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December 17 - 24, 1999

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Diamond is forever

Turn on your heartlight, and say you're a believer

by John O'Neill

Neil Diamond The millennium doth approach, and so too do a whole bunch of boundless lists. Important historic moments, medical achievements, technical wizardry, best B-movies, all-time team of American- born hockey players, and so on and so forth will be wretched up by the supposedly-in-the-know crowd -- not unlike a stomach dosed with ipecac syrup. And while these social/political/ cultural puzzles are pieced together, a fair amount of 20/20 revisionism and lobbying for favorites will take place -- but, of course, we're no different.

So, dear reader, submitted for your approval, is the case for Neil Diamond. It's a guarantee that ol' Neil will not end up on most music lists, but his return to Worcester this Monday has prompted us to reexamine the man. And we have uncovered some startling data: Neil Diamond may well be the greatest, most pure entertainer of the entire century!

Before you turn the page, let it be known that nobody was more surprised than yours truly. The more we listened, though, and read, and then pondered, the more it became obvious that Neil -- something of a cross between Van Morrison, Barry White, Englebert Humperdinck, and Elvis Presley stuffed into one pair of hip-hugging slacks -- is the real deal. Just read on to believe:

* Diamond (not his birth name) started his songwriting career at the fabled Brill Building, which, if you're up on your history, is sort of like the New York Yankees of music. Here Neil became the First Emperor of the Three-Chord, Power Drive Dynasty. Listen to such early gems as "Cherry, Cherry," "Kentucky Woman," and "I'm a Believer," and witness the first cat to successfully hot wire Bob Dylan-folk to rock influences -- before the Byrds did. Listen further and find that his work was parallel to what Phil Spector was laying down with sonics, punch, and ambiance. Realistically, next to Brian Wilson and Team Lennon/McCartney, Neil is one of the most prolific songwriters of the middle to late sixties.

* His first trip up the charts came by way of the Monkees, in the form of "I'm a Believer" (thus making Neil the first unofficial, albeit unwilling, grunge star). But the Monkees didn't stop there. Listen to his songs from the early years ("Solitary Man," "You Got to Me," "Thank the Lord for the Night Time"), and discover that the whole Monkees-shtick is a direct rip-off of the patented Diamond sound! It may be a dubious distinction, at best, but the pre-fab four succeeded at rising up the charts, not to mention the Nielsons, by copping our- man's goods. Speaking of which, a kid named Springsteen would later nick a portion of "Cherry, Cherry," call it "Rosalita," and then be proclaimed "the future of rock and roll."

* Hot August Night has the inside track for the greatest, live album ever. No kidding. Recorded in Los Angeles in the summer of '73, Night catches Diamond at the top of his game and has everything you could ask for in an album, plus a lot more. Good rockin' ("Cracklin Rosie"), plenty of soul ("Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show"), a fair bit of pomposity (the 30-member string section builds to a swell as Diamond takes the stage), and a slew of drama. Nobody gets down with drama the way Neil does (typical example: "`I am,' I said/To no one there/And no one heard at all/Not even the chair"). Nobody pulls it off like him, either, which is a testament to his skills as a performer. Somewhere between camp counselor, revival preacher, aging rocker, and slightly self-absorbed poet, Diamond has a passion for performing that borders on sacred sacrament; he treats music's power like religion. Add to it the stage patter and over-the-top theatrical camp, and you have a great night out captured on disc. Plus, take a look at the cover, of Diamond, slightly hunched over, sweaty, and mostly askew -- you need no further proof that he's somewhat immersed in recreational substance-using. The crowd is rocking, but Neil is flying.

* Diamond has never really fit into the music industry. He's trampled down the path of folk rock, gospel, classical, and country (his last, true album, Tennessee Moon, went to No. 2 on the country charts in '96), yet he hasn't found a genre that embraces him. Sure, he was a big deal on the MOR charts back in the late '70s and early '80s, and he did have five consecutive songs on the charts, starting in '65. But, on the whole, Diamond is the red-headed stepchild of contemporary music. Saying you dig Neil generally gets you the same reaction as announcing a fondness for barium enemas. However, as a result of his (in)ability to find a place to call home, he hasn't hedged at doing what he wants to do. It might be half-baked, spiritual musings over pretty decent orchestration (Jonathan Living ston Seagull), or an entire album of somebody else's stuff (Stones). And why would anyone want to cover "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother"? Only Neil knows, for sure. (He probably just liked the sentiment.) Which brings us to point five.

* Neil Diamond has never had a problem with potentionally making a complete ass of himself. Somewhere, probably starting with the wishy-washy Stones, Neil started to slip. His best work has always been that which he wrote himself. Almost every track that could qualify as corny, hoaky, or flat-out rotten is co-authored by a second party, or it belonged to Judy Collins in the first place. But the cycle was set, and, just like Brian Wilson tapping the insufferable Van Dyke Parks as co-conspirator, a slow spiral into mediocrity ensued. Diamond has never recovered. As a result, the '70s and '80s brought on a pig trough of mush -- "America," "Turn on Your Heartlight," and the unfortunate "Forever in Blue Jeans," to name a few. Rather than learn from his mistakes, though, Diamond has embraced the shittiest of his back-catalogue. Not only that, but also when sung live, he can make you believe the dreck is important and he can breathe life into songs you've heard a thousand times. In the end, he has an incredible knack for coming up roses.

* Unlike Sinatra, who most people pick over Neil, he's never bad-mouthed any music trends threatening his livelihood.

* As we've decided that Neil does what he wants without a caring if he looks dumb, it should be noted that in the long history of multimillionaires, there hasn't been a worse-dressed individual than Neil Diamond is. Flared jeans and Indian necklaces, sequined shirts and tight slacks. If wearing cat poop on your head became fashionable, Neil baby would probably go further by sporting something deposited by a mountain lion.

* Most important, Neil Diamond has always put his audience first, and it shows whenever he hits town. Though the "in the round" format for staging usually brings a smell of decay and middle-of-the-road disaster, Diamond works the stage (rotating, for that matter) as if a ship's captain. He walks against the rotation, runs from end to end, makes jokes, demands sing-alongs, and commands attention at all time. He sings until hoarse and works nearly five decades' worth of material into two hours. You get what you paid for when N.D. plays.

* From a practical standpoint, he's a man who has sold nearly 100-million albums in 34 years. His songs have been covered by artists as diverse as Harry Belfonte, UB40, Johnny Rivers, Urge Overkill, Chet Atkins, Della Reese, Deep Purple, Patti LaBelle, the Highwaymen, and Ol' Blue Eyes himself. He also boasts one of the more popular live acts around, one that crosses generations, gender, and genre, and makes believers of even the most jaded. As Dicky Barrett of the Bosstones recently disclosed, "Neil Diamond is the greatest. . . . He's able to hold an entire roomful of middle-aged women and me captive. What more can you say?"

Or, as one of his biggest fans and a three-time, live show attendee, known to some as the witch at the Leicester assessor's office, but whom I call Mom, relayed while Everybody Loves Raymond was on commercial break, "He's very talented. He writes some nice, perky songs. Live, he really puts everything into it. He's older, I don't know how his voice will hold out, but I'm looking forward to it!"

Neil Diamond appears at 8 p.m. on December 21 at the Worcester Centrum Center. Tickets are $39.50. Call (617) 931-2000.

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