The Traveling Salvation Seagull

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We spend some time in these pages reminding you about music that you might prefer to forget – which seems like a strange way to make friends. Well, if you’re our age, we figure misery loves company. If you’re younger, you may have heard certain less-than-classic recordings that were once popular with your ancestors. You inherited your genes from these people. You might have concerns.

Ariel and I were out shopping the other day and a Neil Diamond song came over the PA system. When this happens Ariel will say, “There’s your guy.” This annoys me a little. At some point I admitted to Ariel that I’d been a Neil Diamond fan as a kid. It was a private confession and I thought she’d have the good taste not to bring it up later. When I object, she puts on a look of surprised innocence and says “What’s wrong? He’s great – I like him too.”

All right. Let’s start with the question you’re really asking at this point: Who the hell is Neil Diamond? Neil Diamond is a songwriter for the band Smash Mouth. Well, not really, but he wrote “I’m A Believer” – the song Smash Mouth is playing in the wedding-reception scene at the end of the film Shrek. Before Shrek, Neil Diamond wrote “Red Red Wine,” which was made famous by the British reggae band UB40. Before that, he was a pop music superstar who sold over 125 million of his own albums, about the same as Bruce Springsteen. And he ranks as the third best-selling artist ever in the Adult Contemporary genre.

Now you’ll want to know what the term Adult Contemporary means. Thirty years ago, it used to mean the music that older people listened to. So just think what it means now. The genre gets little attention today, possibly because few of its fans know how to use the Internet. It may help to add that the two artists who outrank Neil Diamond in this area are Elton John and Barbra Streisand. We could also mention Burt Bacharach, Neil Sedaka, and Carole King, songwriters who once worked in the Brill Building in Manhattan where so much American pop music of a certain era was composed. Neil began his songwriting career there as well, in the 1960s.

Since then Neil has been incredibly prolific. According to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (don’t ask me why they’re keeping track), he’s charted 56 singles and 48 albums. He must have written many hundreds of songs, maybe thousands. You’d expect any artist with this kind of profile to draw a variety of opinions. But that really doesn’t begin to describe the situation. Neil had, probably still has, legions of fans and other legions of anti-fans. If, at the peak of Neil’s popularity, these two giant masses had collapsed in on each other, there’s no telling what might have happened. One critic, David Wild, published a book a few years ago called He Is … I Say: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Neil Diamond. Wild  is an avid fan who considers Neil to be the “Jewish Elvis.” But follow his title through the Dr. Strangelove reference: he’s talking about nuclear annihilation.

How is it possible that people disagree so violently about a pop music artist? The most plausible theory, and the one this blog supports, is that originally there were two Neil Diamonds, and the pudgy one in the sparkly shirt killed the good one in 1974. We’ll take these one at a time.

The good Neil Diamond wrote “Thank The Lord For The Night Time,” “I’m A Believer,” and a whole string of intensely catchy three-chord songs that made life in the late 1960s more cheerful. “I’m A Believer” wasn’t a big hit for Neil himself, but it was huge for the Monkees in 1966. Neil wrote several of the Monkees’ biggest songs before his own career really took off. But within a few years, Neil himself was all over the radio with songs like “Solitary Man,” “Cherry, Cherry,” and especially “Sweet Caroline,” an insanely happy tune whose lyric hook was simply this:

Sweet Caroline,
Good times never seemed so good.

That pure pop feel-goodness was burned into the brains of a million kids who, in the summer of 1969, were young enough or fortunate enough to be listening to the radio by the pool instead of getting drafted.

There was more like that to come, though that fall Neil did something different: he released a weird gospel-tinged song backed by a spooky-sounding choir, with lyrics like this:

Call the sun in the dead of night
And the sun gonna rise in the sky.
Touch a man who can’t walk upright
And that lame man he gonna fly.

Except on Sunday morning, and except in certain parts of the country, words like this didn’t usually come out of your radio. The song was called “Holly Holy,” and it was all the more interesting because Neil had tried the gospel thing before (“Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show”) and just come off sounding like a strange kid from Brooklyn who really needed to come down south and see who he was messing with. The studio version of “Holly Holy” sounds a little bland today, but back in the day it was hard to ignore. No one, by the way, ever had the least idea what the title meant.

Meanwhile Neil was performing live, and opening his act with a song called “Lordy,” which few people heard until the concert album Gold came out in 1970. This was Neil rocking about as hard as he knew how, and stepping out of bounds again lyrically:

Lady she got painted eyes,
Have a way of takin’ to ya,
Cut your heart out for the prize
While the bitch sings Halleluja.

When I first heard this I thought it was really, really good – partly because I misheard the word “bitch” as “fish,” which took away the misogynistic edge and replaced it with just the right touch of surrealism. Bitch was pretty strong for pop music in those days (Elton John’s “The Bitch Is Back” was only four years away, but that’s a measure of how fast the culture was changing). But bitch or fish, it was almost unbelievable coming from the “Sweet Caroline” guy (raising the possibility that there were actually three Neil Diamonds on the job in 1970, but I don’t want to sound like a conspiracy nut).

Neil had other catchy pop hits around this time, like “Cracklin’ Rosie” (who sounded suspiciously like a prostitute, though Casey Kasem assured us she was a bottle of wine) and the nostalgic “Shilo.” But in 1971 he produced a remarkable song called “I Am…I Said” which, in retrospect, seems like his definitive moment, the song that finally promoted him from mere pop songwriter to the Deep And Sensitive Songwriter who moved so many people to joy, or sorrow, or frantic annoyance as the 70s wore on. The chorus went:

I am, I said
To no one there,
And no one heard at all,
Not even the chair.

This was the moving lament of a man desperately searching for meaning, or validation, or something. Unfortunately it also revealed a man desperately searching for a word to rhyme with there. If you want to have some fun with Neil and his chair, Dave Barry’s riff on the subject is a good place to start, but don’t be too quick to judge. A lot of pop music by this time was simmering with inarticulate teenage despair and drug-fueled nihilism, but Neil may have been the first to stand up and go all existential on us in plain English. People swooned – not all of them, and not me, but lots of them.

In the summer of 1972 Neil performed a series of concerts at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles, which resulted in the live double album Hot August Night. This is the last time that Good Neil was seen in public, and he was in great form. A Neil Diamond concert by this time was an impressive production, with a solid band, excellent sound, and a pit full of real violins and cellos. Neil’s voice had risen to the occasion, too. He sounded huge, almost operatic, even on his most lightweight hits. It was weird, but not in a bad way. The evening opened with a classy overture; it closed with a thunderous rendition of “Holly Holy,” a “fantastically overwrought” (Dan Epstein, Rolling Stone) version of “I Am…I Said,” and a maxed-out “Brother Love” in which Neil finally achieved a resemblance to an authentic lunatic.

I’ve made this sound like a pretty good record, right? But you haven’t heard the middle two sides yet.

* * *

The warning signs were there early on. In 1968 Neil Diamond released a song called “Knackelflerg,” whose entire reason for existing was to regale you with the hilarity of the made-up word knackelflerg. The same album gave us “The Pot Smoker’s Song,” which as a reasoned critique of illicit drug use closely rivaled the film Reefer Madness. These tracks were species of the genus “novelty song,” an ancient form that had been popular in the 1950s (think of the Coasters, or Alvin and the Chipmunks) and would later evolve into droll hipness like the B-52s. By the time of “Knackelflerg,” intentionally goofy music had barely begun its swerve into post-modernism, but here was Neil already wiping out and crashing into the stands. Nor did he seem chastised. In 1972 he put the songs “Gitchy Goomy” (more nonsense words) and “Porcupine Pie” (nonsense food items) on the Moods LP, which got a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year. It didn’t win.

Then there were the country-music parodies. What, exactly, was the point of a song called “You’re So Sweet, Horseflies Keep Hangin’ ‘Round Your Face”? (A song which contained the lines “Front teeth missin’, / But that’s fine for kissin’.”  I was at a tender age and think this probably delayed the onset of puberty by a few weeks.) On the Hot August Night live album, this song is paired with a mock crying-in-your-beer piece called “Soggy Pretzels,” and you can hear the sophisticated Californians in the audience giggling and clapping as Neil sends up his imaginary rednecks. These are the songs that Robert Christgau said “might get a poorer, drunker man lynched.” If only.

Well, lots of good artists have released dumb recordings at some point, and the examples above were only misdemeanors. But bigger wheels were already turning, starting the cycle that would change everything, sweep Good Neil out of sight forever and leave Bad Neil in the ascendant. It began in 1970 with the publication of a slender book by Richard Bach.

* * *

Jonathan Livingston Seagull was the publishing phenomenon of its day, posting Harry Potter-like sales figures. There was no one who had not heard of it. The story concerns a nonconformist seagull who’s ejected from his flock because he dreams of flying higher and faster than other seagulls; after wandering in exile he encounters a band of super-evolved gulls who help him achieve enlightenment. Eventually Jonathan returns to his old flock to teach ambitious young protégés, while some of the superstitious older generation begin to wonder if he is “the son of the Great Gull.”

Jonathan was a huge chunk of 1970s zeitgeist, the missing link between Norman Vincent Peale and the Jedi Knights, the granddaddy of a thousand New Age exhortations to achieve anything you want just by closing your eyes and feeling very, very special. Since there wasn’t yet a multi-billion dollar self-help industry exploiting this idea, there wasn’t any particular backlash against it. To most people Jonathan was an expression of simple positiveness, and in 1971 and 1972 probably hundreds of thousands of copies were wrapped up as Christmas and birthday presents. But as a cultural juggernaut Jonathan had one glaring limitation. With its thin plot, its near-religious content, its lack of any human characters and abundance of talking seagulls, it was a book that could never, ever be made into a movie.

The movie, directed by Hall Bartlett, came out in the fall of 1973. Bartlett tried to bury the story’s weaknesses under miles of pretty aerial footage of the California coastline. What he couldn’t conceal was that Jonathan wasn’t really a novel but only a longish short story – you can read it aloud in less time than it takes to watch the film. This meant that the movie-Jonathan was going to be flying around with nothing to say for a whole lot of screen-minutes. The photography was nice, but Bartlett must have figured he needed something extra to get an audience to sit through it. He needed a wall-to-wall score by Neil Diamond.

That might not sound like a job for the Jewish Elvis. But by this time Neil was laying down a different kind of sound: his recent big hits had been the insipid “Song Sung Blue,” still beloved of elementary school choir directors, and “Play Me,” an earnest love ballad notorious for its effect on what in the 1970s were sometimes called The Ladies, some of whom appeared at his concerts holding up signs that said – so help me – “Play me, Neil!” The energy he was dispensing these days was less physical and more phrenic. By now, Neil had appeared staring out of so many album covers with the same blank intensity that you figured he stood around looking like that all the time, lost in his deep and perhaps tortured thoughts. (It’s interesting to compare him with that other great starer out of album covers from the same period, James Taylor. James looked solemn, yes, but Neil looked like you could whack him with a two-by-four and not get a response.) In short, as Neil’s music settled down into somnolent Easy Listening, his persona took on gravitas. You felt the spark had gone out of his tunes precisely because he was now trying to tell you something really important. He was just the guy to score the first New Age movie.

* * *

If you’re wondering, Jonathan on film was pretty awful. It even has the distinction of being one of the three movies that critic Roger Ebert ever admitted to walking out on. For the scenes with dialog, real seagulls were filmed standing around in what someone hoped looked like conversational attitudes, and voiceover was added. This caused many moviegoers to hurt themselves laughing. But in fact there was more music than dialog, and long stretches of the film were effectively nothing more than a Neil Diamond music video starring a bird. Audiences were nonplussed, partly because music videos didn’t really exist in 1973, and partly because of the cognitive dissonance between the sleepy nature documentary on screen and the orchestrated bombast coming out of the sound system – timpani rolling, cymbals crashing, Neil often singing at the top of his lungs. Neil’s orchestrator, the able Lee Holdridge, had simply done his job and given the songs the full Hollywood treatment. But critics, who were already falling over themselves to ridicule every other aspect of the film, called the score “overbearing” – and juxtaposed with the vacuum that was the rest of the movie, it was. A friend of mine who’d seen it asked me to check if her ears were bleeding.

If this sounds like a disaster for Neil Diamond, it wasn’t. The same soundtrack that made filmgoers duck and cover was a huge success on the stereo at home, where people could set the volume knob to their liking. The Jonathan soundtrack LP was an international hit, went double platinum in the States, and made a lot more money than the movie ever did. It went down especially well with Neil’s established fans. With the seagull visuals out of the way, they were free to project whatever meaning they wanted onto Neil’s lyrics, which were loaded with the quasi-religious tone they remembered from “Holly Holy”:

While the sand would become the stone
which begat the spark turned to living bone

That might look like a cheerfully psychedelic Led Zeppelin lyric, probably about sex or hobbits, but coming from Neil it sounded deadly serious and even a little churchy. If the “begat” there isn’t Biblical enough for you, another song on the album consisted of nothing but permutations of the four words holy, sanctus, Kyrie, gloria. A photo inside the album jacket showed a pile of books, implying that Neil had done some heavy reading to prepare himself for the task at hand. Most of the books in the photo relate to Hinduism, though you can also make out The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ, the “channeled” text by Levi H. Dowling which purported to fill in the missing years of Jesus’s biography. If all that seems out of proportion with the twee little children’s-book-for-adults that started it all, well, welcome to the 1970s.

* * *

Three years later, in the fall of 1976, I found myself in a large concert arena waiting for Neil Diamond to take the stage. On my right was my girlfriend Alice, a diehard Rolling Stones fan who was there frankly under duress; on my left the older couple who’d kindly offered us their extra tickets. The atmosphere in the hall crackled with anticipation – something you may find hard to believe about a long-ago concert by an Adult Contemporary artist. Alice found it hard to believe even as it was happening. I think she felt she’d stumbled into a huge cult meeting, which wasn’t necessarily far from the truth.

Left: Good Neil in 1972; Right: you know it's love because it's in a big italic font, 1977

Left: Good Neil in 1971; Right: a few years later – you know it’s love because it’s in a big italic font.

The Neil who showed up that night didn’t exactly match the pictures from his 1971 tour. He might have gained a little weight. His shirt was covered with, if not made entirely of, glass beads (this would later become a Neil trademark). The shirt glittered so aggressively in the spotlights that Neil looked like a human disco ball. There was also a personality change, for Neil had formerly been an introvert with a tentative, almost apologetic stage presence. Now he had learned to work the crowd. He introduced his old hits with the manner of a game-show host unveiling a nice set of kitchen appliances. The crowd went crazy nevertheless (except for Alice, who appeared to be considering her options should she need to throw up) and Neil kept egging them on. He’d developed a gesture, bending at the knees and holding two thumbs up, that never failed to multiply the cheers. It was slick, professional, Las Vegas style entertainment. So why, then, was it also like watching your dad get down in a karaoke bar? Where was the mystical Neil of the seagull album? Is this what he’d learned from reading the Bhagavad Gita?

The nearest thing we got to an answer came at the end of the concert. This was the moment formerly reserved for the “Brother Love” gospel rave which was Neil’s traditional grand finale, but tonight that slot was filled by a 20-minute mashup of Jonathan Livingston Seagull. It seemed unlikely that this could succeed. The orchestration had to be adapted to Neil’s band, which had jettisoned its orchestra in favor of one those mid-70s synthesizers that emitted a sort of sonic string cheese. Jonathan’s brooding lyrics and ponderous music had to be worked into a crowd-pleasing ending. This should have been impossible, but edits were made, a little new material was injected, and somehow when it was over there was the crowd exploding, the arena rocking on its foundation, the Play Me ladies reaching out from the upper decks while mass hysteria set in. As the Seagull set closed, ten thousand Bic lighters went up in the air (real ones of course, in those days), and just when there was nowhere left for the crescendo to go, the Sign appeared. While Neil held his thumbs in the air and irradiated the crowd with his shirt, a gadget in the stage lighting projected a brilliant, shining seagull into the air above his head. Pandemonium. As the final chord reverberated away you could almost hear the question echoing through the hall: Was Neil the son of the Great Gull?

* * *

As it turned out, I wasn’t witnessing the birth of a new world religion that night. Apparently it takes more than 10,000 ecstatic fans with Bic lighters to start one (though I still worry it might not take much more). But even if the Jonathan Religion didn’t last, it probably left its mark. The next time you find your place of worship decorated like a nursery school, the next time your employer tries to motivate you with cute posters and infantile slogans, stop for a moment – you may just hear the faint laughter of faraway seagulls. Still, that has little to do with Neil, who soon moved on to other projects.

What seemed clear as we drove away from the concert that night was that the Neil Diamond universe had cracked in two; the before had sheared off from the horrible after. The older couple we’d come with were ecstatic, for they had just had the outstanding musical experience of their lives. They would not stop talking about it for weeks. It enriched their lives and probably strengthened their marriage. Meanwhile my girlfriend Alice was huddled beside me in a fetal position, still working at holding her supper down, trying to make some sense of the barrage of self-satisfied bad taste and downright dumbness she had just witnessed. From now on, people would disagree about Neil Diamond.

Your opinion had something to do with your age. The term “generation gap” was a bit threadbare by this date, but tonight we’d seen a man step up to the edge of that gap, slip on a banana peel, and fall headlong into the abyss. When he climbed back out it was over there on the far side, with the old folks. At the age of 35, Neil had entered his “mature phase,” and his songs took on a certain leaden world-weariness. A wag at Stereo Review (Noel Coppage, if my memory is any good) worried that Neil’s soul had been “sunburned by the Glare of Life.” After Jonathan, Neil would be marketed as a kind of sage, as the voice of experience. This included amorous experience. In 1977 he released an album called I’m Glad You’re Here With Me Tonight, whose cover featured Neil dressed up for a date, in a blue blazer and open shirt with the big 70s collar wings. It was like running into your physics teacher down at the local disco. Is that Mr Diamond? Jesus. Let’s get out of here.

And that, kids, is where the Adult Contemporary genre came from. According to some critics, Neil established it almost single-handedly, and had it all to himself for a while, though soon it would be back-filled with older artists like Sinatra and Streisand, who needed to be filed somewhere by a music industry suddenly obsessed with marketing categories. Then the casualties of the current decade started limping in: Billy Joel, Barry Manilow, John Denver – those nice, talented guys who sped onto the drawbridge just as it was going up. I can’t imagine young people ever rediscovering them the way they periodically rediscover, say, the Beatles. Which means that when Neil comes on the radio and Ariel says to me, “there’s your guy” – well, it’s true. He belongs to us, the lucky ones who spent that long-ago summer listening to the radio by the pool, when good times never seemed so good.

A lot of things went wrong in the Seventies. It often seemed as if some evil machine had vacuumed up all the creativity and spontaneity of the previous decade, selected the worst possible permutations of everything, and started spewing out plastic copies by the trainload. Combine the sexual revolution with the Age of Aquarius, let the mixture ripen for a couple of years, and what did you get? A million guys in bars asking women what their sign was. Musically, the decade went to hell so fast it made your head spin: consider that the Billboard number one song for the year 1970 was by Simon and Garfunkel; in 1975 it was by The Captain and Tennille. On the religious front, the thousands of college kids who heard about Buddhism and Hinduism from Kerouac and Salinger somehow turned into the million spiritual sightseers who would found the modern New Age movement. (Did I mention that the master seagull in Jonathan was named Chiang? It was either going to be that or Eagle Whisperer.) To be fair to Neil, I have no evidence that he ever mentioned his astrological sign in public. But he’s still one of our outstanding examples of Seventies Man – if for no other reason than that he was so successful at channeling the times. Which is really no grounds for impeachment, as far as I’m concerned. It’s not as if he was handed a list of decades to choose from, and deliberately picked the 70s. He was just there. Somebody had to be.

And of course his career didn’t end there. He went on making albums, which sold well on the Adult Contemporary planet, wherever that is. In 1976 he appeared at The Band’s farewell concert (filmed as the documentary The Last Waltz), looking awkward and painfully out of place on stage with the likes of Bob Dylan and Neil Young. His career as an actor began and ended with a 1980 remake of The Jazz Singer, which wasn’t quite as bad as everyone said, and which like Jonathan Livingston Seagull produced an album that skunked its movie commercially. Beginning in the 90s Neil made three Christmas albums – think about that. One Christmas album is the international symbol of a career going down in flames, but to make a second and a third seems almost sublime. And Neil is still going strong – on the evening I’m writing this in May 2015 he’s performing at the Hollywood Bowl, and no doubt making a lot of people very happy.

In 2005 Neil made an album called Twelve Songs, which won a good deal of respect for its relatively simple production (for a Neil Diamond album) and the directness of its lyrics:

So if they ask you when I’m gone
Was it everything he wanted?
When he had to travel on
Did he know he’d be missed?

Given that the title of the song is “Hell Yeah,” this seems less poignant than most of his 70s stuff. And come on, he was only 64 when he recorded it. But if and when Neil does travel on, of course I’ll miss him, because he’s my guy.

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