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.


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