I began the day with, of all people, Neil Diamond. Last night he got into my head — I am, I said, to no one there — but I was too tired to put music on and instead went to sleep feeling I should listen to Hot August Night soon. Today, while writing, I put it on and exchanged my grey raining morning for Neil’s hot august night.
My friend’s older siblings used to put the album on, mostly in the summer, when there was a kind of magic in the humid air. Some things stick with me. I hear the albums of summer — Can’t Buy A Thrill, Rumours, Best of The Doobies — and, in any weather, there’s is the sound of sunshine and youth. Hot August Night turns the clock back.
The music kind of holds up. There’s something delightfully cheesy about Neil Diamond. He’s an outlier. No way the guy could be popular, but he is and has been for a long time. He’s outlived singers and bands that were the epitome of cool. Listening to the strings and Neil’s voice, I smile at the cheese and wonder about the power of being a solitary man.
I bet Neil decided long ago he would become a famous singer, pack in the crowds, do it forever. He probably decided it while still in Tin Pan Alley making nickels and dimes writing for other people. He decided while others were in the limelight and cool. He decided instead of just wishing and I imagine how he slowly made that intention into reality. He decided and remained driven.
He drove past cool with the top down and his foot holding steady on the gas.
On The Band’s The Last Waltz Robbie Robertson brings Neil out to sing “Dry Your Eyes.” It’s an uncool moment in one of the coolest shows ever. Neil Young was there, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and a host of others, all of them cool. Then there was Neil Diamond. He came out and played a kind of dirge about a singer doing his own thing. “And if you can’t recall the singer, you can still recall the tune.” He walks off to mild applause, the audience ready for the next guest.
The Band was cool — they were Dylan’s band after all — but they’re gone. A couple members died. The rest don’t get along well. There’s even a feud over The Last Waltz. They’ve got “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Up On Cripple Creek,” a few others, but it’s all fading.
Then there’s Neil. A couple days ago he set the record for most sold-out performances at The Palace. He looked great, smiling and strong, like a guy living his dream.
After the prologue on Hot August Night, Neil comes in with “Crunchy Granola Suite.” I hear my friend’s brothers cranking it. I remember sunshine and smiles. I remember laughter.
As a kid listening to it, I was happy. Anything was possible. The songs are still familiar. Familiar too is the happiness and possibility I feel as I turn it up. Anything can happen. There’s no need to be cool. It’s enough to keep becoming and maybe dance without caring how I look.