#192 – Sweet Caroline by Neil Diamond
– There are a few pop culture bandwagons I’ve been happy to miss. I’ve never owned a pet rock; could care less if anyone ever solves a Rubik’s Cube, and was never into the cult of Neil Diamond.
Now don’t get me wrong. I get it for the legions of fans who are.
Diamond has sold multi-millions of records, is one of the top pop songwriters of all time and his concerts still sell out. He’s also been inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and The Songwriters Hall of Fame.
I get it.
I also loved the dedication and humor sent his way in the film Saving Silverman and the characters’ tribute band, Diamonds in the Rough. Neil made a cameo appearance, which definitely made him a cool guy in my mind. And way back in 1966 I loved Cherry Cherry and was thoroughly impressed when I learned he had written the classic I’m a Believer for The Monkees.
But when it came to my personal tastes in 1969, Neil and Sweet Caroline were nowhere to be found. The music scene was splitting off into different extremes ranging from Woodstock rockers (Classic Rocker preferred) to bubble gum schlockers (Classic Rocker avoidance). Diamond didn’t seem to fit into either category. To my ears, his songs were aimed for a crowd that would now be called Adult Contemporary and not played on the FM rock stations I preferred.
But as I’ve written before, not too many cars in 1969 were equipped with FM radios. And since my pals and I were sixteen years old with newly earned driver’s licenses, AM Top 40 was still our cruisin’ music and we could only hear the current pop chart hits.
One of the songs we heard constantly over our car radios in the fall of 1969 was Sweet Caroline. It definitely has a catchy tune, which seems to be a requisite to land on this Dream Song List, and has obviously stayed with me. Since I’ve never owned a copy and can’t remember the last time I’ve heard it, waking up with this tune running through my head on the morning of June 28th definitely places it into the subliminal category.
And yes, it brings back memories. But they’re not the best…
I was one of the younger members of my high school class and almost all my friends had been driving for months before I was even old enough for a temporary license. That meant I spent a lot of time hanging out at home waiting for rides. Fortunately, my best pal Kevin was as psyched as most sixteen year olds about driving and could always be relied on to be my chauffeur.
Cruisin’ around together gave us plenty of time to talk about a lot of stuff, including who was (or in my case, who would be) the better driver. We even made a bet which one would be the first to have an accident. Yeah, it’s the kind of stuff sixteen year olds would talk about, but at least we were cool enough not to bet on ourselves.
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When I finally scored my driver’s license we were two weeks into August 1969. That made life very different, even though I was still working the same job I’d had since turning ten years old. Don’t worry; we’re not dealing with unlawful child labor when I say that. My job was the chief dishwasher, bread slicer and floor sweeper at our family bakery. As baby boomers will know, parents and grandparents were allowed to put the kids to work so we could pay for our own record collections. For me a was a good deal because while the other kids were sleeping in or watching Saturday morning cartoons, I was collecting a pay envelope and peddling off on my bike to buy the latest Top 40 vinyl releases.
So on a Wednesday morning about two weeks into August 1969, my dad asked me to take my mom’s car to pick up a vacuum cleaner from a local repair shop and drop it off at home. I not only looked at the opportunity as a break from shoving baking pans into an overheated washer, but also a chance to drive.
I was psyched, but you already know what’s coming… right?
I was almost home when I thought I saw one of my younger neighborhood pals walking along the sidewalk. What could be cooler than a “older” sixteen year old pulling up and offering him a ride? Yeah, I thought so too – but when I looked out the passenger window it wasn’t him.
Too bad I wasn’t looking at the road instead.
This was a residential section, so fortunately I wasn’t going more than 25-30 mph. But even at that non-freeway snail’s pace things can happen fast. When I turned my attention back to driving, I had a few split seconds to realize the car in front of me had stopped to make a left turn.
Okay, let’s take a moment here to imagine your favorite comedy movie where the idiot behind the wheel drives off a cliff or high bridge. The film goes to slow motion and you see everyone in the car go bug-eyed with their mouths hanging open and in a low, slow-mo sound effect they all go, “OH $#$%%#!!!”
In my case I envision a Blues Brothers car chase. The cowboys, Nazi’s and police in hot pursuit of Jake and Elwood demonstrate that slow-mo movie look and sound as they fly through the air, hurl off a road, or spin through a mall upside down.
That’s how I still picture my slow-mo self at that moment: “OH $#$%%#!!!”
I’ll interrupt this driving moment to make it clear no one was hurt in the making of this non-comedy movie real life action sequence. As for my mom’s car… Well, that’s another story.
Her car came to a sudden, crunching stop embedded into the rear of the car stopped in front of me. In slow-mo I can still see the front hood of her blue Oldsmobile Cutlass flying up in the air and landing on the road next to me. Then without any notice or fanfare, the engine dropped out with a crash accompanied by the sound of broken glass (or could it have been broken metal?). In an era before airbags, I’m sure my steel grip on the steering wheel and locked arms bracing for impact kept me from a face plant on the dashboard.
The guy I rear-ended happened to be a kid I had been going to school with since about third grade. He jumped out of his car and delivered one of the most famous lines you’d hear during a similar scene in a Hollywood movie:
“WHAT THE $#$%%#??!!!”
At that point I figured I should probably get out of my car too. The only problem was the doors were jammed shut, so I crawled out of the window. I definitely did not feel as cool as Jake or Elwood.
The car was totaled. In fact, the only part that was salvageable was the AM radio, which was still playing while we waited for the police and a tow truck. And just in case you’re wondering, it was not playing Sweet Caroline.
That memory is still coming up…
Within a hour my dad had picked me up in his car and I was back at work to finish washing pans and sweeping the floor. Fortunately, my parents took it all quite well and were happy no one was hurt. And with insurance my mom got a new car.
So business as usual? Well, not quite…
My punishment would be handed out during a date in traffic court a few months later. But the real punishment that hit home for me as a sixteen year old psyched about driving came as advice from the police and even the judge, who were all frequent visitors in the family bakery. They mentioned to my parents it wouldn’t be a good idea for me to drive before traffic court, just in case I saw another neighbor walking along the street.
So until I had to face the Judge in his courtroom, rather than in our bakery, I was back to hanging out at home waiting for friends – like my pal Kevin – to drive me somewhere. It was also a good stretch of time to lose any skills a sixteen year old might continue to develop while sitting behind the wheel of a car.
Sweet Caroline? It’s coming up…
When I finally went to court, which was only about half a block from the bakery and probably with a box of our donuts in the outer office, the judge just gave me a talk about being more careful. That was it. Then I asked the BIG question: when can I start driving again?
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He said I could have been driving the entire time.
Say what? “OH $#$%%#!!!” And no – I didn’t say that, but it probably ran through my mind. And with so much time away from driving, it was almost like starting from scratch. At least that’s what it felt like.
My instructor in “learning to drive again 101” was my dad. My backseat driving coach was pal Kevin. The first step was to cruise around some country roads until I got the hang of it again, so the three of us took off in mom’s new car.
I have to admit to being a bit scared. Totaling a car will do that to someone. On the two lane back roads we had some laughs with my instructor and coach joking about sharp corners, stop signs and oncoming cars. But at one point as we went under a low bridge and around a corner, a large truck was coming from the other direction. I put a steel grip on the wheel, went over the right side edge lines and slowed down to a crawl as the truck blew past us. They faked being scared (at least I hope they were faking!), but I broke out in a slight sweat. Driving wasn’t as cool for me as it was when I first got my license.
And looking back, that’s a good thing. I actually learned to be a more careful driver rather than a psyched sixteen year old with a license.
BUT – and here it is…
The song playing on the AM radio at that moment the truck blew by us? The Top 40 hit Sweet Caroline by Neil Diamond. And yes – it’s true. I remember that, which is why the song still carries that memory for me.
BUT there’s another part of this story that also has a steel grip in my memory bank. Remember the bet I made with my pal Kevin?
There were only a couple weeks until school started when I wrecked my mom’s car. That same evening we had marching band (very cool – don’t ever doubt that) practice at the high school. I called Kevin with my non-comedy sorrowful tale of on road destruction and asked him for a ride. Since the main attraction of being in the band was hanging out with girls, an assorted group of us piled into Kevin’s car (actually his mom’s car) after practice and…
Well… You already know what’s coming – right?
We drove to a local restaurant for something to eat. When we were leaving, there were about four or five kids crammed in the backseat and three of us – Kevin driving, me in the middle and another pal Rob riding shotgun – sitting in front. Kevin made a sharp right turn out of the parking lot that caused all of us to lean left. In fact we leaned so far left that…
Kevin was shoved against the driver’s side door with his arms locked in place. He yelled out something to the effect of a slow-mo, “OH $#$%%#!!!”
Everyone else sort of screamed. The car scraped over a concrete curb causing a stream of sparks to fly up in the air around us, smashed through a landscape of bushes, and dug a couple donut shaped ruts in the front lawn of the restaurant before coming to a stop. Once again, no one was hurt except for another mom’s car. But this time all it took was a tire change and a slow unsteady drive home.
As you can tell, Kevin won the bet, but only by a few hours. And I became a more careful driver at the age of sixteen because to tell the truth, two accidents in one day was “$#$%%#!!!”
Back to Sweet Caroline? Yeah, I know it’s a standard at Boston Red Sox Games and an uplifting, healing song for The Boson Marathon after runners and supporters were attacked by cowardly militant scums (or in more polite terms, $#$%%#!!!).
I get it.
But for me, I’d rather for-get the experience of Sweet Caroline and my sixteen year old driving experience. Hail, hail public transportation!
Here’s a video of the great (I get it!) Neil Diamond performing Sweet Caroline.
To purchase All-Time Greatest Hits by Neil Diamond with Sweet Caroline visit Amazon.com
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