By Rush Evans
Neil Diamond: Here’s where the term phenomenon truly applies to music. It’s that rare dynamic between artist and fan, that uncommon charismatic ability to own a stage and a canon of songs that allows you to stand on it for decades, and that inexplicable force of nature that burns songs into the memories of millions in a way that transcends generations.
Barry Manilow and Jimmy Buffett and are on the short list of musical phenomena (as was the late John Denver), guys who continue to fill basketball arenas while many of their 1970s hit-making contemporaries (some with bigger-selling records) have disappeared altogether. In fact, the work of many one-hit wonders is far more likely to turn up on the radio than the songs of Manilow, Buffett, and Denver.
So how do Manilow and Buffett pack them in, building audiences filled with “fanilows” and “parrot-heads” who weren’t even born when Barry first started writing the songs that made the whole world sing or when Jimmy first started searching for that lost shaker of salt? They have the right stuff to reach people’s souls with their songs in a uniquely personal way. The Neil Diamond phenomenon is equally magical and equally mysterious. But now, his phenomenon has gone farther than the others can ever imagine, because, despite their enormous successes and talents at their respective crafts, Barry Manilow and Jimmy Buffett will never be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
So why Neil Diamond? He has acknowledged himself as a misfit, and people have bickered about his talent for decades, especially whether or not he deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. The answer is simply rock and roll, the music Neil Diamond makes every time he performs live, always with a stage filled with great players and a beaded (not sequined, as often believed) shirt that shines all over the arena like a National guitar. And if you’ve never seen him live, you simply don’t know how well he can rock on stage.
A Neil Diamond concert is like no other. Make no mistake, it is a rock and roll experience.
“September Morn,” “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” and “Heartlight” might have little to do with rock and roll, but so what? “You Got to Me,” “Cherry, Cherry,” “I’m a Believer,” “Cracklin’ Rosie,” and “Kentucky Woman” certainly do. The songs’ infectious rhythms and unforgettable words are the very stuff of the rock and roll era. “Red, Red Wine,” a beautifully mournful ballad, rocks as a slow song, infusing a touch of reggae before anyone had heard the term and ultimately inspiring a fully reggae-fied monster hit version by UB40 in 1983.
And by the way, if you don’t like any of those songs, go back and listen to the craftsmanship in the words and the melodies, and listen to the conviction of the sincere voice behind them. The sincerity of each track in Diamond’s vast body of work is indisputable, and therefore, it is hereby officially and forever deemed good.
“Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show,” even if it were the only thing Diamond had ever done, would be the single greatest example of the connection between rock and roll music and the gospel music that inspired so much of what rock and roll is really all about. That’s why he performs it every time he takes the stage on the never-ending tour that has defined his life for nearly half a century.
“Solitary Man” is as sophisticated a track as any by a young Dylan, early Simon and Garfunkel, and the Help!-era Beatles, the three acts most responsible for proving rock and roll music went far beyond the youthful rebellion it was originally about. With “Soolaimon,” he merged rock and roll with African rhythms, literally tapping the genre’s roots (note the album name: Tap Root Manuscript) a decade and a half before Paul Simon traveled to Africa.
If hearing Neil Diamond compared to those other guys bothers you, you are certainly not alone. And therein lies the controversy that has always surrounded Diamond, a guy who has never made a single musical move that deliberately sparked even an ounce of controversy. He has just made a career of singing his songs, his way, for his people, with “Sweet Caroline” ringing in the ears of millions worldwide to back it up.
His has been the career of a, well, solitary man, operating well outside the musical in-crowd, on a lonesome road all the way to the bank. He seemed out of place at The Band’s Last Waltz, but his passionate performance of “Dry Your Eyes” was one of the highlights of what was arguably the greatest ever rock and roll movie.
“I don’t fit in,” Diamond once said to Rolling Stone’s David Wild. “But you could put me in any show and I wouldn’t fit in. You could put me in a rock show and I wouldn’t fit in. You could put me in a country show and I wouldn’t fit in. You could put me on stage with Sinatra and I wouldn’t fit in. I just do not fit in. I’m sorry. I apologize to everybody, but I never tried to fit in, because that meant conforming what I could write or what I could do to a certain set of rules. I suppose you could say that I’ve always gone my own way.”
Going his own way spawned dozens of inspiring songs that rock, set to the soaring voice that sounds like no other. Happy 70th birthday, Neil Diamond. You’re in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, richly deserved. No apology necessary.