Julie E. Bloemeke on Neil Diamond’s Greatest Hits Volume 1

Neil Diamond: Beyond Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon

Yes, I know. Neil Diamond of Pulp Fiction, The Jazz Singer. Neil Diamond of “Red, Red Wine” before UB40 UB40-ed it. Neil Diamond of the groaner “Turn on Your Heartlight.” Neil Diamond of leather jacket and motorcycles and–dun dun dun– “Sweet Caroline.” But in the turbulence of being 14, the way I saw Neil Diamond was a kind of salvation, a voice that made me question words and their layers of meaning, that taught me something about empowerment, surprise and re-thinking the expected.

Neal Diamond’s Greatest Hits Volume 1, on cassette (more on that in a minute) was one of the first music purchases I made in my early teen years. (And, Greatest Hits it had to be given that I was paying with an allowance, and therefore could not buy all of Neil’s repertoire.) By then, I had listened to him for as long as I could remember, playing his records on our living room turntable. But always I was competing with the open space to hear him, turning up the volume over the phone ringing, the cats chasing, my younger brother buzzing through.

When Christmas 1986 arrived, everything changed. I unwrapped my first Walkman, not realizing then how my experience of listening to music would forever alter. I would no longer compete for sound space; I would no longer pick up and drop the needle over this song and that. Instead, listening would become about the trajectory of the album, the journey of following an emotion from one song to the next. And, with headphones, with a cassette, I realized I could drown out the voices in the front seat, the television in the other room. I could take my music on a walk, into my bed. I could take Neil with me wherever I went: his lyrics, his voice, his guitar.

This way of experiencing music allowed a new intimacy, spurred in me a curiosity that made me want to know more, listen deeper, decipher. I now had the power to pause and rewind just enough to re-hear a word or phrase, finally able to attempt to make out some of Diamond’s lyrics. Was he singing Soolaimon? (Which, I later learned, can mean “hello,” “goodbye” “welcome” and “peace be with you.”) And who were those people that he named in “Done too Soon,” Henri is that—Rousseau?—and Sholom Aleichem?

I began to realize that all along, I had not just loved his voice, the strum of his guitar, the way he sing/shouts to the audience. Now I realized that I had fallen for the words he chose too. I turned his lyrics over, seeing layers of meanings, discovering them in multiple ways. They raised questions, spoke to a part of me that I was too young to yet define myself.

It was heady, empowering, and to me felt defiant, bold.

Every time I heard “Shiloh” I was more intrigued. After years of assuming the song was about a girlfriend—“young girl with fire, something said she understood. I wanted to fly. She made me feel like I could”—I began to listen closer. Who was this “only friend you can find, there in your mind?’ Was this an alternate version of himself? A future self? A pretend friend from childhood? A future lover? God? Was it all of them? Was this possible?

And, in the experience of listening to one song after the next, I began to realize that there was a play in the ordering of the songs too. “Shiloh” was between the preaching revival language of “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show” and “Holly Holy,” a song with psalm-like cadence, parable references and biblical language: song of songs, the reference to seeds, a lame man that walks. The songs together were a trinity, another connection to the spiritual, something that spoke to me and made me want to listen to them in a row, again and again, and to question even further: What was the story of all of this? What was this saying about faith, messages, spiritual journey?

Other tracks grabbed me with this same sense of curiosity. I wanted to learn all of the biographical references in “Done Too Soon.” I wanted to know what it meant, what it felt like, from “Stones,” to “ache for love and get good stones.” (Of course, I later learned all too well.) Over the years, I realized I had learned the story behind most of the names from “Done to Soon”—from Bogart to Mozart to A.E. Poe (Tricky, Neil). But as I went back to look at the lyrics I realized that there were a few that I did not know. For example, in my teenage years I had always assumed that Gunga Din was a person, as most of the references in the song are. In writing this I discovered that it’s actually the title of a Kipling poem. (Apparently I need to revisit Kipling.) But there it was, waiting even now, a years-long secret from Diamond, a poem–literally in itself–set to be discovered in a list of names. And, as a poet myself, I cannot help but think it a kind of gift, a soolaimon, from Neil.

And while Neil’s music spoke to me in this way of poetry, he also got to me, still gets to me, in a very primal emotional way as well. There was something compelling, comforting, freeing and subversive about him that I could not get enough of. His voice, heavy with longing, suggestion, wistfulness, power, and sentimentia—Liam Rector’s term for the dementia of sentiment—took me back to places in my freer, simpler childhood self, took me to places where I was trying to discover who I was and who I would become. When I heard “Song Sung Blue” I was again six, spinning in an avocado shag-carpeted living room, when I heard “I am…I said” I was walking, outside, in the dark of winter, shouting the lyrics to the air after a teenage fight with my parents. No one may have heard but the trees, or, yes, Neil, the chair, but for then, it was enough.

Of course I knew, even at 14, that loving Neil Diamond was not a popular choice. It still isn’t. But carrying his cassettes in my backpack, in my purse, meant I had to admit him, share him, reveal him. While most of my friends were turning to U2, A-ha, Run DMC, Echo and the Bunnymen, Cutting Crew, Motley Crue, Led Zeppelin, the Bangles and Corey Hart, I was humming the lyrics of “Soolaimon” and wondering about this God who inspires a woman to “dance for the sun.”

Neil was my way of cleaving away from others and into who I was. He was unusual, and as a 14-year-old girl listening to songs that had been released before I was born, so was I. By admitting my affection for Neil, I was also beginning to grow into my own identity, to admit that I wholeheartedly embraced listening to him, despite the strange looks and comments. When I felt powerless, alone, confused, there was “Holly Holy” to reassure me. When I began to fall in love with poetry, ever deeper into words, there was “Play Me”: “Words that rang in me, rhyme that sprang from me…and what was right/became me.” And somehow, in his lyrics, his gravelly voice, I felt understood, transcended from an age of turbulence and drama. And in that, part of Neil, his words, became me.

I was a girl who loved Neil Diamond. I am a woman that still does. And I think I may be hoping that perhaps there is another reading of him out there, beyond the heartlight, the jazz singer, that red, read?, wine.

Soolaimon, Neil Diamond.

Soolaimon indeed.

Julie E. Bloemeke is a poet and mother of two young children. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Pebble Lake Review, Ouroboros Review, and Mason’s Road as well as the anthologies: Lavanderia: A Mixed Load of Women, Wash, and Word, Obama-Mentum, The List Anthology and The Southern Poetry Anthology of Georgia Poets. She was a finalist in the 2001 Arts & Letters poetry competition and was awarded first place in the Spring 2010 Atlanta Writer’s Club poetry contest. She graduated with her MFA in poetry from Bennington and is currently working on her first manuscript. So far, there are no poems about Neil Diamond. So far.

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