This Saturday I was able to relax and read through Rolling Stone editor David Wild’s 2008 book He Is…I Say: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Neil Diamond.
Let me make this clear off the bat – this book doesn’t come close to approaching the quality of the books I usually review on this site. It’s essentially a long essay by one of the industry’s most respected music critics about his long, secret love affair with the music of Neil Diamond. It’s part biography of Diamond (albeit a lazy one, recycling old quotes from just a handful of sources) and part apologetics. My credentials as a Neil Diamond fan are well-established. I don’t feel like I have to apologize about that anymore, especially since his remarkable post-2005 career renaissance.
Here are a few interesting tidbits from this short book:
-Wild’s essential argument: Diamond has written an incredible number of moody, melodic masterpieces, and done so completely on his own terms. Who else’s career mirrors his? Even in the his schmaltzy AOR era of the late 70s and 80s, Wild argues that Diamond essentially created that market, and artists like Barry Manilow, Lionel Richie, and Kenny Rogers followed. He contends (and I would agree) that the fact that he has never even been nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is evidence of an elitist bias against Diamond’s unparalleled popular success.
-I saw Neil Diamond in concert in 1996 with my best friend from high school. We had front row seats, and we went so ballistic during “Shilo”, our favorite song, that he pointed at us and nodded. I’m not kidding about any of this. That might be one of my top 10 favorite experiences ever, along with getting married, growing a beard, and the Vikings’ dramatic last-second win on Sunday.
-Neil Diamond puts his form-fitting, glass-beaded pants on one leg at a time, just like the rest of us.
-Long before Wesley Snipes became America’s sweetheart, Neil Diamond regularly concluded his concerts by saying, “Thank you! Goodnight! Always bet on black!”
-Diamond’s childhood and adolescence struck me for how normal it was. After having read the eyebrow raising accounts of the childhood experiences of other entertainers like Groucho Marx, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and Bono, it was somewhat anticlimactic to read about Neil Diamond growing up in a loving, middle class Jewish family in Brooklyn. I kept waiting for one of his parents to get nailed by a bus.
-Neil Diamond devised his hip-wiggling, eye-bulging stage moves after watching a dog suffer an epileptic seizure.
-Though I’d hardly characterize this book as revelatory, Diamond came across in this book as a grounded, agreeable guy with an intense devotion to his work. That intensity has driven him to regularly isolate himself while chasing down his musical goals, resulting in a few broken marriages (to his credit, Wild doesn’t attempt to whitewash this). At the same time, his loyalty is on display when one takes a look at his troupe of backing musicians and collaborators, nearly all of whom have been working with him for 30+ years.
-In addition to his prolific run of hits from 1968-1972 that included “Sweet Caroline”, “Cracklin’ Rosie”, “Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show” and “Play Me”, Neil Diamond also served as Richard Nixon’s embattled press secretary.
-Wild makes an argument that “America” is a genuinely great, heartfelt song celebrating the immigration experience of Diamond’s grandparents and so many others. However, patriotic American that I genuinely am, I still can’t really stomach the song. It’s just so blasted ham-fisted. (TODAY!)
-Neil Diamond is old enough to be my grandfather, yet still spry enough to elude me in a footrace down a private Malibu beach path.