"They say that music has the power to heal," said Neil Diamond, preaching his secular gospel beneath apocalyptic lights and a huge American flag. "And if that's so, let the healing begin."
Outside KeyArena earlier that evening, the healing had already begun. KIXI-AM 880 had set up a karaoke booth in the rain, rewarding anyone willing to serenade the huddled masses with copies of Neil's albums. Tiny Maryann from Puyallup squeaked through "I Am . . . I Said," two women from Kent gamely massacred "Sweet Caroline," and some guy with a pronounced accent and querulous vibrato took a stab at "If You Know What I Mean"—all in the name of pop redemption.
Diamond, who sold out two nights here last week, looks like your Uncle Neil now—slightly paunchy, all gussied up in a glittering black shirt like he's ready to get out there and take first prize in the big Tango Dance-Off at the Elks Lodge. You can laugh at his monumental kitsch, but you're a corpse if you don't feel released by it. Neil does it the way you do it in your living room when the radio is on and no one's watching, shaking a fist and punctuating crescendos with a vast sweep of the arms. No self-censoring kicks in; he doesn't stop himself from sinking to his knees, knocking out a few bars of "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon," and sprawling out on the lip of the stage to caress a few hyperventilating middle-aged women in the front row. (Oh, yes, he did.)
People spent the evening desperately waving their hands, praying to be seen. Women rushed the stage fluttering handkerchiefs, hoping for a drop of his sweat, and, mission accomplished, embraced each other in complete rapture as if they'd been saved. In times when the world seems bent on numbing us, it's good to have an excuse to emote. Popular music doesn't ask us to think so much as respond, to go with whatever we feel; it gives us permission to trust in the temporary illusion that the world isn't such a bad place to be after all. The situation can't be that dire if a matron in a sequined velvet jacket and a guy with tattoos and wallet chain know all the words to "I'm a Believer."
"When you're a singer," Diamond reflected, "you stand with a microphone, you put your heart into it, and you hope you connect with someone. It's that simple."