March 9, 2013

My post from the other day on some happily re-discovered songs by the legendary The Band brought back some powerful memories of thirty-five years ago that I cherish to this day. For it was in 1978 that I first saw Martin Scorcese’s film “The Last Waltz”, celebrating The Band’s last concert surrounded by many of their friends and musical influences. While both the film and the music contained therein was fabulous, it was a performance by Neil Diamond, of all people, that stands out in my memory more than any other. Let me explain:

It may seem strange or hard to believe that it would take someone twenty-three years to have a so-called “coming out year”, but that’s what 1978 was for me. You see, that was that year I discovered there was another world outside of the Tewksbury-based existence I was brought up in; it was a year of discoveries in all sorts of ways.

…Not that Tewksbury was bad by any stretch of the imagination: I remember fondly the town of my youth – a small town that disappeared a long time ago, a slice of small-town America comprised of Shawsheen River cabins, ’50s style ranch housed neighborhoods, and a Main Street that was really a main street that inevitably was a victim of its own success, now just another crowded, traffic-stifled bedroom community comprised of endless condos and strip malls covering every parcel of land possible. But I digress…

It’s always assumed that in a family it’s the older brother that serves in some acknowledged head or leadership or influential role, but the truth is that it was my brother Mark who I always aspired to be most like – a little wacky, a little reckless, more than a little restless – and it was his breaking away in the summer of 1977 by enlisting in the Army that ultimately paved the way for me finding my own way of spreading my wings the following year.

Once Mark left, I readily admit I floundered around for awhile trying to find a new center – my old high school friends and I had gone our separate ways, and our band Top Priority had split up. I was three years into a relationship with a girl whom I liked a lot but had no intention of marrying. I was close to finally completing four years of night school to get my A.S. from Northeastern University, but I had absolutely no clue as to what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. While I liked my Tewksbury surroundings, I was well aware it was time to see what else was out there. 1978 became that year.

It was a co-worker at Liberty Mutual where I was working as a programmer trainee at the time, my good friend Paul Mancuso, who served as the doorway to that new world. We laugh about it to this day, but Paul at that time was also trying to find himself. Born and raised in Waltham, he was just out of college and a couple of years older than me. We hit it off pretty well almost immediately. What I liked about Paul was the doorway he offered – a different background, different musical tastes, different kinds of friends and acquaintances. Whereas I was Merrimack Valley, he was metro-Boston. Whereas I had my own musical tastes like The Beatles, The Beach Boys, surf music, and Pink Floyd, his ran all the way from the Stones to Dylan to The Ramones anmd Blondie to Frank Zappa. It was a real eye-opener.

When I hear the music from The Last Waltz, I’m hearing the experience of Paul and me seeing the movie in Cambridge at the old Frank ‘n Steins restaurant/bar surrounded by college kids and coeds – a surrounding I could never have imagined myself experiencing just a year before. In addition to performances by The Band and the likes of Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and others, there was another that provided a link between my previous Tewksbury life and the one I was now experiencing, so brand-new and exciting.

My brother Mark had always been a Neil Diamond fan. I’m not talking the dopey, lounge lizard singer he would become in the ’80s, but the soulful hit-maker of the early and mid-’70s. Whenever a new Neil song would come out on 45, Mark would inevitably add it to our collection, and there were some really good songs: “Sweet Caroline”, “Holly Holy”, Cracklin’ Rosie”, “Be”, etc. But what really jazzed both of us was his 1976 album, Beautiful Noise, produced by The Band’s Robbie Robertson. It’s still, in my mind, one of the all-time best recordings I’ve heard. There’s simply not a bad cut on it.

More importantly, that album served as the last one we would both gravitate to together. In those days we had it on 8-track, and we’d play it often as we’d drive around town, or up to the beach, or to the seawall in Nahant. Songs like Signs, Lady Oh, Dry Your Eyes, and, the hit from the album, If you Know What I Mean were more than just songs to us. Diamond’s lyrics about loneliness, alienation, and restlessless in an urban setting spoke to us, both consciously and subconsciously, about our own awareness of how we were growing up and gradually going our separate ways.

When, by 1978, Mark would come home on various leaves, it was readily apparent that he had changed greatly, but so had I. On that night in Cambridge with Paul watching The Last Waltz and seeing Neil Diamond come out on stage, seemingly out of place amidst the likes of Dylan, Mitchell, Young, Clapton, et al, yet holding his ground with a stirring rendition of “Dry Your Eyes”, I can still remember feeling the power of what that song represented: a bridge in time spanning the past and the present, Mark now in his new life, I in mine, one song a forever link to days spent together driving around in my 1969 Pontiac Tempest, days now irrevocably gone, perhaps forever.

The gap between us would grow ever larger as our lives continued in different directions, but that’s the moment that was back in 1978.

Filed in: Uncategorized by The Great White Shank at 01:25 | Comments (0)
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