Rhinestone Serenader

Full disclosure: Neil Diamond was my first real concert, in my fourth-grade year, the result of Mom's ardent fandom. Me, Sis, Mom, and Dad at the Houston Summit. What I remember most is this: Someone who couldn't have been paying much attention tried to pass a joint to me through my dad. I never got the joint, and Neil Diamond finally, after about nine encores, sang "America the Beautiful" to make everyone go home. I've been about halfway pissed ever since.

I've also been halfway a fan. Hot August Night, recorded in 1972 when Diamond was affecting a late-bloomed hippie pose, is a seminal recording, and I spent plenty of time listening to and loving "Cracklin' Rosie" and "Solitary Man."

But Hot August Night is only one of a wildly uneven string of releases stretching back to 1966, and the argument for Diamond's place in the pop pantheon is contradictory at best. Female suburban romantics, for instance, love what he did with Barbra Streisand on 1978's "You Don't Bring Me Flowers" and have supported him faithfully ever since. On the other hand, hipper-than-thou kids flocked to Diamond after Pulp Fiction popularized Urge Overkill's smarmy cover of "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon." Diamond co-wrote a song with the Band's Robbie Robertson (who produced Diamond's 1976 set Beautiful Noise) and sang it that year in the Band's big-screen adieu The Last Waltz. In 1977 Rolling Stone put him on the cover, looking puffy and vacant. But he doesn't sit comfortably in rock and roll, at least not since he recorded a song about E.T. (1982's "Heartlight").

Perhaps to help clear the air, Columbia recently, and at long last, (re)packaged Diamond for the box-set crowd with In My Lifetime, three CDs with a 70-page booklet loaded with glossy photos. Its mere existence fairly begs for a critical re-evaluation of the work of the man. Diamond himself collaborated on every aspect of the set's collection, contributing notes and remembrances about each song, thereby bolstering the suspicion that herein lies the real Neil Diamond, if only we consider carefully enough.

So what do we find? The hagiographic essay makes out like the true Diamond is a visionary rebel who always went his own way, consequences be damned, indicating that Diamond has consistently been in the spotlight for more than three decades because of his dogged determination to follow his own muse. But look at the pictures with that essay: Diamond as Everly orphan; Diamond as pinstriped mod; Diamond as Dylan; Diamond as early Elvis; Diamond as late Elvis; Diamond as -- weirdly -- my dad, circa 1979; Diamond as Humperdinck; Diamond as Lou Reed; Diamond as whatever sort of creep would be photographed bespectacled, pen in hand, kneading thoughtful brow while scoring Jonathan Livingston Seagull. What the photos reveal is a man following not his own muse but rather every successively fashionable whim.

But pictures do not the musician make. And what does In My Lifetime tell us about Neil Diamond the musician? Well, one thing this set reveals is that Diamond writes songs like lawyers chase ambulances. Consider his note accompanying the previously unreleased "Heaven Can Wait": "I'd seen some posters for a new movie coming out called Heaven Can Wait, and I thought it was a really good song title. So the next time I was at the studio, I started writing ... the song. Then I thought 'What the heck am I doing? It's not going to be used anywhere.' So I called Warren Beatty and told him I had a song called 'Heaven Can Wait' and would he be interested in listening to it. He said okay, though he'd prefer if it didn't have any words."

Diamond put the words in anyway, and the song never made the movie. But Diamond has found a use for it at last: It's cluttering this box set, alongside alternate and usually inferior takes of hits. There's even a brand-new track, "In My Lifetime," an embarrassing audio montage of past songs that Diamond writes is "a cautionary word of encouragement to my musical descendants. It's my life and times in a song. And it's got a good beat."

Okay, whatever. In the end, what In My Lifetime says about Neil Diamond is that somewhere something went terribly wrong. There's no gainsaying the charge of "Solitary Man," "I Am ... I Said ...," and "Holly Holy." But midway through the second disc, the five-part "Jonathan Livingston Seagull Suite" begins. When you emerge on the other side you're in "Forever in Blue Jeans" land, and from there the slide to the final disc is precipitous. That tragic finale offers any number of disappointments, but the foulest is the previously unissued "Dancing to the Party Next Door," the story of an over-the-hill dad rediscovering the juice. "Suddenly I hear the sound of rock and roll," sings a trying-to-growl Diamond. "And then I'm dancing to the party next door." Diamond's written note on the song is brief but telling: "Written while the party next door was going full blast."

Unless Diamond can write and boogie at the same time (I've tried, and it's impossible), the song is a lie under the pretext of a confession and, as such, perhaps the key to understanding at least half of what Diamond is all about. The first half, the early half, is lost now, but the second half, the one responsible for almost everything since 1973, reads like nothing so much as a guy eavesdropping on other people's rock and roll for some semblance of inspiration. Diamond may indeed have finally found his own true persona as the gray-sideburned troll current photographs show him to be. But the music he makes these days, like the music he has been making for some time, is just awful.

Neil Diamond performs Monday, December 9, at the Miami Arena, 721 NW 1st Ave; 530-4444. Showtime is 8:00 p.m. Tickets cost $28 and $35.


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