The King of Corn
Neil Diamond is treated with saccharine reverence in this tacky tome
by Max Abelson | October 21, 2008
He Is … I Say:
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Neil Diamond
By David Wild
Da Capo Press, 203 pages, $25
I tried so hard to like Rolling Stone editor David Wild’s He Is … I Say that at first I pretended to not see sentences like “See, I’m a Believer that Neil Diamond didn’t just go on American Idol this yea–he is an American idol, year after year” or “Forty years later, ‘Brooklyn Roads’ remains a song that I’ve seen reduce grown men to tears, including a few times when I was looking in the mirror.”
Mr. Wild’s new book on Neil Diamond is so shmaltzy–and not the irresistible shmaltz of Diamond hits like “Sweet Caroline” or “I’m a Believer”–that it takes tolerance to make it through to page 203. The difference between sweet-tooth pop songs and gooey writing about sweet-tooth pop (his “I’m a Believer” pun is repeated, honestly, 37 times) is that one compels you to sing along to the radio and the other compels you to put a book down.
The wink-wink, nudge-nudge tackiness (“For my gelt, nobody rocks ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ like Neil”) wouldn’t be so brutal if it were served up with an analysis of Mr. Diamond’s life and lifework. Who could blame a writer for hamming it up a little while analyzing a singer who’s sold 125 million gloriously corny records?
The problem is that there’s no analysis. The book is a smoothie of things Mr. Diamond has said in liner notes (like “I’ve always been moved by gospel music”) and on television: Mr. Wild produced Mr. Diamond’s Behind the Music episode for VH1, referred to on more than 20 pages. Then there are chart positions for Mr. Diamond’s hits (“The single rose to #6 on pop, #3 on adult contemporary. As Neil rightly said, ‘When you’re hot, you’re hot'”), plus tidbits from Mr. Wild’s face-to-face encounters with his idol.
And there is no real biography. Wouldn’t it be great to learn all about Mr. Diamond’s jaw-dropping, record-setting $150 million divorce settlement? What about his mid-’70s therapy? The yogi he saw every day for six weeks? The six months he packed a .38? The mid-’80s slump that was so bad that Columbia Records rejected two of his albums? All this is mentioned only in passing.
There’s also no real music criticism. Mr. Wild is totally uninterested in analyzing Mr. Diamond’s most addictive music, his mushiest, or the glob in between. “Sweet Caroline” is just “a song that struck”; his 1991 album, Lovescape, is a “beautiful and lushly romantic effort”; a rarity called “The Long Way Home” is a “catchy midtempo pop rock winner.”
He takes three pages to describe learning to drive in L.A., but one paragraph on watching a Diamond tribute band while sitting with the real deal himself. Here’s Mr. Wild: “Neil leaned over to let me know that in a matter of mere minutes he would actually be taking the stage to sing with his own tribute act. Tragically, my otherwise goodhearted wife insisted that we had to leave the show before that since we had promised our babysitter we would be home by 11:00 p.m.” Think about what a writer like Nick Tosches could have done with a Neil/fake-Neil scene! It boggles the mind.
REVIEWING NEIL DIAMOND’S 1972 live album, Robert Christgau wrote, “It’s obvious that the man is some sort of genius rock entertainer, but for the most part the great entertainer is striving for bad art and not even achieving it.” Is that fair? “That was me trying to be Neil Sedaka on the ‘A’ side,” Diamond says in this book about an early song (actually, he said it in liner notes and it’s repeated in the book). “And not even coming close.”
Considering that Mr. Diamond is a man who aped Neil Sedaka in his youth and told concert audiences in his adulthood, “My name is Neil. I weep. I cry. I care,” it’s massively odd that Mr. Wild isn’t questioning or cynical about his subject’s extreme tackiness. The book’s subtitle, “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Neil Diamond,” is hilariously misleading: A latency period in the author’s lifelong Diamond adoration is mentioned on page 147, and resolved two pages later.
Nowadays, David Wild tells us, he puts on Diamond music in the background when he and his father-in-law, Art, get together to talk about life. Is he kidding? Is Neil Diamond? I’m a believer that it’s no joke.
Max Abelson is a reporter at The Observer. He can be reached at email@example.com.