Getting to the heart of Neil Diamond
BY MATT ASHARE
It’s easy to forget just how hard it’s been to pin down Neil Diamond over the years. If Rick Rubin is to be believed, it took close to a decade just to get Diamond to agree to collaborate on the American Recordings-style project that finally bore fruit with 12 Songs (American/Columbia) debuting at the four spot on the Billboard chart back in November. But Diamond was an elusive figure in the pop world long before Rubin came along. He’s known as a songwriter’s songwriter, a product of the Brill Building who was on hand for the birth of rock and roll. But unlike his Brill Building peers – even the ones who went on to become performers, like Carole King – Diamond’s also known as a performer’s performer, a glitzy pop star in glass-bead-studded, half-open shirts capable of breaking attendance records at arenas around the world. And, like so many of his singles, with their classic A-sides and forgettable, even embarrassing B-sides (“Red, Red Wine” backed by “Red Rubber Ball”), the contradictions run deeper still. I remember wondering what Diamond was doing on stage in the Band’s The Last Waltz alongside the likes of Bob Dylan and Neil Young. And that was before I knew that, in its original form, his ridiculously titled 1968 album, Velvet Gloves and Spit (MCA), included the anti-drug ditty “The Pot Smoker’s Song.”
But the story doesn’t end there. Diamond may have seemed out of place in The Last Waltz, but there’s no mystery surrounding his connection to the Band. As the credits for Diamonds 1976 album, Beautiful Noise (Columbia), reveal, Rubin isn’t the first unlikely producer to take the other man in black under his wing. Back when the Band were riding high in both senses of the word, Robbie Robertson produced what turned out to be one of Diamond’s best-received albums. In fact, in terms of casting a hip light on Diamond, Beautiful Noise is the obvious blueprint for 12 Songs. It’s not as hit-packed as you might expect from an album that received “unusually warm critical praise,” as Laura Jackson takes pains to point out in her new biography, Neil Diamond: His Life, His Music, His Passion (ECW). It, too, hit the No. 4 spot on the American charts and, as Jackson goes on to detail, “rapidly became West Germany’s biggest-selling album of 1976.”
That last bit of trivia is just one of the odd nuggets of info Jackson digs up in her loving if somewhat one-dimensional portrait of Diamond. For example, you’re probably not aware that “he survived being shot twice in the head at the age of 12.” Of course, that’s a bit misleading: when she quotes Diamond himself six pages later, some of the shock value wears off. “We had a big rumble,” he says of the incident, “and I got shot twice in the face by CO2 pellets.” Later in the book, after suggesting that an early contract dispute led to a bombing, she again has to temper the drama. “It has to be said,” she writes, “that Fred Weintraub, who managed Diamond and the Bitter End, has revised ‘bomb’ to ‘stink bomb,’ which rendered the place uninhabitable for a short space of time.” It does seem that Weintraub would be a good authority on the subject. But Jackson does her best to blunt the impact any inconvenient facts might have on her dominant image of Diamond as a street tough with a tender heart, the “brooding and intense” solitary man. When success finally does come his way, it’s with a resounding flourish: “Sweet Caroline,” she gushes, “simply stormed up the U.S. charts to number four.”
Four? Is that the best our hero can do? In fact, that?s pretty much tops for Diamond. It’s part of what makes him such an enigma. “Sweet Caroline” is one of those undeniable classics, so familiar it’s almost as if that “bam bam bah” refrain were coded into our DNA. And yet, like so many of Diamond’s songs, it took a while to sink in. Perhaps, as a stumble like “The Pot Smoker’s Song” would suggest, Diamond’s just never quite been in step with pop culture. It was the Monkees who took his “I’m a Believer” to the top of the charts and UB40 who had the bigger hit with “Red, Red Wine.” And when it came time for “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” to be immortalized in the 1994 Quentin Tarantino film Pulp Fiction, it was Urge Overkill’s cover of the tune that got the nod. By that point in his career, Diamond was better known for cheesy Christmas albums, his melodramatic lead role in The Jazz Singer, and those dozen or so classics that have been compiled in various greatest-hits reissues.
Again, Jackson tries hard in her book to put the best spin on the unique position in which Diamond found himself throughout the ’90s, when a kitsch value began to overshadow genuine nostalgia as the driving force in his career. “It was difficult to find a straight professional comparison by which to gauge his continuing success,” she writes. “To remain relevant and active in music, and to be able to offset lower chart positions by packing out the best-known auditoriums worldwide, were achievements that had proved beyond the capabilities of some of Diamond?s contemporaries . . . On the other hand, there was Paul Simon. . . .” Exactly.
The glaring lack of genuinely relevant new material from Diamond is what set the stage for 12 Songs. It was Rubin who helped guide Johnny Cash’s late-career revival. In the four albums he produced with Cash, Rubin recast the country legend in his original role as the stolid man in black for a new generation by searching far and wide for the right material and keeping musical and studio embellishments to an absolute minimum. Cash didn’t just go along with Rubin’s plan; he seemed to relish it, throwing himself into spare recordings of songs as varied as his own “Let the Train Blow the Whistle,” Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage,” and, yes, Diamond’s “Solitary Man,” each carefully chosen to bolster Cash’s legendary image.
Rubin approached 12 Songs in a similar fashion. As Diamond recounts in the album’s liner notes, “Early on, Rick and I would just sit around for hours listening to music like a couple of teenagers. It was a free-for-all. I wanted to listen to rock-and-roll classics but Rick had a list of my old records that he wanted to talk about, mostly stuff I hadn’t listened to in years . . . Then we moved on to music by other people and got into some interesting musical styles.” It’s so tempting to imagine what might have happened if Diamond had taken the hint and found more than inspiration in those listening sessions – if he’d come away with the same sort of mix of covers and originals that Cash was amenable to. Instead, Diamond locked himself away and wrote an entire album of new material.
During the sessions, Rubin did convince Diamond to play guitar for the first time since the late ’60s. That, along with low-key accompaniment by the likes of Mike Campbell, Smokey Hormel, and Benmont Tench, ensured that 12 Songs would be Diamond’s finest-sounding disc in decades. And Rubin also inspired some of Diamond’s best songwriting in years. But that’s not saying much: it’s been forever since Diamond recorded a truly affecting song, and just as long since the production on one of his albums has even approached tasteful. One hopes that Diamond will take to heart the warm reception 12 Songs has received, that he’ll see it as the start of a new phase in his career, and that he’ll develop a better sense of what made those Cash albums so special. With 12 Songs, he’s taken a step in the right direction. But there’s nothing here half as memorable as “Solitary Man” – and I mean Cash’s version.