The Singer Sings His Song*By Becky Palapala
January 15, 2011
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.
It’s great to see another young hip kid pledge their love of Neil Diamond. In college, inevitably around 2 in the morning, someone would put sweet caroline on the jukebox and an entire bar would start swaying and singing at the top of their lungs, kids just barely 21 and just barely not 21, would raise glasses and dance and at the end kiss some girl or guy they’ve had their eye on all night. My personal favorite Neil was in the Band’s The Last Waltz where he sang Dry Your Eyes and I can watch it over and over and I still get that same feeling where I think that no matter what, I can do whatever I set my mind on. That’s ultimately the power of Neil Diamond, to make you feel good, driving alone on a commute, or watching some PBS special beneath a blanket in winter, or grocery shopping when he comes over the speakers. You can’t help but smile and maybe sway a little down the aisle with fresh fruits and vegetables. Very well written.
Naturally, I couldn’t agree more. How anyone could dislike–let along be angry at–Neil Diamond or his music is beyond me.
Even I am not so sullen and joyless.
I can only conclude that such people must be very sad and broken inside. They should probably listen to “Song Sung Blue” until they feel better.
Funny. To speak more to the power of Neil Diamond, the song Song Sung Blue was covered by the indie darlings, The Great Lake Swimmers. So, obviously, it is clear that the genius of his songwriting is still being discovered and I am sure will continue to be for a long, long time.
“Solitary Man,” too, was recently covered by some indie group. Can’t think of the name.
As much as I prefer to distance myself from a lot of new music (though not because it is new), things like that give me hope.
If nothing else, it proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that a given song has relevance beyond its generational context. “Song Sung Blue” or “Solitary Man” or “Red, Red Wine” or “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” (listing every one of his songs that people have covered would take ages) aren’t just cool because Neil Diamond sings them.
They’re good songs, and he wrote them.
I wonder, kind of, if there is even an artist that is more often covered–in actual album releases, not just live performance–than Neil Diamond. Besides, maybe, Elvis.
Okay. I may have gotten a bit excited. There are apparently many artists more covered than Neil. Additionally, I failed to account for bands.
Beatles, Stones, etc.
He’s still covered a hell of a lot though.
And how can you fail to mention that “Done Too Soon”
paved the way for another of your favorite songs ~ “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”
(I vividly remember listening to Done Too Soon in the same Toyota pick-up. Except I was driving. 😉 )
Well, now, I don’t know if serving as the inspiration for my love of list songs is too good for Neil’s rep.
Most people hate them.
Jesus Christ, Fanny Brice, Wolfie Mozart and Humphrey Bogart; Ghengis Kahn and on to H.G. Wells…Ho Chi Minh, Gunga Din…
Memorized. All of it. Just like at least two others.
My love for Billy Joel, though (“We Didn’t Start the Fire” notwithstanding), was mostly on you.
I love this post! Neil is a wonderful song writer. He’s stood the test of time.
Cracklin Rosie was also a very popular drug laced cheap vino that hippies drank on the west coast. Old people had no clue about the song title, nor did the radio stations that played it. Every time it was played though, hippies would be cracking the hell up that Neil was getting away with singing about doing drugs. Neil talked about the song during an interview in the 90’s and alot of people were shocked to find out what cracklin rosie was code for.
You ever see the movie The Jazz Singer? It gives a good inside look at some of the things from his life off stage.
Brilliant write up, about a brilliant man. Thanks!
I did not know that’s what Cracklin’ Rosie was! All the more awesome. Now, the next question: Did my dad really not know that, or was he trying to make his explanation PG?
I am ashamed to say I have seen neither the Jazz Singer nor Hot August Night. They’ll have to go in the queue.
I have been trying to find the documentary footage where this song title is mentioned as being code for cheap rose wine laced with lsd.
I’ve been racking my pea brain trying to remember if it was Neil who said it, or someone else talking about the song and Neil had no clue that’s what the term cracklin rosie actually meant, when he heard it.
I do know that it was mentioned in a documentary about music-drugs in the 60’s and early 70’s, that i watched during the 90’s. I cannot recall the name of the documentary.
I remember hippies drinking lsd laced wine and coca-cola in the 60’s and 70’s. I lived less than a mile from the beach where all the hippie kids went to get high. I remember watching them throw these parties for guys going off to Nam and ones coming back from Nam. I remember hearing the term “cracklin rosie party tonight”
I was a grade school kid though and didn’t fully understand what was going on until I was in jr.
It heartens me to know that Neil Diamond might not have been as out of touch with counter-culture/young-people culture as people like to think.
Though, you know. He was a young person, but not too young–in his late-20s-early 30s–during the Vietnam War. So it stands to reason that he would be both privvy to that kind of information and sophisticated enough in his perspective to make his commentary more subtle than some of his younger contemporaries.
He’s also very tall…
I had to interview him once back in my reporting days and he was very nice, very charming, if a little serious.
I had two free tickets to his show and my great aunt was a MASSIVE fan. I told her to drive up to my hometown and I would take her with me. She undertook the five hour drive all by herself (A big deal for her at the time) and we went to the Neil Diamond concert.
I have to admit, she enjoyed it a lot better than I did – although she wasn’t too impressed by his ‘slacks.’
Despite my fond and warm memories of this, I have to say, I’m not a huge fan. I am impressed by his repertoire and his songwriting ability though, and I’m surprised it took this long for him to be inducted into the hall of fame..
Really? Tall? He always kind of looked tall–especially when he was younger–but I always assumed that was an optical illusion stemming from the fact that he was pretty thin.
I can see the serious thing. And I think, in a way, the fact that the eccentricities of his stage show are manufactured–that is, he’s not a particularly flamboyant or excessive or flashy person in real life–sometimes works against him, at least with regard to his fame.
I mean, with someone like Elvis, there were always the stories of his private life to keep the rumor mill churning, and with Diamond, there just aren’t those tales of excess–shooting out TVs, taking Las Vegas by storm with a whole entourage. Nope. He’s just kind of…normal.
Neil Diamond’s voice can’t be denied. I’m enough of a music snob to roll my eyes at his rehammering of the nostalgic sweet spot, but not enough to avoid spending most of my morning thus far listening to him through your links. Holly Holy, for instance. That’s a better song than I remembered, or maybe I haven’t even heard it before and just think I have, which is proof of the strength of his songwriting.
It’s a small tribute to TNB that in the same week I’ve reconsidered both Neil Diamond and Captain Beefheart. Could be mashup potential there.
Well, to be fair, it’s not as if he’s not making new music. He is–much of it even received quite well by critics.
But of course, when you’re so completely associated with certain songs and a certain period in time, getting critics to appreciate your new music and getting the general public to appreciate it are two very different things. Not gonna lie. I haven’t made any attempt to listen to his new stuff. I probably should. I suddenly feel very guilty.
So to some degree, ironically, it is out of practicality that he has to play up that sentimental nostalgia factor. And, you know, he’s going to be 70 years old in a week. I mean, if he hasn’t earned the right to be a little nostalgic, not sure who has. He could go the other way and be a surly, aggressively prickly, and borderline resentful old curmudgeon like Bob Dylan, who has similar issues with era-association. But I wouldn’t pay to see that grumpy old fart again, regardless of how much I like his music, and I would happily pay to see some nostalgia from Neil.
Holly Holy is a fantastic song. One of his earliest and one of my very favorites (actually, most of his gospel-tinged songs are my favorites, as I mentioned in the piece).
He seems, also, to put a great deal of himself into his performances, which I always appreciate from any artist, whether I like their music or not.
This is great! You’ve convinced me to go to itunes and listen to his music. I have to say I love EVERY version of He Ain’t Heavy,He’s My Brother. Every single one. It’s just one of those songs, you know.
I’m glad I’ve convinced you!
I think Neil Diamond can only make a person’s life better, but I would say that.
Not sure where a good place is to start for a person who’s just looking into him, but a greatest hits album is usually a good bet for any of these older artists.
What a lovely and affectionate romp back through Neil, Becky.
Making fun of the persona of a musical artist is the surest sign there is that, a few months or years from now, you’ll be buying and loving his music. For many, mockery is the only way they can show affection.
Rock on, Neil.
I agree about mockery. It’s like pinching/punching the girl you like on the playground.
I know I’m biased, but I honestly can’t see what a person could have against him.
I like Neil Diamond. Like you, my dad was the one who made me stop and listen to his lyrics. Appreciate his skills. He’s good.
I also love What About Bob. Makes me laugh. A lot.
Dads are pretty good for that kind of thing.
I remember finding butterfly-collar shirts in the basement of my folks’ house. And laughing.
An my mom was like, “Oh….but Becky…he was so COOL back then!”
Good ol’ Dad.
I always liked Neil Diamond’s songs.
I don’t know anything modern, so I’m happy you wrote about someone I know.
Don’t worry. I prefer the ancients too. 🙂
I really enjoyed your this! I grew up on Neil Diamond–parents used to play 8-tracks of his music in the car. So my affection for his music is somewhat nostalgia-based. There’s something very sincere about his music/songs–at least to me.
A lot of it is nostalgia for me, but the extent of my exposure was really that one album, maybe bits and pieces of others from cultural osmosis.
So when I started to get into him after high school, I had only heard this tiny snippet of his work.
When I asked for “a Neil Diamond CD” and instead received an entire boxed set one Christmas, I was hearing the vast majority of those songs for the first time. And I still loved them.
The one I remember hearing the most was that song We’re Coming to America–TODAY.
The only thing I really know about Neil Diamond is when I was ten I was enamored with “America,” party because I liked the melody and partly because I could actually understand what he was saying. Not long afterward I gave up forever attempting to decipher or even care about most music lyrics.
“America” is still on the playlist I fall back upon when I want to rustle up some 80s nostalgia.
It is indeed a pretty transparent song.
And ubiquitous since it’s been taken up as a bit of an anthem for immigration groups in various political contexts.
Something about that really chaps my ass. It always chaps my ass when a song that’s meant to be celebratory and unifying, sort of a nod to something shared among all–or at least most–American people is co-opted in the service of contentious and polarizing issues. It’s a form of rhetoric. Nothing is sacred to the Cretinous hive-mind of American politics.
Get the fuck up off my Neil Diamond, you savages!
Anyway. Really? You don’t try to listen to lyrics? You don’t even enjoy speculating on what they might be about?
In Phoenix, as a ten-year-old kid, my dance troupe performed for a televised Fourth of July special set in the ASU stadium. Our routine was choreographed to Neil Diamond’s “America.” We wore either red, white, or blue shiny satin outfits, and spelled out U-S-A with our bodies on the field at the end. I was relieved to be assigned blue, because red looked weird with my red hair, and white made everyone look bigger. Also: the Osmonds performed in the program, and we all thought Jimmy was so dreamy. Haha.
I did not even know there was such a thing as a Jimmy Osmond.
Of course. Of course there were red, white, and blue satin outfits and you had to spell out U-S-A on the field.
I’m pretty sure that song was made for that kind of application. I think it’s in the liner notes. Like stage direction.
Jimmy Osmond. Haha. Is he the Osmond version of Tito?
Yeah, Becky, I’ve tinkered with a post idea of the song lyrics thing, which is odd for a writer, to explain why don’t care about them. Part of it has to do with my inability to distinguish the words, part of it has to do with my love of music as an aural experience and how that overshadows anything a songwriter might compose to accompany the instruments, and there’s probably something in there about my ignorance of poetry. I lean toward instrumental music these days for this reason, and it’s probably why I was able to conveniently ignore the terrible lyrics of various musicians and bands I enjoyed in the 80s.
I know some musical artists are primarily lyricists, and while I can appreciate their work, I rarely find myself listening to it when I have other choices.
Song lyrics aren’t poetry. It’s REALLY rare for song lyrics to be able pass as poetry when rendered as such. Even some of the very best song lyrics (many. MOST) are poetic disasters in the absence of the music meant to accompany them.
I guess, you know, the only real argument available to me here is that the voice is an instrument and the individual sounds of language are part of it. It’s a major thing for me. I’ve mentioned it a hundred times, but I love voices (provided they agree with me), and even accents…habits of voice and diction, just like you’d find in writing. Almost all my preoccupations with musical acts involve some obsession with the peculiarities of a singer’s voice. The lyrics are part of that, whether or not I always know exactly what they say or mean.
Van Morrison is on right now in the living room. I want to go camping on a sunny weekend with Van Morrison’s voice. I want to sit there and grill food and drink beer with it all day, then have a bonfire at night and sing and sing (badly as we want), until we pass out from exhaustion or beer or both. Also, in this fantasy, Van Morrison’s voice gets up early and makes eggs and coffee.
The lyrical meaning is whatever you make of it, ultimately. Just like the musical part. Just like anything.
You don’t have to, like, decipher it.
I get you on the voice being important as an instrument. The texture of the human voice is important to me and I do enjoy it quite a lot. For instance, using Radiohead as an example, most of the songs would clearly be lacking without Thom Yorke’s voice. And a lot of the electronic music I enjoy often employs female vocalists singing lyrics that are clearly there for the texture of their voices as instruments. I do often respond to the vocals and even sing along with the parts I can understand. There are exceptions, of course. I know a lot of the lyrics to “Creep,” which isn’t even one of my favorite Radiohead songs. I generally understand the lyrical point of “Fake Plastic Trees.” But I still prefer the melody.
So I suppose it’s not the vocals that bother me as much as considering what the lyrics have to say. And being able to decipher the actual vocals makes them more discrete somehow, and less musical. If that makes sense. For instance, one of my favorite songs from the 80s is “Where the Streets Have No Name.” The title of that song, and hearing those words sung by Bono, makes it seem epic. But as I sit here and think about it, I can’t really remember any of the other lyrics. I don’t care. The song evokes a certain epicness in me and knowing what he’s saying, or assigning meaning to it, might render it somehow less epic.
As an aside, this is why I pretty much hate music videos, with the exception of those built from concert performances. I don’t like the abstract feeling I experience from listening to music distilled to someone else’s visual interpretation. That’s really annoying. Not to mention most of the time the audio quality of television, at least until very recently, compares very poorly to music-specific formats.
I guess I won’t be writing that post now.
I don’t see why you wouldn’t. This is a post about Neil Diamond.
90% of the TNB universe never even opened it and therefore never saw this comment. Guaranteed.
Yeah, sorry to co-opt your post with my own selfish commentary. You just got me thinking about it.
I liked this post quite a lot, even though I don’t know a lot about Neil Diamond. I like intelligent defense of art that doesn’t the the credit it deserves. 2 kudos.
Erg. I didn’t mean “this is a post about Neil Diamond,” like, “So stop talking about other things!!!11!”
I just meant that if you’re considering not writing the piece because you’ve said so much about it here, I wouldn’t worry about it. I sort of doubt this is a very high-traffic piece, and very few people will be likely to have read your comment.
Could you give 1 kudo on myspace?
I think you could.
How fucking weird and arbitrary. Why 2 kudos vs. 1 kudo? Why not 13 kudos vs. 8 kudos? It’s as bad as the scoring in basketball. That fuckin’ place…
And why kudos at all? Why not stars? Or kudus? And was giving only one kudo instead of two a passive-aggressive way to tell someone they kind of sucked?
If you’re going to have some kind of graduated ratings system in place, there have to be more than two ratings.
Like, you know, if it HAD been stars. 1-5 stars. That would have meant something. I mean, not really; not, like, in the grand scheme of things, but at least there would be diversity enough of options so that, if you’re going to give one rating you don’t feel like you might as well just give the other.
That’s how one kudo became so rare.
It was like, well, fuck it. If I’m willing to give one, I might as well give two. Or, conversely, if I’m not willing to give two shitting, meaningless kudos, does it even deserve one?
There really needs to be a band called One Kudo. In honor of the rarely used and neglected one kudo. Or maybe I will write a song called “One Kudo” about someone I don’t really hate or love; someone about whom I’m completely ambivalent. Haha.
P.S. I’m giving you two kudus today, Becky. Here: http://www.concierge.com/cntraveler/contests/dreamtrip2009/Kudus.jpg.html
And a whole truckload of kudzus for you!!
I can haz many kudzus!! Yay! *rolls around in greenery*
Neil Diamond had to precede Rufus Wainwright which had to enable your love of Neil Diamond. I support your Neil Diamond fetish without irony.
I enjoyed Neil Diamond impersonators at tribal casinos in New Mexico. I actually developed a pretty remarkable crush on a young Bruce Springsteen impersonator who worked that same casino circuit. I’d go there with my Indian friend Jolene, and every time the young Boss asked if there was anyone in the audience from Jersey she’d go fucking crazy pointing me out. It was pretty spectacular.
Oddly enough, I can see the similarities between the two.
I’m not sure what they are, but they’re there.
Something about both employing a super-wide variety of musical sounds, some of them really unexpected–like Rufus and baroque and Neil with his gospel. And both make ample use of strings and brass. Songs are just fuller and better with classical instrumentation. One’s repertoire instantly becomes more interesting with things like that going on.
I guess, to employ a metaphor, both make music that’s curvy, sure, but curvy in all right places. At least for me.
At the very least, I don’t think either stands to be accused of being generic or uninteresting. Sticking out–never running the risk of being mistaken for someone else–seems to be a huge item of appeal for me in selecting my favorite musical acts.
Celebrity musician impersonation is such a weird phenomenon. There’s an Elvis impersonator here in the Twin Cities who travels all over the state, and it seems like no matter where I go, whether in the cities or in the hinterlands, I see a flier for his show. He’s a kind of minor celebrity himself. I’ve seen him countless times; he’s excellent, and I’d be a liar if I said that I didn’t genuinely enjoy it every time.
…both make music that’s curvy, sure, but curvy in all right places…
It’s weird how much sense that makes.
There’s a strange inverse equation that goes on with ultra-popular music. Hipsters can’t like anything without gently making fun of it, just in case somebody might harshly make fun of them. I dig your sincere opinions, Becky. Keep it real, sister. It’s the only way to go.
Regarding celebrity musician impersonation… You’d be surprised how much thought I’ve given to the painful karma of the impersonator. Will anyone ever really love you for you? Probably not. It is very likely I will write a screenplay or novel narrated by just such a fellow someday.
there are a great many celebrity musicians out there right now impersonating themselves.
What’s weird about this impersonator guy is that his wife is his manager and the emcee of his show.
I mean, I guess that’s not SO weird, but she refers to him as Elvis regularly. I mean, it’s public role playing. It’s difficult to avoid speculation on what their bedroom habits are. Like, does she make him wear the American Trilogy cape? She seems like a bit of a battle axe. Like she might be mushing him along a little.
Some of my older cousins and I agreed, one day after a show and many beers, that, though we were all morbidly curious, we probably didn’t actually want to know.
Honestly, I’m not very familiar with Neil Diamond. I have, however, enjoyed the few songs that I’ve heard and so I can only assume that I would fall into the category of “fan” if I hadn’t been so sheltered from him all my life.
Neil Diamond story:
About two years ago in Korea I was in a taxi with some Korean friends. The driver turned and looked at me and almost crashed the cab. He started shouting in Korean, and my friends translated for me. He said that I was Neil Diamond and that he was honoured to have me in his taxi. I said, “No problem. Glad to be here.” He then proceeded to show me pictures of his very attractive daughter and very large house. He said that they were both mine if I would marry her, and also that he would buy me a nice car. In the end I got out and told him that I’d think about it, but I was never confident enough that I could live the rest of my life pretending to be Neil Diamond.
Well, David, we do all look alike.
But if you were Neil Diamond, wouldn’t the point of getting you to marry a daughter be centered on you buying the houses and nice cars for everybody?
This, I do not understand.
But pretending to be Neil Diamond would be difficult. Imagine the fortune you’d have so spend on sequined and fringed shirts just to approximate his wardrobe. And what if they wanted you to sing?
Or to not have a Scottish accent?
There is that problem of Neil Diamond being old enough to be your grandfather.
Then again you never know. Many people think that “The Portrait of Dorian Gray” is fiction.
He was probably drunk, or crazy… or both. Or maybe he just thought all white people are interchangeable. Hell, in Korea they aren’t aware that there is any more than one country white people can come from. We are all Americans over there. In China there’s another white guy I work with who is of similar height. That’s the end of the similarities – we’re Caucasians of around 5’10 and in our mid-twenties. However, no one can tell us apart.
I’m not sure about the age thing, though… I have been told once or twice that I resemble William S. Burroughs… and not a young William S. Burroughs, either. I guess I sometimes look fifty or sixty years older than I actually am…
Or maybe I should just stop wearing sequined shirts.
You nailed it, Becky, that inimitable writing, voice and style that’s Neil Diamond’s. Thanks, not only for the memory tour, but for much I hadn’t known about him. Diamond as well as Billy Joel, for their lyrics and style are classic emotional faves for me. Then there’s Michael McDonald—oh that voice!
You’re welcome, Judy. It was fun for me to write. And I was glad, finally, to be able to write it. That man was so long overdue for HOF induction, it was beginning to border on criminal.
I have to admit I’m not a huge Michael McDonald fan, but not out of any prejudice. I just never really got into the Doobies or Steely Dan, so there wasn’t really fertile ground for a curiosity about his solo career.
Becky, you mention a “Dan,” and immediately I thought of England Dan and John Ford Coley, Dallas,Texas, men whose *Love Is the Answer,* written by Mississippi-based songwriter, Parker McGee, hit big in 1979:
Other songs of theirs I like: “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight” (1976), “Nights Are Forever Without You” (another McGee composition) (1976), “It’s Sad to Belong” (1977), and “We’ll Never Have to Say Goodbye Again” (1978).
Once, during finals week in college, I was so tired I couldn’t sleep and I went to the tiny second run theater in town that had been playing The Jazz Singer for what seemed to be the ENTIRE semester (my friends and I had previously avoided it for weeks…) and just wanting some space in the dark where I could think about how I bombed my Spanish final I bought a ticket expecting to eat and then sleep. Except, damn that Neil, he kept me awake… while I suppose the movie is a little cheesy by todays standards — Neil entertained me that afternoon and … I own him one. Nice piece, Becky!
Having never seen it, I can’t speak to the relative cheesiness of The Jazz Singer, but the 70s/80s were cheesy, cheesy times, without a doubt.
That should have been the tag line for a sort of HOF induction campaign.
“Neil Diamond: Cheesy, but we owe him one.”
Just watched a clip on youtube.
For a man who had never acted before, he seems to have done okay.
I really, honestly, expected that to be much worse.
I should add Neil to my record collection! He’d feel right at home. My parents, a *long* time ago, had one of those enormous cabinets with built-in speakers, turn table, and record rack — I’m not even sure what you call these things — that I would *kill* for now, and on it at pretty much all times was a Neil Diamond record. I really like cheese.
Also, I cannot type my own email address.
Yes! Add him!
But why stop at the record cabinet? (Is that what people would call the “Hi-Fi?”)
I have oft-considered turning my whole house into a shrine to 70s decorating sensibilities. I mostly got the idea because when we bought it, it already sort of was.
I draw the line at shag carpeting and disco, though.
I already knew I liked Neil Diamond, but it was really fascinating to learn more about him. I didn’t know he wrote songs for the Monkees, or “Red, Red Wine.” Wow. And there is nothing cheesy about giving the people who paid to see you a good show, in my opinion. He’s a pro. There are some really boring shoe-gazer bands that could learn a lot from him. There is something so honest about embracing the glitter and drama and really owning it that always works for me. (I can’t stand too-cool-for-school in any form.) Neil rocks.
Great piece, Cracklin’ Becky.
I had a lot of fun reading up on him for this piece. There is so much more to know, but trying to write it all would have been, for one thing, redundant, and I didn’t really want this to be a boring biographical piece, either. I mean, a huge portion of a musician’s worth lies in how his/her music effects people. Or at least I think so. And a huge portion of Diamond’s worth, to me, lies in his presence as a musical theme in my life.
That said, I wouldn’t call him a spectacularly interesting person in his personal life. I mean, as I remarked to Zara, he appears to be a relatively normal guy for his level of stardom.
But there are little things that I think are cool, like the fact that he entered college with the intention of becoming the doctor who would find the cure for cancer. Those plans were derailed when he was “discovered” as a college kid.
He is also an NCAA champion team fencer. Like, swordfighting. In the funny padded suits.
Also of note: He went to the same high school as Barbara Streisand and they sang in the choir together. Their vocal teacher was one of the first to remark that Diamond didn’t have the voice to sing professionally.
ALSO: Neil Diamond is his honest-to-God real name.
And he and I have the same middle name.
(To the best of my knowledge, however, I’m middle-named after my grandpa, not Neil. Though I might start lying about that. [Just kidding, Grandpa! Don’t haunt me!])
Fencing is cool. I didn’t know that about him either.
(Singsong:) I know your middle naaa-aaame, I know your middle naaa-aaame!
Awww. Your middle name is so sweet and cute. I love it.
Nobody can ever guess it. It’s been a “guess my middle name” game stumper my whole life.
And I was able to tell them, “It’s my grandpa’s name,” thus sending them looking for a man’s name. Which it is, at least with that spelling, but no one ever thinks of it.
I have, in fact, revealed that Diamond and I have the same middle name on TNB before; it’s just that no one remembers.
I will never forget, Becky. Never.
For some reason, I believe you, Tawni.
30 years from now, I’ll start getting mysterious homemade greeting cards…
I know your middle naaa-aaame, I know your middle naaa-aaame…
The mysterious homemade greeting cards you receive will feature unrecognizable drawings of Neil Diamond, and be covered in red wine stains and cat hair.
I love Neil. I also loved learning through this post that he wrote Monkees songs. Really, I had no idea. I also love that his silhouette of the hand in the air looks like a hand making a #1 sign.
“I’m number one! Or maybe Tony Manero!”
Neil Diamond is the best writer of karaoke songs of all time. I have never done karaoke without at least one Neil Diamond song (usually “America”) being played.
Also, the loudest my voice has ever gotten was singing along to “Sweet Caroline” at a bar on the last stop of the epic day-long bar-crawl that was my bachelor party. Awesomeness.
I bet Duke doesn’t love Neil Diamond.
That’s okay. We’re almost as used to Duke not liking things as we are to me not liking things.
But, the sum total of this information can lead to one–and only one–outcome.
Should Duke and I ever find ourselves in the same gin mill, we will do a stirring, embittered karaoke rendition of that timeless duet, “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers.”
Naturally, Duke will sing Babs’ part.
I don’t really like that song much or even know the words, but I’d do it anyway. Just for the privilege of seeing the look on Duke’s face the next morning when he was reminded of what he’d done.
I so want a video of that duet. Make it happen!
The trick will be getting him drunk enough to do it while still keeping him conscious.
This is a thoughtful, smart, and loving tribute, perfectly subjective and objective, about a man who shouldn’t be nearly as controversial as he is.
I mean, I can see Diamond not being someone’s particular cuppa pop (maybe they prefer Carole King/Gerry Goffin, Holland/Dozier/Holland, Bacharach, et al) but you certainly can’t deny his effect. I wouldn’t worry about him going away, and a well-written essay that exudes as much reasonable and personal love as this one does would make even those weary of frat-boy thug karaoke renditions of “Sweet Caroline” reconsider the oeuvre.
Oh and by the way, the Monkees weren’t complete ciphers — Mike Nesmith wrote “Different Drum” for Linda Ronstadt & The Stone Poneys — not a bad pop song in its own right.
And one of their mothers invented ‘Tipex’….
Yeah, Mike Nesmith’s! I think we call that “Liquid Paper” over here.
That’s mighty cool of you to say. I don’t like to be too sentimental. I mean, gushiness makes me gaggy-pukey more than maybe anyone. But it’s pointless to talk about a person like Diamond solely in technical terms. Not only because of my history with his music, but because his songs just aren’t that complicated, for the most part. I mean, I believe “Cherry Cherry” holds the distinction of “Greatest 3-chord song ever written.” By whose declaration, I can’t remember.
Nevertheless. If savant-level songwriting talents, multi-instrument competence, and an ability to draw together countless musical threads into complex, as-yet-unheard-of experimental pop, rock, and orchestral arrangements were the only ingredients necessary for greatness and to win people’s respect, a hell of a lot more people would love Rufus Wainwright. So if people want to mock Diamond’s music for being simple, that’s the litmus test. “You like Rufus?” If they say no, they don’t know from simple or complex or innovative music, or what the fuck they’re saying. At the very least, these alleged measures of worth have no major influence on their taste.
Now I’m getting hostile.
Maybe I should have made a greater distinction between the Monkees as an entity and the individual members.
I know that more than one of them–though I can’t remember which ones–did actually learn their instruments, expecting to eventually be able to take over the writing of their songs and whatnot, only for their ersatz little rocket to crash and burn, ejecting them into has-been-ism.
I mean, I don’t blame them for their non-writing. They got royally screwed in that deal.
Wow. Major rant/tangent.
In my defense, I’m trying to quit smoking, so I’m even less in my right mind than usual.
No sweat, Becky.
Yeah, having your band’s album come out *without your knowledge* and to your great disapproval would test any band, let alone a group like the Monkees that were trying really hard at the time to shake the perception that they were a shuck (even if that’s how they began). Nesmith and Tork were versatile musicians, and Nesmith in particular fought to have two of his compositions on each album.
But yeah, when you have hitmakers like Diamond, Boyce & Hart, Lieber & Stoller, and King & Goffin writing your stuff, a label’s not going to be super excited when the people they cast off the street to be in a manufactured pop band start showing up with sheet music. But it *was* the Monkees’ decision to buy out their own contracts.
And yeah, people will never like music for purely rational reasons. That’s one of the things that’s great about it. I mean, I can talk about Miles Davis until I’m blue in the face, I can argue that he’s the Pablo Picasso of jazz, and that Bitches Brew is the only fusion album that needs to exist, but it’s not going to make anyone *like* his music.
You’re not alone on an island pledging allegiance to the Rufus / Diamond approach to pop song composition and theatrical performance. I’m sure you know this. But — as anything that comes from a deeply felt and deeply informed place — it’s wonderful to read your salvo all the same.
I don’t know if it’s an allegiance. I mean, it is, at least insofar as I feel obligated to defend/promote both musicians (especially Wainwright, for whom I am willing to get pretty wild-eyed in my insistence), but it’s not like I think the theatrical displays are necessary or that an artist who lacks their brand of extroversion or traditionally competent arrangements is automatically shit.
Bah. I don’t know what I’m saying, to be honest.
Except that people may not even like music for purely musical reasons.
One thing I have noticed is that people’s opinions of a given musician are likely to rely heavily on what kind of people they believe constitute his/her fanbase. Like, what they think the cultural context for that artist is, what kind of person others will think s/he is for listening. That whole social dance.
My old psych professor
used to say
“Actually there are about 5 billion
kinds of people in the world
& another few million inside
each of those.”
I didn’t listen much in class though.
I like Neil Diamond all right
on the right day
in the right mood.
Your psych professor sounds like a party and a half.
I like Neil Diamond when I see huge crowds at stadiums sing along. It baffles me how much people love him. Always a crowd pleaser when a game is dragging. Other than that, I remember my Pops always punching some ND 8-track into a player as we blasted along highways in the ’70s.
Well, you know, it’s one of those things.
What’s the measure of the worth or quality of music? There are plenty of answers, but one of them surely must be tens of thousands of people at a sporting event going, “BAH BAH BAAAAH…………SO GOOD! SO GOOD!”
That and being cool enough to have your song end up in a Tarantino film. How this is not sufficient for the hipsters in the audience fills me with serious doubt about the consistency of the hipster ethos.
I am not a Neil Diamond fan. I’m also not a non-fan. I just haven’t ever taken to him. When I hear him, I tap my toes and I appreciate what I’m hearing, but I don’t seek him out.
I love it when you write about your favorite music and musicians, Becky. You’re so damned thorough. And your adoration is fully supported by fact. You’d make a great PR person.
For the record, Mickey Dolenz wrote a lot of his own songs.
Poor Mickey. The ugliest Monkee. The Monkee who actually looked like a monkey.
Over-coiffed, under-plucked, and unappreciated.
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