David Wild, the author of He Is... I Say: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Neil Diamond, explains what you need to know about Neil Diamond.
"I Am...I Said" is a pretty remarkable one. Neil began the song after doing a screen test to play rebel comedian Lenny Bruce in a film. Feeling that he had failed, Neil was thrown into something of an existential funk and started the song. It would take months for him to finish the song, but in the end it would become a classic. One postscript: about eight years ago, Neil allowed me to see the "failed" screen test that set him off, and I was surprised to see that after all that he was really wonderful in the part. Still, things worked out pretty well for Neil. Then there's "Sweet Caroline" and the well - kept revelation that seeing a photo of the young Caroline Kennedy helped inspire another classic.
What is the key to Diamond's songwriting success?
Beyond his pure genius and dedication as a craftsman - which is a gift and thus difficult to explain - I think it's Neil's unapologetic, unironic dedication to the emotional truth balanced with a genuine desire to communicate with his audience.
Are there any songs that Neil hates, but his fans love?
Unlike some other writers, I've never heard him really disparage any of his classics. I think he has too much respect for the feelings of his fans to say such a thing. Now Neil has made fun of some of his early songs, but usually to stress that he was a relative amateur compared in the early Sixties compared to many of the Brill Building greats who helped inspire him to become much, much better.
For me, there are a few big themes:
A deep sense of isolation and an equal desire for connection.
A yearning for home - and at the same time, the allure of greater freedom.
Last but not least, the good, the bad and the ugly about a crazy little thing called love.
What did you learn about Neil Diamond that surprised you?
One fact that astounds me to this day: that a man born Neil Diamond seriously considered taking the stage name of Noah Kaminsky. The other way around would make more sense.
Diamond's songs have been covered a great deal. Are there any that he particularly likes or dislikes?
He is very gallant, and seems thankful that others have embraced his songs. I think hearing Sinatra and Elvis sing his songs was a thrill, and I remember him telling me that he once got a private recording of Dylan singing "Sweet Caroline." The only cover I remember him being slightly confused by was Deep Purple's heavy metal retooling of "Kentucky Woman."
Which of Diamond's songs gets the biggest response at concerts?
It varies, but to name a few "Cherry, Cherry," "Sweet Caroline," "Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show," "Holly Holy" and especially following the tragic events of 9/11 "America."
Is there a story behind "Cherry Cherry," and can you explain the song's appeal?
Like many of the better things in life, it began with a guitar lick. Neil's early mentors Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich encouraged him to finish this song, and it helped introduce him to the world.
Neil Diamond recorded one of the first anti-drug songs. It's a catchy little tune until the addicts ruin it.
I think they're all personal for Neil - that may be part of the secret of his success. He's a deeply personal performer - a groundbreaking introspective singer songwriter since "Solitary Man" - who transforms himself into an exhibitionist onstage.
How did Diamond's songwriting evolve over the years?
I think Neil went from a young man on the fringe of Tin Pan Alley to an important singer-songwriter for the ages. For a period, Neil's success led to him being pigeonholed by only one aspect of his talent - the romantic balladeer. Then in the past decade or so, I think Neil made another great leap forward with his past two albums. If anything, his music now seems even more personal and deeply felt - one more impressive contribution in a life that's been full of them.
November 16, 2009.
David Wild is a music and TV writer and critic, and a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, where he interviewed Neil Diamond. The book is He Is... I Say: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Neil Diamond.
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