On loneliness and old friends

neil-diamond

I almost didn’t go.

I have seen Neil Diamond so many times before (ten? twelve?), and in recent years my passion for his music, which once bordered on an obsession, has waned. I’m more likely to listen to opera now, a substitution of one type of deeply emotional music for another. Yet it’s true that some of the best moments of my life have been spent at Neil Diamond concerts, and I know that sounds a little crazy to the average person. Let me try to explain.

When I was young, I felt very isolated. I was gay in a time when that was much more taboo than it is now (the early ’80s) and I felt safe telling no one. I was also extremely introverted, a trait that always made me feel abnormal because I didn’t understand what an introvert was, or that I was one. I just knew I was very different from others. I was actually perfectly normal, though in a considerable minority on both fronts. I didn’t find out until decades later that I was rare even for an introvert (I’m an “INTJ” on the Myers-Briggs scale, about 2-3% of the population), and when I read the profile of such a person my whole life suddenly made sense to me. But back then, being gay and introverted was a double recipe for feeling different and weird and as if no one could possibly understand – or be trusted with – the real me.

I desperately needed to know I was not alone, and that’s where Neil Diamond stepped in. He often sings about loneliness, heartache and isolation (“I am, I said,” “Solitary Man,” and much of the introspective, underappreciated music from “Jonathan Livingston Seagull,” for which he won a Grammy), and it spoke to me like nothing else had. Someone else knew how I felt, and had been where I was. He was a spiritual life saver, and my lonely heart secretly soared with the triumphant songs (“America,” “Holly Holy,”) and ached along with the despairing ones (“Lonely Looking Sky,” “Love Burns”). If you saw me at a concert in those days you would never have known that I was having a good time, but I was in my own introverted way (very little clapping along and – god forbid – no dancing, but definitely rapt attention and frequent shedding of tears).

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I must also mention how I discovered Neil’s music. In my teenaged loneliness and desperation to find someone else like me and not feel alone in the world, I took out an ad in a gay personals magazine. No Internet back then, so the options were pretty limited and primitive for someone in a small rural town. I also knew I would never meet someone locally, being as shy and reserved as I was. So when a guy in Ohio who was a few years older than me answered, we started an intense correspondence that lasted for many months. He was lonely like me, and as eager to find someone to relate to. His almost daily letters were the highlight of my day, and I could think about little else but him (to this day, 33 years later, I still remember his address and phone number, and saved the letters for many years). We eventually started marathon, late-night phone calls, when I would physically shake inside as I shared my most private self and gradually let someone in. We knew we had to meet. He lived 800 miles away and I had hardly ever left Connecticut, but nothing could stop me from meeting him – not even an uncomfortable, 16-hour overnight train ride by myself through the back alleys of Middle America. It had been his idea to go to a concert that first night, to see Neil Diamond, whose music I barely knew, at Riverfront Coliseum in Cincinnati, the biggest city I had ever been in. It was the most intense, magical, memorable night of my life. I’ll never forget the date, the off-the-scale hope I felt for the future, or the romantic, soul-stirring music that set the perfect mood for the occasion. When everything fell apart a few months later (what did I expect from a long-distance relationship?), I was as devastated as I had been overjoyed, but had no one to turn to for comfort. Since nobody knew I was gay, I suffered my year-long heartbreak completely alone. All I had was Neil’s music to comfort me, and to spark the quickly fading memories of my Cinderella experience. Were it not for that lifeline, that connection to someone else in the world, I’m not sure how I would have coped.

me

Me in 1982

Forward to the present day, thirty years and many jaded experiences later. Tickets to the concert were $100, a steep price to pay for something I thought I’d outgrown. I also knew it would be very hard to get tickets. But an ex-boyfriend who works in the upper echelons of the casino, who knows my love for Neil, and with whom I share many musical experiences hooked me up through a mutual friend, who asked me to go with his group. Included in this entourage would be someone I hadn’t seen in eight years, but had once been very close to. He was one of the few people I was able to let in when I was struggling with so much, and with whom I always felt comfortable being me. These people are rare and special, so this was an added incentive to go.

The day of the concert was a terrible day at work, and I had to race to meet the group on time. It was great to see my old friend again, but the restaurant we dined at was so noisy (band music) that we could barely hear each other during dinner, and I cannot speak loudly in such environments (an introvert hallmark). Then, since one of the tickets we had was separate from the other seats and I was the fifth wheel, I volunteered to take the lone seat. These types of things don’t really bother me since I do many things alone, but the combination of feeling isolated at dinner and then pre-concert did touch some old nerves. It didn’t help that the people around me were especially annoying extroverts. People!

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The stage just before the concert, 2015

The concert started rather uneventfully – none of the dramatic entrances like Neil used to do years ago. He is looking gray, I thought, kind of like an old Sean Connery, and I don’t like the mustache! He did have a cool new backdrop, a large, diamond-shaped projection screen behind him that changed according to what song he was singing. A little corny, sure, but it was technologically impressive, at times looking like a huge, rotating diamond in various hues that sparkled off the walls of the arena. It came in very handy for emotional, patriotic images during “America.”

He began with some oldies and other songs that I wasn’t that enthused about: “I’m a Believer” (a song he wrote for the Monkees), “Hello Again,” and a “Love on the Rocks” that was a little too raspy. Then some casually upbeat numbers, which, as an introvert, I can take or leave. I prefer the ballads, the introspection, the ruminating, the triumph.

So I sat there being critical, my neck stiff from the odd position I had to sit in and from the little bit of alcohol I had with dinner (I don’t drink very often as it often causes weird side effects, like that one. My tense body is probably shocked by the relaxing effect). But then came the familiar, delicious, descending scale of the opening to “If You Know What I Mean,” and Neil had me from that moment on. It’s one of the few songs I remember clearly from that concert in Cincinnati so many years ago. Those notes pulled me down into myself, into the past, into that other world I left behind with my shattered hopes. The one that I slammed the door on after I got hurt. I remembered, in my soul, why I loved this music so. The song is about wistfully remembering the past, and how elusive and intangible those images are (“Here’s to the songs we used to sing / here’s to the times we used to know / it’s hard to hold them in our arms again / but hard to let them go.”) It’s one of Neil’s most poignant songs, but the next one he sang was even more sobering.

Neil was born in Brooklyn, New York, but had never performed there in almost fifty years of touring – until two nights prior to the show I attended. He wrote a song early in his career capturing his memories of growing up there called “Brooklyn Roads,” relating scenes from his childhood that flash through his mind before he finally realizes that he can never go back. I’ve always considered this the most poetic of Neil’s songs, a real masterpiece of wistfulness and longing in both words and music. He sat on a stool and began, slowing the usual tempo for extra effect: “If I close my eyes . . .”  The new twist was that, behind him, actual childhood movie footage of himself, his immediate family and his old neighborhood appears on the screen timed to the detailed lyrics (“two floors above the butcher” as we see the apartment where he grew up, “and I see two boys . . . squirming into papa’s embrace” as we see the three of them in a happy scene from the distant past). Neil revealed before the song began that his dad had owned a movie camera, a rarity in the late 40s/early 50s, but he had never shown these images in a concert before. So here he was, a 74-year-old man in the twilight of a phenomenal career, one of the best-selling music artists of all time, shown at his genesis, back where it all began, a place he can only visit in his mind and recall wistfully in his old age. Not unlike me, trying to recapture a hopefulness that I once felt and abandoned long ago, never forgiving myself for being so vulnerable and naive. I was in tears, and had to restrain myself from outright sobbing. Neil himself was so moved by the thunderous ovation he received after this very personal performance that he appeared to momentarily lose his composure, something I had never seen before. You can do that in old age, or as a child. Everyone else has to squash it.

And that’s how Neil hooked me. Again. He’s still got his memories, and I do, too. I looked up my first love from Ohio a few years ago on the Internet, just because I could. It took some effort, but I found him. I wasn’t sure he’d respond (in my desperation, I had gotten rather pathetic after the breakup). We’ve exchanged numerous emails and Christmas cards, and even a phone call, one of the most surreal experiences of my last thirty years. The old trembling was still there, and hearing his voice made me feel 19 again. Of course much has changed, and you can never go back. But I will always have Neil’s music to help me reconnect to that magical night back in 1982 when, for a brief while, I was the most hopeful I’ve ever been, and am ever likely to be.

Ticket Stub 1982
Thought of going back
but all I’d see are strangers’ faces
And all the scars that love erases
but as my mind walks through those places
I’m wondering, What’s come of them?

                                                                       – Neil Diamond, “Brooklyn Roads”

With malice toward none

We all have an impression in our minds of Abraham Lincoln. It is safe to say that it is a universally positive impression, based both on fact and myth, with the many gaps of actual knowledge ad libbed by our brains. We know that Lincoln was tall, melancholy, eloquent, smart. We know that he rose to the challenge of his job like few have. We know that he had a heavy heart, and that he tried to do what was right and just.

In Steven Spielberg’s new movie, Lincoln, some of the gaps in our Lincoln portrait are filled in for us, aided greatly by a very convincing performance from Daniel Day-Lewis in a most difficult role. His Lincoln does the man and history justice and preserves his hallowed stature, but he is not perfect. He swears. He tells bawdy jokes. He does things that are not always ethical. But his end results always honor his means, and the fact that he is human and has human frailties makes his superhuman accomplishments all the more incredible.

In the film’s moving opening scene, our fantasy of what we would say to Lincoln were he sitting in front of us is fulfilled as he sits among everyday soldiers who clamor to speak to their commander-in-chief. One reveals the esteem in which he holds Lincoln when he recites, from memory, his exact words at Gettysburg, even when the great man’s modesty prevents him from the same feat. In another poignant scene, Lincoln explains the ancient and simple mathematical principle of equality to two young telegraph operators. One of them is so awed by Lincoln’s clear reasoning on a contentious issue like slavery that he stands as Lincoln leaves the room.

It is simple gestures like this that emphasize Lincoln’s greatness and cause us to shed a tear for his gentle yet strong leadership, the likes of which we rarely see these days. Lincoln was a down-to-earth, fair, modest man who put himself in others’ shoes – even those of his enemies – and was generally held in great respect by those who personally encountered him, even if they disagreed with him. But, alas, there were also those who hated what he did to end slavery since it eroded their advantage, and this led to his tragic assassination shortly after his triumphant securing of the Thirteenth Amendment. The film follows the struggle for passage of that amendment, treating the assassination only in passing. Rather than linger in mourning, Lincoln’s memory is honored with his own words from his historic Second Inaugural Address, considered one of  the best speeches ever written. The long and bloody Civil War had just ended, and it was time for healing. Lincoln was adamant that the South not be punished. “It is of no benefit to me,” he said, “to triumph over anyone.” Such was his philosophy, a corollary of the Golden Rule. Here was his message to reunite the country, six weeks before his death:

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Tchaikovsky (Russia, 1972)

I came to this movie as a great admirer of the pathos of Tchaikovsky’s music and of his life story, both of which I relate deeply to. I hadn’t known about this film, though I had seen “The Music Lovers” and the 2007 BBC docudrama “Tchaikovsky”, both of which left me wanting. Nobody seems to get the Tchaikovsky life story quite right, though each has admirable elements. But “Amadeus” and “Immortal Beloved” are much more inspiring portrayals of Mozart and Beethoven, respectively, than this film is of Tchaikovsky. Had I not already been a great admirer of his, I don’t think this film would have made me one.

Overall, I liked the sullen mood of the film as it seemed to fit its subject, though at times he seems a bit too morose. This is made all the more annoying by the fact that the film doesn’t delve into the possible reasons for Tchaikovsky’s melancholy, and doesn’t seem to care to. Certainly his sexual orientation, in a society where being gay was considered shameful and worthy of banishment to Siberia, played a considerable role, but this was summarily ignored. And I find it hard to believe that there wasn’t some joy in Tchaikovsky’s life, especially when he was being lauded for his brilliant work. He was the most famous composer in Russia, if not the world, even in his lifetime. His letters indicate great pride and satisfaction at key moments in his life, but in the film he rarely cracks a smile. This gets tiresome. Nobody is morose all the time. His trip to America near the end of his life, which was highly successful, is ignored. The theme from the Romeo & Juliet Fantasy Overture, arguably the greatest musical expression of love in the world, is also ignored. The 1812 Overture is not mentioned. These are some of the composer’s best known works, though admittedly they may not have been while he was alive. Nevertheless, their absence is notable.

This film does a few things very well. The cinematography is appealing and painted on a large palette, with intriguing locations, grand scenes, and an authentic feel for Russia and Tchaikovsky’s world. But perhaps its most striking credential is the amazing physical resemblance of its star, acclaimed Russian actor Innokenti Smoktunovsky, to Tchaikovsky. It is haunting. I felt as though I were watching actual physical footage of the great composer (of which none exists, of course… he died in 1893), and found this mesmerizing. It lends the film an intimate feel, as though we are actually in Tchaikovsky’s world because it is so easy to believe that the man we see on the screen is indeed him.

Yet ultimately, what I find most annoying about the film is the cheap, tinny sound it gives to Tchaikovsky’s incredibly beautiful music. It is treated with all the dignity of a carnival merry-go-round, feeling rushed, comic and casual. What a great disservice this does, and this more than anything else hurts the film. Were the music handled with the glory and richness it deserves, the film would have much greater impact and feeling, and would easily win converts. If I were a Tchaikovsky neophyte, I would not rush out to buy a CD after seeing this film, and that is a great shame. A film about this man must, by definition, give one a passionate connection to his music, because it was such a huge part of how he expressed himself.

There is one poignant musical scene, however, the likes of which the movie could have used much more. Tchaikovsky borrowed many of his tunes from folk songs, mostly of Russia, but also from his travels abroad to Europe. In the scene in question, the composer is having lunch in Paris while we hear accordion music coming from the street below. Astute listeners will recognize it as the melancholy tune from the slow movement of Tchaikovsky’s fourth symphony. This subtle fact may be lost on the uninitiated, but I found it beautifully executed.

There is also a revealing and poignant (and imaginary) scene on a train between Tchaikovsky and his wealthy patron, Nadezhda von Meck. The two corresponded prolifically for over a decade, but never met (at her insistence), and were perfect soulmates for each other. Their exchanges were often quite frank. She wrote to him, “I am very unsympathetic in my personal relations because I do not possess any femininity whatever; second, I do not know how to be tender, and this characteristic has passed on to my entire family. All of us are afraid to be affected or sentimental…” No wonder she adored Tchaikovsky’s music: it exquisitely said what she could not. We feel for her, and instantly realize that Tchaikovsky suffers from the same affliction.

This film could have been so much better, but it contains enough worthy elements that I decided to purchase it. The striking physical resemblance of the actor to his character, the glimpses of Tchaikovsky’s genius, the Russian landscape, and the healthy dose of “Queen of Spades” (one of my favorite operas, and one of Tchaikovsky’s most successful) all bode well for future viewings. But when I want to enjoy the composer’s glorious music, I’ll pop in a CD instead.

“Spamalot” dishes out the bright side of life

I’ve not been so entertained in a long, long time.

This show is fantastic. It is based on the British “Monty Python” franchise, a TV show that I never really liked very much, so I didn’t hold out much hope for this musical. In fact I almost didn’t go, given my negatively-held impression. That’s the problem with impressions. They’re so often wrong.

I found myself smiling in my seat during 90% of the show, and I’m not generally a big smiler. In fact, my face hurt when I left the theater (no lie!) I found the show to be brilliantly written, both in terms of script and music, and incredibly clever and witty. While I often found the Monty Python TV episodes and movies to be on the dumb side and never quite understood the appeal (Mr. Creosote excepted – this skit from “The Meaning of Life” made me laugh so hard when I first saw it that I feared I would injure myself. “Mint?”), this show is anything but stupid. Silly, yes, but in a very charming and entertaining way. You can’t help but smile.

I won’t spoil any of the puns or plot devices for you. Suffice it to say that it’s a really fun ride. The hapless King Arthur goes out in search of knights for his round table. We follow their (mis)adventures and encountered obstacles as they hunt for the Holy Grail, from killer bunny rabbits to taunting Frenchmen who spew vicious insults. There are elaborate and hilarious dance numbers about Jews, gays, and the Finnish (who else but Python would pick on the Finnish?). The show reminded me a bit of “Joseph and the Amazing Technocolor Dreamcoat,” another of my favorites, in the clever musical numbers, the showstopping-quality of the choreography, and the way it doesn’t take itself very seriously. Might this supplant Joesph in my heart?

The characters are all incredibly likable. The cast clearly relish their roles, and they are superb – comically, vocally and physically. Who would expect such outstanding singing and dancing in a show this silly? The colorful costumes and musical score are also top notch – it is non-stop eye and ear candy. No wonder this show won three Tony awards. I thought this cast sounded even better than the original Broadway cast. They sang and delivered their lines with more enthusiasm (I wish they’d make a recording!)

The musical numbers vary greatly in style. Most are very energetic, and borrow liberally from many sources: the native sounds of Finland, other Broadway shows, the Hava Nagila, the French National Anthem and from a Monty Python classic itself. That song, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” is fairly well known since taking on a life of its own after its introduction at the surreal ending of Python’s “Life of Brian.” While sung there with a touch of farce and cynicism, it actually has an uplifting message (well, the first chorus anyway) and is sung by the whole audience at the end of the show, at the cast’s urging. This comes just after another heartwarming moment involving audience participation and the triumphant discovery of the Grail.

Spamalot paints a fun world that you long to be a part of. You don’t want it to end. The applause from the packed house at the Garde Arts Center in New London was frequent and exuberant, and deservedly so. A standing ovation was offered at the end, and, alas, the magic was over.* Ahh, Camelot – I mean Spamalot!

Show info at http://www.montypythonsspamalot.com

*The show is coming to the Shubert in New Haven from 12/29 – 1/02. What a great way to spend New Year’s! (I’m there. Anyone want to join me?)

Movie Review: Hereafter

Hereafter

Hereafter is a movie that deals with the intriguing question, “What happens when we die?” It weaves together the story of three people: a successful woman who has a near-death experience (NDE) after nearly drowning, a young boy who loses his twin brother in an accident, and a reluctant psychic who has strong abilities to “read” people and channel messages from their deceased loved ones, but who sees his gift as a curse and is loathe to use it.

The story is touching, poignant and well told. The plight of the young boy is easily the most heart-wrenching of the three storylines. He is totally lost without his brother, and we feel his pain sharply. He is tossed into a foster home after the accident due to his mother’s alcoholism and inability to care for him, so he has not only his brother’s death to deal with, but the trauma of an unfamiliar life with strangers. He takes to wearing his brother’s baseball cap as a security blanket, and is generally despondent and grief-stricken. He steals money to visit psychics he finds on the internet in an attempt to talk to his brother, most of whom are frauds and leave him even more disillusioned.

Marie, the woman who has the NDE, is both distracted and intrigued by her experience and finds it hard to concentrate on her work. She, like the boy, needs answers. She takes a leave from her job to research NDE phenomena, and writes a book on the subject. While her lover and employer find it all to be nonsense, she knows there is something to it and won’t give up, even at the cost of these relationships.

George is the psychic. While his powers are strong, they make him feel like a freak and somewhat embarrass him. He feels they rob him of a chance at a normal life, but his compassion for others often trumps his reluctance to use them. While this has disastrous results with a new love interest, it ultimately proves to be healing for the boy and Marie – as well as himself.

I found little fault with this film, except perhaps the large amount of French dialogue (the Marie storyline takes place in Paris). While there are of course subtitles, and while French is a pretty language that I’m a little familiar with, the subtitles did become a bit of an effort. Matt Damon is wonderful as George, especially when he’s doing readings and explaining nervously to his date how he came to have his abilities. The disaster sequence at the beginning of the movie is awe-inspiring to watch – I haven’t seen a disaster on this scale and done with such detail and realism since the movie Titanic. The cinematography is crisp, and the music, some of it by the film’s director, Clint Eastwood, adds nicely to the atmosphere. Highly recommended.

Review: Neil Diamond in concert

At 67, the seasoned singer-songwriter gave a performance last night in Hartford that rivals, perhaps even tops, any live show he’s done in the past 25 years. That something special was in store was evident the moment he appeared on stage – not rising out of the floor as in past shows, not donning a brightly sequined shirt as is his custom – simply striding confidently from backstage to front and center in a tasteful and dapper black suit, looking distinguished and legendary.

Even his opening number, a truncated version of Holly Holy that is usually saved for later in the show, was highly unusual. This was followed by two solid hours of non-stop, heartfelt performances of his biggest hits, as well as well-received new material from “Home After Dark,” his highly-acclaimed new album, and amazingly the only one to ever hit number one on the Billboard chart. He may finally be getting the mainstream respect he has long deserved, and he is wearing it well.

Diamond was like a man with a new lease on life, rendering versions of his songs that seemed energized with new meaning, a tall order for material that is so well-known by the audience and so often performed by Diamond. The feeling he conveyed on biographical pieces such as Brooklyn Roads (complete with home video of his youth), I am, I Said (with a revealing new emphasis on the word “still”) and Solitary Man could only come from a man who has found his emotional center and is in a very secure, connected place. Everything he did tonight radiated from that core, trumping the need for the flashiness and shtick that was often featured in past shows. In essence, his live concert is now as pared down as his new albums, and it works on both fronts.

A beautiful rendition of You Don’t Bring Me Flowers was delivered with the help of long-time vocalist Linda Press. While Diamond has often done this in concert before, the newly added touches of a table adorned with a lone flower and wine glass and a tender slow-dance between the pseudo-lovers gave it a whole new melancholy. Somehow the words of the song leapt out in a brand new way, as if you’d never really heard them before.

The stage itself was also the epitome of simplicity and function. It was spartan, slightly sloped and contained six raised platform-pedestals serving as individual bases for the vocalists, drummer, keyboardists, percussionist, horn section and guitarists. Diamond himself often sang from a wedge attached to the front of the stage which traveled from left to right like a giant slice of pie. The band platforms also moved during the show like huge chess pieces positioning themselves for maximum advantage. The lighting was tasteful and subdued, as was the burnt sienna, almost Southwestern appearance of the stage itself.

Diamond sang some rare treats, numbers he seldom performs in concert any more. These ranged from Crunchy Granola Suite and Done Too Soon from the seminal Hot August Night album, to Love on the Rocks and Song Sung Blue. Perhaps his best numbers of the evening were the crowd-pleasing Sweet Caroline, a band-showcasing Cherry, Cherry and a rendition of America that rivaled his classic performance in the final scene of The Jazz Singer over two decades ago.

Diamond alluded to one possible source of his centeredness, expressing gratitude to the Almighty for giving him his talent and his loyal audience and feeling that he has a concomitant responsibility as an instrument of goodwill. While the spiritual is often invoked in his music (Brother Love, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Soolaimon) and has been referenced by him, perhaps the relatively new song Man of God, which he made a point of performing last night, says it all:

I’m thanking you, Lord, for givin’ me song
For makin’ me strong and for takin’ my hand
I’ll go up to Heaven when I reach the end
But up until then gonna do what I can

Amen to that.