How Bad Can It Be?: “Neil Diamond Is Forever”

Written by Book Reviews, Books, How Bad Can It Be?

In the abstract, Neil Diamond seems like somebody I should dig. Smart dude; good work ethic, fairly self-aware, tries a lot of different things. Steeped in the classics of pre-rock music, both the Great American Songbook — what a jazz cat would call “the standards” — and the Brill Building pop of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Impatient. Devoted to his craft.

And yet.

For whatever reason, I could never warm up to the guy — couldn’t even muster the heat to fire a decent hate; toward Neil Diamond and all his works and all his empty promises, I was mired in savage indifference. A hard-working mediocrity, I’d concede — but a mediocrity for all that. Nothing to get excited about, for good or ill.

I suspect that even his fans know that, deep down, judging from journalist Jon Bream’s handsome new coffee-table book Neil Diamond Is Forever. (Oh, that title: really, Jon? My dude, for serious?) From the get-go, there’s a curious defensiveness to the enterprise. Here’s an excerpt from the introduction:

Everybody’s read one: a review deriding Neil Diamond as the “Frog King of Rock” or the cheesiest purveyor of pop on the planet. … The keepers of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame haven’t thought enough of Neil to put his name on the ballot, let alone induct him.

And that’s the opening paragraph, friends. That’s how Jon Bream chooses to start his celebration of the man and his music. Can you imagine a biography of any other star of Neil Diamond’s stature (and he’s still a pretty gaddam big star, even now) going to such great pains to point out how unfashionable its subject is — and then do nothing to refute it?

It’s the fan’s dilemma; he must believe that the object of his fandom is worthy of the time and attention that he has put forth, despite the critical line. To avoid that cognitive dissonance, he employs the trick that readers of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four might recognize as doublethink; in everyday use we just call it “having it both ways.” Throughout the book, Bream tosses around the word “hip” like a blasphemy — while splattering nearly every page with testimonial pull-quotes to Diamond’s genius from a who’s-who of the music industry. He acknowledges Diamond’s hideous fashion sense — “those familiar garish beaded shirts” — then glosses over it as simply part of the package. When he needs verification for his facts, he cites earlier “warts and all” biographies of Diamond, conceding those books are “well-researched” — while dismissing their “muck-raking” content as irrelevant. Journalistic truth, it seems, can safely be discarded, along with logical consistency, wherever either conflicts with fannish devotion.

But I can’t buy into that. When fans love an artist despite the flaws that make him intolerable to the out-group, that’s testament to the redemptive power of talent. But when fans insist on loving the artist because of those flaws, well, that’s just perverse — even masochistic. The Kinks early on staked out a territory as outsider heroes — the misfit’s favorite, the none-of-the-above option in the strict binary environment of Beatles vs. Stones — but they had the songs to back it up, from “Days” and “Celluloid Heroes” to “Lola” and, yes, “I’m Not like Everybody Else.” Tom Waits is the weirdo with the consumptive’s growl and a mug like a chainsaw sculpture — but at the end of the day, he’s the weirdo that wrote “Georgia Lee”: case closed. What is Neil Diamond, in the face of that?

Bream and his cohort of “Diamondheads” (sigh; really, guys?) would just as soon ignore the question. Different means, to different ends, they argue, citing the man himself: in 1976, Diamond told Rolling Stone, “I never could identify with …. this rebelliousness. It didn’t relate to what I was trying to do, which was essentially to try and be Alan Jay Lerner or George Gershwin. Hip was something frivolous people had time to be. I didn’t have time to be hip and with-it and groovy. I was dealing with something much more important: with my life and trying to write songs that had substance.”

Two things are apparent; first, that the defensiveness on display in Bream’s book comes straight from the top, and second, that you damned kids had better stay off Neil Diamond’s lawn.

But okay, let’s take Diamond at his word, and judge him by his own preferred criteria. Where, in his vast catalog, is a melody as elegant and indelible as “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” or “I Could Have Danced All Night” — or, for that matter, “Always Something There To Remind Me” or “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”

That’s not as rhetorical question; take your time to answer.

Some great pop happens unrehearsed, and some is deeply crafted. But the craft is apparent only on close inspection. I would argue that all great pop sounds effortless and immediate — like a deeply felt idea overspilling the confines of the heart and bursting into the larger world. Of all Neil Diamond’s songs, I’ll grant you mmmaybe “I’m A Believer” with that explosive, spontaneous quality; the rest of the oeuvre puts the heavy labor front and center. “I Am … I Said,” he claims, took four months to write — four solid months of eight-hour days. And it shows — in the strain, in the melodrama, in the pointless flourishes. Even alleged rockers like “Cherry, Cherry” and “Sweet Caroline” overload their slender melodies with elaborate structures ‘til they collapse under their own weight.

Fans praise Diamond because he doesn’t hold anything back — but if anything, he can’t afford to. Many pop stars disappoint because they give off the air of A students working below their abilities; Diamond, though, has the maddening eagerness of a C+ student gunning to earn that A through effort alone, hustling to elevate average material through sheer force of will. If perspiration had a sound, it would sound like Neil Diamond.

That same dynamic extends to his personality quirks — the other half of the equation for celebrity. Diamond has reputation as a brooding, complex individual, but his alleged complexity sounds like nothing so much as ordinary human self-awareness, caricatured to heroic proportions by his fanbase. Listen, every artist has occasional doubts and second thoughts about his work. In Bream’s narrative, though, these everyday insecurities become a crippling uncertainty that Diamond must struggle mightily through.

Diamond himself happily feeds into the mythology that simply being thoughtful and reflective qualifies his as a tortured artiste; he spent a couple of years in therapy in the ‘70s, for instance, and he hasn’t shut up about it since. He’s praised for the dryness of his humor, when all that’s really going on is that he can’t tell a joke. Even his failings and weaknesses are banal; he’s been married a couple of times, and it took him a bunch of tries to quit smoking. Not exactly the stuff of rock ‘n’ roll legends.

Then again, this book isn’t meant for the likes of me. It’s for the superfans — and after a while, fandom becomes relexive. Fandom comes to be about the experience of fandom itself at least as much as it is about the object of same. There are plenty of photos of Neil Diamond here, but there are also pages of artfully-composed pictures of tour T-shirts, badges, ticket stubs, backstage passes, vinyl 45s, posters, foreign album sleeves, and signed publicity glossies. Photographs of photographs. The artist becomes a commodity, a collectible.

That happens, to some degree, to everyone who gets famous enough; I understand that. And that fame is based on connection; the audience hooks into something and invests the performer with a projected significance, earned or not. I can understand that.

But what I still don’t understand is: why this guy? Bream spends a lot of energy on bulletproofing his idol and naysaying the haters, but he can’t convincingly explain why he loves the guy, let alone why I should do the same. By all means, give the people what they want. But, why, out of all the things they could possibly want, would they want this?