am reminded of carpet burns from lying down for so long and staring vacantly at the TV. Like all other Daho songs, my memories and his music seem anachronistically attached. I recall the emotions and scenes years after the fact, when I stumble upon another of his tunes.

Capitalizing on much of the downtempo scene that was dominated by the likes of Portishead and Massive Attack in the mid ’90s, “Les Passagers” works a particularly lush angle, full with strings and what I think are birdcalls. Floating in the outer ethers of the song is Saint Etienne’s Sarah Cracknell ushering in the paradisiacal chorus. The fact that I associate this tune with a time wasted in boredom says much about my strange nostalgic yearnings. I’m sure I’d never want to be found in front of a television set anymore. I don’t even watch TV now. Yet, what was I thinking back then? What was I really feeling? What is it about this song that draws me back to such an inconsequential time in my life?

It’s those white sand beaches again, all those films I watched. The feeling that I would be useful somewhere else, if only there was a way to go somewhere else. It’s the road down that long stretch of highway, where I am waiting to be picked up by someone who will take me wherever I want to go.

Just recently I learned a new word: veridical. It’s a fancier way of saying “truthful”, and usually pertains to one’s perceptions of reality. I actually learned this word from the terms veridical dreams and veridical recall. A veridical dream is essentially a dream that one has that later comes true — a certain prophecy told in the moments of sleep. Veridical recall refers to the interpretation or memory of an event that accurately reflects reality. It’s funny how a dream, which has its basis in the intangible unknown and is full of fanciful fabrications, can lead to an indisputable truth. How the difference between what you so desperately wish to be true and what is actually true is a hair’s breadth. Yet the proximity of that dividing line seems to elude almost everyone. To most of us, that divide is as wide as a canyon’s span.

Not too long ago I had a dream. An extremely vivid one. The kind you remember for years and will have told many friends about. In it, I am on my way to my local bank branch. I need to withdraw money as I have payments and bills due. When I insert my bank card into the ATM, a message softly flashes upon the screen: “Insufficient Funds”. I stare for a moment. I have never seen that message on my ATM before. I’ve seen it happen to people in movies. But I can’t think of a single reason why it would be on my screen; I had plenty of money. What went wrong?

I head over to the tellers where they sit patiently. It appears there are no other customers at this branch and I am alone with five tellers smiling at me with the sterile politeness reserved for those who deal in fiscal transactions. I try to explain to them what the ATM has just told me. But the tellers speak French and I can’t understand anything they say. I think of every which way to explain my case and I am met with the same pleasant, cool stare. I begin telling them I have bills that I need to pay, payments which are due that I can’t afford to miss. But nothing. I hear a few questions asked in French and I feel the hotness of my breath coming out in ragged sighs. I’m panicking now and the shameful fear of breaking down in public is soon realized; I feel the tears of more than 30 years of frustration and anxiety well up within me.

I think about telling them that I spent years saving that money, that it’s all I have. But it doesn’t matter. The drawn mouths and smiling eyes speak an eternity of confusion, of a false desire to understand. Then, in a desperate moment of utter resignation and defeat, I allow a rusted and buried truth to dislodge and release from the depths of which I’ve been forcing it down, something that destroys me spiritually on its way out: “I’m broke and unemployed!” There is no greater barrier than humiliation, for you are truly alone behind that wall when such truths are pressed into the external reality. I see five tellers smile, unmoved and undaunted by the passing moment of hysteria.

I struggle to get myself outside of the bank. Once I’m out, I look around and cannot recognize my surroundings. There was once an intersection with construction workers noisily drilling away. There was a new plaza built around this bank and a coffee shop just across the parking lot from where I now stand. But I don’t see any of that. All I see is a long, deserted highway stretching toward some nameless eternity. I stand where I am for a while, not entirely sure if I’ve exited from where I think I have. This isn’t the way things are supposed to look.

Slowly, I make my way to the edge of the road. In either direction I see the long strip of black pavement, stretching onwards for miles and miles. Finally, I start to shuffle off in a direction. I’m confused, worn, anxious and lightheaded and I trail along the side of the road, watching for passing cars. I see a panorama of desert and mountains around me, the kind you may see in Arizona or Colorado. Suddenly, it occurs to me to call home, someone from my family. Since I’ve never owned a cell phone, the instantaneous thought is a phone booth. Like the way it always happens in dreams, an image recalled is summoned into form, and up ahead I spot a phone booth standing erect in the lonely desert.

Once I’m inside it, I push a coin into the slot and dial the number to my family home. But it’s a disconnected line and I hang up and wait by the side of the road. I’ve got a jean jacket tied to my waist, something I didn’t notice I was wearing before. It’s hot and the sun blazes everywhere. I look around me. Everything is all too real — the arid landscape, the hard pavement, a massive, open sky. Suddenly, I am eight-years-old again and in the far distance I can see a car heading toward me. Moments later, it pulls up beside me as some indiscernible, dreamlike shape; maybe it’s a Bugatti, but I can’t really tell. Because I know this ride was always meant for me, I get in and, as I do, the car slowly proceeds along the road, picking up speed as it heads toward the horizon.

Almost immediately, I notice a shift in the air, some strange transformation that’s taken place in the landscape ahead of me. Just a few minutes ago it was late morning. Now the sky is infused with the twilit flush of purples and reds. I turn to look at the driver’s seat. The seat is empty. There is a shot of panic, an urge to grab the steering wheel. But I can’t drive. I turn to the backseat, hoping to see a jilted woman or a gallant man. But the seats in the back are empty, too. I suddenly realize the strange predicament I am in and motion toward the radio, trying to get it to turn on.

Before my hand can even touch the knob, the sound of soft static fills the air and then there is the sound of voices, some that I recognize and some that I don’t. Pretty soon, the voices begin to tangle in an aural heap, talking about beaches and drowning and family and Rome. It’s distracting and frightening and I want it to stop. I make another motion toward the radio and, again, before I can touch any of the dials, the station switches and I can hear a rushing blur of six or seven different songs at once. After a few moments, the station settles down and it’s just one song I hear…

“L’horizon s’éclaircit sublime le soleil s’est levé…”

I think I know this song and, fighting through the haze of the dream to a memory that lies beyond this place, I try to remember. The song is in French. I’ve heard it a thousand times. But imprisoned within the expanding limits of this dream, I’m forgetting and things are getting jumbled inside my head.

“J’fais un vœu, le feu d’un duel au soleil…”

Sometimes in the song, the familiar cadences I recognize take on a different accent, become something else.

“Je veux un duel avec toi…Duel au soleil contre moi…”

I keep my eyes on the road ahead of me. The road and desert are tinted with the colours of dusk and I settle back into the seat, anxious, but waiting for the calm of acquiescence. The car barrels ahead. I don’t know where I’m going, where I expect to be. I imagine some descent into the vanishing point of the horizon where I’ll be transported back into the reality of my waking dream, the one I have every day. But the horizon is unreachable and the car continues its voyage, hurtling forward. The words are becoming clearer now. But every so often, the lines in the song keep changing, the verses keep getting mixed up and new lines I’m not familiar with start formulating before me.

“J’fais rimer latitude solitude et incertitudes…”

At eight-years-old, I don’t understand anything. But I know these words for sure, even though it will be 25 years later until I first hear them.

“Qui es-tu maintenant…?”

The song hums softly, filling the car. I’m still staring ahead and the sky is beginning to darken. The car keeps moving toward the horizon. Then an intuitive voice within picks up on the language, translates the unfamiliar words from the coda of the song. The lyrics are changing, becoming something else. The voice singing them is like haunted summer air, barely there. Yet still there.

“Où allez-vous?”……”Where are you going?”