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...

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