Sunday, November 23, 2008

Neil Diamond Is Forever

Cracklin' Rosie was possibly the first song I aver adopted as my own personal favourite monster hit record, after I heard it a few times on the Springbok Radio Top Twenty and rooted for it all the way to the top of the charts. Listening to the song now, I cannot quite understand why it hit home with me so strongly, but then the past is always a bit strange because we did things differently then.

I was so besotted by Cracklin' Rosie that I pestered my parents for the money to buy the 7 single record, and it was the first single I ever owned, and there were only two. The second and last one was Bachman-Turner Overdrive's You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet. In 1970, when Cracklin' Rosie was a hit, I was about 11 and not hip and liked radio pop. Neil's song did it for me.

When it came to my birthday that year, or maybe it was Christmas, it was a bit of a no-brainer for me to ask for a Neil Diamond LP as a present, and my choice fell on an album called Gold, which contained all his greatest hits to date. I've just looked up a Diamond discography on Wikipedia and it has no reference to this album. Perhaps it was a compilation intended only for the South African market.

Gold had all the good stuff, associated with Diamond in the Sixties and the early success as singer-songwriter, such as Kentucky Woman, Sweet Caroline, Song Sung Blue, and the like. And, of course, Cracklin' Rosie.

I played the record a lot, probably kind of wore it out, because it was at that point of my unhip young life the only pop record I owned. My sister and I shared ownership of the soundtrack of the Sound of Music movie, but other than that rather old fogeyish album, a joint birthday present, I had no record collection to speak of. My parents hardly bought books and hardly bought records either, and if they did, they were not pop records. My father favoured organ instrumentals, my mother seemed to have no interest in music.

In a sad kind of way I have to credit my parents for taking note of my love for Neil Diamond. On my following birthday, probably in 1971, they had a brilliant idea and bought me the then current Neil Diamond release, Tap Root Manuscript. As I recall, I was bitter twice over: firstly because I did not want another Neil Diamond album, and secondly, because this record was just about the full extent of the presents I got that year. It was rather a terrible situation as well. Mom and dad came into my room, all smiles to wish me happy birthday with the record neatly wrapped in happy wrapping paper and stood there expectantly while I opened the present. I had to work hard to pretend to be over the moon. Just what I had always wanted!

There was probably some other record I would have preferred to get though I cannot remember what it might have been.

Tap Root Manuscript was essentially an album of new Diamond material, except that it opened with Cracklin' Rosie, which meant that I now suddenly had three versions of a tune I no longer liked as much as I had when I first heard it.

To my mind the best songs on the album were Cold Water Morning, perhaps still my very top favourite Diamond tune and one that is generally absent from "best of" compilations, and Done Too Soon, a bit of a list song about all the greats in the world who died too soon. Many years later Billy Joel updated the idea for After the Fire.

Almost the best part of Tap Root Manuscript was the second side of the record, which was a kind of song cycle with a strong African feel and influence. Neil Diamond did world music and employed African rhythms long before Paul Simon discovered mbaqanga. Some of it was a bit naff and patronising coming from somebody who had not been in Africa at all when he wrote the lyrics, but the side had a energy and spirit I really enjoyed and I listened to it much more than the first side of the album. It sounded mature and sophisticated and so much more interesting than the basically pop songs on the first side of the record.

By the following year I started high school, had developed more adult musical tastes and would have died rather than admit that I owned anything by Neil Diamond who was not hip or cool in my high school where the flavours of the moment were Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Uriah Heep, Jethro Tull and David Bowie. I did not then own any records by any of these artists and it would be many years before I even heard music by most of them, but I knew the names being dropped and one or two of the album covers that were shown around school.

I did briefly consider asking my parents to buy me Hot August Night, because I liked live albums, but could never actually get my mind around it. There were other things I wanted more badly.

By the end of my high school career I had started building up a small record collection – Cream, Dr Feelgood, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Golden Earring, the Beatles -- and truly felt embarrassed to count the two Neil Diamond albums in that collection. I had not listened to them in years.

My cousin Raymond was starting to build up his own record collection and I suggested to him that he might buy my Diamond collection and to surprise he agree and paid R4,00 which was not an insignificant amount then for the two records. I imagine I used the small fortune to buy some other record I really fancied.

After that Neil Diamond became just a voice one heard on pop radio every now and then. In knew of releases such as Jonathan Livingston Seagull and that he starred in The Jazz Singer. In 1976 I took note that the famed Robbie Robertson of the Band produced Beautiful Noise, a somewhat surprising choice of producer as Neil Diamond seemed to be in a different universe to the soul of gritty Americana embodied by Robertson. I would have said that Diamond's polished middle of the road pop was the complete opposite of the musical principles Robertson held to be true, but then music is probably just music.

In 1977 I bought Beautiful Noise for my sister for her 14th birthday. I thought she was into Neil Diamond but I think she did not like the album all that much. I never got beyond the title track. By 1977 I was getting into punk rock on an ideological level, and was dead keen on the blues, and Neil Diamond's Brill Building homage was definitely no longer anything I was prepared to appreciate. Thirty years later, and on a British Christmas holiday road trip when a small selection of the songs from this album was the one tape (not my choice) we had in our rented car, I listened to Neil Diamond's high concept pop with fresh ears and actually liked what I heard.

Having said that, I should also point that I had been sensitised by listening to the latest Diamond release, 12 Songs, a new start back to basics album produced by Rick Rubin who allegedly was trying to do for Diamond what he had done for Johnny Cash over the last decade of the late country singer's career.

Diamond, by now in his mid-sixries, recorded a set of new, introspective songs backed by mostly an acoustic band, the opposite of the grand pop style he'd utilised over the years to emphasise the emotion and depth of lyrics that were often trite and bordering on cliché. Come to think of it, Neil Diamond and Neil Young, especially the later Young, were both masters of the sweet tune underpinning a somewhat banal set of words that are intended to convey intense life truths or emotional honesty and often grate. With 12 Songs Diamond went the other way: he tried to dignify the words, and to make them sound more portentous by stripping down the instrumental backing so that the voice is up front in the mix and the nakedness of the voice, quite obviously older and wiser than in the Tap Root Manuscript days, has sufficient force to carry the songs.

To my mind Neil Diamond had lost his voice by the Eighties, the You Don't Bring Me Flowers years, when he could do little more than croak through his songs. On 12 Songs he makes a virtue of this deficiency and it works because of the comparatively simple musical settings. Now is the time to take him seriously even if the lyrics are no better than they have ever been. Rick Rubin may not have done precisely the same kind of resurrection job he did for Johnny Cash but he certainly got me listening to Neil Diamond again, with a measure of enjoyment, no less, and that is no small thing.

"Am I a rock person, or what?" Neil Diamond almost rhetorically asked a British music journalist who was doing a profile of him in the Eighties when he was doing a couple of UK shows, as popular as ever with the punters who go to rock events even if his record sales were not too spectacular. I do not know if he is a rock person; I've never seen him as one. Diamond came out of the Brill Building pop song-writer-for-hire scene, reinvented himself as a kind singer-songwriter and then became a showbiz institution with the edge over your normal, everyday showbiz artist in that he writes his own material. Some of it is quite sharpen tuneful, some of it is just schlock – high kitsch masquerading as meaningful explorations of the human condition. In all this Neil Diamond is mostly just true to his heritage as song writing hack with pretensions to grand success on the scale of Frank Sinatra but with the cutting edge of rock acts. Neil Diamond is not a rocker. He is a lounge singer who made it big in the rock era when the Sinatra, Crosby, Bennett model no longer rang true for the youth and his major audience is of the same ilk as the fans of the crooners and jazz singers of a bygone era. Neil Diamond is as showbiz as any of his predecessors. Maybe he never had the financial need to play Las Vegas but his Hot August Night era stage attire looked a lot like the jump suits Elvis Presley sported in that same era, and that is perhaps the dead giveaway.

I really do like 12 Songs – it's on my iPod. Maybe I should search for Tap Root Manuscript on There are some childhood pleasures one can try to revisit.


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Lynyrd Skynyrd From The Road


Long before I heard any Lynyrd Skynyrd tune I knew what they looked like from articles and centrespread photographs in Hit Parader magazine. The guys in the band had amazingly long hair, some had beards, all looked mean and ornery and not at all like any kind of progressive Southern rock band. To my mind they looked exactly like long haired Southern redneck long distance truck drivers or construction workers, simple guys who worked hard all day and went to topless bars at night to get wasted on cheap beer, to pick up sleazy girls and to get into bar fights over imagined slights. That these guys were in anything like a successful rock band did not seem possible.

The articles about Lynyrd Skynyrd confirmed my suspicions. They were beer drinkers and hell raisers and got into fights, except that it seemed the fights were in the band itself, and Ronnie van Zant, the leader and singer, seemed to be the chief culprit here, a drunken bully who knew no other means than violence to win an argument.

This was just ugly rock as far as I was concerned, not my kind of thing at all, especially not for someone who as teenager had one foot in the deep blues and another in the punk rock explosion of the late Seventies. I imagined the Skynyrd boys as dumbass rockers whose idea of lyrical poetry would be to rhyme "cock" with "rock" and not have any kind of intention of being ironic, with equally leaden, plodding music to match. Not my cup of tea at all.

One of the last pieces Hit Parader published about Skynyrd was a piece about their stand at Atlanta's Fox Theatre where they recorded to shows for release on the One More From The Road double album, and then not long after, their plane crashed. Ronnie van Zant, Steve Gaines (the newest member of the band) and some others died, and for the time being Skynyrd was put on ice. From the article it sounded as if the concerts were a lot of fun, something of a Southern homecoming for Skynyrd, though the band hailed from Florida, and a completer triumph to mark the first five or so years of the band's career, which looked particularly rosy back then.

The live double album was a sudden cash cow staple of record company release rosters in the late Seventies, inspired by the success of Frampton Comes Alive, and this type of release served as a vehicle for marking time, with a combination of greatest hits album and evidence of the live chops of the musicians, giving the fans a sampler souvenir of the concerts they may have attended. It also made good sense in the case of bands like Skynyrd who made their reputations by playing live and whose tunes were well road tested.

A year or so later I read a review of One More from the Road in the New Musical Express, which had by then replaced Hit Parader as my source for information about what was currently happening in the popular music scene, especially the British scene. Hit Parader concentrated almost exclusively on the USA and the only non-American musicians featured were those Brits, and the odd Europeans like Golden Earring, who had made a breakthrough in the States.

The NME was more eclectic in its coverage of music though by the late Seventies its focus was primarily on the punk and New Wave scene in the UK. It did however review albums by American acts, even if only for the purpose of slating them. The guy who reviewed One More From The Road was much kinder to Skynyrd than some of other, more iconoclastic writers would have been. To the punk generation Skynyrd was one of many bands who represented the old, the obsolete and the antithesis to punk. Punk was about short hair, short, punchy songs, sharp clothes and a politico-social consciousness. To the punks Lynyrd Skynyrd was about very long hair, very long songs with very long guitar solos, crap clothes and no consciousness whatsoever.

To the discerning listener Lynyrd Skynyrd was no mere mindless boogie monster but a band with a great deal of subtlety in its music and lyrics and if they celebrated the American South, it was not simply the redneck, backwoods South but a land where the people still have roots they believe in and are happy to celebrate without the need to be racist or crude. For this reason, for example, Skynyrd's very sharp retort to Neil Young's accusatory song, Alabama, in their second biggest hit, Sweet Home Alabama, explains that living in the South and being proud of it does not necessarily mean that one supports the policies or ideas of recidivist racist politicians.

Anyhow, I learnt from the NME review of One More From The Road that Skynyrd had good tunes, plenty guitar power with their three ax line-up and was sufficiently in thrall to the heritage of Cream, one of my top favourite bands of all time, to cover Crossroads. They had a road song, a song about drinking, a cautionary tale about gun control, a cautionary tale about drug abuse, a JJ Cale cover, a Jimmy Rodgers cover and a lengthy version of Free Bird, the new national anthem of the South, as it then was. The album showcased a band at the top of its game, at full throttle and with the road ahead clear and rosy.

The plane crash put paid to all that optimism about the future of Skynyrd. The band went into a lengthy hiatus while Gary Rossington and Alven Collins, the two original and remaining guitarists formed the Rossington-Collins Band and tried to carry on. In the late Eighties Skynyrd Lynyrd was revived with Donnie van Zant, formerly the singer of another Southern band, 38 Special, stepped into his older brother's shoes and led the band for a tribute tour, which led to a permanent reunion. They even brought back guitarist Ed Burns, one of the early members of the band, who'd left because he could not stand Ronnie van Zant's violence. The fans were still out there and were willing to pay money to hear those old favourites once again.

In the meantime I'd bought a copy of One More From The Road at a record sale somewhere and it quite quickly became a much played record or, in fact, a tape, because I immediately recorded the vinyl LP onto a C90 tape to save the vinyl from deteriorating in the way that local pressings of records tended to do.

One More From The Road is probably my favourite live album (anything by Cream disregarded for the moment) after the somewhat shorter Live Full House album by the J Geils Band. The Geils boys play mostly high-energy, stomping R & B styled rock, where Skynyrd's energy is found in the intensity of the performances rather than in any kind of wired nature. They combine rock, blues, jazz, and country in a funky southern stew where melody and tunefulness are as important as the riffs, or extended guitar solos.

I loved Sweet Home Alabama, Whiskey Rock-a-Roller and Gimme Three Steps to bits, and endlessly replayed Free Bird simply to get to the all-out, frenzied and extended three guitar jam in the last part of the performance. It was almost too incredible to be true! Even at home I could feel how the energy in the room must have raised the roof by the rime the band played the final notes. In a sense the guitar jam built and built like a trance tune builds to the moment of release. Great stuff!

Those tunes were my top favourites but every other tune was great too, with long jams on T for Texas, and Call Me The Breeze, and an interesting but intense Crossroads which almost matched Cream's famous live version.

To my mind One More From The Road was that elusive rarity so beloved of NME writers, the live album that should not have been reduced to a single disc.

Many years later, and after a long search, I also bought the CD version of the album and was disappointed that T for Texas was left off, presumably because of the length of the set which would not in its entirety fit on a single CD. It must have been some kind of cost saving exercise not to release the album on two discs to be able to present the entire vinyl LP.

Some two years ago I came across a double sided DVD which has almost an entire Skynyrd set from Knebworth in 1976, as well as songs from various other gigs in the same period, and one side of the 1987 tribute concert with Donnie van Zant. The Seventies Skynyrd look and sound amazing, especially the stomping intro to Gimme Three Steps, and the energised finale of Free Bird recorded in front of an audience of Californian kids. I may be an older white guy with dinosaur tastes but I have not seen or heard many current rock bands that have that energy and those chops and the really joyful pounding sound of Southern boogie blues at its best. And who look so interesting. The Seventies must have been the last proper decade where rock stars truly and utterly looked materially different from the kids they entertained.

Unfortunately for the classic line-up of Lynyrd Skynyrd they were not the street survivors their last studio effort claimed they were, but the memory sure does live on. The Skynyrd body of work, especially in the form of a "best of" compilation, is right up there with the gods of rock and roll.