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.

3 comments:

  1. Hello, my name is Rich and I’m a Neil Diamond Fan.

    So, Mark, you were in the closet, too? I’m guessing there were more in your closet with you than just Neil and John. My closet was quite crowded and had I had more than four friends (who, amazingly, had similar tastes), I would have lived in fear of being outed for liking Mac Davis, Paul Williams, Jerry Reed, Ann Murray, Jane Oliver, Seals and Croft, England Dan and John Ford Coley and Chuck Mangione, to name a few. Hell, after 30 years, my wife still shakes her head: “Perry Como? Nat King Cole? Really? What are you, my grandfather?”

    My rules for music have always been simple: can I whistle the tune after I’ve heard it (and do I want to?) and are the lyrics intelligent and do they occasionally stick a finger in my heart and make me gasp, “Oh, Jesus.” I have found Davis, Williams and Reed to be masters of melody and lyric. Diamond, at his best, beats them by a nose, but consistency is a Diamond weakness. In my youth, he was perfect for so long that his eventual fall was almost a betrayal, coming as it did, when money was tight and life confusing.

    Like you, Diamond provided the soundtrack for my youth and in the weird way that teenagers seem predisposed to melancholy when they could just as easily choose happiness, Neil seemed only too happy to indulge the former while nudging me toward the latter.

    Maybe it was “Brooklyn Roads” that first snagged me with, “. . . whiskers warm on their face,” speaking to me of a time before the two males of my family became too much alike to get along. The song becomes all too relatable with lyrics about bad report cards and good heads on shoulders and applying oneself if one wasn’t somewhere else. Oh, Jesus.

    Years later, when Neil was lazy and I had one thing on my mind, I would marvel at, and take lessons from earlier songs I had overlooked like “A Modern Day Version of Love”: “Take the hand, taste the kiss, leave behind, the emptiness, and the comfort of, the modern day version of love.”

    It’s always fun to discover someone when they have already been established, whether it’s a singer/songwriter like Diamond, a novelist like Joseph Wambaugh, or a comedian like Bill Cosby (when everyone was bent over laughing at the dirty words of Richard Pryor, I was listening to “To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With,” and coming to the conclusion that genius is making one laugh with universal truths, not profanity). For a time after such a discovery, you can gorge yourself on their talent by scarfing up all their old material. Eventually, though, you arrive at a time when you have to wait patiently for your next meal, and one of those times was 1982 and the release of “Heartlight.” Now I loved “E.T.” as much as the next sap, but writing a song about a movie smacks of “fan fiction” and the man who wrote “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show” teamed up with heavy weights Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager and came up with, “Turn on your heartlight”! Two grown men wrote: “I just made a friend, A friend is someone you need . . . He’s lookin’ for a home, ‘Cause everyone needs a place, And home’s the most excellent place of all.”

    There I am in college looking for love or the modern day version of it at least, and I’m picking up a Diamond album with the caution I’d normally reserve for a Playboy magazine – who can remember, maybe I sandwiched it between the B-52’s and The Go-Go’s – and I get back to my dorm room, put a towel under the door, put needle to vinyl and hear, “Let it shine wherever you go, Let it make a happy glow, For all the world to see.”

    My mother catching me with the Playmate of the Month would have been less painful.

    (Continued...)

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  2. I took a break from Neil for a while after that, but not before seeing him in concert at the Spectrum, also in 1982. Maybe the concert was before “Heartlight” because I don’t remember him playing the song, or like other traumatic events in my life, I’ve blocked it out. What I do remember, as you have stated, is the showmanship. I loved every minute (and I hate concerts as a rule), but none more so than the moment of perfect timing during “America” when a honkin-big Old Glory unfurled behind him. Corny? Yeah. Oh, Jesus? Yeah.

    There are reasons to believe you might be right that Diamond would turn out to be a likeable guy in person. One of my favorites is that in 1968, this struggling long-haired hippie singer released “The Pot Smoker’s Song,” an anti-marijuana song. This was possibly the most un-cool thing he could do at that time (later he would cover and correct Adam Sandler’s “Chanukah Song”: “Don’t smoke your marijuanikah!”). In 1987 he did a cover of “I Dreamed a Dream” from “Les Miserables” and had the audacity to correctly change the last line from, “Now life has killed the dream I dreamed,” to “But life can’t kill the dream I dreamed.” This chutzpah also allows a Jew to sing passionately about the birth of Christ and no Christmas is complete without his version of “O Holy Night.” But maybe the best reason he might be a cool guy was his attitude on the divorce that cost him 150 million: She deserves every penny.

    I still buy Wambaugh as soon as he’s out, even though he may never match the power of “The Onion Field” or the hilarity of “The Choirboys” and I still listen to Cosby, although I can’t really understand him anymore, and I still shell out money for Diamond because now I can afford to risk my cash in the hope that out of “12 Songs” I might get one or two, like “Evermore” and “Oh Mary,” that harkens back to his greatness.

    But even if he doesn’t produce another toe-tapper, he has a library of songs that never seem to get old. And beyond his own work, Diamond is quite good at covering other songs. “Up On the Roof,” “He Ain’t Heavy” and “God Only Knows” come to mind.

    One of the fun things about being a parent is exposing your children to the passions of your youth and finding out that they kind of dig them. My kids have laughed at 40-year-old comedy routines and wondered like I did as an 11-year-old how in the hell James Bond was going to escape from an island surrounded by approaching alligators. At my daughter’s “Sweet 16” party, after experiencing a slow-burn over some of the songs being played by the DJ, who I seriously considered dismembering, I was ecstatic to hear 50 teenagers singing along with “Sweet Caroline,” adding their own “BUM-BUM-BUM!” and “So good! So good! So good!” I subsequently learned that some species of baseball fans have been doing this for years (yes I need to get out more), still, it poked alive my aging heart and, in a pathetic way, made me feel vindicated.

    It’s nice to get out of the closet, huh? Any time you want, you can borrow my 45 of the Partridge Family’s “I Think I Love You.” You know you want to.

    Rich R.

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  3. Rich,

    Thanks for this terrific reflection. I enjoyed every line of it and agree with most everything you wrote. It is funny how, once you open up about it all these years later, you find that many of us had similar experiences. I also liked many of the other musicians you mentioned (although I am not sure I know who Jane Oliver is). However, I do draw the line at the Partridge Family! The Carpenters, yes; the Partridge Family, not so much.

    Funny that you mention "The Pot Smoker's Song" from Diamond's Velvet Gloves and Spit album, which as you noted was particularly unusual at the time, given that an anti-drug message was not often heard from the world of music in the late 1960's. Diamond later acknowledged that he probably misnamed the song, because the voices that overlayed the musical backdrop were real-life heroin addicts from the Phoenix House in New York (a drug re-hab center), not potheads. Diamond told David Wild that "to the hip community, you know, it was more evidence that Neil Diamond was not one of their kind of guys. It was genuine; it was heartfelt. But it also confirmed a lot of people's feelings that I wasn't hip." When he had been asked about the song in the mid-1970's during an interview in Rolling Stone magazine, Diamond said, "Part of me is rebellious. And that part of me will do something like that just to say, 'Hey, fuck you.'" And that just makes me like him more.

    Ironically, to be a Neil Diamond fan as a teenager in the 1970's was to be a non-conformist, even while being ridiculed for being "mainstream" and "conformist". In fact, the true conformists were everyone else who listened to what they thought everyone else was listening to, whatever they thought would make them seem "hip". In reality, at least musically speaking, we were the non-conformists, the ones who followed our hearts, while everyone else conformed to the expectations of their peers. I may not have been musically hip, but I was not a musical conformist. It is a distinction that is so often overlooked and missed by mainstream society in many aspects of life.

    But in the end, regardless of our musical tastes along the way, we all will have "sweated beneath the same sun; looked up in wonder at the same moon; and wept when it was all done, for being done too soon."

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