It had been almost two weeks since I even touched my phone. I was off the grid, an indulgence of a long-awaited vacation. Honestly, I had not missed being online at all, only wondering once what I might be missing. I knew CATS was playing Lockn’. Maybe Neal had posted something. My husband, on the other hand, has the kind of job that never allows for a complete disconnect, which makes for a maddening lack of freedom, but does ensure we never miss anything important. He was scrolling away to pass the time in an airport terminal when he looked up at me, his face transformed into a mix of shock and concern, wearing the kind of expression that can only mean one thing.
This is how I came to find out about Neal was gone, in an airport in Copenhagen, waiting to board a flight for Paris.
Back in July, I had been asked if I would be going to Lockn’ to write a show review, but my answer was no, I would be on vacation, telling myself I would surely have another chance to see CATS. We must have all had tentative plans with Neal on the calendar. He had so much going on. I know I am not alone in my immense regret that I always took for granted I would see him again. I am haunted by the last words I wrote about Neal, about my grief over the breakup of the CRB; sincere, but written with a tongue-in-cheek melodrama for effect - how I am going to live with the uncertainty of whether or not I will get to hear Neal play his guitar solos again on 100 Days of Rain? Now, I will have to find out.
My reaction was surprising, even to myself. I did not know Neal personally. Although I did spend many hours within a few feet of him, in countless venues, when I do an estimate, in total it only adds up to days, not even weeks. Nonetheless, there I was - lips shaking, tears starting to roll, as if he were family. When I saw the look of confusion in my 11-year-old’s eyes, I quickly dismissed myself. Graciously, the fates allowed me a good clean Copenhagen bathroom, of solid post-war institutional construction, a true room with walls in which I could hang my head and freely weep. It had an old porcelain sink in the stall to wash my eyes, and mercifully, soft paper towels to dab them with, instead of the usual airport blow-dryer-on-a-wall. There was even a window that allowed me to look and see a sea bird circling up to the sky. I had to brace myself to leave the comfort of the thick white tiles surrounding me.
When I returned from the bathroom, my son was waiting with a big hug for me and a new look of understanding. My husband, bless him, had done what I could not - explained to him that when a great artist dies, people who were inspired by the art, who felt a real connection to it, experience their death as a very personal loss. This was a perfect explanation for the moment, but I knew it would take some time even to try to put into words what the loss of Neal meant to me. I had experienced losing other great artists and never shed a tear. This was different.
It was going on 10 am in Copenhagen, but it was the wee hours of dawn past midnight, closing time, when the chatter started online in California. I am not a night owl, so I was hearing the news before I normally would. For me, the sun was shining, a bright white morning light, while everyone back home was stumbling around, trying to figure out what was going on through the dark. It seemed lurid somehow to even be looking at what was said, and I had a strange sensation I was not supposed to see what I was reading. They had to have it wrong. Surely a legitimate representative from the daytime world would wake up in America and remove the stories. It was all a cruel joke, an internet hack – fake news. As I made my way down the long airport corridors in a daze, time felt twisted and warped, as if had stopped, while I kept moving on auto-pilot, in transit.
Paris was calling. Literally, they were calling our gate. There is some comfort in motion, in the state of disconnect one experiences in travel. When your primary responsibility is getting from here to there, schedules and time are of the utmost importance, and yet it feels as if you can somehow float above time, or at least above the consequences befalling everyone in the stationary world. Whatever is happening there will have to be dealt with later. I imagine the traveling musician is familiar with what I am talking about, in much deeper ways than I will ever understand. Even after being gone for just two weeks on a vacation, I know it is very hard to land; easy to get back home, but hard to get back to reality - to come back down.
On the plane back to Newark, New Jersey I was finally forced to sit still, in the dark, the midday sun emphatically blocked by insistent stewards who hoped to trick us into sleeping. A couple of songs kept coming to mind, and suspended up in the sky I wondered, could they be connected in some way to the name Neal had chosen for his most recent band - Circles Around the Sun? It was a riddle I posed for myself, one I could only solve once I got home to New Jersey, under grey skies and a warm light rain - tears for Neal, a native son. I was unpacking, ragged with jet lag and an undercurrent of grief, when I remembered my riddle. “Alexa, play the song Eternal Circle by Bob Dylan.” And as sometimes one must for Dylan, I sat down to listen.
Eternal Circle tells the simple story of two seekers, a guitar player and a girl. A slow waltz, Dylan plods through the lyrics, his voice brimming with longing for the girl’s elusive shadow, but full of resignation at the close of each verse, knowing how the song ends, or as its title implies, how it never really ends – so I picked up my guitar and began the next song.
… I glanced at my guitar
And played it pretendin’
That of all the eyes out there
I could see none
As her thoughts pounded hard
Like the pierce of an arrow
But the song it was long
And it had to get done
As the tune finally folded
I laid down the guitar
Then looked for the girl
Who'd stayed for so long
But her shadow was missin'
For all of my searchin'
So I picked up my guitar
And began the next song
I smiled through tears, suddenly realizing why Neal had meant so much to me. A working mother of a two-year-old when Neal started playing for the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, it was often complicated, but I always got a babysitter and made sure I was there. I traveled far and wide, waited in line for doors to open and get right up front where I could see him and he could see me. Like the girl in Dylan’s metaphor, I tried to play my part well in the Eternal Circle. In the rock-n-roll fantasy, I was a true believer. I danced in the light. And in those moments, with a nod and a smile, I am certain Neal knew his solos pierced my heart, that they had the power to transport us to a place where nothing else mattered. We needed the eternal circle, and we needed each other to dance its waltz. I am so shattered, because without Neal, the circle is broken.
I know I was not the only one. Neal had this kind of impact on people all over this country – of all genders, ages, and backgrounds. I feel a little guilty; selfish for drawing so much light from him. How did he do it - create the circle for so many of us, sustain at that inspired level night after night? The outpour of emotion in recent days has confirmed he was kind and giving; a daring, one-of-a-kind, committed musician; a loyal, encouraging friend if you were so privileged to call him one. He had so much going for him, yet wore a genuinely grateful attitude on his sleeve. I feel certain if there were any way he could still be here to go on, he would.
But who knows what he faced when he left our little universe, our circle? The same things we all do, and as it turns out, probably very much worse than we knew. There was a darkness some of us could sense, not in him or of him, but perhaps hovering around. In his music, he seemed to take aim directly at it, finding the notes that could lift us all up out of the darkness together. In his photography, he was on the prowl for beauty, in the most unexpected places, the subways, streets and swamps. In the green rooms and hotel rooms, and on the tour bus, he was the ultimate insider who found a way, behind the camera, to retain the spirit of an outsider looking in - always searching, and sharing what he found.
This photo of Neal’s is one that stuck with me:
Louisiana bayou explorations. October 2015. #fujix100t #roadtrippin
I know the place in Neal’s photo. I used to live in Houston, so New Orleans was a destination “nearby.” The truth is, it is a daunting number of miles to get out of Texas in any direction. Approaching New Orleans from the west, one drives endlessly, across low slung bridges, like the ones in the background of Neal’s picture, just inches above shallow water. Traversing the bayous by day is haunting; at night, it can be downright terrifying. What lies beneath are alligators, snakes, and water moccasins - the dark runoff of the Mississippi River. When you spot a sign of life, it shocks you, as it must have shocked Neal to see the trailer, to see that people had tried to live there.
How do people survive in this place, persist in the face of futility? Why go on? Surely, whoever left the sinking trailer behind in the bayou must know the answer. Did the photographer for a split second, in that space between the time the shutter flew and the sound of the click, understand he was not alone in his search for answers in the swamp? Did the abandonment and isolation lift, even for just a moment, as he peered through the lens? There is so much light in the darkness. You can see it if you look close enough. Do you see how the white of the trailer reflects on the water? Neal loved the water, where weightlessness could lift him, where the sun can reflect the light at its best.
It must take a toll on a person to sustain a life like Neal did in today’s world. I suppose the true believers have always had to carry a torch to light the way. And we know all too well, the brightest of flames are sometimes unable to feel their own warmth. Still, it seems unthinkable that someone who filled us with so much inspiration and joy was unable to find enough to save himself. It occurs to me only now, too late, the very depth of his gracious heart. Vital to so many moments of levity and light for others, open and obliging to his fans, he was dedicated to his part in the eternal circle too, despite the weight he must have carried, the darkness that must have haunted him.
Did you know the Tibetan Book of the Dead, properly translated, would be called Liberation Through Hearing in the Intermediate State? The book I was reading on the plane ride home mentions this fact, and the notion stopped me in my tracks. I think if we believe in anything like ghosts or spirits, we picture them being able to see us. But imagine instead that after death, the soul departs very slowly over a period of weeks, and of all the senses, we can hear as we go. I closed my book and thought, maybe Neal can still hear us.
The other song on loop around my brain on the flight home was Will the Circle be Unbroken, as performed by Willie Nelson. It is one of the red-headed stranger’s classic close-down-the-house pieces, a glory-be foot-stomper about the sweet by-and-by posing the great existential questions - What happens next? Will the circle - of life, time, and space - be unbroken when we die? Willie doesn’t answer the question, but there is a faith in his voice, for that circle in the sky, the one even greater than the circles we make on earth around the sun. Or perhaps he simply decided that the best we can do is make a joyful noise - raise your hands and lift your gaze. It gives me great comfort to know Neal had the opportunity to collaborate with the red-headed stranger. If there is an angel still amongst us, it is Willie Nelson. To be in Willie’s presence is to be blessed for the journey, both here and beyond.
Of course, we never know who the angels really are amongst us. In retrospect, Neal sure seemed like some kind of rock-n-roll angel to me - an unlikely guitar hero with a heart of gold. For his journey to the sky, let him hear how much he meant to us. Say it out loud, to each other. Sing his praises. Go and see his friends make music. We owe it to him, for all the great memories he shared with us, to be more like him - to give everything we’ve got to the eternal circle, and even in the dark, reflect back the light.