My first and last loves where both named Neil. Well, the second one is spelled Neal, but close enough.
My last love, my husband, I immortalized in my debut novel, The Travelers. Even if I forget anniversaries (which I do a lot) and hate Valentine’s Day (yep, I’m not normal), I did take our unusual first encounter and incorporate its serendipitous essence into the love story of my YA novel about two teenage witches caught on opposites sides of a centuries old Wiccan war. That’s true love, right?
However, Neal, my husband, was not my first love. My first love was a different Neil, Neil Diamond.
Where it began, I can’t begin to knowin’…
I’m not sure the exact time or date when I was first introduced to Neil Diamond. However, my journey to love likely began in a large family van with a blue exterior that teased of the blue carpeting and blue upholstered seats inside. If you ever watched the A-team, think of that van, but blue and filled with a family of five.
In this blue van, my family trekked across the US for an entire summer. At every continental divide, my parents hauled us out, bleary eyed and groggy, to take a picture. In many of those pictures, I’m pouting or scowling. Although, to be fair, in most pictures of me as a child, I’m pouting or scowling.
I was not the easiest kid, which might be why at one point during this 5 week road trip my parents left me on the side of the road and drove off.
And I was a dreamer, with only words to trade…
Don’t blame them. They did the right thing. I was unbearable most of the time.
Mountains cut a saw-tooth pattern in the sky behind me. Grassy plains bereft of buildings as far as the eye could see surrounded me. Oh how I cried and wailed and yelled. I pleaded at the dust they left behind for them to come back. Then I collapsed on the side of the road, heaving dry sobs.
A red truck slowed an older woman with gray hair and a floral dress stopped. She asked me what was the matter and I told her.
She kindly brought me back to her little house not far away. When the door opened, Sweet Caroline instantly started playing on the record player. She’d rigged it up somehow. She told me her name was Caroline and that it was her favorite song. Her home had posters and memorabilia of Neil Diamond on every wall and shelf. She played me all of his records.
That was when I fell in love with Neil Diamond.
Pour me a drink and I’ll tell you some lies…
If your jaw is dropping to the floor right now in disbelief that’s because this is a total lie. I am a writer and I couldn’t help taking a little poetic license here. Alright, it was more of a shocking tangent license. It’s also an homage to my my sister and her best friend, my de facto sister who accompanied us on this 5 week excursion. One of their favorite Neil Diamond lyrics is “pour me a drink and I’ll tell you some lies” from the song Love on the Rocks. So I told you some lies.
The truth is no woman named Caroline found me on the side of the road. My parents did leave me. But only for what I would call a hot second, if I were still in high school. They barely drove off two inches before hopping out to come back and get me. Their goal was never to leave me, just to scare me “straight” so I’d stop being such a terror. It probably worked for about an hour.
It’s a beautiful noise. And it’s a sound that I love…
My real love affair with Neil Diamond was much more mundane, albeit no the less powerful for me.
He was our 6th rider on this trip across the country, our constant companion. My family and I belted out Forever in Blue Jeans until our throats were hoarse as the countryside changed from cities to towns to empty fields filled with wild animals.
My father knew exactly how long to rewind the tape to get back to the beginning of America, which I begged to be played over and over again. And he complied because it soothed their 5-year-old savage beast.
My older sisters were pre-teens at the time, therefore, it was required then that they groaned at the tape we put on repeat. But they never failed to sing along when the songs started playing.
Lost on a painted sky, where the clouds are hung for the poet’s eye…
It was Neil Diamond who created the soundtrack for that summer. His “beautiful noise” crackled in the speakers as we pointed at buffalo, settled into camp grounds or parked at the edge of the Grand Canyon.
His voice followed us to the geysers in Yellowstone National Park and up to the top of Pike’s peak or down into the depths of the diamond mines.
Somewhere in the back of my mind the words Hello, Again, spring up when I see a black asphalt road and yellow dashed lines disappear into the spiked hills of a mountain or roll out of site on a horizon. I still sing Song Sung Blue when I noticed a blue van filled with a family, bags strapped to the roof, clearly heading off on their adventure.
Ever since that trip, I’ve loved Neil Diamond.
Play it now, play it now. Play it now, my baby…
As much as I loved him, I’m older now and it’s been a long time since I put Neil Diamond on repeat. I don’t listen to him much anymore except for the odd moment of nostalgia when I find him on Spotify and pass by his voice when flipping through the radio channels in the car.
That was until I heard about his 50th anniversary tour, which happened to coincide with my parents 50th wedding anniversary. Serendipity struck and it seemed required that we get “the band” (aka our family) back together for one night to relive the songs of that fateful summer and many others roaming across the roads, hills, mountains and plains of the US.
From another time, from another place, Do you remember it, babe…
That’s why this weekend, I trekked over to Baltimore to see my first love in concert for the first time with my parents and my sister. We towed my daughter along to the fun in the hopes of creating create another generation of Neil Diamond fans.
To my daughter it was a lesson in the history of her family. At the concert she got a glimpse of her 5-year-old mother and 11-year-old aunt, who sang along with every song and jumped up and down like a maniacs when Neil engaged the crowd in a perfect rendition of Sweet Caroline. It was so good.
She also listened to her mom rant that she’d march right down to that stage and force them to play America if Neil had the audacity to skip it. (He didn’t. It was the last song and a perfect ending.)
Neil didn’t disappoint. Even as an elder statesman he still has his charm, his humor and his wonderful gravely voice that floats over the air, seeps down into my lungs, spreads through my body and opens up my memories and my imagination, just like he did that summer in the van.
For me, the concert wasn’t just a trip down memory lane, but a reminder of the journey a spirited 5-year-old kid to the person I am today. Those early trips with my family and the Neil Diamond soundtrack exposed me to experiences and heightened my imagination. Hours and hours in a van, reading, writing, imagining, listening to stories through music were the primordial ooze of a future writer.
Before this weekend when I saw Neil Diamond in concert, I’d joke about the torture of those long road trips. That summer wasn’t the last. The long hours in the car, the early mornings, the bugs, the dirt, the camping. I’d thought I’d hated it. Turns out, maybe I didn’t and maybe I should be grateful for those experiences. There were no video games back then. No TV in the van. No internet. No smart phones. I had my brain, some notebooks and a several decks of cards. It was a recipe for fostering a burgeoning writer. Without that trip, without Neil, I’m not sure if I’d ever have picked up a pen. That summer sparked an imagination and without imagination there is no writer.
Here’s to trips across country and down memory lane…
When we gave it away for the sake of a dream in a penny arcade…If you know what I mean….