In Defense of Neil Diamond

Legend has it Bob Dylan bumped into Neil Diamond on Malibu Beach.

After some small talk, Dylan acknowledged that he loved Diamond’s Song Sung Blue. Diamond — perhaps embarrassed that one of the greatest American songwriters would compliment a tune with the lyrics “Song sung blue; every garden grows one” — fell quiet.

Moments passed before Diamond denied writing it. Dylan — who penned lines such as “There must be some way out of here, said the joker to the thief” — insisted it was Diamond’s song. Diamond continued to deny authorship, and they soon parted.

Such is the fate of Neil Diamond, trumped by Bob Dylan even if it was a genuine compliment.

It’s easy to mock Diamond. He’s worn a sequin suit more than once, and recorded You Don’t Bring Me Flowers with Barbara Streisand, music that, when its sound waves carry far enough into space, will prompt aliens to attack Earth.

But Diamond started his career as a critically successful songwriter, pumping out clever radio hits such I’m a Believer; Cherry, Cherry and Solitary Man. UB40 stole his Red, Red Wine and twice made it a number-one hit.

He could also reach deeper than perhaps Dylan and others realized. His I Am, My Said often causes a chuckle. “I am, I said…and no one heard me. Not even the chair.” That seems like a lazy, late-night scramble to find a rhyme for “to no one there” — words that would inspire Clint Eastwood to use furniture as a prop.

But listen closely and you hear Diamond — whose commercial success had him leaving behind his New York home for a mansion in Los Angeles — seeking spiritual solace.

The Hebrew “Ehyeh asher ehyeh” translates to “I will be what I will be” or, as most English translations of Exodus 3:12 offer, “I am that I am.” God gave that answer to Moses, while Diamond calls for Ehyeh and finds nobody is there.

Diamond lost his way by the mid-1970s, and soon devolved into the syrupy pop musician for which he’s best known. On the Vegas scale, he’s not quite Elvis but also not quite Tom Jones. He’s stuck in the middle, a position that Bill Murray’s character noted in What About Bob: “There are two types of people in the world. Those who like Neil Diamond and those who don’t.”

Which made Diamond the ideal showstopper during Saturday’s Red Sox game, the first time the team played at Fenway Park since a deadly bombing marred the Boston Marathon five days earlier.

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Since 2002, the Sox have played his Sweet Caroline during the eighth inning of home games, dividing fans into those who love the song and those who don’t. As an infant, I danced to it in my crib, but by 2005, I was ready to take batting practice on the Fenway sound system as soon as the first three notes played. In fact, the product known as the Red Sox the past few years has, in many ways, resembled the contemporary Diamond: a shiny but hollow shell, a glossy but weak reminder of something that once had substance, soul.

But the cheesy Sweet Caroline was just what Sox fans needed Saturday. After a rough week, people needed to forget the horror of the marathon and a deadly chase of the bombing suspects and lose all inhibitions — including those not washed away by pricey Fenway beer.

Neil Diamond took us to that place.

From my standing-room spot above the Green Monster, he was only a dot, but to those who saw him up close or on the large scoreboard, Diamond looked like one of us. Gone was the glitzy suit. Instead, a beer belly shaped the contour of an ordinary blue shirt and black coat. White hair filled his beard. He wore a Red Sox cap.

Because of feedback between his voice and the recording of the song, Diamond initially seemed like one of us, almost like a college professor who had won a contest to perform karaoke on a Major League Baseball field.

But with his trademark hand waves for the crowd to sing along and his affected phrasing and showmanship, it was clear that Neil Diamond was leading us through the words of a tune that some people love and some people hate but everybody knows. I didn’t see many people not singing Sweet Caroline. It was fun.

We’ll continue to live with reminders of that heartbreaking marathon. But for nearly five minutes, Neil Diamond swept Fenway, Boston and the country away on a giant wave of corn-dog, feel-good happiness.

Bob Dylan couldn’t do that.

Published April 23, 2013

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