There is a saying.
It’s a saying I wasn’t aware of until a couple of days ago, but apparently it’s a saying nevertheless:
There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who love Neil Diamond and those who don’t know they love Neil Diamond.
In fact, I discovered, the original quote comes from the movie What About Bob, in which the title character attributes the failure of his would-be marriage to his ex-fiancee’s love for Neil Diamond. He resolves: “There are two types of people in the world: Those who like Neil Diamond and those who don’t.”
I prefer the other one.
Since his eligibility for the Rock-N-Roll Hall of Fame commenced way back in 1989, the powers that be within the HOF have struggled to discover their love for Neil Diamond.
I, mistakenly and for no good reason, hid my love for Neil Diamond–or at least didn’t flaunt it–for many years. I got the sense that he was some kind of bad 70s joke. Even if people didn’t hate him, he was at best a sort of target of pity or guilty pleasure or something to be humored–an endearing relic in his sparkling, sequined butterfly-collar shirts. “Look how serious he is! How cute!”
The shirts and rhinestone-encrusted album marquees notwithstanding, the sentiment is ultimately dubious. Neil Diamond’s career as a singer-songwriter is indeed quite serious, having spanned nearly 50 years, and even beyond the zenith of his popularity in the 70s and 80s, he has maintained a loyal following, selling out stadiums around the world.
Point being: Before we are too quick to mock him, let us not forget that Neil Diamond has more money than God and that he, unlike some, didn’t make it all in 5 years.
He was lauded at one point by Johnny Cash as “one of the best songwriters around,” and his appeal–at least for me–is that underneath his kitschy, pop music veneer lies an intelligent songwriter of uncommonly scopey output and diverse musical interests who has historically possessed a unique ability to inject cultural commentary into popular culture in a way that the average person found non-threatening and even fun.
Indeed, he may even be described as clever. Cheeky.
A more pessimistic person might say that his commentary was ultimately milquetoast and empty or that it was simply a white-washed attempt to capitalize on the politically-conscious music fad that swept the nation in the the late 60s. Indeed, it would be wrong to call Diamond an activist musician. I don’t think he’d tolerate such a description himself.
But his timely recordings, both of his own songs and those written by others, have had a tendency to speak directly–though not explicitly–to political and cultural concerns. Though the Hollies also recorded the song and indeed beat Neil Diamond to release, Diamond had recorded his version of “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” nearly a year before it occurred to them.
While the title phrase itself appears to be quite old, it became a cultural touchstone during the Vietnam War when it was published as the caption to a photo of an American G.I. carrying a Vietnamese man over his shoulder and out of the field of combat. I have searched for the photo, but all in vain.
(Incidentally, Lennon/McCartney, Tears for Fears, and–most importantly–Rufus Wainwright have also made recordings of the song, which is, to me, nothing but further confirmation of Neil Diamond’s remarkable taste. I trust Rufus Wainwright’s opinion implicitly. If he agrees that a song is worth singing, it is, and Neil sang it first.)
The song’s vaguely dated, soaring & sentimental orchestral style leaves it ripe for criticism and hee-haws, but ultimately, for those who lived through the Vietnam War and for whom agitated political action or thought was unappealing or unacceptable, the track was a powerful humanizing force during a powerfully inhumane time.
This is the context under which I was introduced to Neil Diamond. While Diamond is not one commonly associated with poignant Vietnam-era cultural commentary, to my father, for whom the Vietnam War was real–approximately as fresh, at least, in his mind as 9/11 is to us–the song was a tear-jerker. He explained the context to me once as we rode in his truck listening when I, upon noticing that he was crying, asked him why.
It is probably not worthwhile to linger much longer on the example of that song, since, after all, Diamond didn’t even write it. But that experience–at maybe 5 or 6 years of age–was my first inkling that there was more to Diamond’s music than my dad’s horrible sing-alongs to “Cracklin’ Rosie,” which made me giggle and served as a favorite diversion during long car rides or boring hours of errand-running. That song, Dad explained to me, was humorous and fun because it was about a drunken hobo singing to his bottle of wine.
Alcoholism is only hilarious–and only sometimes–to recovering alcoholics, but I didn’t know any better at the time.
To be fair, I did not always love Neil Diamond. My first-ever concert experience was Neil Diamond. I was 3 years old and, if memory serves, the babysitter canceled, forcing my parents to either bring me along to the show or forfeit their tickets. They brought me along. Then, as now, my hearing was sensitive, and loud noise gave me anxiety attacks. The concert was loud, as concerts tend to be, so I burst into tears, and my mother spent the majority of the concert wandering the concourse of the old Met Center with me, except when she could convince my dad to come out and take a turn.
I didn’t hold it against Neil, though, and appreciation successfully took hold over the course of many rides in my dad’s 80-something black Toyota pickup. No car seat or booster seat or anything. Seatbelt tucked under my armpit, if I wore one at all. Eating fast food twice a week. Listening to Neil Diamond.
Reckless 80s behavior. The good old days.
One of my earliest memories, in fact, is of sitting in the McDonald’s drive-through staring at the cassette case cover of Tap Root Manuscript, which, in addition to featuring what I knew even then to be a really cool name for an album (even if I didn’t know what a tap root was), showed a picture of what appeared to be a very handsome young man staring through the gaps in a wrought-iron gate.
And he was handsome. He was young once, and when he was, he was handsome in an approachable, accessible way.
He started out as a songwriter, penning (and often recording but not immediately releasing), among others, the Monkees-released, “I’m a Believer” and the oft-covered “Red, Red Wine.” A significant portion of the pop music hits from the late 60s are Neil Diamond songs.
(In fact, Diamond was a favored source of music for the Monkees. A dubious honor, perhaps, but someone had to write their music. They weren’t about to do it.)
A temporary reticence in trying to release his own songs has been rumored to have stemmed from, in addition to mishandling by record companies, misgivings about both his “uninteresting” baritone voice and, apparently, his appearance. After a couple of halfhearted and failed attempts at becoming a bubblegum blah recording artist, he was unconvinced he had what it took to be a successful pop star.
He resigned himself to being the man who wrote the songs while maintaining an interest in experimental sounds and trying to divine a way to get paid to make the more introspective and thoughtful music he preferred to write for himself.
What he did have going for him, however, was an impossibly affable demeanor, an easy and never self-conscious stage/camera presence, and firsthand knowledge of how his songs were intended to be sung and performed. In short, he was confident.
It was this confidence, along with a serendipitous recording contract, that eventually allowed him to pull off an album as strange and, in many respects, avant garde, as 1970’s Tap Root Manuscript, which became one of his most successful albums despite its heavy emphasis on African sounds and lyrical themes. World music fusion was not commercially lucrative territory for a mainstream white artist as far as anyone knew, but his example proved inspirational and pioneering. He is credited with making Paul Simon’s (and others’) adventures into similar territory viable and even, by some accounts, with helping to pave the way for the entrance of rap music into mainstream American consciousness, even if only for proving to record companies that white America’s interest in overt expressions of black culture was sufficient to make it a winning bet.
Soolaimon is a personal favorite. In addition to African instrumentation, it features what has consistently been a peculiar strength of Diamond’s: The frequent, sincere, and competent deployment of gospel arrangements in pop music–a tendency that, perhaps above all others, suits his “uninteresting” voice to a tee.
(See also: “Holly Holy” and “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show.” Incidentally, the “Brother Love” video features a monologue at about 4:10 that offers some interesting insight into Diamond’s interest in gospel music. Until I heard him articulate this, I had been at a loss to explain my own fascination with it.)
In a number of respects, it was precisely his willingness to behave somewhat strangely–to zig when everyone else was zagging–that made him famous and, ironically, what makes him somewhat of a kitschy or cheesy character now. He was a much more subdued performer as a young man, but as we all know, over time, Diamond took up dramatic stage shows, elaborate costumes, and interpretive affect. According to him, it was initially done so that people in the back rows of huge sold-out venues could pick him out on stage without need for binoculars. Whatever the cause, it stood out enough to earn him the sometimes-title of “The Jewish Elvis.” These behaviors, because they are so far removed from the (allegedly) improvisational and unaffected performances we’ve come to expect in much of rock music, are what make people, to some degree, uncomfortable.
But not me. I am able to say it proudly now. I love Neil Diamond. I’m not seeing something that isn’t there. Just something that some people haven’t figured out yet.
Whether you love him or are still waiting to find out how much you love him, whatever is infectious about Neil Diamond is born of a genuine love of music and performance, and if, after 50 years, he has not earned the right to act as cheesy as he wants, then that’s our problem, not his. It’s not like he needs our money.
So shimmy those shoulders, Neil. Point to the stars and wiggle your ass. Wink at the old ladies (and the young ones, too). Go on with your kick-ass self.
And welcome to the Rock-N-Roll Hall of Fame.
*Taken from the Diamond song of near-same name, which you can hear here.