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The Cult of Neil Diamond

The Most Fanatical Fans of All

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"Money talks/But it don't sing and dance/And it don't walk/And long as I can have you here with me/I'd much rather be/Forever in blue jeans"-- from "Forever In Blue Jeans" by Neil Diamond

Almost everybody in the entertainment industry received a career boost after September 11. Performers who hadn't had a hit in years (see: Lee Greenwood) but had the good fortune to pen a song that had the word America thrown in were suddenly given more visibility than Al-Jazeera TV gives Osama Bin Laden.

Some, though, didn't need it. Say the name "Neil" to half of America's music fans, and they come up with the mental image of Neil Young, the be-flanneled feedback warrior who changes musical styles as often as most musicians change shirts. Say the same name -- Neil -- to the other half, and one man immediately comes to mind. The Jewish Elvis. Neil Leslie Diamond.

The song in question here, "America," is a stone cold classic of the genre, rooted deep in the kind of soil that has sustained folks like God-fearing rebel Charlie Daniels for years. The song is anthemic in the strictest sense of the word and is built to please, containing many opportunities for crowd participation (Neil: "They comin' to America!" Crowd: "Today!"). Heck, it was even the unofficial anthem of the Michael Dukakis (remember him?) presidential campaign. The song is such a crowd pleaser, in fact, that Neil Diamond now opens and closes his shows with the tune. Not that he needs help pleasing crowds, mind you. He could write a song about how they comin' to Kandahar and still fill arenas nationwide.

That Diamond is popular is no surprise -- after all, folks like Engelbert Humperdinck still draw respectable crowds. It's the shine of this Diamond that stuns. A veritable army of loyal fans have been around a long time, and now the under 30 crowd has caught on. Cover bands. Tribute albums. A movie, Saving Silverman, the story of a hapless group of Neil Diamond impersonators. And this is for a singer who, to many music fans, is more a memory than a current favorite. After all these years, Diamond has a rabid fan base that will pepper the local paper with letters if one dares to write a negative word about him.

They say diamonds are a girl's best friend. Neil Diamond, then, must be the woman's, with a few odd husbands, rock critics, and would-be hipsters thrown in to boot.

January 24, 1941 was an important date for Neil Diamond -- after all, it's the day he was born. But for our purposes, January 24, 1957 is almost as noteworthy. Rock & roll music was exploding all around, and a pompadoured yokel by the name of Elvis Presley had taken America by storm. For his birthday, Neil received a brand new guitar.

In 1962, Neil Diamond signed with Columbia Records. By 1966, Neil had his first hit with the song "Solitary Man," recently covered by another key Sun Records figure of Diamond's youth, Johnny Cash. Written in a minor key with a big flourish of an ending, it quickly established another Diamond trademark, and was to be a template he would follow for the rest of his career.

After scoring success with "Cherry Cherry," Diamond penned the song that would become a hallmark -- unfortunately, it was for a ready-made pop assemblage called The Monkees. "I'm a Believer" went on to become a huge smash hit. Emboldened, Diamond tried his hand at a country tune, "Red, Red Wine." Again, it became a smash -- this time, 21 years later -- thanks to the dub-reggae treatment given to it by the fey English pop band UB40. The year 1969 became the watermark year for Diamond, and, many say, the year that changed him. After penning "Sweet Caroline," "You Got To Me," and more, Diamond was way past being just a songwriter for others. Using the quiet-loud dynamics that later worked so well for Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins, the Neil Diamond of old -- a man, who at his peak, Will Hermes, Senior Writer at Spin magazine, calls "a mass-market version of Leonard Cohen" -- faded into the background. A new Diamond emerged, a singer who took himself and his own music more seriously, the author of "Holly Holy" and "Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show" -- cut for maximum visibility, replete with the glitzy wear and feathered hair of one Elvis Presley, who was soon to become a sensation in Las Vegas.

When offered the opportunity to write "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" for the soundtrack to the movie based on the Richard Bach book, his reputation as mass market idol was cinched. This led to the woeful three-make of The Jazz Singer. The movie failed with a younger demographic, but older folks loved it. Six years later, performing "You Don't Bring Me Flowers" with Barbra Streisand, one could almost hear the sound of housewives crying behind the closed doors of their ranch homes. Diamond had become the Elvis of the suburbs, replacing the raw sexuality present even in the King's later years with a soporific sentimentality that seemed to pour you a drink even as it told you some lies. Most listeners, glad for the attention, didn't seem to mind at all.

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