Hearing a good pop song at the right time can be life changing. Case in point: An evening in 1989 when I was working as a traveling deejay. In the two years I had that job I did hundreds of gigs: weddings, bar mitzvahs, holiday galas, and country bar trivia nights. I spun thousands of records (actually, we used cassette tapes), and here’s the story of one song that proves the power of music.
Has there ever been a more uplifting song than “Sweet Caroline”? Neil Diamond’s gem has long been popular whenever people gather, its singalong chorus perfect for ready-to-party crowds. I call it our national anthem of feel good songs, as we saw after the Boston Marathon bombings, when the city rebuilt its confidence by singing its chorus with full voice. If you’ve forgotten how good it feels to sing it, click here: “Sweet Caroline”
Great song, right? But I never thought of it as a dance floor favorite, until that night in ‘89.
My deejaying usually entailed working two shows on a Saturday: an afternoon party and an evening event. This particular day I’d done a doubleheader and, as it crept closer to my midnight quitting time, I was feeling the drain of the day. The dance crowd had already grown thin, partyers limping off to grab one last drink. With the exception of an occasional slow song that gave tipsy couples a reason to cling to each other, the dance floor was empty and I wasn’t putting any effort into finding the perfect party song.
About ten minutes before quitting time, as I was cleaning up my workspace, an older woman approached me. I crossed my fingers that she just wanted to say thanks or complain about my song choices. Please don’t request a song, I begged to myself.
“Do you have ‘Sweet Caroline’?” the woman inquired. I looked up, her carefully applied makeup worn thin from an emotional day. The easy answer would have been to politely say I didn’t have that wonderful song, emphasizing my regret with a disappointed expression. But I did have “Sweet Caroline”—in fact, I had a whole Neil Diamond tape—and I worried that this woman might be part of the family who’d purchased my services. The company I worked for had a strict policy about pleasing customers. Family members listed their favorite songs and we guaranteed to play them. With the woman waiting for an answer, I didn’t have time to scan my sheet to see if “Caroline” was on their list. It was decision time.
I took a second look at the woman, searching beneath her fading makeup to notice something in her eyes. They weren’t demanding or pitiful; they were… hopeful. I was raised right and knew what to say.
“I sure do, ma’am. Would you like to hear it?”
“Yes!” she stated, walking away.
I could have at least have gotten a thank you, I muttered, cuing up “Caroline” on the tape. I checked my watch: three minutes to quitting time. Time for one last tune. Sure hope the crowd likes this song, ‘cause it’ll be ringing in their ears on the drive home.
“Caroline”’s melody, with gentle organ and muted horns, ushered in a change in the evening’s music. Gone was the steady thump of dance classics or the sweeping violins of a ballad. Neil’s voice, reserved at first, strikes gold when he gets to the chorus:
Sweet Caroline…good times never seemed so good…
This is a happy song, I noted, tapping my foot while returning tapes to their cases. As I lined up my equipment to lug to the van, I glanced at the dance floor. One person—one more than I expected—was swaying alone, singing with Neil. It was the lady who’d requested “Caroline.”
I looked over at the crowd, who were ignoring the lone dancer. Probably the bride’s eccentric great-aunt, I surmised. I tried to follow the family’s lead and ignore her, but I was getting a kick out of Ms. Dance The Night Away waltzing with empty air: eyes closed, purse dangling from her arm, moving as if she were partnered with Fred Astaire. Looks like she enjoyed the open bar.
Good deed for the day done, I gave the song an early fade, thanked the crowd, congratulated the bride and groom one more time, and turned off the power. Get me the hell out of here.
As I piled boxes onto my travel cart, daydreaming about my warm bed, I saw my dancing friend heading toward me. Oh, please, don’t be a hanger-on. Don’t let her be as strange as her dancing.
“Thanks for playing that song,” she said, catching her breath. “It was my husband’s and my song...we always danced to it…This Tuesday is six weeks since he died. My name’s Caroline, by the way,” her hand offering a wave as she turned to leave.
“You’re welcome,” I managed.
Cart in tow, I headed out as some young man—her nephew, perhaps—helped Caroline with her coat. She opened her purse, fished out keys, and headed out the door alone.
After loading the van, I took hold of its heavy rear door, ready to slam an end to the day. But something made me stop and I climbed back in to grab my Neil Diamond tape. On the ride home, I listened to “Caroline” over and over, hearing its final verse as if for the first time.
…but now I look at the night
and it don’t seem so lonely,
we fill it up with only two
And when I hurt,
hurting runs off my shoulders,
how can I hurt when holding you
One…touching one…reaching out…touching me…touching you
Sweet Caroline, good times never seemed so good.
Do you have a song that reminds you of a friend, relative or person you met only once, but who forever changed your life? Share your story in the comments below.