Listen to N. T. McQueen narrate this story, via Soundcloud.

The Tragedy of Neil Diamond

The first time you hear a song, it can capture time, place and memory. But the extraordinary truth of music is that the song, if it actually has depth to it, can transform in time. It can simultaneously capture the past, the emotional resonance of a specific moment or event, but, as the listener grows and matures and experiences the miscellany of life, the melody and lyrics create new meanings and resonance. For example, when I listened to True Believers by the Bouncing Souls when I was fifteen, it captured the exuberance of my youth and the anthemic mantra of some self-realized punk schema I had created in my mind. But, as a father of three girls, driving down Interstate 80 in a Buick LaCrosse, and hearing the lyrics singing about the loves and losses and truly believing in himself, the anthem speaks to a man, a father and a human evolving with the triumphs, traumas and tragedies carried over 34 years.

I despise Sweet Caroline when, as a younger man, I merely tolerated it unless it came as a cover by Me First and The Gimme Gimmes. The song took on a slight annoyance but, my dad always professed his love of all things Neil Diamond. Again, probably a half-truth. This became a sort of running joke though his true fandom always remained in question. I even put Sweet Caroline on my wedding playlist and, inevitably, it played to a raucous reaction where young and old sang an emphatic ‘dun-dun-dun’ across the reception. I never cared for the song except for that one moment when life seemed beautiful.

But songs can transform. After that moment where life seemed beautiful, my father had a visit from the sherriff’s department and ended up serving a year in county for elder abuse (though forgery and theft charges were dropped in the plea deal). Still the song didn’t become despicable. That came later when I stood facing my father in court as his next victim. Now, Neil Diamond personifies an ideal exposed as a façade. I’ve been in department stores and Sweet Caroline will find its way over the clamor of capitalism and I think of a man I thought I knew but, in actuality, was as foreign to me as a vagrant from Turkmenistan. The evolution of this song has turned bitter and melancholic. The juxtaposition between a moment and reality sours the song, singer and all.

Neil Diamond represents paternal betrayal. He exemplifies emotional patricide. His voice embodies painful calls to Capital One, American Express, Mastercard and local banks into the night. His melodies synchronize with counseling sessions and interrogation rooms and lonely tears under streetlamps after his arrest. The iconic rhythm, the ‘dun-dun-dun’, mirrors a dirge to a relationship rather than an exaltation of what life could be.

I’m sorry, Neil. It’s not you. It’s him.

N.T. McQueen is the author of the novel, Between Lions and Lambs, The Disciple, and the children's book, Moses Jones and the Case of the Missing Sneaker. He received his MA in Creative Writing from CSU-Sacramento and his work has appeared in issues of Fiction Southeast, The Kentucky Review, The Grief Diaries, Gold Man Review, Camas: Nature of the West, Transition Magazine, West Trade Review, and others. He lives in Northern California with his wife and three children and teaches writing at American River College.