Monday, December 4, 2017

Solitary Man

There is something so utterly uncool about Neil Diamond; maybe the easy-listening style; maybe because your dad liked it (and nothing makes something uncool faster than a dad). Maybe it's "Song Sung Blue," that preposterously hypoglycemic tune (I'm throwing up a little in my mouth), but there was a time when Neil was as cool as a whole roll of Lifesaver Pep O Mints. Though he was briefly hip just as the 60s turned into the 70s – before denim shirts gave way to scarlet jumpsuits – it was a brave soul who dared express his love of Captain Sunshine beyond throwing a few ironic hands in the air as Sweet Caroline blasted away in a local bar.

Diamond’s first hit, though, more readily sums up a canon of melancholy. "Solitary Man" shows the effect of a songwriter struggling, not within the safety net of the Laurel Canyon enclave, but alone on streets of Manhattan, where Neil reports that for seven years as struggling songwriter, he lived on just one sandwich per day. Finally, in 1966 Diamond collaborated with writing duo Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, and came up with three hits during their first writing session together – "Solitary Man," "Cherry Cherry" and "I Got the Feeling (Oh No No)." Solitary Man became Diamond's first chart record, and its modest success, "was enough to turn me from an unknown songwriter pounding the streets for eight years to a guy who has a record on the charts," he explained to the LA Times. "I wasn't trying to write anything about myself necessarily at the time, I thought it was just a nice idea to write a song about a solitary guy. It wasn't until years later, when I went into Freudian analysis, that I understood that it was always me." Less than a year later, Diamond would write one of only a handful of singles that have ever sold more than 10 million copies, The Monkees' "I'm a Believer." (He also penned their themesong.)

Diamond ranks behind only Elton John and Barbara Streisand as the most successful MOR artist of all time, selling over 115 million LPs, which may suggest why Neil's stint at being Leonard Cohen-cool lasted only through the monumental live LP, Hot August Night in 1972.
It was during this concert that Neil put the angst into every song he'd written; something about the catch in his voice that exemplified the isolation, in particular, the incredible "I Am I Said." Diamond’s most soul-baring tribute to loneliness was inspired by a particularly brutal audition – for Bob Fosse's film about the foul-mouthed comedian Lenny Bruce. As Diamond told Rolling Stone, studying for the part and rehearsing the script was a transformative experience for him: "He was just saying all those things I had been holding in. It was all the anger that was pent up in me. Suddenly here I was, speaking words that I had never spoken before. These violent monologues of his, and the way he acted. And I went into therapy almost immediately after that." Diamond would backtrack a lot as his career flourished, sounding more like Woody Allen than a gritty, melancholy songwriter. During a break from the screen test, Diamond took a few minutes to wallow, convinced that he had done miserably. This made for the beginnings of his first Grammy-nominated song. 

So, here's what to do, sneak into the record store, grab a handful of cool LPs (get Tom Waits and Ten Years After or Neil Young), then slip Neil's first two LPs into the pile, or Hot August Night or Tap Root Manuscript and walk bravely up to the register; call it a guilty pleasure, but secretly you'll realize how cool you are for being so unabashedly unhip.