Neil Diamonds’ Jewels
Our guide to the Solitary Man’s essential musical moments
By DAN EPSTEIN
What do Sixties pop idols the Monkees, British hard rockers Deep Purple, Finnish goth-metal outfit H.I.M. and the late, great Johnny Cash all have in common? They’re just a few of the hundreds of artists who have covered Neil Diamond songs over the last four decades. But while a few Neil covers (like the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer”) have managed to surpass the originals, most have failed to truly nail the Solitary Man’s unique blend of brooding introspection, unbridled masculinity and crowd-pleasing schmaltz. Sensitive poet, pop craftsman, tight-trousered love man, Borscht Belt balladeer — Neil’s always been each of these things and more, oftentimes all in the same song. For more proof of his multi-faceted brilliance, check out these ten essential Diamonds.
“Solitary Man” (1966)
Neil’s first hit single, “Solitary Man” remains the most brilliantly efficient song in the Diamond collection. There’s not a wasted word or chord in this two-and-a-half minute anthem of heartbreak and self-affirmation, which introduced the melancholy loner persona that he’s repeatedly returned to throughout his career.
“Cherry, Cherry” (1966)
One of the greatest three-chord songs of all time, “Cherry, Cherry” took Neil into the Top Ten for the first time, and provided the template for a string of rockin’ sound-alikes — including “Kentucky Woman,” “You Got to Me” and “Thank the Lord for the Night Time” — that have influenced everyone from the Ramones to John Mellencamp.
No emo band has written anything as heart-rending as this tale of a young boy whose absentee father causes him to seek solace in an imaginary friend. Just in case your eyes are still dry by the 2:27 mark, a toy piano joins in to lend an extra dollop of gut-wrenching poignancy.
“Two-Bit Manchild” (1968)
A highlight of the severely underrated Velvet Gloves and Spit LP, “Two-Bit Manchild” is a snappy three-chord rocker in the “Cherry, Cherry” vein, and finds Neil painting himself as a good-time dude whose barefoot grooviness is just too much for any one woman to handle. In other words, he’d come a long way since “Solitary Man.”
“The Pot Smoker’s Song” (1968)
“La Bamba” meets “Revolution No. 9” on this utterly bizarre anti-drug sound collage, also from Velvet Gloves and Spit. You simply haven’t lived until you’ve heard Neil bawling “Pot, pot, gimme some pot!” backed by a kiddie chorus, while former addicts testify how they went from smoking weed to “shooting acid into my spine.”
“Sweet Caroline” (1969)
A guaranteed killer in any karaoke bar, “Sweet Caroline” is one of the most genuinely soulful songs Neil’s ever written, which is probably why both Elvis and soul great Bobby Womack have covered it. The pre-chorus “hands, touching hands” build-up is worth the price of admission alone.
Sure, Paul Simon got tons of props for exploring African rhythms on his Graceland album, but Neil’s Tap Root Manuscript LP beat him to it by a good sixteen years. And with its enchanting tribal grooves and show-stopping Vegas chorus, “Soolaimon” — the album’s centerpiece — anticipated The Lion King by nearly a quarter century.
“Play Me” (1972)
The quintessential Neil seduction ballad; more than three decades later, this one still gets the seats wet at his live shows. “Song she sang to me/Song she brang to me” may be the most flagrantly awful rhyme Neil’s ever written, but he sells it with such bare-chested conviction that it totally works.
“I Am…I Said” (Live) (1972)
The 1971 studio version of Neil’s existential anthem was the big hit, but the fantastically overwrought live rendition from 1972’s Hot August Night is even better. “I need, I want, I care, I weep, I ache, I am, I said, I am, I said,” offers our denim-clad philosopher, and it’s so true.
“Longfellow Serenade” (1974)
An elevator music classic that sounds weirder the closer you listen to it, “Longfellow Serenade” showcases Neil’s flow at its finest — could Kanye West handle “I weave this web of rhyme upon the summer night” without getting severely tongue-tied? — while darkly hinting that the “Longfellow” in question may not actually be the poet of the same name.
(November 3, 2005)