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.

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”

Being lost is worth the coming home

Today would have been my older sister’s 50th  birthday.  She died three years ago, officially from her alcoholism, but, in my opinion, from her despair.

Cindy had a crappy life. As a child, she had severe asthma and was often hospitalized in Boston for weeks at a time. I remember many frantic late night rides to the doctor’s office when she couldn’t breathe. In those days, the doctor would actually get up out of bed to treat her. To me, as her four-year-younger brother sitting in the back seat, it was pretty frightening.

I don’t remember a lot about our younger years, except that we fought a lot, as brothers and sisters are wont to do. I was told stories as a child of how one time my sister dislocated my elbow trying to lift me, and another when she accidentally smothered me in baby powder. I also remember her hurling a TV Guide at me once and wounding me in the eye. These things aside, I think she really did appreciate me, as later years would bear out.

I can’t say that we were particularly close in the way some brothers and sisters are (there were only the two of us), but there was a bond there just the same. She moved away to Florida when I was in my late twenties, after the start of her drinking problem and long string of boyfriends who weren’t good for her. She had very damaged self esteem, something her and I shared, and I believe this was the root of most of her problems. She never overcame it. We would talk about it on the phone many times, always amazed at the many quirky similarities we shared. The difference was, I had the good fortune to enter therapy and stay there for twelve solid years. She didn’t have that luxury, so I shared with her what I could to try to help her. It ultimately wasn’t enough.

I visited her in Florida several times, and she always tried to make sure I had a good time. She even took me to see Neil Diamond once in Tampa, which is about the best thing anyone could do for me. She was supportive of my being gay, in spite of having been the one to out me to the family after putting two and two together after seeing me with a boyfriend. It was a conflicted relationship, ours was, but caring just the same. It was incredibly frustrating trying to help her during her alcoholism, including the times she pleaded with me for money.

She met someone in early 2003, and felt it was the first healthy, adult, balanced relationship in her life. She was very happy, staying sober, and had a very good job in which she was continually promoted. She finally seemed content. Then, as often happened for her, everything fell apart. She discovered her boyfriend was cheating on her, and since she and I never dealt well with hurt, disappointment or betrayal, she couldn’t handle it. Not sober anyway.

While working at my business a few days before Christmas in 2005, after not having communicated with Cindy for a good number of months, I got a phone call from a Pasco County Florida sheriff asking if I were her brother. While I tried to ring up a customer, he told me that they had found her dead in her home. She was 46. He wanted to know how to get in touch with my parents, which I asked him not to do until I had a chance to call and tell them myself. My initial reaction, aside from the shock, was to feel guilty for not having been in touch with her recently, and anger that she couldn’t do more to help herself – and that I couldn’t do more to help her.

I don’t think Cindy wanted to live any more, I think she was tired of life and of struggle. I can’t blame her for that, as I’ve been there like I have with so many of her other demons. She and I had one of those “at a distance” connections that they talk about in quantum physics, where two entities can be connected without being in physical contact, whether they be atoms or people. This may explain why, two years later when I was trying to give a speech at my parent’s 50th anniversary party and attempted to mention my sister, I burst into tears in front of a roomful of people.

I just opened my folder of Cindy’s emails, which I haven’t done since she died. The very last thing she said to me in her very last email was this: “Thank you for your words of wisdom the other day. They really helped. You are absolutely the most insightful person that I know, and I am very grateful that you’re my brother.”

There’s a song that makes me think of Cindy because of its lyrics. It’s called “Stones,” by Neil Diamond. It’s the only song that he refuses to sing in concert, saying it is too painful for him. Pretty painful for me to listen to these days, also.

Stones would play inside her head
and where she slept, they made her bed
and she would ache for love and get but stones

Lordy child, a good day’s comin’
and I’ll be there, to let the sun in
and being lost is worth the coming home
on stones

You and me, a time for planting
you and me, a harvest granting me
every prayer ever prayed
for just two wildflowers that grow
on stones

Rest in peace, Cindy. Happy Birthday.

A blog introduction: passions, intentions and introversion

Blogs.   Do people actually read them in today’s endlessly busy and distracted world?   I will soon find out.   But whether anyone reads or not,  I have always found writing to be an endeavor that mostly benefits the author.  If others benefit as well, then that is an added bonus – and a gratifying one.

This blog will be loosely structured with many topics, all from my particular perspective.  Therefore, it would seem prudent to share a little about myself.

I am a 48-year old single gay male living in Eastern Connecticut, where I was born during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 (the famous “missiles of October”).  I was a somewhat troubled, melancholy, lonely child who often felt like I was living in a semi-autistic fog, and those old feeling states have occasionally plagued me into adulthood.

I am a lifelong introvert, something I haven’t really appreciated about myself until recently.  It was a bit of a revelation when I read the textbook definition of introversion and almost every trait rang true.  I am overwhelmed easily by too much contact or stimulation.  I recharge my batteries by being alone, and strongly crave alone time after a few hours of being social.  I usually abhor chitchat, cell phones, cocktail parties and interviews.  I don’t like being interrupted or put on the spot, because it can take an introvert time to focus and I need time to process my thoughts and form a response.  I express myself much better on paper than in person.  I have been praised since grade school for my writing skills.  I have few friends, and the few relationships I have that I enjoy are the deeper ones.  I dislike surface contact.  Things have to have meaning and make sense or I have little patience for them.  I’m a good listener, provided what I’m hearing has some depth.  I am drawn to introspection and reflection.

I am also a lifelong entrepreneur, having started my own business when I was 18 and keeping it for almost 30 years.  Working for myself appealed to me greatly as I dislike authority figures and taking orders.  I am self-motivated and don’t need someone barking at me.  Since I now work for someone else (long story for future post), I have to endure some barking.  Hence the bumper sticker on my car:  “Wag More.  Bark Less.” Praise goes much further than criticism, yet seems seldom used in the average workplace.

Some interests/passions of mine include music (symphonic, esp. Beethoven and Tchaikovsky; opera (Puccini, Gilbert & Sullivan); Neil Diamond, who I have seen in concert a dozen times and whose music I have a deep affinity for; reading (a true introvert passion!  Love Shakespeare, Dickens, King, Koontz, Preston/Childs); American history, the presidency, quantum physics and the true nature of “reality,” consciousness studies, metaphysics, and basically the notion that we create our own reality.

I greatly admire those who manage to creatively express themselves in ways that others relate deeply to – especially, those who take their pain and torment and create something divine (Tchaikovsky, Beethoven).  I consider Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to be the greatest work of art I have ever experienced, and have a separate blog posting about it.  As Robert Bly observed, “where your wound is, that is where your genius will be.” Tchaikovsky is another hero in this department.

I hope you enjoy my posts and find something that strikes a chord or two in you.  To quote a passage from my favorite movie, Shadowlands, “we read to know we’re not alone.” I hope I make you feel less alone.

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.