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Want a surefire way to silence a South Beach conversation? Mention that your next assignment is none other than Neil Diamond. And watch as a rash of too-cool profiles creep into question marks. But the faces won't be asking who. They'll be asking why.
Why Neil? Why now?
And then you'll find yourself defending the man who made the middle of the road famous. Arguing pointedly that even though Diamond's fan base may rival that of Michael Bolton's, you've heard Neil Diamond. And, senator, Michael Bolton is no Neil Diamond.
Still, you'll have to admit that Diamond, the man Rolling Stone once dubbed "The Jewish Elvis," has never been hip. And after nearly three decades in this business of music, chances are he'll never be hip. Not in any conventional sense of the word, anyway. But though virtual hipness may have eluded Mr. Diamond all these years, success most certainly has not. In fact Diamond, with an excess of 90 million worldwide unit sales to his credit and a just inked mega-million dollar deal with Sony, is one of the most successful music makers to ever stroll out of Tin Pan Alley. So there.
And hipness be damned. Diamond has been judged by a jury of his peers. A jury that has at one time or another consisted of the likes of Lulu, Dylan, Cliff Richard, UB40, the Monkees, Deep Purple, and no less a man of taste than Sinatra. All have been fair, all have been impartial, and all have mined the Diamond field. So there again.
The X Generation, like it or not, has grown up with Neil Diamond in the background, his ever-present gutteral rasp setting the tone for some of adolescence's most embarrassing moments. Mother may have been the one buying his records, but the mark they left on the kids is indisputable and undeniable.
Consequently, the baby boom's babies are inclined to loathe the man and his music. It's not our music, they moan, it's mom's music. Mr. Diamond is left wedged like a pet rock in that proverbial gap between generations.
But Diamond is hardly the type of entertainer who would sit idly by and watch his work suffer doom in the vinyl cut-out bins. And even if he'd go away some day (which he won't), it's high time to reassess for all the naysayers the importance of Neil Diamond on this culture we call Pop.
A product of George Gershwin's hometown of Brooklyn, and part of a high school student body that featured first Barbra Streisand (Erasmus Hall), then Carole King and Neil Sedaka (Abraham Lincoln), Diamond left New York's biggest borough for pre-med studies at NYU on, of all things, a fencing scholarship. But lab coats and biopsies weren't for Neil, and, just ten credits shy of graduation, he traded his books for a scalpel stab at the big time. In this case, a $50 per week songwriting gig with a Brill Building fly-by-night firm called Sunbeam Music.
Soon tired of selling his songs for (ahem) a song, Diamond rented a shoebox size room above the legendary jazz club Birdland, installed a desk and a pay phone, called it an office, and began working for himself.
He'd never work for anyone else again.
A Greenwich Village coffeehouse engagement got him noticed by Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, the hitmaking couple behind such chewy chart-toppers as "Da Doo Run Run" and "Be My Baby," which in turn led to a deal with Bert Berns's fledgling Bang Records (later the home of Van Morrison). And while Diamond's initial output (the now classics "Solitary Man" and "Cherry Cherry" were among the tracks) showed promise, this was, after all, 1966, and if you weren't either British or Folk Underground, you weren't noticed. And Diamond was neither.
Enter the Monkees. Diamond penned "I'm a Believer" for Don Kirschner's monkey act, and the boys took it all the way to number one. Proving that even if Neil the act wouldn't gel, at least Diamond the writer would. But the then-nervous Neil (one club owner forbade him to speak between songs) continued to plug away, perfecting his Brooding Young Man angle, determined to score on his own terms.
And score he did. Three years later Diamond unleashed the monumental Touching You Touching Me longplayer, which yielded his first gold single, "Sweet Caroline."
And the hits just kept coming. "Cracklin' Rosie," "Song Sung Blue," even "Solitary Man" was rereleased five years after the fact and shot to number one. In '72 Diamond became the first "rocker" (and first musician since Jolson) to headline on Broadway, selling out twenty nights at the Shubert Organization's famed Winter Garden Theatre. Our hero almost lost it with the dreadful Jonathan Livingston Seagull affiliation, then came back with Serenade and its chart-topping single "Longfellow Serenade."
Then at once, in '74, Diamond disappeared. The fame was beginning to get to his head and he prudently decided to see a shrink about it. Two years later he was back in the public eye with the Robbie Robertson produced Beautiful Noise, sharing the stage with the Last Waltz clique, and gearing up for even bigger things to come.