I laughed and inspected my friend’s face for some sign of irony. Surprisingly, I saw none. Rodney repeated the question, straight-faced, serious.
“Dude, you do know who Neil Diamond is, right?” I asked, somewhat dumbfounded. ” ‘Sweet Caroline?’ ‘I’m a Believer?’ ‘America?’ Any of this make any sense?”
“These are . . . songs?” he guessed, looking down at his plate. “That ‘Believer’ song was from Shrek, right?”
“Dude, if you didn’t know Neil Diamond, why did you agree . . .”
“Hold that thought,” he cried suddenly, shocked at the sight of his empty plate. “I need another quesadilla.”
My brother and sister graduated from college several weeks ago. As a graduation present, my parents purchased the whole family tickets for a Neil Diamond concert at the Verizon Center down in D.C. Neil (or the Jewish Elvis as he’s known in some circles) has encompassed much of my childhood, that fragile innocent stage of life when — as some may argue — we possess little influence on the music or movies afforded to us. Frankly, if you asked me then, my favorite songs encompassed the scores of Disney movies, Ducktales or Chip N’ Dale Rescue Rangers (to which I can still recite the lyrics word for word). Neil Diamond was my parents’ thing. My knowledge of ‘the man in the sparkly shirt’ — as I came to identify him — stemmed from his movies. I can’t recall how many viewings of The Jazz Singer soaked into my brain before I had memorized the entirety of Neil’s discography but drown I did in the man’s jazzy gospel arias, primal grunts, and love affair with immigrants. My siblings suffered far less; Jack Black’s Saving Silverman convinced them of Neil’s unparalleled creativity and coolness. They never looked back.
Present day. With my grandmother and siblings in tow, my parents piled us into the family van, enduring two hours of traffic and personal space to the nation’s Capitol. Thankfully, the tickets admitted us to a Skybox, our own personal auditorium, fitted with plush leather seats and filled to the brim with all the food, drink and decaf coffee — thank you, God — we could stuff into our chubby cheeks. And while everyone seemed eager to arrive, not everyone seemed eager for the music.
” ‘orry about that . . .” Rodney mumbles, his mouth stuffed with re-fried beans. “What were you saying about Shrek . . ?”
“I LOVE YOU NEEEIL!”
Others, however, like my brother Shannon, adore every sequined shirt and bead of sweat, glistening off the singer’s greying chest hair.
“I WANT TO HAVE YOUR BAABYYY!”
“Dude,” I whisper across the aisle. “Wait until he starts singing.”
“Hold on,” Rodney scoffs, coughing on a grape. His plate had mysteriously re-filled with a turkey sub and three to four stacks of cookies. “That emancipated mummy is who we’re seeing?! You’re kidding! Seriously, what’s the show?”
“You shut your mouth!” Shannon cried, his attention suddenly refocused inside the box. “And have a little respect! The man is a living legend, a paragon of rock n’ roll, a musical prophet descended from the electrified loins of Thor himself. And this . . .”
He motioned to the auditorium, still adorned from the last Cap’s game.
“. . . this is his temple. Choose your words carefully within these sacred walls.”
Shannon’s lexicon would have surprised me if I hadn’t been scared to death. Still, Neil has that affect on people.
The last time Diamond flew to town, the whole family arrived eager to dance, jump and sing along. Unfortunately, the audience’s predominately handicapped and arthritic population did not care for the Murphey family jumping, dancing and basically blocking their view. They bought seats and intended to use them as Nature intended. After the second song, all polite requests of ‘Boy, sit still!’ and ‘Sister, down in front!’ ceased, and we were treated to two hours of audible huffing, threatening growls, and poorly whispered slights toward ‘that generation.’ As my cousin, Joe, mentioned late last night, we have arrived at the world’s largest old age home.
“Neil,” he laughed, “is like Viagra for old women. I’ve seen grandmothers entombed in wheelchairs find the strength to dance and leap like 10-year-old gymnasts for a tossed handkerchief.”
Indeed, as Diamond began ‘Solitary Man,’ a couple in the box next to ours began to shake and shudder. At first, I thought the man had slipped into an epileptic shock, until his wife leaned over the railing and screamed ‘Neil, you complete me!” Her husband (or boyfriend) — a thin balding man in a white polo — ignored his date’s profession of unconditional love and continued dancing . . . or exorcising demons. I never did discover which.
The concert moved quickly through Neil’s various hits. The aging singer seemed content to croon at a relaxed pace, as if taking his time to recall lyrics or catch his breath. My grandmother liked to remind me that many crooners do not age particularly well. Some can retain their voice long into their twilight years, even as their body breaks and withers. Others — she’s fond of mentioning Tony Bennett — discover that time attacks the voice first, warping the vocal cords until audiences flock to performances merely out of respect, to honor past memories entombed on vinyl records.
Being 71 this year, Neil is no spring chicken. Yet, the man voice sounded strong and loud, even if his tempo and swagger had slowed over the years. Only Rodney and I really cared. Shannon for his part still seemed intent on producing an heir to the Diamond name. And in this economy, I suppose anything’s worth a try.
“I DON’T CARE IF ITS BIOLOGICALLY IMPOSSIBLE, NEIL! I WILL BEAR YOUR CHILDREN! DO YOU HEAR ME! LIFE ALWAYS FINDS A WAY!”