Sunday, June 26, 2011

Young Child with Dreams: The Enduring Power of Music

Young child with dreams
Dream every dream on your own.
When children play
Seems like you end up alone.
(“Shilo” by Neil Diamond)

When I was a teenager growing up in suburban New Jersey, I often stayed up late on weekend nights, lying on our living room couch with a set of headphones, listening to my favorite music. I did not exactly share the musical tastes of my peers, many of whom strayed towards the sounds of heavy metal and whatever British invasion was then taking place on the shores of the Atlantic. I leaned instead to a more soulful, lyric-based, acoustic guitar, harmony-filled music. From Joni Mitchell and Carole King, to James Taylor and John Denver, my tastes were more gentle and emotional. Only my closest friends knew what I listened to on a regular basis. In the tentative and fragile life of a teenager, especially one concerned about his image, I was very careful to whom I disclosed my musical preferences, lest the other “cool” kids get wind of my secret life.

When during my senior year, my basketball team learned that I was to miss a practice during the first week of the season because I had tickets to see John Denver at the Spectrum in Philadelphia, it took the remainder of the season to live it down. Every time I entered the team bus following an away game, some wise-ass started singing “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” or “Sunshine on My Shoulders.” I really should have been more careful.

But my most secret and greatest musical passion in those days, what I completely related to, sang along with, imitated when I was alone in my house, was the music of Neil Diamond. I first discovered Diamond when I received a copy of Hot August Night, a double album that recorded his live performance at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles in 1972, shortly before he took a 3 ½ year sabbatical from touring. A Jewish kid from Brooklyn who was a pre-med major at NYU before dropping out of college to pursue a songwriting career in Tin Pan Alley in the early 1960’s, by 1972 Diamond had become a world-renowned singer-songwriter and a uniquely talented concert entertainer, who performed with a sophisticated and rich musical backdrop of strings and drums, guitars and vocals, and who combined his performances with a mixture of jazzy, sequined-laced outfits and masculine charisma. He was a long-haired hippy on the cover of Hot August Night, but his performance on that album was soulful, emotional, and touching, and I was hooked. From Cherry Cherry and Solitary Man, to Soolaimon and Holly Holy, his music entered my soul and spoke to me in a way that no other artist before or since ever could.

Of course, I listened to all sorts of music back then, and still do. I love the music of Bob Dylan (everything he wrote in the sixties, plus Blood on the Tracks and Desire in the mid-1970’s); Bruce Springsteen became a favorite of mine in college, along with Steely Dan and Van Morrison; and for the past quarter century, I have grown to love traditional Irish music, Cajun music, some genres of Jazz, and string and flute-based compositions of Bach, Vivaldi, and the great European composers. But it was Neil Diamond more than anyone that played an instrumental part of my young life. His music spoke to me.

Until now, however, I have been careful not to reveal this fact to too many people. But this is a flaw in my character, not in Diamond’s music. He recently turned 70 and, while he remains a good performer, his voice is long past its prime and he has not produced an album to rival his early work in over 30 years. But the music of my youth, the sounds he created in the 1960’s and 1970’s, have remained with me like a true friend, someone you can turn to in times of need.

As explained by music critic David Wild of Rolling Stone magazine, Diamond's songs portray “a deep sense of isolation and an equal desire for connection. A yearning for home – and at the same time, the allure of greater freedom." Some of my favorite Diamond songs are his lesser known works, ones that speak to a deeper, almost spiritual place. In Captain Sunshine, which he would later sing in memory of his long-time friend and percussionist, Vince Charles, who died several years ago, Diamond sings of a man who “don’t take much, [who] don’t make much, but ah, to be such a man as he, and walk so pure between the earth and the sea.” In Lady Magdalene, another lesser known work, but among my all-time favorites, Diamond performs a soulful, eight-minute piano and violin ballad, in which he longs for “peaceful days before my youth has gone.”

Diamond’s music is, in many ways, unique and not easy to categorize; this is part of its appeal to me. To rock-and-rollers, Diamond is an outcast, yet his music is very much in the rock tradition. Anyone who has seen him in concert knows he rocks. And yet, only very recently did the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, finally admit Diamond, one of the most successful and prolific songwriters and concert performers in music history, into its membership. Diamond has acknowledged that he doesn’t really fit in, another reason I like him so much. He’s not rock; he’s not country; he’s not Sinatra. As he told David Wild in He Is . . I Say (Da Capo Press, 2008), “I just do not fit in. . . . But I never tried to fit in, because that meant conforming what I could write or what I could do to a certain set of rules. . . . So I suppose you could say that I’ve always gone my own way.”

Diamond’s music is at times spiritual and emotional, contemplative and uplifting. Although Jewish by birth, Diamond is more spiritual than religious. He often references God in his songs in the context of universal love and acceptance. In The Good Lord Loves You, he sings of redemption and forgiveness “for the men in our prisons and jails; the junkies and juicers, and every good man who fails. For every outlaw whose got no place left to go, the good lord loves you.” In the more recent Man of God, Diamond sings, “I’m a man of God, though I never learned to pray; walked the pathways of the heart, found him there along the way.” There is an autobiographical bent to his music, which makes one feel as if, by listening to his songs, you have learned something about the man, that he really is “a frog who dreamed of being a king, and then became one.”

I learned a long time ago that there are two kinds of people on this earth: those who like Neil Diamond and those who don’t. As for the latter, I concur with David Wild: “While casting no aspersions whatsoever about their moral character, they are probably either utterly pretentious poseurs or totally vicious bastards.” But if asked on judgment day, I doubt there are many who will confess to really, truly, despising his music. It may not be one’s cup of tea, but hate it? Impossible.

As a teenage boy at Hightstown High School in the mid-1970’s who tried to be “Joe Cool” in so many ways, I failed miserably, as my long sideburns, unkempt hair, and John Travolta-like leisure suits now attest. And let’s face it, you simply could not be “hip” and be an admitted Diamond fan. To be hip, one needed to embrace the Grateful Dead, Jethro Tull, Led Zeppelin, Boston, or any number of more hard core rock bands. And yet, part of what I love about Neil Diamond is that he has always recognized that he is not perceived as the “hip” one, even though in reality, he was the coolest dude around. About his own fans, he has said admiringly, “They’re people who follow their own guts.” I simply did not care what other people listened to. While I was open to and appreciated different types and genres of music, I knew what moved me, what helped me to get through difficult times and enjoy the good times.

While everyone else boasted of their affections for the latest musical trends, that which was “in,” I stubbornly remained loyal to Neil Diamond and my other favorite singer-songwriters. To his many followers, there has always been something special, something deep and soulful and true in our connection to him, which comes forth in concert. When I first saw Diamond perform at the Spectrum in 1976, I was mesmerized. His concerts are like religious revivals; his performances are theatrical. In a sold out arena – and his concerts are almost always sold out – it is very common to see 20,000 people standing in unison, swaying and singing and clapping to Diamond’s every move.

Diamond’s songs embrace grand themes of transformation and escape, the search for meaning and for love. A Thoreau-like quality of solitude and quest for understanding have haunted and graced his work from the very beginning. And yet, when he sings about loneliness and isolation, he does so in a manner that inevitably and magically brings people together.

He is, at heart, a songwriter and a musician. When his musical peers emphasized harder, more electric sounds, Diamond added orchestral arrangements to his music. In Tap Root Manuscript in 1972, Diamond introduced African sounds and instruments to a mainstream audience. Featuring his “African Trilogy” and the rhythmic sounds of Soolaimon, his music embraced Third World soul long before Paul Simon and Graceland. There really is no other artist who sounds like Diamond or who writes like him. While his lyrics are not as clever and poetry-laced as that of Bob Dylan, and while he does not tell stories with the richness of a Bruce Springsteen or Harry Chapin, Diamond nevertheless writes and performs songs that emotionally and profoundly encompass the joys, sorrows, and rhythm of life.

He is, in concert, not merely a charismatic performer, but a true showman, the ultimate professional. While he has often been mocked for his sequin-laced and beaded shirts, it is something his fans have always appreciated. I once saw James Taylor in concert at Harvard Stadium in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Although I love Taylor’s music and voice, he appeared in a white tee-shirt (it was actually an undershirt) and faded blue jeans. I mean, I was dressed better than he was! It left the impression that he was not really interested in putting on a show, in providing his fans with their money’s worth. It was a nice concert, and I am glad I was there, but in hindsight, I could just as easily have listened to him on the radio. A Diamond concert, on the other hand, is an experience, as rich and theatrical as a Broadway show, with Diamond at the center, surrounded by brilliant musicians, strings, percussionists and conga players, pianos and organs. You get your money’s worth at a Diamond concert.

I have never met Neil Diamond, and I probably never will. But I am not alone among his fans in feeling like I know the man. I am reasonably confident that, if I ever did meet him, I would like him. I cannot say the same for Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell, whose music I adore and fully acknowledge is, in many ways, deeper and more intellectual than that of Diamond. But while I admire their music, I cannot relate to them as human beings. With Diamond, however, one senses that, if you know his music, you know the man. Diamond’s music reaches my inner soul and extends to my youthful aspirations and dreams. And I like that Diamond has had the same band members for more than thirty years. “In a business with precious little loyalty,” writes David Wild, “Diamond has been fiercely dedicated to his band, and they to him.” His music “represents the very best and most solid kind of common ground.”

I believe that music has the power to heal and transform our lives, to change our moods, to comfort us when we are down and to uplift our spirits. Music can help us to know that we are not alone, that whatever we are feeling, there are others who understand, who feel and experience the same things we are feeling and experiencing. Neil Diamond, more than any other artist, helped me to maneuver and get through those difficult, awkward teen years. And, though I resort to him less nowadays, I know that his music will forever be a rock upon which I can turn, a place to soothe my soul and heal my spirit. And at 52, I can finally admit that in public.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Book Announcement: "Eat Bananas and Follow Your Heart" by Mark J. Ehlers

From his inspirational and thought-provoking blog "Ehlers on Everything" comes a collection of interesting and touching essays on life, politics, baseball and religion by Mark J. Ehlers. Eat Bananas and Follow Your Heart: Essays on Life, Politics, Baseball and Religion is a book for anyone who believes that life is too short to remain uninvolved, time too precious to cease learning, thinking, caring, and laughing. -- Back Cover
I am not generally much of a self-promoter, but I am happy to announce that my book, Eat Bananas and Follow Your Heart (Bookstand Publishing, 2011), has just been published and is available at the following sites:


The book is a collection of many of the essays that I first posted on this blog from August 1, 2009, through December 31, 2010.  My daughter, Jennifer, designed the book cover.  She also took many of the photographs that are placed throughout the book.  I hope that you will consider obtaining a copy and, more importantly, sharing my passion for the diversity of life and for the need to ponder and ask questions.  For only if we allow ourselves to grow and to learn, to love and to laugh, can we truly say in the end, "We have lived."