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.
By 1976, his often promised (threatened?) concept album about Tin Pan Alley, Beautiful Noise, is finally realized, and is produced by none other than the Dean of Significance, Robbie Robertson. For many nonfans-of-Neil, this move lends rock n' roll credence to Diamond's talents. The end result, however, is a dull offering that can't live up to the hype. When Neil appears at one of the Band's The Last Waltz concerts, he realizes he's a fish out of water, looking out to a sea of blue denim instead of blue hair.
@body:By the late 70s, Diamond, whose stage threads are now the same ghastly white as Elvis', mines the King's territory with a bombastic live show. Smoke, scarves and flash pots abound. Messianic poses are struck with great chutzpah. The acoustic guitar, his only visible means of musical support back in his coffee-house days, now serves as little more than a prop; a pulpit-on-a-strap.
Meanwhile, crafty Neil utilizes some art-department magic by running photos of a younger Diamond in place of shots of the bloated new one. This practice, which started with the 82 Heartlight release, continued for four years, until fans demanded a current photo of Neil for his Headed for the Future album. Although his older fans were elated that Neil now looked more like them, the new image gave those who hadn't been monitoring his appearance the impression that he'd aged overnight, like bad cheese.
@body:Which brings us to Neil Diamond today. Though he can still sell out ten nights in a row at Madison Square Garden at the drop of his voice, the singer's days as a Top 40 mainstay appear to be over. His latest release, Up on the Roof, sets out to rectify this situation.
Taking his cue from pal Barbra Streisand, who reaped newfound chart success in the 90s by returning to Broadway show tunes, Neil also hearkens back to his roots--late 50s and early 60s pop. But don't look for "Santa Santa" here. Neil and producer Peter Asher play it safe, picking the hits we all know and love, songs that Phil Collins and James Taylor successfully lobotomized years ago.
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Neil, who worked with all of the great Brill Building songwriters represented on this album, might have had the inside track on some hidden gems of the era. No such luck. We can certainly do without another cover of "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'," especially with Dolly Parton co-starring as Righteous Brother Bobby Hatfield. The Diamond-Parton duet, a calculated attempt to get on VH-1, will probably backfire. Dolly's vibrato is shakier than Kate Hepburn operating a pneumatic drill. There's also something for the kids on this really big shew, as Mary's Danish ups the hip quotient half a notch by backing ol' Neil on "Do Wah Diddy Diddy."
The album's only intriguing song selection, "Ten Lonely Guys," is a tune Neil and eight other Brill writers polished off one drunken night and palmed off on Pat Boone.
While listening to Up on the Roof, one can't help flashing back to a recent Diamond TV appearance. It was during a week that saw Prince perform with his butt hanging out of his pants on the MTV Music Awards. The following night, Neil appeared live-via-satellite on one of Dick Clark's old American Bandstand specials, singing, or, rather, gargling "Cherry, Cherry" like a dirty old man eyeing little girlies with bad intent. It made Prince's orgy of the night before seem like a Mary Kay cosmetics party by comparison.
What does it all mean? In a world that's willing to worship aging rock stars with uneven careers--Rod Stewart, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton--maybe it's time to admit the guilty truth. Underneath the layers of show-biz glitz, blatant pandering and melodramatic lyrical posturing, there exists a guy from Brooklyn who's written some, well, great Top 40 pop tunes. Diamond's old stuff still gets covered (witness Chris Isaak's low-down version of "Solitary Man," from Isaak's last release), and let's face it: The I-Am-an-Artist attitude of contemporary rock gods like Sting and Bono makes Neil seem as self-effacing as Mother Teresa. Short of recording an album of duets with Eddie Vedder, Neil will probably never do anything MTV-ready--but so what? The hits hold up, and that's what matters. Diamond is forever.