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An Immigrant's Tale, With Neil Diamond's Siren Song

Neil Diamond's "Coming To America" played an especially memorable part in one NPR listener's adolescence. (Getty Images)

All this summer, All Things Considered is digging into Mom and Dad's record collections to hear about the music you've discovered through your parents. The series has profiled singers, novelists, politicians and today features John Keating, an NPR listener originally from South Africa.

In 1988, Keating was looking for a way beyond the bitter racial divisions of apartheid in South Africa. As a young white man, he faced conscription in the South African Army — which was suppressing the black majority. At 17, he could have joined the ranks or deferred until graduation from university, but he chose neither.

On a full soccer scholarship from West Virginia University, Keating came to the United States to play and study. He says his father had a key role in his obtaining that scholarship.

"They found my dad in the crowd," Keating says. "There was a scout, believe it or not, from West Virginia University. He saw me play, realized I was college-aged and then managed to track my dad down in the grandstands. And within about a week after that, I think I signed a letter of intent, and then I was in America a month or two later."

Keating says his father was also instrumental in making his departure forever memorable. The night before Keating left South Africa, his father put Neil Diamond's "Coming To America" on the record player.

"Neil Diamond was one of 12 or 13 records that got played a lot in our house — so much so that there was even a part in the song that would stick because it got so overused," Keating says. His dad "chose, of all times and places to play it, at my going-away party."

Keating says he never forgot that song or that moment.

"I haven't played that song since the night I left," he says. "I have thought about it a lot, and then, when I was listening to NPR, I heard your listeners were asked about what songs were super meaningful to them. That song came to my mind within a nanosecond and I realized there and then that the song had been in my head for going on 20-something years."

John Keating now lives in Belmont, N.C., where he coaches soccer at Belmont Abbey College.

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Neil Diamond performs "Coming To America" in the 1980 film The Jazz Singer.
Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

All this summer, we're digging into Mom and Dad's Record collections to hear about the music we've discovered through our parents. We've heard from singers, politicians, and today, we hear from one of you, our listeners.

JOHN KEATING: My name is John Keating, and I live in Belmont, North Carolina. And I'm originally from South Africa, born and raised, and left South Africa when I was 18 years old. And now, I'm a soccer coach at Belmont Abbey College.

BLOCK: In 1988, John Keating was looking for a way beyond the bitter racial divisions of apartheid South Africa. As a young white man, he faced conscription in the South African army, which was suppressing the black majority.

KEATING: So it was at that time that I started to look elsewhere and for a way out, really.

BLOCK: Mm-hmm. And where did you find it?

KEATING: I found it in my left leg, a gift from God, the ability to hit a ball with my left leg and a full ride to West Virginia University on a soccer scholarship.

BLOCK: How did they find you?

KEATING: They found my dad in the crowd. I was playing in a game, and there was a scout, believe it or not, from West Virginia University. He saw me play, realized I was college-aged and then managed to track my dad down in the grandstands. And within about a week after that, I think I signed a letter of intent, and then I was in America a month or two later.

BLOCK: And the song that you've chosen to talk to us about is a song from Neil Diamond. It's the song "Coming to America."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COMING TO AMERICA")

NEIL DIAMOND: (Singing) On the boats and on the planes, they're coming to America. Never looking back again, they're coming to America.

Neil Diamond was one of 12 or 13 records that got played a lot in our house - so much so that there was even a part in the song that would stick because it got so overused. There was that kind of...

BLOCK: It would skip.

KEATING: ...wear and tear - yeah. And after the words when that flag unfurled...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COMING TO AMERICA")

DIAMOND: (Singing) Every time that flag's unfurled...

KEATING: That flag unfurls and we'd have to flick the needle to finish the rest of the sentence - we're coming to America. So he loved that album - the whole family did - and then chose of all times and places to play it at my going-away party the night before I left South Africa in 1988.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COMING TO AMERICA")

DIAMOND: (Singing) Home, don't it seem so far away. Oh, we're traveling light today.

BLOCK: What were you thinking at that going-away party when you heard the first notes of that song?

KEATING: It wasn't so much a thought as much as a glance to my dad who tends not to reveal his emotions or wear them on his sleeve, but you can catch him in these very quiet little moments when he does what he does. He wipes this little tear away from the corner of his eye. And within about a second or two of the start of that, he'd obviously put it on by design, maybe not even thinking that much about it. It's just, hey, it's one of his favorite songs. Let's keep the music going. But I did catch him at that moment being very thoughtful and reflective.

BLOCK: Hmm. What do you think he was trying to tell you?

KEATING: I think, ultimately, it was an endorsement of my leap to go and do something new and to escape something that I needed to get away from.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COMING TO AMERICA")

DIAMOND: (Singing) They're coming to America. Every time that flag's unfurled, they're coming to America.

BLOCK: And this song, "Coming to America," from Neil Diamond, it's such a - sort of a stirring melodramatic immigrant anthem, really, right?

KEATING: It is, and it perfectly records the identity, situation of anybody who's leaving a place that they love, but at the same time, there's a great degree of excitement about getting on the boat or plane.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COMING TO AMERICA")

DIAMOND: (Singing) Today, today, today.

BLOCK: But, John, is this a song that you come back to now some, what, 20-some years after you did come to America?

KEATING: I haven't played that song since the night I left.

BLOCK: Really?

KEATING: But I have thought about it a lot, and then when I was listening to NPR - and it was odd - I heard your listener asked about, you know, what songs were super-meaningful to them? That song came to my mind within a nanosecond, and I realized there and then that the song had been in my head for going on 20-something years.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COMING TO AMERICA")

BLOCK: So, John, what's it like for you when you hear this song as we play it?

KEATING: The heart skips a beat. It's as familiar as it was on that particular evening and probably just as meaningful, Melissa. It's almost timeless. You know, I don't think the great American experiment is over, and we're all part of it and enjoying it with all of its ups and downs. And I'm just happy to have that song be my anthem during my time in America.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COMING TO AMERICA")

DIAMOND: (Singing) Free, only want to be free. We huddle close, hang on to a dream.

BLOCK: John Keating, it's been great to talk to you. Thank you.

KEATING: Thank you very much, Melissa.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COMING TO AMERICA")

DIAMOND: (Singing) On the boats and on the planes, they're coming to America.

BLOCK: John Keating now lives in Belmont, North Carolina. We want to hear your stories about your parents and their music. Please write to us at npr.org and put parents' music in the subject line.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COMING TO AMERICA")

DIAMOND: (Singing) Home, don't seem so far away. Oh, we're traveling light today in the eye of the storm, in the eye of the storm. Home, to a new and a shiny place, make our bed, and we'll say our grace. Freedom's light burning warm.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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