Saturday, January 24, 2009
Neil Diamond: Far from Rough
Top: Cover from Neil Diamond's work
Bottom: Neil Diamond today. You look MAHVELOUS!
Neil Diamond is 68 today. I'd like to salute one of our nation's finest songwriters on this occasion.
We're talking songwriter in the classic sense. Neil earned his chops with other fabulous songwriters like Carole King by working at the fabled Brill Building in the early 1960s. (Akin to working Tin Pan Alley in the 1920s and 30s—aargh! Even the monikers were better in the LONG ago!)
Like many baby boomers, I first got to know him through the Monkees. (I was probably reading songwriter credits even at that tender age.) "Daydream Believer", "I'm a Believer", "A Little Bit of Me, A Little Bit of You"—these songs feature sturdy choruses and an utterly comforting, predictable structure. They are meant to appeal to the masses unabashedly.
I recall purchasing a cassette of Tap Root Manuscript. This late 60s effort features the immortal "I Am, I Said", a song that makes clear that in terms of bombast, Neil is no piker next to Neil Sedaka ("My Way") or Barry Manilow ("I Write the Songs"). But you must admit, songs with weird lyrics do stick in your mind and you keep singing them mockingly ('I am, I said/to no one there/and no one heard at all/not even the chair") .
That in itself is its own kind of skill, don't you think? To become derisible, and therefore unmovable in a listener's mind (because we all can't stop making fun now, can we?)
Diamond had many other songs, though, that were just plain strong, sensitive songwriting before James Taylor, Carole King, et. al came along and made this style a brand. So I started to follow his career. Straight through "Gitchy Goomy" and "Song Sung Blue" (from Moods). But the brakes hit with his soundtrack to Jonathan Livingston Seagull. I couldn't bear the lyrics. It felt to me like he thought he was our nation's unofficial poet laureate.
I was gladly on the sidelines for his subsequent hits like "You Don't Send Me Flowers" and "America". I observed with amusement how really conservative, square people thought he was awesome and flocked to his shows.
Then Neil became quiet. Getting well past middle-age, he couldn't don the silk shirt or the sequins anymore. In need of a career overhaul, he went to visit Dr. Rubin. That's Rick Rubin—the ubiquitous producer who gave Johnny Cash a new audience in his twilight years.
I'm here to say that Neil's songwriting is as strong as ever. I'm sure that his audiences are disappointed as he tromps onstage with his acoustic guitar and quietly serves his art.
But he's speaking to me more. I may actually hear him in concert in the years ahead. It may not be an arena with a triple-figure priced ticket. Instead it may be in a nice jazz club—where people really listen, song after song, and appreciate craft.
Give his work with Rubin a try. You'll be pleasantly surprised!