As the nation’s birthday approaches and we honor what makes this country great, save some attention for Neil Diamond. The favorite artist of moms everywhere has been making music for 50 years—including the indelible pro-USA jam “America”—and has affected pop culture in significant ways. Today we begin a two-part chronological look at those accomplishments, each with a “Neil Diamond Cool Rating” assessment to determine adjacent levels of Diamond hipness. Tune in tomorrow for appearances by Johnny Cash, Quentin Tarantino, and the Boston Red Sox.
Like many Jewish kids from the five boroughs, Neil went to a summer camp upstate to spend a few weeks experiencing the out-of-doors. While most kids don’t have an experience more pivotal than surreptitious makeouts with a fellow teen from the camp across the lake, Diamond had a moment at camp that would change his life forever. Pete Seeger, while one of the most prominent folk singers in America, had been blacklisted a few years earlier, and made ends meet by teaching music classes and workshops at schools and summer camps. He performed for the campers, and some of the kids performed their own songs alongside Seeger. It made an impression. While Diamond’s musical experience had been limited to school choir, he picked up the guitar as soon as he got back to Brooklyn, began writing songs, and the rest was history.
Neil Diamond Cool Rating: 3. Meeting a musical legend is great, but Neil himself was still a gawky, mosquito-bitten teen who couldn’t play an instrument. [Mike Vago]
Just shy of his college graduation, Diamond was offered a job writing songs for $50 a week. He jumped at the chance, even though it meant dropping out of school. Although his contract wasn’t renewed after an initial 16-week stint, Diamond landed a record contract with Columbia, who dropped him after a year. He went back to songwriting, this time in the Brill Building, New York City’s legendary songwriting factory whose roster through the years included Burt Bacharach, Sonny Bono, Marvin Hamlisch, Carole King, Leiber and Stoller, Johnny Mercer, Neil Sedaka, Paul Simon, Phil Spector, and countless others who churned out an impressive number of 1960s pop hits. For his part, Diamond had hits writing “Sunday And Me” for Jay And The Americans, as well as a popular televised rock band (see below). Diamond barely made enough money to live on during his years at the Brill Building, but he was honing his craft, and stockpiling songs that would carry him through his early recording career. In 1993, Diamond looked back fondly on those years with Up On The Roof: Songs From The Brill Building, in which he covered other Brill-associated artists.
Neil Diamond Cool Rating: 4. Working in a legendary songwriting factory is a lot less cool when you’re not earning enough to live on. Before he started writing hits, Diamond only made enough to spend 35 cents a day on food. [Mike Vago]
3. Songwriter for The Monkees: “I’m A Believer,” “(Look Out) Here Comes Tomorrow,” “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” (1966-67)
While three of Diamond’s most successful songs from his Brill Building era—“I’m A Believer,” “Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow),” and “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You”—were recorded by The Monkees, Diamond had always intended to release them under his own name. Somehow, perhaps due to the power behind their combination music and TV deal, the four faux-Beatles beat him to it, releasing covers of his songs before Diamond’s originals were even available. The fluke move helped him garner more songwriter cred, but considering “I’m A Believer” ended up a bestselling single of 1967, it’s probably safe to assume that Diamond wishes he’d held on to that one.
Neil Diamond Cool Rating: At the time, probably about a 4. Now, maybe a 7. [Marah Eakin]
Appearing on an episode of a CBS drama might not be a sign of hipness in 2015, but Mannix was a surprising bastion of cool in the late 1960s and early 1970s, giving the spotlight to Buffalo Springfield and Lou Rawls as well as our man Neil. During the season-one episode “The Many Deaths Of Saint Christopher,” detective Joe Mannix (Mike Connors) strolls into a dingy dive called The Bad Scene, looking for a particular girl but instead stumbling upon Diamond delivering an acoustic version of “The Boat That I Row.” Just after Diamond shifts into “Raisin’ Caine,” a (staged) fight breaks out as Mannix attempts to get in the girl’s good graces by protecting her honor, and the sucker-punched detective ends up lying on his back on a table. His song interrupted, Diamond leans over Mannix and asks, “Hey, man, do you mind if I finish the set by myself?” As Mannix is helped away by the girl, Diamond steps back onstage and gets right back to doing what he did best in ’67: rocking out.
Neil Diamond Cool Rating: 8. Joe Mannix was about as cool as they come, but after that one-liner about having his gig interrupted, CBS should’ve given the green light to a spin-off: Neil Diamond: Acoustic Badass. [Will Harris]
Only an album as formidable as Diamond’s live double LP Hot August Night could get away with a cover photo so ridiculous. There’s our man, eye closed and mouth open, hands cupped in front of his crotch, in some kind of grotesque expression of ecstasy. It’s an oddly erotic image for a man with such a soft-rock reputation. But the picture helps sell the package (so to speak). This is the record that framed Diamond as a sensational concert attraction, who’d string together one massive hit after another and gets the crowd worked into a frenzy. Better than a greatest-hits collection, Hot August Night puts the classic singles from the first decade of Diamond’s career into the context of a sweaty, exuberant rock ’n’ roll show, making him seem like a genuine phenomenon, instead of just another AM radio hack.
Neil Diamond Cool Rating: 10. [Noel Murray]
Leave it to Neil Diamond to follow up a blockbuster like Hot August Night with a soundtrack about a seagull. Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull, a spiritual fable about a beach bird, became a surprise 1970 bestseller with its focus on self-actualization and -improvement. This was the kind of thing that could only happen in the ’70s; Jonathan Livingston Seagull was likely required reading at Don Draper’s meditation camp. Diamond penned the soundtrack for the book’s cinematic version, which featured trained seagulls to depict the book’s characters. The soundtrack turned out to be the most successful thing about this ill-fated effort, nabbing Diamond a Grammy Best Original Score Written For A Motion Picture Or A Television Special, and making more money than the film itself. The heavily instrumental soundtrack offers a more orchestral, spiritual side of Neil Diamond, as he extrapolates about the bird’s “silver wings,” heading for the “farthest shore.” But the fact remains that it’s still, in essence, a movie about a goddamned seagull.
Neil Diamond Cool Rating: 2. Diamond should realize by now that everyone in his live-show audience runs out and grabs a drink whenever he insists on playing “Skybird.” [Gwen Ihnat]
Even now, Googling “Neil Diamond Last Waltz” brings up articles and forum posts asking variations on the same question: How did a musician as unhip and middle-of-the-road as Neil Diamond end up sharing the stage with Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, and Muddy Waters for The Band’s big farewell concert/film The Last Waltz? It’s a question that even some of the people in the show asked at the time. But Band frontman Robbie Robertson conceived The Last Waltz to tell the story of working musicians—like Diamond, with his Brill Building background—and he’d produced Diamond’s terrific 1976 album Beautiful Noise, which includes the song “Dry Your Eyes” that the big guy performed on that November 1976 night. It’s a powerhouse number, done well by Diamond and The Band, and if it doesn’t seem as cool as its companions in the concert, too bad. Beautiful Noise and that Last Waltz performance are still among the highlights of Neil’s career.
Neil Diamond Cool Rating: 7. [Noel Murray]
8. Duets with his Brooklyn high school choir-mate Barbra Streisand for the non-romantic “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” (1978)
In one of the first mainstream examples of a mashup, a few local DJs started cutting together Neil Diamond’s and Barbra Streisand’s separate solo versions of the tearjerker ballad “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” to make it sound like the two old Erasmus Hall High School classmates were singing to each other. Seizing an opportunity, Diamond and Streisand—who’d occasionally talked in interviews about how they were passing acquaintances as teenagers—re-recorded the song as an official duet, and scored a No. 1 hit. This would be a niftier story if “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” weren’t so maudlin and schmaltzy, but at least Alan and Marilyn Bergman’s song (to which Diamond contributed additional music and words) was plugged into the national zeitgeist, at a time when divorce and separation were major topics in op-eds and popular culture.
Neil Diamond Cool Rating: 4. [Noel Murray]
9. The Jazz Singer makes Neil Diamond the first-ever Razzie winner for Worst Actor (and also nets him a Golden Globe nomination) (1980)
It turns out, “Neil Diamond, actor” was not meant to be a series of words that go together. If you’re going to remake a landmark film, selecting one that requires a blackface performance probably isn’t the best bet. Poor choice of material aside, Diamond was almost universally criticized for his lackluster performance as a Jewish singer-songwriter whose emotional turmoil upends his promising music career. Adding insult to ignominy, The Jazz Singer was released just in time for the very first Razzie Awards, winning the first-ever award for Worst Actor, even as the Golden Globes continued to prove their legitimacy by nominating him for Best Actor. Still, leave it to Diamond to spin gold from dross: The film’s soundtrack went multi-platinum.
Neil Diamond Cool Rating: A 2 that’s wearing blackface. [Alex McCown]
Easily the goofiest Top 10 song in Diamond’s discography, “Heartlight” reportedly sprung into existence after the singer saw E.T. with his friends and collaborators Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager. High on Spielbergian uplift, the trio cranked out a song that alludes throughout to the little alien who changed a boy’s life. “Heartlight” was unauthorized (which later cost its composers some money in rights fees) and it’s not immediately obvious what it’s about. As a result, back in 1982 radio-listeners across the country had the common experience of humming along to the latest Neil Diamond hit and then saying, “Wait, is he singing about E.T.? That’s… weird.”
Neil Diamond Cool Rating: 2. [Noel Murray]
The original version of “Red Red Wine,” which appeared on Neil Diamond’s sophomore effort, 1967’s Just For You, was a sob-in-your-Merlot soft-rock ballad. Plenty of artists saw the song’s potential, however, including U.K. artist Tony Tribe, who helped raise the profile of Trojan Records by recording a reggae-inflected version in 1969. Many years later, another U.K. reggae act, UB40, preserved the melancholy of Diamond’s original and the livelier grooves of Tribe’s version with their own take on “Red Red Wine.” The 1983 song ended up becoming a No. 1 hit in the U.K. and a Top 40 hit in the U.S., but showed remarkable staying power throughout the decade: The tune actually hit No. 1 again in 1988, this time in the U.S. Ever-gracious, Diamond cites the UB40 version as one of his favorite covers of his songs—and in perhaps the ultimate gesture of respect, his 2015 tour featured an exuberant, reggae-driven version of “Red Red Wine,” complete with plenty of dance moves and an approximation of UB40’s mid-song rap.
Neil Diamond Cool Rating: 8. Absolutely bumped up a few notches for 2015’s live version and smooth stage moves. [Annie Zaleski]
Fans of Neil Diamond have a high tolerance for cheese, and in the ’80s, Diamond was at his cheesiest. Nowhere is this more apparent than this hilariously hokey TV special that’s part music video, part live performance, and part painfully unfunny sketch comedy. The performances are enjoyably goofy—check out the “futuristic” music video for “Heading For The Future”—but the comedy just lands with a thud. There’s a bit where Diamond sees kids on a basketball court dressed as a sun and moon, arguing by quoting his lyrics to “Play Me.” (“You are the sun, I am the moon, play me!”) Another finds Carol Burnett doing characters as Diamond hosts his own version of The Carol Burnett Show. Lionel Ritchie shows up in a cameo to make a joke that’s basically punctuated with a rim shot. Hello Again was made in 1986, but feels so much older—luckily the whole thing is on YouTube.
Neil Diamond Cool Rating: 1. It doesn’t get less cool than this. [Kyle Ryan]