From the moment U.S. Navy Veteran Ricardo “Rick” Miller strikes the second chord on his Taylor guitar and long before he blows a note through his harmonica, the all-too familiar Neil Young 1972 ballad, “Heart of Gold,” immediately unveils itself, pulling listeners into the song’s earthy sounds and heartfelt message. And, on perfect cue, Miller’s voice rises strong – without a single tremor – as he sings the opening lyrics of the all-too familiar song.
I want to live. I want to give.
These two sentences, while simple in structure, are deeply meaningful. Although authored by one of the true legends of rock and roll, they almost seem as though they could’ve been written by, or for, Miller. That’s because those two simple sentences exemplify the life Miller has lived and the gifts he passes on to fellow Veterans at the Veterans Community Living Center at the Grand Island VA Medical Center.
“I’ve been a miner for a heart of gold.”
For as long as Miller can remember, music has been a part of his life.
“My mother is from Puerto Rico, so we lived there for a few years when I was young,” Miller said, recently. While in Puerto Rico, Miller was enrolled in a flamenco guitar playing class. He was just seven years old at the time. “Yeah, I was pretty young,” he recalled, chuckling at the memory. “That’s where I learned how to fingerpick a guitar.”
A few years later, Miller made his first public musical appearance in Rhode Island, where he played in front of 500 people while still in 4th grade. Although still very young, Miller said, he had fallen in love with making music by this point. “It was just kind of an immediate hook. When we moved to Rhode Island, I started getting better guitars and began playing even more.”
A later move by his family to New Jersey contributed to Miller’s musical odyssey as he began to meet and play with other aspiring musicians. Through these meetings and opportunities to learn and play, Miller’s passion for music grew and evolved.
In 1979 while living in California, Miller enlisted into the U.S. Navy. He received technical training as an electrician before being assigned into the submarine service. During one of his first voyages, Miller’s fellow submarine shipmates encouraged him to play his guitar for them. That soon earned him the first of multiple opportunities to share his musical talents.
“They had like a radio station on board, so I would play my guitar for them occasionally,” he said. That then led to the honor of being asked by the Navy to perform before a large audience in Sydney, Australia, during a port of call in Perth.
“I ended up playing in a lot of venues for the Navy Service,” Miller said.
The Navy impacted Miller’s life in another dramatic way. While stationed at New London Naval Base in Connecticut, Miller brought a fellow shipmate home to visit Miller’s family, who still lived on the East Coast. “(My shipmate) was from Nebraska. When I brought him home over a holiday weekend, he met my sister… and eventually they got married,” Miller said.
When Miller left the Navy in 1993, he decided to visit Norfolk, Nebraska, where his friend and sister had settled. “I got stuck in a snowstorm during Thanksgiving weekend,” Miller said. “While I was there, they set me up with an interview at Dale Electronics, which was a local business located in Norfolk and several other nearby communities.”
Miller never left Nebraska again.
It’s these expressions I never give that keep me searching for a heart of gold.”
Years passed. Miller got married, started a family and his own refrigeration, furnace and air conditioning business in Norfolk.
Life moved on.
Yet, despite the passing of years, Miller’s passion for music and community service continued to grow. Miller joined several bands that performed around the local Norfolk area, with occasional shows in Sioux City, Iowa, and Omaha, Nebraska. At one point Miller said he was part of a band that performed at the annual motorcycle rally in Sturgis, South Dakota. Miller was later asked by the venue’s owner to return again for four straight years to perform as a solo act.
Miller said there’s something deeply impactful when playing before a crowd.
“When you’re playing and the people are reacting to it, you feel it… you can feel the people,” he said. “And if you can play with your heart, the people will feel that, too.”
Yet, running a business, raising a family and performing music still weren’t enough for Miller. He still wanted to give something back to his adoptive community and neighbors. So, he dug into his musical roots and went to work.
While living in New Jersey years earlier, Miller had made friends with people who worked for the Lennon Estate, named after the late legendary founding member of the Beatles, John Lennon.
“What a lot of people don’t know is that John Lennon was also an artist,” Miller said. “He had attended art college in Liverpool and Yoko (John Lennon’s wife) had promised him that she would make his art famous internationally one day.”
Following Lennon’s death in 1980, collections of his artwork began to tour various venues around the country. Those tours never came close to a place like Norfolk, though. A town of roughly 24,000 people located in northeastern Nebraska, Norfolk was simply too small and too remote to draw that kind of attention.
Miller became convinced he could change that.
“I knew I could do it,” Miller said.
So, Miller began contacting the studio that coordinated the Lennon artwork tours through his friends that worked for the estate. He soon found out that Yoko Ono, and the people who worked directly for her, had the ultimate say on where the artwork could be shown.
In an article that appeared the Norfolk Journal in early 1990s, Miller talked about what it took to finally get Ono’s approval for a show. Miller tried multiple times calling Ono’s office, but could only leave a message on an answering machine. Finally, he decided to try a different tactic: “He pretended on the phone to be a Pony Express rider from the Old West. One of Ms. Ono’s staff members answered the phone,” the Norfolk Journal reported.
Having broken through, Miller began pleading for a show to be held in Norfolk. After multiple attempts, his diligence and persistence paid off. Norfolk was selected to become the smallest community ever to host Lennon’s artwork. The collection, which featured several of Lennon’s original pieces, was valued at more than $200,000 at the time.
“I think it’s one of the best things that’s happened in my whole life,” Miller reported said during a 1990s news conference announcing the five-day Norfolk art show.
Miller’s efforts eventually led him to form a non-profit organization – which he named “Music Mid-America” – to bring several other musical-themed art shows to Norfolk, including the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine Tour” that featured original prints and pieces dating back to 1968, as well as the work of such famed musicians as Miles Davis, Jerry Garcia and Lennon.
Miller said his passion for the artwork sprang from his interest in helping his neighbors and community experience something from a significant chapter of rock and roll history.
“It was the Beatles… it came directly from the Beatles. There was no middleman involved,” Miller said. “I wanted to bring that to Norfolk and share it with people.”
“Keep me searching for a heart of gold; And I’m getting old.”
About four years ago, Miller began to notice that his health was beginning to change. Among the many symptoms he was feeling was a shuddering in his hands that made holding guitars – let alone playing them – extremely difficult to do.
It wasn’t long before he received a life-changing diagnosis: Parkinson’s Disease.
Parkinson’s Disease is a brain disorder that causes unintended or uncontrollable movements, such as shaking, stiffness and difficulty with balance and coordination. As the disease worsens, many people began to experience other symptoms, such as difficulty walking or talking, sleep problems, memory difficulties or fatigue.
When Miller received his diagnosis, he worried that it would eventually take away his ability to play guitar and sing. So, once again, he decided to do something about it.
As part of his initial treatment, Miller took guitar classes at his local YMCA. He began practicing more and more.
Approximately three years ago, Miller was admitted to the Veterans Community Living Center at the Grand Island VA Medical Center for care and treatment. He brought his guitar with him and soon started playing… first in his room and then for his fellow residents in the common areas.
During that year’s Super bowl halftime, the VA CLC staff asked him to perform for his fellow Veterans.
“I really enjoyed that,” Miller said. “It really felt good to perform for them that night.”
The memory was so good that when Miller learned he was going back to Grand Island Veterans CLC earlier this year, he brought his guitar along once again. He soon began performing at lunch every Tuesday and Thursday for the Veterans receiving care on his ward.
When he realized that there were Veterans on a nearby ward, he asked if he could perform for them every Wednesday afternoon, too.
According to Alison Dillon, a recreational therapist at the Grand Island Veterans CLC, Miller has an enormous passion for not only music, but for his fellow Veterans. It’s a passion that comes flooding out every time he performs.
“You can see the passion from him and the music he picks each week,” said Dillon. “And you definitely see it in the camaraderie afterward. They’ll talk about stories from the songs he played and ‘Do you remember listening to this when you’re doing this?’ So, it brings up good memories for them, which is neat.”
Miller said that practicing guitar, harmonica and singing have helped him tremendously with his Parkinson’s.
“When you hold on to that guitar and practice… the more you practice the better you get,” he said, adding that he doesn’t avoid harder songs, either. “I jumped into working on the ‘Heart of Gold’ song, which is a very difficult song to play.”
“I just about have it perfected,” he added with a small smile before playing the song
“I’ve been to Hollywood; I’ve been to Redwood; I crossed the ocean for a heart of gold”
Something strange happens when Miller plays his guitar and harmonica. Suddenly the trembles fade away. His voice sounds strong and true.
Miller said that doctors and staff are constantly amazed at the transformation that occurs during his music. “Doctors don’t understand how I can still have the coordination to play my music,” he said. “(There are some) who have asked to know what my daily life is like; what I eat. They want to know what exercises I do.”
Miller said he leaves those questions up to the staff of the VA CLC. His focus, he said, remains on his fellow Veterans and hopefully bringing them a small ray of sunshine through his musical talents. He said the Veterans he plays for are typically very appreciative.
“They love it,” he said simply. “I think that they like the harmonica/guitar thing.”
“They sit back and they enjoy it,” Miller added.
“The music brings out so many memories and emotions,” she said. “It brings smiles out to everyone’s faces.”
“And that then carries on into the conversations that they have after he gets done playing,” Dillon said. “(Miller) will lead them through discussions about where they were when a certain song was played, what they were doing…. So, it’s kind of cool to see this interaction between the Veterans… this sense of community.”
Dillon said it’s an amazing thing to witness.
“The fact that he can calm down enough to control his tremors and play the guitar, to play the harmonica and sing along all together is really remarkable,” she said. “His diagnosis (isn’t) limiting him. In fact, he’s excelling with it. And that’s pretty fantastic.”
Miller said he’s extremely appreciative of the support he’s received from the staff of the Grand Island VA Medical Center’s Veterans Community Living Center.
“These are people who know how to find the good in people,” Miller said, adding that the staff members at the CLC have worked tirelessly to help him with his Parkinson’s. “If there’s anything that they can do… or that they can pull out of you… to help you, they’re going to do it. And I really appreciate that.”
Miller added that after completing his therapy in Grand Island, he hopes to return home again to Norfolk and continue to participate in the VA’s musical therapy program, while also giving back to both his fellow Veterans as well as others who have reached out to help him.
“Playing for people is invigorating. It gives you energy and you feel good about yourself,” he said. “And I do enjoy what I am doing because the music that I play, if it affects just one person and that effect creates this little change in their life…. Then it’s all worth it.”
A heart of gold…. True and True.