By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Not counting Robin, there are four givens in this mad world:
Only the little people pay taxes.
Nearly everyone hates Neil Diamond.
Everyone owns one Neil Diamond recording.
You may beg to differ with that last universal truth, but check your own collection, just to be sure. Maybe there's a 45 of "Cracklin' Rosie" in a box somewhere. Or a K-Tel album with "Soolaimon" on it. Or a Monkees album featuring "I'm a Believer" or "A Little Bit Me, a Little Bit You." Music lovers who started buying albums in the last five years may think they're exempt, but can they really be sure that Public Enemy or De La Soul hasn't sampled "Holly Holy"? Face it, Neil Diamond's everywhere.
With 50-plus albums already under his belt, including his latest bid for digital immortality, Up on the Roof: Songs From the Brill Building (Columbia), perhaps it's time to reassess our feelings about this gifted "Longfellow" serenader. He must be doing something right. Or deliciously wrong!
@body:Pop music of the late 50s and early 60s was indelibly stamped by New York's Brill Building, and its aggregation of producers, fly-by-night record companies, music publishers and their contract songwriters. Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich, Carole King, Neil Sedaka and Burt Bacharach, to name but a few, were all doing business within spitting distance of one another. And this is where the story begins.
Neil is no stranger to Tin Pan Alley. After five years of pitching his songs, the most he has to show for his perseverance is placing his "Santa Santa" composition with the Rocky Fellers, a Filipino vocal group that has just had a Top 5 hit in 1963 with "Killer Joe," and has about 11 seconds to go in its 15 minutes of fame.
Neil, sensing he's the best interpreter of his own material, hustles a Columbia recording contract for himself. Yet only one Neil Diamond single, "Clown Town," gets past the acetate stage. Legend has it that Neil had cocktail napkins printed with his name and "Clown Town" and plunked down at a bar frequented by Columbia executives. Any hopes that this ploy will get the execs to notice their latest pity signing are soon dashed. They wipe their mouths with "Neil Diamond" and continue drinking.
Despite the dismal flop of "Clown Town," Neil seems intent on utilizing that song's brooding, tortured, thoroughly humorless mood when he resurfaces in 1965, recording for Bert Berns' fledgling Bang label. Though his first effort there, "Solitary Man," will become a substantial hit when it's reissued in 1970, it is not one now. Producer Jeff Barry convinces Neil that people are not yet ready for morose pop idols, and refashions Neil's downbeat "Money, Money" into "Cherry, Cherry." It reaches No. 6 nationally, and a string of happy hits follows it up the charts.
Even so, Neil, like a man possessed by the fear that he has spinach stuck in his teeth, refuses all requests to smile for album covers, trade ads, publicity stills and concert appearances. Smiling will become a necessary evil later in his career, but until then . . . "I'll be what I am." . . .
In 1968, burning to write songs with deeper meaning, Neil flees the constricting confines of Bang for Uni Records, a label that, thus far, has had success only with Strawberry Alarm Clock. Uni's attempt to vault Neil into the psychedelic market is a disaster. The album he delivers, the vitriolic and bizarrely titled Velvet Gloves and Spit, is the true embodiment of a bad trip. The album's elaborate packaging reveals a larger-than-life reproduction of Neil's bummed-out face. And almost as insurance that hippies will stay away from it in droves, the collection contains "The Pot Smoker's Song," in which Neil (who never touched a joint in his life) and the spoken voices of ex-dopers warn that grass leads to suicide--and heroin. Having alienated all of his peers with this deep social commentary, he goes after the soft-food-chewing set with a vengeance.
@body:After years of teetering on the brink of superstardom, Neil finally finds his niche--an audience that loves him no matter how sullen he appears or how mawkish his lyrics have become. That audience is made up of housewives, blue-haired grannies, and cafeteria lunch ladies who take him to their collective bosom like the runt of a litter. All they ask in return is that he someday remake The Jazz Singer. His biggest album to date, ironically titled Moods, features an unsmiling Neil on the cover and a song that will take him from "Brooklyn Road" to middle-of-the-road almost overnight. It is "Song Sung Blue," the kind of tune that lives forever, falls into the public domain and is plundered by lyricists for Barney the Dinosaur.
@body:It is the early 70s, but Diamond isn't ready to abandon the rock generation without a fight. Still craving the chance to make significant utterings and secure the peace-and-love crowd, he nabs a plum assignment: penning the soundtrack to Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Here, he leans heavily on the "profound" button, injecting a lot of spiritual mumbo jumbo into the simple story of a bird who liked to shit on windshields.