Music Solitary man

Neil Diamond can’t help but wonder why critics don’t bring him flowers anymore

He’s been called “the Jewish Elvis.” He even considered using Eice Chary or Noah Kaminsky as get this “stage names.” More unbelievable? His real name is Neil Diamond. And he’s one of pop music’s most polarizing figures.

It’s hard to argue with the Brooklyn-born Diamond’s early work as a Brill Building songwriter, where he churned out hit after hit like “Kentucky Woman,” “Cherry, Cherry,” and “I’m A Believer,” but critics turned on him just as his fame began to eclipse the absurdity of his beaded shirts right around the time Jonathan Livingston Seagull hit the stores in 1972. Nonetheless, the Songwriters Hall of Fame presented Diamond with its Sammy Cahn Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000, and he’s defended by the likes of legendary producer Rick Rubin and Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, who annually pushes Diamond as a candidate for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Apparently, however, not even selling more than 50 million albums or becoming the top solo-touring artist of the 1990s (grossing $182 million from 461 shows) is enough to quiet your detractors.

Diamond’s been turning on his heartlight for more than four decades.

Much of this might have to do with Diamond’s transformation from pop music singer-songwriter into pop-music icon and, before you debate just how iconic he is, consider just what an icon is an object of uncritical devotion. To millions, this is what Diamond, now 64, has become. The man’s live shows are a religious experience filled with dazzling lights, beaded shirts that surround him in a shimmering glow, and songs about love, love, and more love. Think about it: Can you name a more quintessential pop song than “Sweet Caroline”? Hit any dive bar, plug a quarter in the jukebox, and watch how many drunken louts and Mike’s Hard Lemonade-sippin’ sorority girls sing along, arms interlocked as they sway. After more than 40 years in this biz, he still has a very real presence in the public consciousness, too, whether you’re talking UB40’s “Red, Red Wine” cover (1988), Urge Overkill’s resurrection of his classic “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack (1994), or the Neil-fetishist comedy Saving Silverman (2001) which was only a minor improvement over Diamond’s first cinematic foray, The Jazz Singer (1980). If critics want to hold anything against him, it should be his wooden on-screen performances, a far cry from what he delivers every time he hits the stage.

So what is it about Diamond that makes him so transcendent? It’s not really a secret: simple chord progressions married to catchy melodies, driven by lyrics that are sung with a conviction as serious as the love he’s obviously believed in from his days at Brill. It’s a formula that works too, just look at his hit-filled songbook: “Kentucky Woman,” “Sweet Caroline,” “Cracklin’ Rosie,” “Solitary Man,” “America,” “Shilo,” “Cherry, Cherry,” “Red, Red Wine,” “Thank the Lord for the Night Time,” and that’s just for starters.

Since when did pop music enjoyed by regular folk become so contemptible? It was once a universal force that united people across state lines, national borders, and oceans. The pre-Sgt. Pepper Beatles were basically the Monkees, you know, which is why, of course, the Monkees were four in number, sported moppy haircuts, and ran around like they were starring in a made-for-VH1 remake of A Hard Day’s Night. Elvis never recorded a song any more sonically challenging than one of Diamond’s so-so singles; the King of Rock’s place in history is locked because of his cultural relevance and, of course, the fact that he croaked while resting on his throne. So what’s wrong with recognizing Neil Diamond as one of pop music’s greatest songwriters and most beloved performers?

Neil Diamond

Sun, Oct 9

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He’s not hip, that’s what. He’s never been hip, either, but he lost what little credibility he had when he veered from acoustic-based singer-songwriter fare to gauzy easy listening in 1978 with “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers.” But Diamond’s hipness deficiency should change in November, when his first self-titled album is released. Rick Rubin the Grizzly Adams-beard-sporting co-founder of Def Jam produced the album and, with it, hopes to do for Diamond what he did for Johnny Cash’s career a decade ago with the Grammy-winning American Recordings series. The Man in Black suddenly became cool again and maybe, just maybe, Rubin can do the same for Diamond. If nothing else, he may provide Diamond some musical vindication.

It’s a strange team-up, as diametrically opposed as you can really get in this business: Diamond, the king of schmaltzy pop and Rubin, eclectic producer of acts such as the Beastie Boys and Red Hot Chili Peppers. It’s sort of like making Superman and Batman work a case together the premise is absurd, but the result drives fans into a masturbatory frenzy. It remains to be seen if the Diamond-Rubin collaboration will have the same effect, but hopes are high since Rubin eschewed Diamond’s recent penchant for lavishly produced material in favor of a stripped-down style more reminiscent of his late-’60s songwriting style.

Rubin recently told Rolling Stone that he hopes the new album will underscore Diamond’s reputation as one of pop’s greatest songwriters, adding, “He deserves it more than anyone.” And it’s true, too. Diamond has been brushed aside for too many years. Maybe it’s time for his brother love traveling salvation show to arrive.

By Cole Haddon


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