In conjunction with the airing of the 2011 Kennedy Center Honors, here's a column I wrote several years ago about one of the recipients.
Has anyone checked to see if hell froze over last week?
It might have because veteran pop singer/songwriter Neil Diamond has been receiving the kind of first-rate reviews and praise from music critics for his latest recording that are usually reserved for less popular, more hip performers.
Who would have thought that this Brooklyn native son would become the music critics’ darling 40 years after his career began as a $50-a-week songwriter?
Well, maybe not a darling, but his latest disc, “12 Songs,” which was released last week, has garnered some exceptional reviews from the likes of Newsweek and Rolling Stone magazines, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly, among others, including words and phrases like “masterpiece,” “unparalleled songwriting,” “returns Diamond to greatness” and “(Diamond’s) best work in 30 years.”
Despite his immense popularity – he reportedly was the biggest selling solo concert draw in the 1990s and has sold over 120 million records — Diamond has rarely, if ever, earned the kind of accolades he’s now getting from critics who typically reviled and panned the dozens of albums he’s recorded during his career. Derisive terms, such as master of schlock ‘n roll, schmaltzy crowd pleaser, bloated, over-produced, the Jewish Elvis and others, has followed him his entire career. Sometimes his detractors seemed to ignore the music as they panned his sequined, studded and beaded wardrobe.
Early in his career Diamond had a string of 15 hits in five years (“Cherry, Cherry,” “Sweet Caroline,” “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show,” “Cracklin’ Rosie,” among them), more than 40 Top 40 hits, and several of his songs have been covered by a diverse mix of artists, from The Monkees to Urge Overkill to Tina Turner to Frank Sinatra and Johnny Cash, to name a few.
“12 Songs” was one of the most-anticipated releases of the year because Diamond turned to hip-hop and hard rock producer Rick Rubin, who had worked with such contemporary and veteran artists, as LL Cool J, Jay Z, Tom Petty and Mick Jagger, before reviving country singer Johnny Cash’s career a decade ago.
Rubin, Diamond learned, had been a fan of the singer/songwriter for years and persuaded him to go back to the basics — playing acoustic guitar and recording his songs with minimal accompaniment. In other words, forgo the dramatic atmosphere and get back to his roots — his unmistakable baritone voice and musicianship. For the first time in 35 years Diamond plays guitar on the recording.
Rubin stripped Diamond of the customary glitz and trimmings to carve out a dozen low key, reflective and passionate songs without losing the powerful emotions prevalent in his repertoire of power ballads and up-tempo songs, and backed him essentially with only a handful of musicians.
Diamond, who attended Brooklyn’s Lincoln High School, has even admitted in recent interviews that he feels some of his new songs hark back to his first two albums, albeit with much more mature outlooks.
Like others who deem it unfashionable to admit, I enjoy much of Neil Diamond’s music, particularly his earlier work. My musical tastes are diverse, with a penchant for classic rock, but when someone asks me to list my favorites I rarely include Diamond, though I enjoy listening to his music and include one of his Forest Hills shows as a favorite concert. I find some of his later material excessive, but his early work, despite being nostalgic like some early Beatles’ songs, has stood the test of time.
In addition to being drawn to his music, there’s also an indirect link because of our similar roots. He is several years older than me, but we grew up in adjoining neighborhoods – he in Brighton Beach, me in Sheepshead Bay. That connection re-emerges whenever I listen to the opening stanza from his reflective “Brooklyn Roads” that recalls a time and place to which I relate: “If I close my eyes, I can almost hear my mother/Callin’ ‘Neil, go find your brother/Daddy’s home and it’s time for supper.’” (©1970 Stonebridge Music.)
As far as his loyal fans are concerned, Neil Diamond never lost his luster. And those who've enjoyed him from the closet can now unreservedly emerge.
Those who constantly condemned him for decades now concur that Neil Diamond has produced a sparkling gem.