Thursday, December 24, 2009

Same Old Lang Syne - Revisited

There are certain songs that are sure to put a big smile on my face or a lump in my throat, depending on timing. I don't actually tear up at commercials, but I also don't think being moved to tears is a bad thing. 

One song is Don Henley's "Heart of the Matter". That one has come to mean a lot of different things, about a lot of different people over the years, but it always touches an open wound. By the end, all 5:22 later, it's healed back up by forgiveness. I saw Henley in Dallas at Fair Park Music Hall 15 years after that song was released, and he said onstage that he still gets sacks of mail from people who say that song changed their lives in some meaningful way. I've heard Michael Stipe say the same thing about "Everybody Hurts" by REM. That's a song powerful enough to help listeners to hold on. 

The Dan Fogelberg song "Same Old Lang Syne" is probably the oldest and most powerful of these songs for me. You know the tune. It's a bittersweet tale of two long-ago lovers that run into each other on a snowy Christmas Eve. They buy a six-pack, sit in the car, talk about life, then go their separate ways. Ever done that? Yeah, me too. It's a perfectly crafted pop song, all the way to the end when "the snow turned into rain". It's not even the best song by Daniel Grayling Fogelberg, but it's by far his most famous. Even though the holidays are only mentioned once in the song, pop culture and FM radio have turned it into a December song, heard as often as any traditional Christmas song in the malls or on radio. Fine by me. I couldn't find a live version that I liked so I chose a tribute video instead. After all, it's the music that matters.

We said goodbye to Dan Fogelberg much too early on December 16, 2007 when he lost his battle with prostate cancer. He was only 56.

So here's the rest of he story. I'd always wondered about "Same Old Lang Syne". How much of it was true? How much was artistic license? But I never bothered to find out until yesterday, 12/24/2009. Phil Luciano is a columnist with the Journal Star, the Peoria, IL daily newspaper. Peoria was Fogelberg's hometown. On Dec 22, 2007 Phil wrote an article, "It's A Memory I Cherish", that you can link to here. After reading the piece a couple of times, I shot Mr. Luciano an email asking permission to use the story here. Within minutes he simply responded, "Sure". I hope you enjoy it.

At Woodruff High School, Jill Anderson had a typical teen romance: on-again/off-again with the same boy over several years.

He'd write a lot of poetry and share his insights with Jill. But as they went to separate colleges, things cooled off. They tried to stay in touch, but he moved out West and she headed to Chicago.

And that might've been the sum of a sweet memory, if not for a chance reunion one Christmas Eve at a Peoria convenience store - one music fans know well.

Jill's old boyfriend was Dan Fogelberg, who memorialized their convenience-store encounter in "Same Old Lang Syne." Since the song's release in 1980, Peoria - as well as the rest of his fans worldwide - has wondered about the "old lover" referenced in the song. Fogelberg never would say, and only a handful of people knew the ex-girlfriend's identify.

Jill, now Jill Greulich of Missouri, feels she can finally share the story.

"It's a memory that I cherish," she says.

She says she had kept publicly mum because Fogelberg was such a private person.

"It wasn't about me. It was about Dan. It was Dan's song," Jill says.

Further, though she and Fogelberg only rarely had communicated over the past quarter-century, she feared that her talking about the song somehow might cause trouble in his marriage. But in the aftermath of his death - he passed away of prostate cancer Sunday at age 56 - she has been sharing her secret with old friends in Peoria.

"I don't want this to overshadow Dan," Jill says. "When I heard the news that he died, I was very sad."

She and Fogelberg were part of the Woodruff Class of '69. They would date for long stretches, break up, then get back together.

Often, they would head to Grandview Drive, take in the vistas and listen to the likes of Joni Mitchell and Crosby, Stills & Nash. Fogelberg often would pen poetry, some of which he gave to Jill.

"I still have some of those in a drawer at home," she says.

After high school, Fogelberg went to the University of Illinois in Urbana to study theater, while Jill attended Western Illinois University to major in elementary education. They stayed in touch, even continuing to date for a while. But the romance ended for good when he left the U of I early to head to Colorado and pursue his music career. After graduating college, Jill relocated to the Chicago area, where she worked as an elementary teacher and flight attendant. Not long after college, she married a man from that area, and her connection to Fogelberg faded to memories.
But on Christmas Eve 1975, Jill and her husband visited her parents, who still lived in the Woodruff district. Also at the home were some friends of the family.

During the gathering, Jill's mother asked her to run out for egg nog. Jill drove off in search of an open store.

Meanwhile, a few blocks away, a similar scenario was playing out at the Fogelberg home, where Dan Fogelberg was visiting family for the holiday. They needed whipping cream to make Irish coffees, so Fogelberg volunteered to go search for some.

By happenstance and because almost every other business on the East Bluff was closed, Jill and Fogelberg both ended up at the convenient store at the top of Abington Hill, at Frye Avenue and Prospect Road. She got there first, and Fogelberg noticed her shortly after arriving.

They bought a six pack, sipped beer in her car and gabbed away. "We had some laughs," Jill recalls.

As two hours flew by, Jill's family and friends grew worried. "We were like, 'Where is she?'" says a laughing Eileen Couri of Peoria, one of the friends at the gathering that night.

When Jill returned, she simply explained that she had run into Fogelberg, and the two had caught up with each other. No big deal.

Five years later, Jill was driving to work in Chicago. She had on the radio, and a new song popped on. First, she thought, "That sounds like Dan."

Then she listened to the lyrics, about two former lovers who have a chance encounter at a store.

"Oh my gosh!" she told herself. "That really happened!"

They would not discuss "Same Old Lang Syne" until years later, during a conversation backstage at a Fogelberg concert. Two parts of the song are inaccurate. Blame Fogelberg's poetic license.

Jill does not have blue eyes, but green. In fact, when they dated, Fogelberg called her "Sweet Jilleen Green Eyes" - a combination of her full first name and his twisting of a song title by Crosby, Stills & Nash.

Fogelberg explained that he took the easy way out for "Same Old Lang Syne." As he told Jill, "Blue is easier to rhyme than green."

Also, her then-husband was not an architect but a physical-education teacher. Jill doubts Fogelberg knew what her husband did for a living. She thinks Fogelberg probably just thought "architect" sounded right for the song.

But those are minor details. The heart of the song hangs on its most chilling line: "She would have liked to say she loved the man, but she didn't like to lie."

Still, even decades later, she declines to discuss that line of the tune. "I think that's probably too personal," she says.

But the song had no impact on her marriage. By the time of its release, she had divorced.
"Somebody said he waited until I was divorced to release the song, but I don't know if that's true," Jill says.

In 1980, the same year of the song's release, Jill married Chicago-area native Jim Greulich. Eventually, they would move to a St. Louis suburb, where she now teaches second grade.
A few of her school associates have known her secret about the song. So has Fogelberg's mother, who still lives in Peoria and exchanges Christmas cards with Jill.

This week, Jill sent e-mails to a few old pals in Peoria, lifting the lid off the "Same Old Lang Syne" mystery. One of the e-mail recipients was Wendy Blickenstaff, a Woodruff classmate of Jill's and Fogelberg's.

"I had a big suspicion" it was Jill, says Blickenstaff, now the head counselor at the school. "I'm happy for her. It's really cool. ... That's a memory that she treasures."

Jill agrees. Yet her memories of Dan Fogelberg stretch far beyond "Same Old Lang Syne."

"I'll always have a place in my heart for Dan," she says. " ... Dan would be a very special person to me, even without the song."

Thanks to Phil Luciano for allowing me use of his work. As an aside, I thought it was tastefully done, not as tabloid-ish as we might expect today, just a couple of years later.

"Same Old Lang Syne" has meant a lot to me over the last 35 years or so. And at different times it took on a new meaning like a lot of songs do. For the most part though, it makes me think of what might have been, but without regrets. The author and the old love part ways at the end of the song, as it should be. It's about life, loss, and what happens when reality intrudes on your old hopes and dreams. But it's really not sad. They had the chance to dream out loud for a couple of hours, but also the common sense to realize that it is what it is. The song touches something so universal. The sentimental yearning for things in our past. Our youth. It makes you wonder if your first love ever thinks about you, while still being a little comforting even if they don't. It makes me remember the people I took for granted and the love I overlooked. I guess we all feel like we passed on some good ones. An ex-lover, especially your first love, is still a lover, and they'll always have a place in our hearts. "Same Old Land Syne" reminds us of that.

I hope you're all having a wonderful Christmastime. tb

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