We have been featuring the music of Neil Diamond frequently these past couple weeks. Why? you may ask. Because this month marks 40 years since he recorded Hot August Night, the epic live album which has more or less defined his legacy. We are celebrating this milestone with a day-long tribute Sunday August 19th here in the shop featuring our annual coloring contest (this year: the cover of Diamond’s Shilo) and live music by the Twin Cities’ premiere Neil Diamond cover band, Neil Dynamite and the Heartlights.
Today, four perspectives on the shadow cast by a single Hot August Night…
HANG ON TO A DREAM
“America” is the only song I sang in 6th grade choir that I have continued to enjoy in the twenty-plus years since (so don’t get me started on goddamn “Kokomo”). At the same time I remember being a little confused when I bought a copy of The Jazz Singer, because while “America” and “Love on the Rocks” are pretty sweet songs they’re hardly jazz.
So here’s what I learned while sparing myself the two hours it would take to actually watch the movie: Neil Diamond’s Jazz Singer is a remake of the 1927 Al Jolson movie, which is most noted for inaugurating the era modern motion pictures by including synchronized dialogue sequences. It was the first “talkie”.
the Jazz Singer had already been remade in the 50s (with Danny Thomas and Peggy Lee), but the Neil Diamond version is presumably a little more sincere as Diamond is, like Jolson, a Jew. Then again, pretty much everything you saw on the movie screen in 1980 was insincere at best (“Many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view,” said Obi Wan Kenobi that same year).
Although the original Jazz Singer had ushered a generation of filmmakers and stars out of relevancy, the story concludes with it’s hero, Jakie, both moving forward and reuniting with the traditions of his family. At least, I think it does. The Jazz Singer solidified Al Jolson’s stardom in 1927 but only furthered Neil Diamond’s brooding akwardness in 1980.
Still, he could still make a pretty awesome song when he wanted to – “America” and “Love on the Rocks” were hits even though the movie was not, because they’re good songs, even if you’d only teach one of them to a room full of 6th graders.
I’D LIKE TO SAY WE’D BE OKAY
My favorite Neil Diamond song is “Forever in Blue Jeans”, which was on the 1978 album You Don’t Bring Me Flowers. It was not one of his eight #1 hits, although the album’s title track, his re-recorded version as a duet with Barbra Streisand, was. “Forever in Blue Jeans” takes me back to a childhood memory that’s maybe from the same year I remember singing “America” in the assembly and waving a little flag along with everyone else in my class…
…and it’s riding around town in my mom’s 1980 Malibu (later my brother’s first car). Her radio station of choice was WLTE, “Lite FM”. That blue sedan and that station fostered my lifelong love for Al Stewart, Jim Croce and, yes, Neil Diamond. You Never Bring Me Flowers could well have been the station’s programming standard: “WWNDS”, they could ask. What would Neil Diamond sing, they could ask.
“Forever in Blue Jeans” has always held for me more weight than most adult contemporary pop. I take a certain pride in the blue jeans I’m wearing as I type these very words behind the counter of the record shop and even as a boy I understood things were going to start getting worse when my father stopped wearing blue jeans on Saturdays.
Like most of Diamond’s pre-Hot August Night songs, it’s kind of depressing if you listen to the lyrics: “I’d like to say / we’d do okay / forever in blue jeans.” Nothing’s promised, in fact it doesn’t even seem likely, but shit. It’s what he’d like to say.
Years later my parents have long separated and 202.9 FM has become a bullshit pop country station. My dad invited me to meet him at a lunch at the Minneapolis Club, but I was asked to leave on account of my blue jeans. I sulked across the street and had a delicious proletarian grilled cheese sandwich and bowl of tomato soup at Peter’s Grill and read a copy of the New York Times some old fella passed down the counter when he left. My father joined me after he and his business partner were done at the Minneapolis Club and I don’t think there were any hard feelings. I could have been angry and he could have been embarrassed, but I think we both were decent enough to assume a guest was a guest no matter what sort of pants he wore.
(“Forever in Blue Jeans”)
STILL CAN MAKE ME FEEL THAT WAY
Somewhere between Hot August Night and You Don’t Bring me Flowers Neil Diamond had ceased to be cool. The gigantic, over-produced Beautiful Noise is often regarded as one of Diamond’s best, but I don’t get it. If we’re going to celebrate the “uncool” Neil Diamond, I think we ought to praise I’m Glad You’re Here with me Tonight, the forgotten and mediocre follow-up to Beautiful Noise that first introduced “You Don’t Bring me Flowers” and also offered one of his #1 singles, “Desiree”:
I don’t he was trying to be cool anymore (like he was on the cover of his second album, Just for You). By 1978 Neil Diamond wanted to be sophisticated. He probably resented the fact that people got his start writing songs for the Monkees (not true, they just covered him several times) and wanted to prove he could be a great songwriter. He’d hit his stride by the late seventies, but nobody hears the songs he wrote anymore because the arrangements are so boring. I’m Glad You’re Here with me Tonight doesn’t really have the liveliness of Diamond’s sixties and early seventies albums, and that’s why it blends together with most of the pop records of it’s era regardless of how good the songs are.
The year Diamond re-recorded “You Don’t Bring me Flowers” with Babs, Nick Lowe wrote a song about the silent movie star Marie Provost which included the line “It’s all downhill once you’ve past your peak.” If we start with the standard Hot August Night narrative – Neil Diamond, icon and superstar at his peak – it’s been a long, sad decline.
Boom. Really, so cruel? I guesso. After reading my posts about Neil Diamond last week a friend wrote to suggest I check out this episode of “Becker”, in which the inherent un-coolness of Neil Diamond is a driving plot point:
TV star Ted Danson is waaaaaay less cool than Neil Diamond, who was at least undeniably awesome at some point (right around August 24, 1972). Ted Danson was never cool. If he had a peak it was midway through the first episode of “Cheers” in 1982, and “Becker” is so bad that even I – a lifelong lover of TV sitcoms – didn’t make it twenty-two minutes.
The worst part of “Becker” is that Ted Danson doesn’t make fun of Neil Diamond – he’s the fan.
YOU DON’T BRING ME FLOWERS
In the beginning “You Don’t Bring me Flowers” was just another song filling out the album, no different than “Gitchy Goomy”. Just a couple years later it almost became a movie until Diamond dropped out of the project to star in The Jazz Singer instead.
Barbra Streisand covered the song later the same year on her album Songbird (the one where she’s holding the dog on the cover). Another song filling out the album, but this time somebody in the studio smelled a hit. Maybe Babs’ people called Neil’s people, or maybe the other way around. There’s no doubt Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond are the kind of people who have people.
Of all the Streisand duets it’s the most likely to be enjoyed by someone who wouldn’t otherwise be listening to Streisand (Shit, Kristofferson sounds like the only person more uncomfortable listening to A Star is Born than, um, the rest of us). Diamond’s best songs are dark, brooding loner songs so a duet, even one about a broken relationship, is kind of weird. You could also wonder if it’s really a lover he was singing about in the first place.
(“You Don’t Bring me Flowers” – Neil Diamond’s original version from I’m Glad You’re Here with me Tonight)
(“You Don’t Bring me Flowers” – Barbra Streisand’s cover on Songbird)
(“You Don’t Bring me Flowers” – 1978 duet by Neil Diamond and Barbra Streisand)