Saturday, August 18, 2012

Dreaming in Diamond

            One day a few weeks ago, I had a rough morning’s sleep due to early-‘80s pop music. I don’t know why, but every time I closed my eyes I kept hearing the chorus of Neil Diamond’s song America. Just when I would settle comfortably back to sleep, it would hit me …

            They’re comin’ to America / Today!
            Then the synthesizers, then his voice again, filled with gusto: Today!
            And again, with feeling: Today!
            Once more, to complete the cycle: Today!

            I lay there and wondered, just what was this song doing in my brain? Was it a stray leftover from a Fourth of July fireworks show? Was it my subconscious voicing support for President Obama’s recent immigration policies? Was it a longing for that mediocre Jazz Singer remake from which the song came? Or was it an “undigested bit of beef,” to borrow from Scrooge’s sleepy tirade toward Marley’s ghost in A Christmas Carol?

            Eventually, I stumbled out of bed, conceding defeat. By now, the song had progressed beyond chorus and moved into full symphonic form. I could see Diamond in his sequined top, left hand oustretched, reciting “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” toward the end of the song. I could hear the roar of middle-aged women as they cheered on the pyrotechnic-fueled performance and screamed for the middle-aged man singing for them. I could hear that one word, over and over: Today.

And, somewhere in this image, I saw my mother.

            I’m 41 years old, which means that it’s been more than 41 years since I began listening to Neil Diamond. To me, his voice is kind of like the sound of a microwave oven beeping or a car door slamming. Which is to say it’s intimately familiar, yet rather annoying.

            Now I know there is no use in criticizing the greatness of Neil Diamond. I am well aware that his popularity is beyond reproach. No one this side of Bruce Springsteen can fill an arena so quickly – and to think that he still does it after 30 years without a hit single. The columnist Dave Barry got such a rise out of readers when he criticized Diamond’s song “I Am … I Said,” that he was able to churn out a book inspired by the experience, titled Dave Barry’s Book of Bad Songs. I have been to a Neil Diamond concert, one of the more than 20 that my mother has attended with her fellow Diamond disciples, and I have seen the passion. I know what it looks, and sounds, like.

            I respect anyone who has a passion for something, and I know that those passions vary wildly from person to person. I love baseball, for instance, but I know there are many who find plenty to dislike about it. So I don’t feel an obligation to make others’ passions my own. I simply try to understand and appreciate them. For my mom, Neil Diamond has been the epitome of the dedicated singer/songwriter, whose words and music touched a nerve inside of her and brought about an emotional connection similar to the one I have with Springsteen. She also has felt the energy of this man on stage, and has followed the blinding glitter of his sequins. I don’t know how many times he sings Sweet Caroline these days, but she has sung along with every line. She’s stood and clapped for Cracklin’ Rosie, Forever in Blue Jeans, and Kentucky Woman. She’s bought all the retrospective box sets, and the live albums, and the Christmas CDs.

When it comes to my own playlists and my own concert choices, I tend to shy away from Neil Diamond. But apparently his recordings are still so deeply embedded in my psyche that I dream in Diamond. And having heard the live albums just as much as the recordings, I actually hear the live version of America in my sleep. So to clarify, the lyrics I really woke up to were this: “They’re comin’ to America / Today, yeaaaaahhhhh / Today, yeaaaaahhhhh.” The man waves that hand out to the crowd, shouts out a big yeah, and gets the women to fall at his feet.


So that brings us to this week. I was on the Garden State Parkway on Sunday afternoon, driving down to the Jersey Shore at the end of a weekend. I was making this trip at such an unusual time because of my mother. She was in a hospital down the Shore, and that wasn’t supposed to happen. It’s been a tough summer for her health-wise, and there was an emergency surgery being planned. She was in pain, and I needed to be with her. The surgery, which would happen the next day, went just fine, mind you; after a long week, my mom is doing much better.

But back to that car ride. As I was driving down the Parkway, I needed something to lift my spirits and keep me focused. I remembered that recently, my friend Cullen had given me a ton of great music for my iPod. Among the albums he had given me were several years’ worth of Billboard Hot 100 hits. I’m a sucker for the 1980s. So for this particular car trip, I scrolled down the album list and punched in “1988.”

Two hours never went so fast. There was the obvious George Michael, INXS, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, and Guns N’ Roses. But that was only the beginning. There was Rick Astley. Terence Trent D’Arby. Taylor Dayne. Robert Palmer. Debbie Gibson. Breathe. Belinda Carlisle. Def Leppard.

By the time Billy Ocean’s “Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car” flowed from my speakers, I was singing and swaying, my hands patting the steering wheel as if I were a member of Mr. Ocean’s percussion section. When The Escape Club’s “Wild, Wild West” followed shortly afterward, I was truly 17 again.

When I had reached the hospital, I paused whatever Richard Marx song was playing at the time, turned off the iPod, and went inside to see my mother. She was glad to see me, and we sat together and watched the Olympics’ closing ceremonies. George Michael was there singing. So were a bunch of other ‘80s pop stars. My mom said they didn’t sound so good. I couldn’t really argue with that.

And then it all came to me. It had taken several weeks, but I’d finally unlocked the secret to my unfortunate Neil Diamond dream. I had figured out the moral – that  whether it’s our friends, our children or our mother, there are always going to be passions we don’t fully understand. But before we knock those passions, we might want to check out the man in the mirror first. In my case, I chose the mirror on the driver’s side.

Now if you’ll excuse me, Steve Winwood is calling my name. Just roll with it, baby. Today