Saturday, September 6, 2008

A Diamond In The Smooth

While tooling around L.A. (where “the sun shines most the time—and the feeling is laid-back”) last month, “Solitary Man” came on the car radio and it dawned on me that I’m long overdue here to pay tribute to singer/songwriter Neil Diamond, who was a big favorite of mine growing up.  It’s easy to forget how prolific this guy was back in the ‘60s and ‘70s before he started putting out schlock in the late ‘70s and started wearing sparkly shirts in concert.  Pretty much everything he did up through 1977’s “Desiree” was pretty good stuff, then things kinda went to hell in a handbag starting with 1978’s “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” (with Babs Streisand) and continuing with 1980’s “Love On The Rocks” (phew!).  He’s another guy I’d like to have seen in concert in his prime, and I hear he still puts on a good show even today, except on the nights when he sounds more like Redd Foxx gargling razor blades, as happened during Neil’s concert debacle last month in Columbus, Ohio, after which he honorably offered full ticket refunds to those fans who felt screwed.  Diamond could’ve easily taken the money and ran, but he didn’t, and I find that commendable in this day and age.

He’s a household name now, and about as mainstream as a musician/singer can get, but can you believe Neil Diamond was once banned from performing at Brigham Young University in Utah in the early ‘70s?  The Mormons claimed it was because his hair was too long, but something tells me it might’ve had more to do with him being Jewish than the hair, but whatever.  ND was all over Top 40 AM radio when I was a wee lad, and he even though I barely understood what the heck he was singing about sometimes—“Crunchy Granola Suite” (?!?)—I just thought he was a cool dude, and his classics have certainly stood the test of time.  Which begs the question, why the fuck isn’t Neil Diamond in the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame yet?  I bet the average music lover could easily reel off the names of 10-15 Neil Diamond songs and not know one friggin’ Leonard Cohen tune, yet they voted Brother Leo into the Hall last year.

—A little silly trivia for you:  I believe Neil Diamond is the co-holder of the world record for the shortest title of a Top 40 song ever—1973’s “Be”, which is tied with Bread’s “If” from 1971.
—I vehemently disagree with Neil’s line from “Bring Me Flowers” where he says, “Yesterdays don’t count anymore.”  They have to count for me, musically, because there ain’t shit to listen to today, and the future of popular music looks very dark, indeed.  Therefore, I have no option but to mine the past to find music that pleases me…

My all-time Neil Diamond Top 15:
15) “La Bamba” (1968)  I get the feeling Neil can’t speak Spanish worth a lick, but he does his best Ritchie Valens impression anyhow, and it’s a total hoot.
14) “Desiree” (1977)  ND was starting to sound a bit schlocky here, but I’ve always liked this song, for some reason.
13) “Kentucky Woman” (1967)  Not sure which version I like better, Diamond’s or Deep Purple’s primal 1968 cover of it.
12) “Song Sung Blue” (1972)  A favorite from the summer of ’72 for me, Neil seemed to suffer from Lawrence Welk Syndrome when he sang the line “start to feelin’ good-a”, but we’ll forgive him.  A one and a two…
11) “Sweet Caroline” (1970)  I still don’t fully understand how or why Red Sox Nation has adopted this one as its unofficial anthem, but it’s a fine Top 40 single all the same.  I love the live version from 1971’s Gold album where Neil kinda flubs the line “but then I know it's growing strong” and confesses, “I never could hit that note” on strong.
10) “Holly Holy” (1969)  Sounding like it was recorded in a church, this one made a nice bookend to go along with Neil’s other 1969 pseudo-religious biggie, “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show”.
9) “And The Grass Won’t Pay No Mind”—Mark Lindsay (1970)  Neil also recorded this one himself, but I prefer Lindsay’s version.  Even though it’s really not all that spectacular a song, I love it because every time I hear it, it just takes me back to a simpler time when the world wasn’t so fucked-up...
8) “Thank The Lord For The Night Time” (1967)  Apart from “Cherry x 2”, this was Diamond’s finest Rocker.
7) “I’m A Believer”—The Monkees (1967)  Is there not a more quintessential Pop single than this monster?  It had the hook, it had great lyrics, and The Monkees were some lucky bastards to have this one handed to them.  Diamond’s “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” was also a big hit for the “Prefab Four—to wit, Brother Neil earned quite a few nice royalty checks in his day.
6) “Longfellow Serenade” (1974)  I loved this song when it first came out because it sounded to me like a really cool “grown-up” love song.  I remember my older brother didn’t much care for it, and often tinkered with the lyrics, singing “for I was horny—but she was ugly!” in place of “for I was lonely, and she was lonely.”  Fun memories, all the same.
5) “I Am…I Said” (1971)  From about the fall of 1970 through about the summer of ’76 (when Kiss corrupted me) was my Golden Age of Top 40 radio, if you will.  The radio was my constant companion during this time, and “I Am…” was an early favorite from that magical year of 1971 where virtually everything they played on WHB here in K.C. sounded so good to my 7-year-old ears.  I loved how this one sounded so lofty and dramatic with the horns and strings backing it.
4) “Cracklin’ Rosie” (1970)  One of the earliest songs I recall from my “Golden Age”, it was on the charts when the Partridge Family first came along, as well as when Smokey & The Miracles’ killer “Tears Of A Clown” came out—radio heaven for yours truly!  This song features some of the prettier acoustic guitar fills you’ll ever hear, in harmony with ND singing the verses.
3) “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show” (1969)  A Jewish guy from Brooklyn doing Southern Baptist preacher shtick is every bit as preposterous as the late Junior Samples singing arias from La Boheme woulda been, but Diamond somehow made it work, so preach brother, preach!  I always loved singing the line “pack up the babies and grab the old ladies” when I was a kid.  Even though the first three words of this song are “Hot August night…”, for some reason it was years later before I ever made the connection between it and the title of Neil’s highly successful 1972 live concert album.  I just assumed it was really warm and it was August when he played that concert, hence the title.  Oh, dopey me…
2) “Cherry, Cherry” (1973—live single version)  I loved the 45 release of this cut from Hot August Night, but was very miffed when I discovered years later that someone had overdubbed electric guitar fills onto the 1973 single that gave it a little extra kick, because they were nowhere to be found when I first listened to HAN.  The single version also omitted a nice piano solo by someone named Allen.  If anyone knows where I can find a CD copy of the ’73 single version, please let me know—all I have left of it is a very scratchy 45.  Oh by the way, the original 1966 studio version doesn’t suck either—this is one of the catchiest Top 40 tunes you’ll ever hear.  I remember some Gin Blossoms-type alternative bar band we saw back in the ‘90s called They Came In Droves even sounded really good playing this one.
1) “Solitary Man” (1966)  This one was so good, it got a second chance and was reissued in 1970 after it stiffed out in ‘66.  I prefer the original Bang Records version over the one that came out later on Columbia Records with the unnecessary electric piano backing.  The trombone bits that back up the chorus made this song sound very dramatic and gave it that extra little bit of oomph.  This one would definitely make the soundtrack to the movie of my life story…


Cary said...

That's a really good question; you're right. Everyone knows several Neil Diamond songs right off the top of their head. Do you know how they determine nominees? And have you ever been to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? I work for Positively Cleveland, and we're getting the word out about the Rock Hall. I highly encourage all music fans to check it out, even if Neil Diamond hasn't been inducted (yet). You can start on our website: There are a lot of awesome upcoming events so it's totally worth looking into!

Hope I haven't overstepped my bounds by leaving this comment; just working to let people know about what Cleveland has to offer! If you have any questions or concerns feel free to Email me :)

Cary A. Andrews
Positively Cleveland

Brian Holland said...

Yes, Cary, I visited the Hall of Fame in 2006, and found the museum itself to be top-notch--it's some of the inductees that I have issues with, as I have complained vehemently about this on the blog here. The voting process is a bunch of political hooey involving ballots sent out to 700 so-called "musical experts". It's all detailed on their official website. The museum itself is great, but those who run it don't have clue about what Rock 'N' Roll is, IMHO.