The recent coverage of Glen Campbell here is remarkably coincident with the rise of a performer of similarly long pedigree who, some would say, has had a recent resurgence, while others—David Wild, foremost among them—would say he’s never really stopped shining. Yes, I am talking about Mr. Neil Diamond.
First, permit me a digression. . . .
It had the makings of a good road trip. A new car. A full tank of gas. Clear weather. A challenging route. My navigator, although I didn’t know him all that well, was a personable fellow, who can read a map and, more importantly, drive well, so I didn’t need concern myself with our getting lost or spinning uncontrollably over the edge of a mesa. But I was to learn more about him. And I was to have an out-of-control experience of another sort.
A couple hours into the trip, when the radio stations had gone from bad to worse to static (no satellite radio in the car), my colleague reached into a satchel and extracted his iPod. He hooked it into the aux jack. Neil Diamond’s Home Before Dawn had just been released, and he dialed it on. I was to discover that my navigator, a man a few years younger than Diamond, spent his Thursday nights as a singer is a bar where Thursday night meant “Karaoke Night.” When management saw that the stage was empty and it seemed as though it was going to stay that way, up went the ringer, my navigator, who would belt out Aerosmith, Meatloaf, Rod Stewart, Bonnie Tyler. . .it didn’t matter.
And in the car I was to experience this, over and over again, but in a different way. His all-time favorite and audio mentor, I was to learn, is Neil Diamond. This was not Neil and Streisand in the car. No, this was pure, unadulterated Diamond lust. For hours.
All I could think about was hitting a tree.
Which brings me back to David Wild, contributing editor to Rolling Stone, author of He Is. . .I Say: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Neil Diamond (DaCapo Press; $25.00), and self-proclaimed “Diamondhead.” While the subtitle’s not-so-subtle reference to Dr. Strangelove might seem somewhat ironic, it is really ironic only in as much as there is so much schmaltzy prose going on that it is clear that he never stopped loving Neil Diamond. Consider this, from the first chapter, which, like the others, references the title of a Diamond tune, in this case, “I’m a Believer”: “So before we get to fully telling His story, please allow me the chance to share my praise right up front. When it comes to Neil Diamond, he is, I say, very much a musical god. To me, he’s long been a very American idol, and not a false one either. This works out quite well because I’m a Believer.” And he goes on to write, and mind you, at this point it is the bottom of page two, “Chances are excellent that if you have read even this far, you’re at least a partial Believer too.” There are 201 pages with numbers on them to go. Few go without such Borscht Belt petty puns.
If we overlook much of this Tiger Beat adulation, there is an interesting story here (not that of the Wild family, and it is there in all of its sonic glory; e.g., “In American culture, the 1970s were a period of great art, great-self indulgence, and my bar mitzvah, not necessarily in that order.” Hit the rim shot.), which is how Diamond managed to create a notable career as a solo artist at the time when it was all about groups, whether it was the girl groups out of the Brill Building (where Diamond toiled), or the Beatles, Stones, etc.
While Diamond has had a resurgence of late, arguably it is only considered to be so by those of us who stopped paying attention to what the man was doing. Diamond has been a journeyman who has kept on his path for nearly half a century.
He Is. . .I Say is less a biography of Neil Diamond than an autobiography of Wild. For example, not only is there no index in the book, there isn’t even a discography of the vast work of Diamond.
And if you make it all the way through the book, enduring lines like “Even as a new generation of video icons emerged to try and kill off the radio star for good, the emotional connection that Neil Diamond shared with his following was hardly a love on the rocks,” you’ll know how I felt, trapped in that car.