on He Is … I Say: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Neil Diamond, by David Wild (Da Capo)

Until this week I hadn’t watched Martin Scorcese’s The Last Waltz (1978) for fifteen years. Centering on the final concert of The Band in 1976 at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, the film also includes appearances by Bob Dylan, Paul Butterfield, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Ronnie Hawkins – and Neil Diamond. Band member Robbie Robertson had produced Diamond’s album “Beautiful Noise” and had once looked for work in the Brill Building at 1619 Broadway, the last incarnation of Tin Pan Alley, in the mid-60s when Diamond made his first demos there alongside the legendary songwriting team of Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry (“Be My Baby,” “And Then He Kissed Me,” “Leader of the Pack”).

diamondx.jpgFilm and music critics called Diamond’s inclusion in The Last Waltz “weird” and “incongruous.” He played one song, “Dry Your Eyes,” co-written with Robertson. Although he omitted wearing one of his signature glass-beaded shirts, his clothing set him apart from his fellow musicians: an eggshell-blue suit, a red shirt, and shades. “Dry Your Eyes” is a slow, rising anthem to the inspiring power of music. One of its lyrics goes, “If you can’t recall the singer / you can still recall the tune.” On that night, as on all others, Diamond had no intention of being unrecallable. Stephen Holden says, “Like Sylvester Stallone, Neil Diamond is an icon of the American Dream, wearing his street-toughened ego as a badge of artistic authenticity. No other pop singer capitalizes quite so heavily on the naked celebration of having Made It.”

Diamond5.jpg“Neil told me that backstage he had warned Bob Dylan that he had better be good because the audience was his,” writes David Wild in his Diamond hagiography He Is … I Say. “Unsurprisingly, Dylan seemed slightly taken aback.” Other reports say that Dylan snapped back, “What do I have to do? Go onstage and fall asleep?” Perhaps this was friendly banter. (Dylan referred to himself as "just a song and dance man" in a late-60s interview.) Diamond reminds us that all performers are showpeople, grinding out material to please the crowd. If it sells, it’s good. “Hip was something frivolous people had to be,” he once told Ben Fong-Torres for Rolling Stone. “I didn’t have time to be hip and with it and groovy. I was dealing with something that was much more important with my life and trying to write songs that had substance. And hip is bullshit. It doesn’t cut deep.”

“Dry Your Eyes” is a shrewd promo for his own music sung here to impress an audience not his own. It is celebrity-first music that runs cross-grain to Van Morrison. At the end of the film, when all of the performers stand together having sung Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released,” Diamond simply walks off stage left as the others cluster to applause. He's done, he's had enough. The themes behind Dylan’s “Forever Young” and Diamond’s “Dry Your Eyes” may not be so very far apart, but Diamond’s temperament seems to draw him away from others. His public persona as heard in interviews emits a worn, gravelly humility. His comments yield no special insight.

DiamondMike.jpegDiamond often seems like a throwback to the pre-rock ballad singers of the Brill Building. He refers to “songs that had substance” and talks about how his music expresses his emotional life – and then writes a bombastic lyric for “Longfellow Serenade”: “I’ll weave this web of rhyme upon this summer night, / We'll leave this worldly time on his wingéd flight. / Then come, and as we lay beside this sleepy glade / I will sing for you my Longfellow serenade.” Wingéd flight, sleepy glade? He has wanted to write hits, while expecting (but rarely receiving) the status of thoughtful, evolving artist. Unable to fathom why the critics savage him, Diamond has carried a grudge for forty years. As Holden suggests, Making It now means grossing $200 million on his current tour. Of Diamond’s highly popular soundtrack to the cinematic atrocity Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Wild writes, “Reviewing the album in Rolling Stone, Tom Nolan overstated things considerably when he wrote that ‘all that Diamond has to offer are bland musings adrift on an empty sea of strings.’” But Wild offers no critical assessments of his own here – or even any illumination of Diamond’s musical techniques as a songwriter or musician. This is a fan’s book for fans.

Watch Diamond’s “Last Waltz” rendition of “Dry Your Eyes”
to observe the essence of his technique – his back-of-the-mouth growling enunciation (an aggressive possession of sound), down-struck chords, and erect posture. He told Terry Gross on NPR that his father liked to lipsync to opera and ballroom songs. Diamond also has an operatic flair, an heroic stance. When she said his music has an “urgent” tone, he claimed not to understand. But he understands all too well.

DiamondMike2.jpegDiamond gave Fong-Torres a glimpse of his darker self. Wild quotes Diamond's reflection on his hardscrabble years at the Brill Building: "It's very difficult to accept seven years of failing without it doing something to you. And what it did was close me up as a person." Diamond's music, based on assertive self-mythologizing, is his compensation. Released in 1980, the movie "The Jazz Singer" adapted the framework of Diamond's life into popular myth. Paul Simon attempted a similar trick in his film "One Trick Pony." Both movies failed at the box office. But Simon's more probing and musically accomplished music in the late 1980s ("Graceland" and "The Rhythm of the Saints") seemed to expand his persona, while Diamond's music seemed confined persona-wise, simultaneously grand and bleary.

SoxFan.jpegThe beer concessions at Fenway Park close at the end of the seventh inning. So by the middle of the eighth when the loudspeakers play “Sweet Caroline,” the four guys wearing Red Sox jerseys in the row in front of me belt out the lyric with enthusiasm: “Hands / touching hands / reaching out / touching me / touching yoooooo, / Sweet Caroline / good times never seemed so good.” Neil Diamond has produced 38 top-forty hits starting with “Cherry, Cherry” in 1967, cultivating a huge and loyal fan base through 35 years of touring and showmanship. Unlike most of the pop and folk stars of the late 1960s and onward, Diamond has never disparaged the sensibilities of the American white middle class. He writes moody songs with uplifting messages and inflated emotional language. His limitations and sentimentality are coincident with those of his audience, most of whom ignore the music he’s produced for the past twenty-five years.

He Is … I Say offers the sole value of tracing Diamond’s career. When Wild sticks to chronology and anecdote, Diamond appears as a vital, competitive, and driven songmaker. But Wild’s prose is sometimes as purple as one of Diamond’s shirts. Bad puns, chatty filler, extravagant claims -- he doesn’t care. “This book … is a heartfelt expression of one man’s platonic love for the music of another man.” The subject of Neil Diamond remains strangely unassessed even after Wild’s blubbery embrace.

Diamond3.jpgNeil Diamond has written some infectious tunes. He and other white male musicians of his era – Billy Joel, Elton John, Barry Manilow, James Taylor, John Denver, Paul Simon (known as “Jerry Landis” in the Brill Building) – represent the transition from the “male vocalists” of the 40s and 50s to the singular music-writing, instrument-playing “artists” of a new era. Diamond has created an especially contrived persona through his music and show-style, a unique combination of Brooklyn verbal audacity, faux-cowboy bravado, and an average white man’s wish for undemanding intimacy and vague spiritual buzz.

Jeff Barry says that Diamond’s songs “haven’t changed, really. They just get harder to understand.” No matter, Diamond is riding the tour circuit on the old stuff, “Cracklin’ Rosie” and “Song Sung Blue.” Ronnie Wood said in a 1980’s interview about Diamond, "None of us could understand what he was doing there" at the last Band concert. But Robbie Robertson wanted to acknowledge the legacy of Tin Pan Alley. No one has squeezed more mileage out of its demise than Neil Diamond.

[Published November 1, 2008, 206 pages, $25.00 hardcover]

He Was...He Said

I really enjoyed reading your review of David Wild's "He Is...I Say," particularly the anecdote about Diamond's comment to Dylan at "The Last Waltz" concert. Even a casual observer of the music scene (like me) would agree that the two performers don't inhabit the same musical universe, which, of course, is the point of departure for your review: Why was Diamond at "The Last Waltz?"
After I finished reading your review I found myself wondering why an insightful and subtle critic like you would bother with such an easy target as Neil Diamond and his devotee. It seems almost as incongruous as Diamond's presence at "The Last Waltz." I was glad you had commented that Diamond has written some infectious tunes because there are a few of his songs that I really like. Perhaps we casual observers are less likely to be critical of shallow lyrics when they are attached to a really good tune.
In the film "Finding Forrester" Forrester's young black writing protege expresses shock when he finds the Pulitzer Prize-winning author reading the "National Enquirer." Forrester retorts that he reads the "New York Times" for breakfast, "This is for dessert." It occurred to me your interest in Neil Diamond might spring from the same impulse. I personally feel defensive in expressing my enjoyment of Diamond's music because my wife is a rabid fan of Bob Dylan and Van Morrison. I enjoy those artists, too, but Neil Diamond is for dessert.

Closeted Diamond Fans

Wild writes at the book's outset, "I am convinced after much soul searching that at least half the people who claim they don't like Neil Diamond actually, secretly, privately do." What soul searching has to do with this conclusion is unclear, but that's Wild's language. I like the moody sound of Diamond's arrangements beneath a sappy lyric like "Heartlight." I sing along to "Forever in Blue Jeans." I agree -- he's an easy target. But why isn't Burt Bacharach such a target, another Brill Bldg vet? Why not Stevie Wonder, another composer and stage act? And today, why not Rufus Wainwright, in the same mold?