Some sad news: Neil Diamond, Jewish pop music legend and general cultural icon, has declared his retirement from touring and live performances on Monday, due to complication from Parkinson’s disease. The announcement came after the singer of “Sweet Caroline,” “Cracklin’ Rose,” “Shiloh,” “Rhinestone Cowboy,” and other hits too numerous to name that have somehow transcended kitsch into the realm of the genuine America sublime cancelled several performance dates that were to take place in Australia and New Zealand in March. On a somewhat brighter note, the 77-year-old says he plans to continue writing and recording, although this may come as cold comfort to the superfans who hoped to see him in concert one last time.
I’m horribly sorry to hear of Diamond’s illness, and while wishing him a speedy recovery is obviously hopeless in this case, I deeply wish that some of the worst symptoms of his terrible disease are mitigated or absent in his case. I want the remainder for his days to be as happy as he’s made so many people over the years. And rather than make some kind of sweeping statements about his importance to the culture at large, I’d like to share a personal story.
When I graduated from NYU in 2002, the commencement ceremony in Washington Square Park was an uncharacteristically somber affair. My graduating class had had the first week of our senior year marked by 9/11; many of us who lived downtown in dorms close to the towers were still marked by PTSD. You couldn’t walk past a fence or a wall in New York that year that wasn’t marked by tributes to the missing. Many classmates had left school altogether, unable to cope. We knew we were graduating into dismal job prospects and a changed world: One that might be permanently divided into “us vs. them,” where the relative sense of safety and opportunity of our 1990’s adolescence would be unknown to our children. These sentiments, reiterated by then NYPD police commissioner Raymond Kelly in what must be one of the least inspiring commencement addresses all time (we had heard the speaker was going to be Bill Clinton; we were misinformed), have mostly turned out to be true.
But there was one ray of light in all the darkness: When retiring NYU President Jay Oliva announced we had a special surprise for us. He’d asked a close personal friend of his to write and perform an original song for the occasion. From the back of the stage, Neil Diamond materialized out of nowhere, dressed in a cap and gown of regulation NYU violet and enormous Ray Charles-esque sunglasses, and launched into a song with the refrain “Forever NYU.” It was rough. It sounded, at times, like he was making it up as he went along. But it was so unexpected, so light-hearted, so bananas crazy that we all started singing along. People were dancing, people were laughing, people were feeling that maybe their six-figure education they were going to be in debt for three decades over was possibly worth it. For the duration of that performance, adult life didn’t just seem possible; it seemed like it might actually be fun. Does an entertainer have any other job? For fifty years, Neil Diamond did his to perfection and I’ll miss knowing he’s out there on a stage somewhere. I just hope he’s having a good time.