Gem of a tunesmith


Gem of a tunesmith

MUSIC, MYTHS & LEGENDS
By MARTIN VENGADESAN

There was a time when Neil Diamond, the king of catchy singalongs, bared his soul to churn out some profoundly poignant music.

EXISTENTIAL angst is as old as the hills. For which one of us doesn?t have doubts about who we are and what our life is really for?

Needless to say, this idea has been expressed countless times through music and while I grew up on a grim diet of Black Sabbath nihilism, many of my contemporaries felt that Senor Cobain was best at articulating such sentiments.

But one song of despair and confusion that speaks directly from the heart emerged from an unlikely source … one-time top 40 hit machine Neil Diamond. That song, I Am … I Said, is a seemingly innocuous work that, upon closer reflection, is a heartfelt declaration of alienation and confusion, and it still wreaks havoc on me.

Neil Diamond?s Hot August Night live album released in 1972 sealed his position as a music legend.
Now Diamond may not have the pretty boy looks, but his image is wholesome and he is a proven writer of hit songs in more than one guise.

After being dropped by labels twice in the early 1960s, he bounced back to give The Monkees a pair of sumptuous hits (I’m a Believer and A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You) and he?s also one of the most covered artistes in pop history. His songs have been hits for artistes as diverse as Deep Purple, UB40, Lulu and Urge Overkill.

His own solo career only really took off in earnest in the mid-1960s when a string of well-crafted pop songs like Solitary Man, Cherry Cherry and Holly Holy helped establish him as a major chart act.

Diamond was not exactly an unadventurous songwriter, flirting with African rhythms (Soolaiman) and unusual lyrical themes, like the mock-evangelical Brother Love?s Travelling Salvation Show and the anti-drug Pot Smoker’s Song.

During the late 1960s he also recorded Glory Road, which was used to fantastic effect in the dark political satire WUSA (starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward) with its unforgettable suicide scene.

But ultimately it was to be upbeat singalong songs that turned Diamond into a superstar. Cracklin’ Rosie, Sweet Caroline and Song Sung Blue were absolute monster singles in the period between 1969 and 1972 and Diamond?s Hot August Night live album became the stuff of instant legend, showcasing the man’s ability to get a crowd eating out of his hands.

However, 1969 also saw Diamond?s first marriage (to high school sweetheart Jaye Posner) crumble and he moved from his native New York to Los Angeles where he married television production assistant Marcia Murphy.

Perhaps inspired by this turn of events, Diamond?s 16th hit single, I Am … I Said, was a truly confessional song that gave us a glimpse at the man behind the star, subtly defining the pain previously hinted at in Solitary Man.

The sheer absurdity of chorus lyrics like “‘I am,’ I said, to no one there, and no one heard at all, not even the chair” may seem like the ramblings of a drunken man, but they are in fact part of a larger poignant tale.

The displacement the man feels as he surveys his new life is clear as he states that he’s lost between two shores. “LA’s fine, but it ain’t home, New York’s home but it ain’t mine no more’ and when he talks about his own insecurity despite the mammoth success, well, you really feel sorry for the man.

Behold “Did you ever read about a frog who dreamed of being a king and then became one? Well, except for the names and a few other changes, if you talk about me, the story’s the same one”.

An August 2005 filepic of Diamond, who’s sold over 100 million albums worldwide – a rare feat even among recording stars. ? AP
What really gets the lump in my throat is when the gravelly-voiced easy-listening singer bares his soul … ‘I got an emptiness deep inside and I’ve tried but it won?t let me go’.

Despite the pain and frustration, Neil defiantly affirms his own existence to what must surely be a lonely yet luxurious room.

Now I’ve occasionally been accused of reading more into song lyrics than they deserve, but I swear Diamond?s managed to capture the essence of loneliness and confusion like few other artistes have.

Of course, the man went on to enjoy strings of hits all through the late 1970s (remember You Don’t Bring Me Flowers?) and early 1980s (his soundtrack to The Jazz Singer spawned three top 10 hits including the timeless America).

In fact, despite a sharp dip in chart appearances, Diamond has enjoyed career sales of well over 100 million units and there are few artistes that can match his stature.

Yet there’s something almost comforting in knowing that the twice-divorced multi-millionaire, now aged 66, can feel just as lost as the next guy.

Martin Vengadesan, a music lover and history buff, combines his two passions in his fortnightly column. If you have any interesting stories you want him to research, do drop him a line.

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