Hold On To That Feeling

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I had the privilege this week of attending four concerts at my local arena. It’s just three miles down the road, one of the best entertainment venues in the country (Mohegan Sun), yet I rarely visit. World class entertainment, right on my doorstep. This week, I made up for lost time. In fact, there were so many artists that I wanted to see coming in the same week – Neil Diamond, Train, Bryan Adams, Asia and Journey – that I took a vacation from work. I tend to go to extremes at times.

Nietzsche famously said that without music, life would be a mistake. Music has played such an important role in my life that I’m not going to argue with him. Like many introverts, I am affected by music at a very deep level. I am mainly drawn to pop, rock, Broadway, symphonies and opera, and, diverse as they are, I enjoy them all equally but for different reasons. Rock and Broadway cater to my more carefree moods, symphonies and opera to my more contemplative ones, and pop to both.

Music, perhaps more than anything or anyone, makes me feel. Many introverts like myself may be suspected of not having feelings, but I would argue, at least in my case, that they may be deeper than the average person’s given that I spend so much time in solitude, reflecting and ruminating. Extroverts seem busy to me distracting from feelings rather than experiencing them, at least the deeper and more complex ones. The reason mine may not be apparent to others is because I don’t typically show them. They are there nonetheless, are quite intense, and I cherish them. Occasionally they leak out, and music is a key catalyst (movies can be, also, but mainly because music accompanies the emotionally-charged scenes).

Nineteen eighty-two and eighty-three were probably the two most intense years in my life, largely because I had fallen in love for the first time, and, not surprisingly, also suffered my first breakup, a truly devastating event for me. I suppose it is for many, but the fact that I was secretly gay (this was 1982, when being gay was not acceptable) and had nowhere to go for solace or advice made the crash from ecstasy to depression unbearable. So I experienced both the most hopeful and the most depressing events of my life – even to this day – in the course of those two years. Music was my only friend. Every hit song from that time period triggers heightened memories in my brain, either of rapture (“Heat of the Moment”) or despair (“Open Arms.”)

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Asia and Journey were both at the height of their success during this time period, so they are a key part of my first-love soundtrack.  The very first album I bought and played on my first quality stereo system was Journey’s mega-successful “Escape” from the summer of 1981. I was 18 years old, had recently graduated from high school and opened a business, and my world was opening up in many exciting ways. I still remember hearing the first song off that album on my fancy new turntable, “Don’t Stop Believin’.” What a great test of my new system it was! It kicked, both then and in last night’s show: “Don’t stop believin’/Hold on to that feeling”.

I saw Journey in concert the day before my birthday that same year in Hartford. I don’t remember them being as good then as they were this week, thirty-six years later, but that is likely because I was considerably depressed back then. Plus, I awkwardly and bravely had asked someone to go with me because I was so incredibly lonely, a relative stranger who I had a major crush on, and he said no. So I went alone. I do that a lot nowadays without giving it a second thought, but back then it was a somewhat traumatic experience. It affected my enjoyment of the show, which I spent both feeling sorry for myself and berating my pathetic and self-conscious solitude: Look at how everyone else is enjoying the show! This was way before I had figured out that I was an introvert, and that I didn’t have to be like those around me.

Fast forward to this week, and a more confident and secure me. The opening number was possibly the best of the night. It kicked ass, got the whole arena on its feet (including me – and I was acting without self-consciousness, something I’ve gotten progressively better at over the years), and really energized the crowd right from the get-go. It was 1983’s “Seperate Ways,” a song that brings back a very surreal memory for me of driving through the Mojave Desert on my way from Las Vegas to Los Angeles, alone, in the middle of the night, a five-hour trip on a desolate, starry interstate as this song blared in my rental car (“If he ever hurts you, true love won’t desert you”). This was after the end of my fairy-tale romance, but far enough removed that I was starting to consider that maybe there was still hope.The world seemed full of possibilities for me, and I had a great sense of (cautious) optimism and freedom.

Mid-concert brought another major memory-trigger, the love ballad “Open Arms.” It held number two on the charts for six weeks in the spring of 1982, and it was “our song,” me and my first love. He lived 800 miles away, and, having only an intense phone and letter relationship at that point, the song made us think of each other whenever it came on the radio in our respective worlds. After we broke up, I cried to it more times than I can remember.

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When we finally met two months later, we went to a concert that first night together at Riverfront Coliseum in Cincinnati, the farthest I had ever been from home. The performer: Neil Diamond, whom I was little acquainted with. However, it was the most magical, Cinderella-like night of my life – May 13, 1982 – and when it all turned to shit several months later, Neil’s introspective music would be my only friend and solace. I obsessed on it, seeing him in concert over a dozen more times in the succeeding years, including this week. I don’t obsess on it as much any more, but Neil’s music still gets to me. I teared up at his concert more than any of the others this week. He was there for me a long time ago when I needed a friend. I strongly related to his lyrics about longing and introspection, and he helped me connect to something and feel less alone. It was truly a lifeline. Ultimately, my favorite song of his is a hopeful one (“Holly Holy”), and part of its lyric is the title of this blog – “Take the lonely child, and the seed, let it be full with tomorrow.”

So yes, Nietzsche, music is an indispensable part of my life. It is the soundtrack to my triumph and despair, the guardian of my distant memories, and an understanding friend in my times of need.

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On loneliness and old friends

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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.

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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”