To non fans and music critics Neil Diamond has always been an enigma. Is this guy in his words, “A rock person, or what the hell am I?” One wonders why artists have to be categorized. I mean, a good song is a good song. For example, no one discredits Bruce Springsteen because he sings a variety of stuff. The Springsteen of his newest album “Western Stars” is that of a Harry Chapin style folk singer, other than perhaps one song. Bruce is now as much a folk singer as anything else. His acoustic versions of his old rock hits prove this. I mean, I never like “Thunder Road, or “Born to Run” of “Blood Brothers” until I heard the acoustic versions.
Here is how I see it if anyone cares.
1- Neil started out as a simple straight forward rocker at first. “Solitary Man” and “Cherry Cherry” made the rock guys think “This guy is one of us.” Then slowly as he explored other types of songs and they realized he wasn’t part of the drug culture so they dismissed him. Neil probably made it worse when he grew his hair long and that photo on Hot August Night where he appeared, and I stress “appeared,” trying to be “hip.” In truth he as presenting himself as the anti hip of rock. We got it.
2- “I Am I Said” is a great song but it has more than a tint of narcissism. The kind of song that inflames critics. Especially when it becomes popular to a wide range of people. Kind of like Barry Manilow “I write the Songs.” Critics took it like Barry was saying He was “Music” and he writes the songs.
3- JLS was outstanding but the entire concept of the story had already been slammed by critics even before the movie came out. In addition ND seemed to take it all pretty serious on the record. Once again, when this record become a huge commercial smash it just enraged his haters more.
4- “Serenade” was a really nice album but his tribute to his “Longfellow” as some took it, was as far as they were concerned, gas lighting. I think it was brilliant!
5-When he hired Robbie Robertson to produce “Beautiful Noise” they all conceded this was a great record, not because Neil was a great artist but because Robbie was a “Mercenary.” Robbie forcing him on to the “Last Waltz” roster only made the situation worse. Here is this guy on rock’s greatest stage who did “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers.” Isn’t it ironic that to this day, whenever they promote the “Last Waltz” Neil is always presented as one of the headliners? They still want the unhip guy’s fans money!
6- With he mid 70’s rise of easy listening pop artists, Manilow, Rogers, and many others, the record company decided Neil was best fit doing sappy ballads, which I admit I liked most. That is what was going to sell the most records. By this time Neil was completely dismissed by the rock critics. In fact, hated. He became to them, the epitome of what was wrong in the music industry.
7- Neil’s recording career pinnacled with the “Jazz Singer.” The album actually got pretty good reviews by Neil standards at the time. Still, most read the movie reviews which were horrid. Critics hate commercial success for what they see as critical flops.
8-Following the Jazz Singer he re upped with CBS under the belief of executives that he would continue to do nothing but sappy love songs. They did not have the same definition of the “Full artistic control” clause in his contract. When he finally decided to do something different he was stopped in his tracks. “Not commercial enough.” Wouldn’t you have loved to hear the original “Primitive” album, and “The Story of My Life” as he intended? Funny thing is I think the music critics who disliked Neil would have liked them.
9- All the while the 80’s pop scene with MTV completely did not fit him. He was banished from the mainstream. Incredibly his concerts were still the work of a red hot superstar around the world. No one but his fans understood.
10- He did one more album of sappy love songs, some good, on “Lovescape.” Critics got out their torches. Finally, a new leader at SONY emerged, Tommy Matolla, who seemed to be a bit of a fan of Neil’s. He re-signs him and gives his a bit more artistic freedom. The results were a progression of better stuff, “The Movie Album” not one of them. The box sets, “Tennessee Moon” one of his best IMO, and later “Three Chord Opera,” “12 Songs” and the rest.
11- Neil s image was saved by a very cool cover band, Super Diamond, as well as the Boston Red Sox baseball team with “Sweet Caroline.” A new generation of critics who grew up on their parents listening to Neil came of age. David Wild, etc. In addition, his songs began being used in some pretty “hip” movies. He became almost a darling of this new generation of critics. Especially once Rick Rubin gave his stamp of approval.
12-Neil’s new wife had a much better idea how to promote him to the industry than anyone previous. She knew the right people, worked for Irving Azoff. As a result he finally got his day in the sun. Kennedy Center, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, I could have done without his speech there but I understand why he did it.
13- Finally at its end we can truly say he tried to “Do it his way.” There were obvious bad decisions, “Live At the Forum” not being released. That pissed CBS off wildly. Many very good one’s. “Sweet Caroline” has gone from being a gem to an annoyance because it’s been WAY overdone. Caused some to think he was a “One hit wonder.”
Overall, it’s been great to follow this step by step year by year. I suspect, there is still a tiny bit more to come. Hopefully….