Song Sung Goo

There's an absolutely great short film titled Neil Diamond Parking Lot that, unfortunately, most people will never see. Shot by two guys in Maryland, the film was done in 1995 as the followup to their 1985 underground cult classic Heavy Metal Parking Lot. Neither film had a budget; it's strictly point-and-shoot, guerrilla moviemaking from suburban warriors. Both films concentrate on the preshow tailgate party at the U.S. Air Arena parking lot in Largo, Maryland that precedes the sacred event.

In 1985 it's a Judas Priest show, and the crowd it attracts makes the folks in Spin¬al Tap seem restrained: endless parades of shirtless guys drinking beer, smoking cigarettes, extending their middle fingers; others wearing heavy-metal T-shirts, most of which are emblazoned with the Judas Priest logo; young girls dressed as hair-sprayed vixens, all arriving in burned-out vehicles from another decade -- the Chevy Novas, Ford Granadas, and very old Firebirds all blasting the requisite metal tuneage. The kids are ecstatic and more than slightly wasted. They're barely old enough to drive and they know they will never die (with exception to Timmy, who died in a car accident one month before the show and whose friends were given backstage passes by Judas Priest's management).

In 1995 it's a Neil Diamond show and the crowd it attracts could not be more radically different. The crowd is older, restrained if not refined, mostly female, mostly unmarried. (In one scene the filmmaker bravely asks where the husbands are, only to be told in cracklin' glee, "We don't have any!" The one young lady who is hitched admits that her husband stayed home because he wasn't interested, and besides: "It's girls' night out!") They sit in the back of their minivans and sip Diet Cokes, smiling amiably for the camera, good-natured and at times a tad embarrassed about their obsession with Neil Diamond. Most have seen the singer at least twice; many have seen him five to ten times. Mothers drag daughters, daughters drag their little ones. It is an unofficial rite of passage: You must see him at least once, and once you do, you're hooked. They know his songs, though they can't exactly sing them. And they each have a favorite song: "Cracklin' Rosie," "Sweet Caroline," "Cherry Cherry." A few even reach for an obscure gem. And they all seem to like his butt.

This time around the filmmakers stuck around for the end of the show. (Had they attempted to film the Judas Priest concert post-show, the bent mob would've probably broken the camera as a token of their mischievousness.) One woman gives the thumbs down. "Too many new songs." But she's in the minority. The tone is overwhelmingly positive. These ladies would like Neil to know they're available and that he should come visit more often. The film even catches Neil himself in the distance, waving to the fans who wait for him to enter his tour bus before driving off to the next town. Neil waves and nods his head in appreciation. The film tells us: "Neil Diamond delivers!"

Critics, on the other hand, don't care for him much. Neil aligned himself too closely to the pop field, beginning with his early work as a songwriter for acts such as Jay and the Americans and Bobby Vinton, and following through to his most recent release, The Movie Album -- As Time Goes By, a two-disc, twenty-song collection of motion-picture music. Admittedly he shares more than a little show-biz flare with Van Morrison, but where Morrison is often uncomfortable onstage and openly hostile to his audience, Diamond relaxes and plays the field, applying the stage-pro polish that leads him away from R&B into the less critically heralded arena of middle of the road. Levon Helm, drummer for the Band, nailed it in his book This Wheel's on Fire. The Band was filming what was then their final live performance for Martin Scorsese's 1978 film The Last Waltz. Influential blues and rock performers integral to the Band's development were invited: Muddy Waters, Ronnie Hawkins, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and since Band guitarist Robbie Robertson was producing him at the time, Neil Diamond. Except, as Levon points out, Diamond didn't fit in. Wearing a bright blue polyester suit and dark shades, Neil looked as if someone had (as Helm relayed it) pushed the band's accountant onstage.

Yet Diamond has sold more than 110 million records and is one of the world's most successful live acts. His performing career has spanned over three decades. His songs are known to us all: "Song Sung Blue," "America," and his duet with Barbra Streisand, "You Don't Bring Me Flowers." He produced his most powerful work in the beginning, a string of nine hits for the Bang label, including "Cherry, Cherry," "Solitary Man," and "I Thank the Lord for the Night Time." They were all solid pop-rock workouts that, considering nonrock performer Billy Joel's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and ol' Neil not even up for consideration, proves there is no justice, only irony. Diamond also penned two Monkees' hits: "I'm a Believer" and "A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You." Deep Purple covered his "Kentucky Woman" in 1968.

Diamond kept the streak going. Bert Berns, president of Bang and producer of both Van Morrison and Diamond, balked at releasing "Shilo," Diamond's first bid for real singer/songwriter respectability, as a single. Instead he released him from his contract. Diamond signed to Uni, for whom he extended his hit-single streak to another eleven, including "Sweet Caroline," "Cracklin' Rosie," and "Song Sung Blue." But a longing for greater acceptance as a serious artist was increasingly creeping in, and his studio albums suffered for it. So in 1972 he put out Hot August Night, a two-record live set recorded at L.A.'s Greek Theatre. That album would be his last for the Uni label and would be part of the growing trend for performers to release commemorative multidisc live sets after successful tours. Frampton Comes Alive had nothing on Neil, nor did Kiss's Alive!.

From here, things get worse. Diamond signs to Columbia for five million dollars and issues Jonathan Livingston Seagull, an album beloved by fans who have made it his second best-selling album and rightfully trashed by critics as insufferably pretentious New Age fluff to accompany the equally wretched book by Richard Bach and the even-worse film of the same name. It's Diamond's most pathetic attempt at disposing of his image as a lightweight pop craftsman. At least he was very good at that. Here, his attempt at joining serious songwriters such as Bob Dylan and Paul Simon fails miserably. Dylan's Blood on the Tracks or Simon's Still Crazy After All These Years, this was not.

Diamond made one last stab at breaking through to the serious rock world by enlisting the Band guitarist Robbie Robertson to produce 1976's Beautiful Noise. But the result was a mix that never gelled. Diamond sounded strained, Robertson like he was going through the motions. Diamond accepted this artistic failure by immersing himself in the MOR his husky yet smooth growl was best suited for. The aforementioned "You Don't Bring Me Flowers," his duet with Barbra Streisand, left no question about which road the middle-aged Diamond would settle for. He has since collaborated with Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager among others. He has been rewarded.

The 1980 remake of The Jazz Singer was an incredible success for Diamond. The album sold over four million copies and spawned three Top 10 hits. The film, however, was terrible, a veritable bomb. Yet it did nothing but increase his stature among his ever-growing number of fans. "Heartlight," from 1982, serves as his final Top 40 hit, a streak ended at 37.

The live show has become his meat and potatoes and throughout the Eighties and Nineties he has toured extensively. In 1993 he notably returned to his Brill Building roots with the album Up on the Roof -- Songs from the Brill Building, a collection of sixteen pop songs from the Fifties and Sixties that features the works of Goffin and King, Lieber and Stoller, Bacharach and David, songwriters that heavily influenced his point of entry in the music business. In 1996 the inevitable 70-song box set In My Lifetime summarized his career, complete with a 72-page booklet and remastered sound.

His current tour shows no signs of slowdown for the 57-year-old performer. This 1998-99 tour will take him into Canada, Britain, Australia, and New Zealand before sending him back to U.S. shores. It's doubtful he has ever seen Neil Diamond Parking Lot. And it's also doubtful most Neil Diamond fans will ever see it because it circulates in an underground market far removed from the typical Diamond fan. But in fifteen too-short minutes of cinema verite, the film nicely complements the bizarre spell Diamond casts over his followers and, along with Heavy Metal Parking Lot, gives all of us all the chance to step back and examine the role we play as audience. Plus, it's a damn good laugh.


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