A few months ago I noticed on Twitter that the day was Neil Diamond’s 71st birthday. Just for fun, I posted this news on Facebook along with a YouTube video of “Holly Holy.” Before too long, I was deep in a nostalgic mood.
Diamond’s provided music for my struggling adolescence. So many great songs were (and some still are) personal favorites: “Sweet Caroline,” “Solitary Man,” “Cracklin’ Rosie,” “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show,” “Kentucky Woman,” “Shilo,” and others. The “Hot August Night” album figured largely in my life: I borrowed the double LP set from a girl on whom I had a painful crush (and I hoped this might be the start of some magic between us, but alas). I recorded that album on the reel-to-reel tape deck that my parents bought for my birthday in 1972, and I played it a lot. A little later, smitten with another girl who loved his music, I drew for her a picture of Neil from the 1968 “Greatest Hits” LP, but added his big hair of his “Hot August Night” period. That sounds very “Napoleon Dynamite”-ish, but I was a pretty good artist, and the girl seemed to sincerely think (maybe?) that it was cool.
I found a site, http://www.scaruffi.com/vol1/diamond.html, that discusses Diamond’s ability to mix elements of soul, gospel, country, classical, reggae, and other styles while also having special talent in catchy melodies and excellent arrangements. His voice was adept at evoking the introspection and emotions of his and others’ songs. To me, even his songs of loss (so prevalent and distressing in the music of, for instance, another of my favorites of the time: Jimmy Webb) left me feeling good. Without thinking too deeply about it, I liked the religious imagery that was explicit in songs like “Holly Holy,” “Walk on Water,” and “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show” but flavored other songs, too.
There was a combination of things going on in my life at the time: I had low self-esteem (and would have for a long time) but was working on getting better; I was able to drive for first time; I loved driving around our small town and taking the back roads on summer days as I passed little country churches and peaceful rural scenes; in my genealogy hobby, I was learning about my family history in our hometown and deepening my sense of belonging to that area; I felt all the more identified with my hometown and its history; I was looking toward my own future beyond high school and wondering what lay ahead. Within all these things, “Holly Holy” became a favorite, meaningful song. I loved the chorus’ A-D-Dsus4-D chord progression and imagery of faith, but I also loved the words from the first verse:
Where I am,
What I am,
What I believe in….
Or, as I felt in my heart: place, identity, and faith. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RQwqQwD6OOw
Diamond has been in the news recently because of his third marriage and a resurgence in his record sales. As much as I loved his music, I purchased surprisingly few of his albums back then: only “Double Gold,” I think, and later “Serenade” and “Beautiful Noise.” But I don’t remember how I had all the other great songs in mind and heart; perhaps I owned more LPs and 45s at the time than I recall. I liked the single “Walk on Water,” which followed “Song Sung Blue” and “Play Me,” but didn’t rise as high on the charts as those two and, as I recall, didn’t stay on the radio as long. That annoyed me because I preferred the song to the other two, but I had the 45, with the extended piano coda. This past month, just for fun, I found some of his early albums on eBay and our local vinyl shops.
Reading now about his career, I learn things I didn’t think about at the time. That “Double Gold” album represented Diamond’s first two albums on the Bang label, “The Feel of Neil Diamond” (1966) and “Just for You” (1967). Those were the hits like “Cherry Cherry,” “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon,” “Solitary Man,” “Kentucky Woman,” “Red, Red Wine,” and others. In fact, “The Feel” LP had “Solitary Man” on the side of the record cover, even though that wasn’t the album’s title. The author of the website cited above considers his early albums far ahead of other songwriters of the time.
Then Diamond moved to MCA Records (the Uni label) and released the albums “Velvet Gloves and Spit” (1968, and later it had a different cover), “Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show” (1969, and later it had a different cover), “Touching You, Touching Me” (1969), “Tap Root Manuscript” (1970), “Stones” (1971), and “Moods” (1972). Although the title of “Touching You, Touching Me” comes from the song “Sweet Caroline,” that single was not on this album or originally on any album. It appeared on reissues of the “Brother Love” record. His Uni hits (represented on the “12 Greatest Hits” album) included “Sweet Caroline,” “Shilo,” “Holly Holy,” “Cracklin’ Rosie,” “Play Me,” “I Am…I Said,” “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show,” “Song Sung Blue,” and others.
Diamond then signed with Columbia, which has been his label ever since. Although the first two albums have never been released on CD, Bang Records issued several compilation albums based on those first two albums, and Columbia acquired the rights to those songs but not to the Uni albums. Thus, the several compilation albums represent different labels, as discussed at http://pw1.netcom.com/~zmoq/pages/repackage.htm
Another thing I didn’t realize: “Tap Root Manuscript” made use of “world music” over ten years before other artists like Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon. At my divinity school, some African American friends elicited my help for a Afrocentric chapel service by having me play the song “Soolaimón” on the piano as an anthem. It occurs to me, too, that Neil was ahead of his time in using gospel elements, a few years before some pop and rock artists began to embrace religion and spirituality.