Neil Diamond Turns 80

As an 80th birthday present I have thrown away my entire previous post on Neil Diamond, in which I called him “Elvis for old Jewish ladies”. I hurt a friend’s feelings with that one, and upon further reflection, who wouldn’t want to be the Elvis of anything? To be the Elvis of fishmongers? The Elvis of guys who hold the orange flag at highway construction sites? And anyway, for a time, quite a long time actually, Diamond was doing much better (on the charts anyway) than Elvis, and it was Elvis who was covering Neil Diamond’s tunes.

And besides, as I did stipulate in my previous post, Diamond was entirely amazing up until about 1974 at least, and that is worth celebrating. Brooklyn native Diamond was inspired to write songs by seeing Pete Seeger perform in the Catskills. Though there was initially a strong folk element to Diamond’s songs, he has always really been all about show business. He started out as one of the Brill Building songwriters supplying hits to the Monkees in 1966, notably the #1 song “I’m a Believer” but also “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” and “Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow)”.

Success as a songwriter allowed Diamond to pursue a solo career as a performer. A lot of his earliest songs, like “Cherry Cherry” (1966, #6) and “Thank the Lord for the Night Time” (1967, #13), kind of had a gospel energy, expressions of ecstacy and exhultation that seemed almost religious in character and sometimes, as with “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show” (1969, #22) he even went there in his lyrics. His gorgeous, majestic “Girl, You’ll be A Woman Soon” (1966, #10) was covered by Urge Overkill and used in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994).

Diamond’s truly breath-taking streak artistically went from about 1969 through 1972, and included “Sweet Caroline” (1969, #2), “Holly Holy” (1969, #6), “Shilo” (1970, #24), the 1970 reissue of “Solitary Man” (#21), “Cracklin’ Rosie (1970, #1), “I Am…I Said” (1971, #4), “Song Sung Blue” (1972, #1), and “Play Me” (1972, #11). “Longfellow Serenade” (1974, #5) is also quite nice.

I had the singles of a lot of these tunes as a young kid, and wore out the grooves playin’ em. I also had a single of the Diamond-penned “And the Grass Won’t Pay No Mind”, which went to #44 for Mark Lindsay after he left Paul Revere and the Raiders. I am a particular fan of the high existential melodrama of “I Am…I Said”, and once used it in a theatre piece. I think the tunes, arrangements and production of a lot of these records are sublime, with the lyrics ranging from brilliant…to kitschy…to unfortunate. Starting in the mid to late ’70s, the bulk of his productions seem to tip into the latter categories, not just lyrically but musically, as well. As we said, Diamond was a creature of show business. While I love to listen to those older records, I find looking at pictures of him from the period to be somewhat mortifying, with those Samsonian locks and Liberace jumpsuits. By the latter half of the ’70s, his music began to sound like he looked.

But for a while, the hits continued to come, starting with the bloated and pompous “If You Know What I Mean” (1976, #11). “Desiree” (1977, #16) might be an okay song, but it’s hard to tell through all the tacky, off-putting disco production. In 1978 he recorded a duet with childhood friend Barbra Streisand, “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” that went to #1, and by then ironically the scale of success had outpaced his talent. During his initial period of success, Diamond had been a frequent presence on TV variety shows: you could see him on Merv, The Mike Douglas Show, American Bandstand, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Johnny Cash Show, The Joey Bishop Show, and The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour. Starting around 1977 he was major enough to host his own TV specials. Finally in 1980: the great overreaching. Like Jerry Lewis before him, he starred in own version of the flawed classic The Jazz Singer opposite no less than Laurence Olivier, complete with three cheesy easy-listening songs: “Love on the Rocks” (1980, #2), “Hello Again” (1981, #6), and “America” (1981, #8). By now, Diamond was full-on Vegas bait, and proved it with the stomach churning anthem “Yesterday’s Songs” (1981, #11), a paean to irrelevancy. This was followed by “Heartlight” (1982), Diamond’s rejected theme song for E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, which went to #5, his last hit, though we had to hear it interminably.

This was nearly 40 years ago and I’ve no idea what Diamond’s done since, so tarnished was his reputation by that point. For all I know he was already 80 a long time ago. But today we celebrate Neil Diamond at 30, and wish him 50 more years of continued excellence.

For more on variety history, including TV variety, please consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.