Neil Diamond – between underground and easy listening

Diamonds are forever

  • Image by Mayer/Schoepler

Contemporary music is frequently divided into two categories: underground and straight, young-old, longhair-shorthair, liberal-conservative, progressive rock and easy listening, Kinks or Carpenters.

Linking these extremes, however, is an area of music we could call "Middleground." The middleground public values the work of artists who are creative, honest, and willing to gamble occasionally with their success. Yet it is sophisticated enough to accept the fact that an artist may need to compromise commercially sometimes in order to sustain his serious work. Middleground listeners are the constituency of "soft rock." Neil Young, Rod Stewart, Moody Blues, Dylan, Lennon, Simon, Russell, Jackson Browne, Procol Harum, Carole King, Van Morrison, Joy of Cooking and so on: these are their artists.

No single singer/songwriter is more representative of this music than Neil Diamond. He stands at the epicenter of middle-ground. By his count, he has sold more records and has had more hits than anyone else in the world, including the Beatles. His current album, Moods, has been on the national top ten from its release in June until just last week. On any given day, some Diamond cut — old old or new — will almost surely be played by every soft rock station broadcasting in San Diego. He has earned all this by working hard to improve his songwriting and by taking chances with his career in order to move into more challenging' areas of music.

Diamond started off far to one side of the middleground. His first hits-"Solitary Man" and "Cherry, Cherry" (that girl with the western movement) were five-star bubblegum and propelled him right into the "Most Popular Male Vocalist" category (Cashbox, 1967). The songs that followed are gold pop music standards: "Solitary Man," "Shilo," I'm a Believer" (written for the Monkees), "Kentucky Woman," Girl, You'll be a Woman Soon," "Sweet Caroline," "Holly Holy," and so on and on.

The trip from his lonely youth as a shy street-tough in Brooklyn, through four years of premed at NYU, into the tin pan alley sweatshops where he paid his songwriting dues (like Carole King and others) and out again to superstardom was a rough one. Although he found a successful moneymaking formula, the chemistry did not work for him personally. So he kept on moving, artistically and geographically. When his contract with New York-based Bang Records expired, he left for California and the greater artistic freedom of a contract with Universal City Records. In his words, "Uni and I grew up together," and in fact each album for Uni was better than the one before.

Then, late in 1970, he produced an album of genuine artistic significance: Taproot Manuscript. For Diamond, it marked the end of his apprenticeship. For his increasingly middle ground audience, it was the consummate example of an artist gambling in order to explore a new direction. The first half of the album is virtuoso good-earth rock. The second half is a result of the artist's first venture into concept writing. Titled The African Trilogy (A Folk Ballet) it explores the stages of a man's life using native rhythms (the roots of Gospel music) as medium. "Soolaimon" is one of rock's most powerful and joyous songs: God of my want/lord of my need/ leading me on/on to my woman, she dance for the sun.

The amusing "I Am the Lion," is followed by an . instrumental "Madrigal," then "Soolairnon," the beautiful "Missa"-a song for chorus, the haunting "African Suite" and, last, a reprise of "Childsong" which also begins the six-part trilogy. Musiccally, African Trilogy is stunning. He has not matched it yet. Lyrically, the words themselves are less important than the various vocal effects he uses to dramatize his statement.

The amusing "I Am the Lion," is foil owed by an instrumental "Madrigal," then "Soolaimon," the beautiful "Missa" — a song for chorus, the haunting "African Suite" and, last, a reprise of "Child. song" which also begins the six-part trilogy. Music. cally, African Trilogy is stunning. He has not matched it yet. Lyrically, the words themselves are less important than the various vocal effects he uses to dramatize his statement.

In the fall of 1971, the Stones album was released. A collection of songs by some of our very best contemporary composes — including Newman, Michell, and Leonard Cohen — it also includes three of his own. The title song, "Stones," though another big hit as a single, suffers from comparison with such exquisite compositions as Newman's "Suzanne." "I Am .. J Said," however, is one of Diamond's very best. It is quite personal (a concisely-drawn portrait of the lonely super. star) yet generally relevant to everyone else: I've got an emptiness deep inside/ and I've tried/but it won't let me go.

(He said at the time it was the hardest song he had ever written because it was so personal.) Stones is a satisfying album, creative in that the singer/songwriter's interpretations explore every nuance of his colleagues' lyrics, making another direction for his work. It was integrated immediately into the core of middleground rock.

Diamond spent last winter writing material for the Moods album. It does not quite equal The African Trilogy but it is an excellent group of original songs tied together loosely by the theme of the title and summarizing most of what the artist has learned about music and life in his 31 years. Confident, matured, he can commit his vision and intelligence to his writing without going overboard emotionally.

"Captain Sunshine"describes a hero: He do me fine/he make the words rhyme/when he knows ... the tune is sad.

It could be someone Diamond has admired; it could be the songwriter's self-image. In "Morningside" he speaks movingly of the pain of growing old and forgotten. "Walk on Water," a song out of the African rhythm genre with a fine dramatic structure, praises mothers everywhere: She walks on water/ah, ain't it like her/she leads the children/ain't it right!

In a less serious vein, "Porcupine Pie" and "Gitchy Goomy" (written for his two-year-old son) are delightful. Regrettably, the two singles taken from this album- "Song Sung Blue" and "Play Me"are by far the least noteworthy. "Canta Libre," though not the best song, comes closer in its lyrics to the essence of this album than the title theme:

I got music runnin' in my head/ makes me feel like a young bird flying/cross my mind and layin' in my bed/keeps me away from my thoughts of crying.

The man clearly loves his music; it is his whole life. Other artists like Leon Russell can walk away from their scene and look back to see themselves as carnival stars-can see the humor in it, the phoniness and tragedy, the satisfaction and rewards, in perspective. This degree of detachment is not possible for Diamond. Consequently, his judgement occasionally fails him. The excesses of some arrangements, and the liberties he takes with grammar and lyric continuity belie his real achievements (and open him up to the painful criticism of the underground media).

That he cares intensely about his work is reflected in the decision to stop performing for a year or more following his unique stand last month at the Schubert Winter Garden Theater on Broadway with a one-man show. He plans to spend his time studying music theory and composition-with the intention of writing symphonies, musical comedy, and perhaps a dramatic piece for the stage. He will also move on to Columbia Records early next year where he will concentrate on concept albums. That his music will continue to grow in quality and sophistication seems likely based on Ius career to date. Neil Diamond is one of those intelligent, hard-working, and sensitive artists who make the middleground an exciting area of contemporary music.

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