By David Nilsen
There was nothing transgressive, revolutionary, or generally remarkable in any way about Neil Diamond. Emerging in the 1960s it’s almost impressive a songwriter with a guitar could have almost nothing to say about politics, social change, war, sexual revolution, or psychotropic drugs. He wrote plain pop songs with catchy hooks, mostly about love and the ways in which one falls into it. His lyrics were not profound, his songwriting not influential, his instrumental arrangements at their best when they stayed out of the way, which they didn’t always do. He wasn’t terribly impressive aside from selling 125 million records, the 25th highest mark in pop music history. He was also my first musical memory, indelibly linked with the early years of my childhood in a trailer park in northern Indiana.
I spent the first seven years of my life in a house trailer in Fairlane Mobile Home Park with my parents, my sister, felines of questionable lineage, and the occasional snake or turtle my sister and I had caught and brought home in a bucket. The reptiles, left unattended, almost never got loose in the trailer during the night.
The trailer park sat on a patch of ground hugged on one end by three murky swamps and hedged in by a Christian school on one side and a Christian college on the other. The older couple who owned the park restricted residence to students or alumni of the Christian college, which created a strange, exclusionary world wholly distinct from other trailer parks I’ve known in that the kids were mostly safe to wander in packs like feral dogs (albeit feral dogs who could recite Scripture) without fear of being shot at. I don’t mean by this we weren’t poor white trash. We were. But we were poor white trash whose dads read Greek and Hebrew and argued transubstantiation. It was a wonderful place to grow up, all things considered.
My parents owned a large, boxy record player with a built-in dual tape deck. It seemed cutting edge at the time, and now seems like something from a steampunk novel. The buttons on the tape player were heavy to press and clicked satisfyingly into place when pushed. At the time, they saw far less use than the turntable, which did its service spinning a small vinyl collection of early 80s Christian pop, Jesus People folk and, of course, Neil Diamond.
If my parents were going to listen to anything “secular” at the time, it makes sense it was Diamond. My parents found Jesus in their early twenties and by the time I arrived in 1982, the culture wars were just beginning. In that world, there were conservative, fundamentalist, evangelical Christians (fundamentalists and evangelicals will argue about those terms being assigned to the same group, and I don’t care) and there were all the people who weren’t Christians at all. We didn’t listen to mainstream music, and even contemporary Christian music had to be vetted and defended before being allowed, but that’s a topic for another essay. The only non-Christian music I had in my early childhood was Neil Diamond.
Diamond was safe. His romantic ballads could be sensual but didn’t mention sex explicitly, and if the deed was hinted at, the relationship was vague enough that it might have been in wedlock, you never knew. His only song specifically about drugs, 1967’s The Pot Smoker’s Song, was actually a warning against using marijuana (though Diamond later chilled out and took it up himself). He was patriotic. Stylistically he was non-confrontational. He was so clean that my dad even suspected that the Shilo referenced throughout the titular song was Jesus, since the name Shiloh is used once in Genesis to possibly reference the coming Messiah. He was incorrect in this suspicion, but it was enough to leave the possibility open for my optimistic father.
Shilo, when I was young,
I used to call your name.
When no one else would come,
Shilo, you always came.
In addition to all of that, I think Diamond appealed to my parents in a similar way to how Bruce Springsteen appealed to much of the working class (or those who wanted to think of themselves as working class) in the 1980s. Pre-Vegas Diamond had a certain blue collar sensibility to his songwriting. When he first tried to make a living from his music in New York City he was dead broke, feeding himself on $.35 a day for a year at one point. As a struggling, Jewish songwriter living week to week on what jobs he could get from the dying labels of New York’s Tin Pan Alley, he was something of a Llewyn Davis prototype, except, you know, friendly. He had the working man appeal Springsteen perfected a decade later, but without the perceived vices sometimes associated with working men in mid-century America – smoking, drinking, swearing, chasing women, rebelliousness. He was just an honest man who wanted an honest woman.
My parents grew up in Detroit when Detroit was even more Detroit than it is now. My dad had little guidance as a teen and from his own stories spent a lot of his time illegally street racing a 1965 Plymouth. He found Jesus and found my mom, but his Jesus was not from the same side of the tracks as my maternal grandparents’ Lutheran Jesus. There was tension, and silence, and eventually, after the arrival of my sister in 1975, a tacit peace. In their early years, Diamond’s Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon was an important song for my parents with its tale of a man rejected by the friends and family of the young woman he’s pursuing.
I’ve been misunderstood for all of my life,
But what they’re sayin’, girl, just cuts like a knife:
‘The boy’s no good.’
…Don’t let them make up your mind.
The song’s questionable gender politics aside (the entire chorus, for example), it’s a charming anthem to the us-against-the-world feeling so many young couples experience and a decent number earn. One way or another, between the Jesus music LPs from Honeytree and Lamb and Second Chapter of Acts, Neil Diamond was the lone heathen musician who saw airtime in our Christian household.
I’m sitting currently on the living room floor in my apartment, looking through my parents’ records intermingled with the Radiohead and Bjork and 80s new wave of my own collection. I have all of the Neil Diamond that was left to me, which I believe is all we ever had. It’s woefully incomplete, comprised of his 1968 Greatest Hits (though he’d only released two albums from which to cull said hits by that point), his 1969 LP Touching You, Touching Me, his 1970 compilation album Shilo, the 1970 LP Tap Root Manuscript, the 1971 LP Stones, the 1973 compilation Rainbow, and 1973’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull, the soundtrack Diamond composed for the movie of the same name based on Richard Bach’s novel.
The song Shilo first appeared on Diamond’s third LP, 1968’s Velvet Gloves and Spit, which we never owned. The album failed to chart and the song was mildly reworked and given its own eponymous compilation album in 1970. It is this compilation album I think of when I remember the first entry of recorded music into my childhood, and the song I most associate with those early years in a verdant trailer park in Indiana.
I remember walking home filthy and wrung out from a day fully lived. I was maybe five, the evening perhaps seven. It was magic hour, the light fading and everything softened and aglow. I walked by the front of the trailer and heard the song through the windows, and then I walked into the living room. The memory stops there, and isn’t much by itself. What came before it is more interesting. I had been in the swamps.
Of all the attractions our trailer park offered, it was the swamps we kids found most compelling. And I suppose this is the point at which we might as well talk about the alligators.
In the summer of 1986, when I was four years old and my sister was 11, the alligators showed up in northern Indiana. The swamps behind the trailer park were home to snapping turtles of a size that suggested they had hatched during the Cretaceous, and we gave those a wide berth. The snakes, smaller turtles, and various amphibians received no such deference. We had an Amazonian abundance of life not far from our doorstep, and we bothered and pestered it with all the reckless verve of the great white explorers who had come before us. None of us were afraid of anything that slithered, crawled or swam, except the Jurassic turtles. So when my sister Shan came running back from the swamps one day, swearing up and down there was an alligator locked in mortal combat with one of the giant snappers, no one took it lightly. Shan was known as a child who told the truth, and she was absolutely sure of what she’d seen.
Some adults went to the swamps to check, but saw nothing. The story died down until an adult woman claimed to have seen the alligator a few weeks later. Finally, the Division of Wildlife was called and a naturalist surveyed the swamps, finding tracks and drag marks consistent with a young adult alligator. The best explanation anyone could come up with at the time tied the reptile to an old man who had lived across the street from the entrance to the trailer park and had raised exotic animals, including at least one alligator. When he’d died, no one knew what happened to it, and his widow wouldn’t tell. It was never caught. Naturally, we continued to play in the swamps like it never happened.
The afternoon of the musical memory I shared above, I had been at one of the swamps, playing with Julia. Dark-haired with laughter like the naiveté of god, Julia called me her boyfriend and I called her my girlfriend throughout our preschool and kindergarten days, even after I kissed her sister on top of the propane tank in our backyard. Her dad was a bit of a pompous conversational bully but got away with it because he was a Man of God™, and her mom seemed to my young eyes to be perpetually unhappy. I hear they’ve both mellowed out since then.
There is an image I have from that evening of being at the edge of the swamp. I had climbed over a low tree limb into a small hollow that sheltered me with tangled roots and branches on every side but the swamp itself, an expanse of black and green water stretching away and retreating into cattails and dark trees around the edges. I realized after exhausting the fun of this little hideaway that I couldn’t get back out of it. The water came to my feet, and I couldn’t get back over the tree or through the thorns tangled below it. Julia’s mother was a little ways away pulling and burning weeds in the closest yard to the swamp, and I called to her. She looked at me, her gloved hands covered in the green of wild things, and she told me she didn’t know what she had on her hands, it could be poison ivy. “I’m sorry. I can’t get you out of there.” With that, she turned back to her work. I turned around and stared out across the opaque water that held fascination when I could turn and run from it in the delight and rehearsed panic of children’s games, which was exactly what I couldn’t do right now. I had the primal realization I was no more than a 50-pound mammal with no claws or meaningful teeth, and anything at all could come out of that primeval soup and drag me back in with it. This wasn’t a strange thought to me, having grown up outdoors around wild things, free range before it was a buzz term; it was merely a terrifying one. I don’t remember how I got out of that bind. The memory picks up when I heard Shilo through the front windows of the trailer.
In the center of our trailer park was an apple orchard, and in the summers it was rented out in lots for RV campers, bringing to our childhood tribe a constant influx of new kids to impress and initiate. Potluck dinners were held under the shade there from time to time, each low-income family bringing enough food to be shared, the meal presided over with prayer. In the autumn, we would climb the apple trees to shake down the fruit for our moms to make applesauce. There was a day when I was four I decided to spend the entire day in the orchard stark naked, all other social habits unaltered. My sister found out and came to bring me home. None of the other kids seemed bothered, even Julia, with whom I’d contentedly been playing house. One year a large camper trailer was abandoned in the orchard, and the park owners let my parents keep it. My dad pulled it out from the trees with an old tractor, affixed it to the side of our mobile home, and cheaply renovated it, giving us an unheated, uninsulated, and unplumbed ramshackle doublewide. It still seems bizarre to think I actually lived those years. I had plenty of friends, but liked and learned more about myself than I did anyone else.
Young child with dreams
Dream every dream on your own
When children play
Seems like you end up alone.
Side one, track one of Neil Diamond’s first LP was the song Solitary Man, one of his most recognizable and personally defining songs. In a 1977 interview with Rolling Stone, Diamond said he had been a solitary child as well. I can relate. I spent a lot of time alone as a child, and a lot of time with people, which was often the same thing. Many of my memories from those years include friends and their parents and random passers-through, but as many or more are of being alone with my thoughts and my toy cars and the natural world. Anne Lamott says anyone who has survived childhood has enough writing material for a lifetime. I am grateful.
When I hear Shilo now it snaps me back to those years more surely and viscerally than anything else can, even photos. It is ingrained as a musical muscle memory. The song starts and I am five years old, walking into my mobile home living room, mud on my shoes and the sweat and squalor and vivacity of childhood covering my hands and hair and clothes. The song evidently left an impression on both Nilsen children; my sister’s youngest child is named for it.
Two winters ago I found myself sitting in the expansive dining room of Michigan’s Saugatuck Brewing Company with my partner, Melinda. A rowdy bachelorette party was getting thoroughly drunk at a long table behind us. On the brewpub’s small stage was a middle-aged black man named Lou doing oldies covers to recorded backing tracks, singing and playing his electric guitar. He had a good voice and an affable smile. He played a few Motown covers at Melinda’s request, and then took a short break. I found him at the bar and we talked music briefly, and then I asked him if he knew any Neil Diamond songs, and explained why. I was several beers in and would never see him again or this wouldn’t have happened. He forgave the absurdity with a warm grin and said he could do Red, Red Wine, but it would be the reggae version. It might be my least favorite Neil Diamond song, and I thanked him sincerely. Sitting in that dim dining room with the inebriated bridesmaids and the woman I love and a pint of beer and Lou singing a reggae version of a lesser Neil Diamond hit at my request, everything seemed good again after a very long couple years.
I can’t defend Diamond to you on any musical grounds, and I won’t try. I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. Mixed in with all the serious musical loves I have acquired over the years sits the unremarkable Neil Diamond. I confess I can’t hear him for what he is. I hear childhood, and the bike horn my mom used to call me home each evening from wherever I had wandered. I hear the crackling of my parents’ boxy record player, and the warmth of those opening, downtuned chords. I still hear Shilo from when I was young.