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Neil Diamond continues to rule

”Tennessee Moon,” the singer’s first album in five years, reminds us why the singer has legions of fans

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He goes by the name Scrote — short for scrotum — and he plays lead guitar for Neil Diamond. Well, sort of: Scrote plays lead guitar in Super Diamond, a Neil Diamond tribute band that performs every month or so in the Bay Area, in venerable halls like the Fillmore. Ask Scrote, 32, about the moshers who attend his shows, and even after two years, he sounds awestruck. ”It seems so ridiculous to me,” he says, ”but these women are standing in front of the stage, and they’re throwing their panties and bras at us.”

Guys like Scrote have learned what many of us have known all along: Neil Diamond is Godhead. Of course, this should not come as news to those longtime fans who still flock to arenas to hear his songs sung blue, songs that have made a generation of boomers laugh, cry, and try to sing along with his sulking baritone. They did not need movies like Pulp Fiction (with Urge Overkill’s dark-tango remake of ”Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon”) or the new Beautiful Girls (which features ”Sweet Caroline”) to remind them of his mark. They have known for 30 years that his songs, from early nuggets like ”Cherry Cherry” through such later meditations as ”September Morn,” have elevated love, despair, depression, melancholy, and the occasional half smile to an epic struggle. It was only a matter of time before the rest of the world caught up.

But all smirking aside, Diamond, who just turned 55, has left far more than a musical stamp on our lives. Once an entertainer makes it big, all manner of unexpected things happen — to his or her status, art, bank account, mental state, and eating patterns. If he is truly lucky, the showman becomes something larger, a slate upon which people can scratch the imprint of their lives. Some of the musicians currently on the charts, or those planning to attend this year’s Grammy Awards, may eventually match Diamond’s 110 million albums sold worldwide, but they still won’t be lucky enough to end up the cultural metaphor that Neil Diamond has become.

So let the kitschmeisters have their Tony Bennetts, their Tom Joneses, and their Barry Whites. On the occasion of the release of Tennessee Moon, his first album of new material in five years — and in a futile attempt to match the man’s own majestically over-the-top style — here is a mere handful of the many reasons Neil Diamond continues to reverberate.

THESIS 1: Neil Diamond as Metaphor for the Assimilation of the Eastern European Immigrant in the United States
Among the 2 million Polish and Russian Jews who immigrated to America in the late 19th century were Neil Diamond’s grandparents. Neil was born to Kieve and Rose Diamond (their actual surname) in Brooklyn, that haven of ethnicities. Young Neil never denied his Jewish heritage; in fact, he seemed proud of it. But there was little that was Yiddish about the spunky tunes Diamond began cranking out professionally at the age of 21; songs like ”Cherry Cherry” (1966) and ”I’m a Believer” (a hit for the Monkees the same year) could have been concocted in a class science project behind Dick Clark’s house. And as he grew older and more ambitious, he preferred to dip into red-blooded Americana, like ”Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show” or his joyous ode to a bottle of wine, ”Cracklin’ Rosie.”

In 1980, Diamond finally took the roots plunge with his cinematic remake of The Jazz Singer, in which he played a cantor who yearns to rock out. The soundtrack included ”America,” a paean to the immigrant experience that was later adopted by Michael Dukakis. The experiment was short-lived, though. The same man who had the guts to put the Hebrew prayer ”Kol Nidre” onto that soundtrack has also recorded two discs of very gentile Christmas songs. And his new album, Tennessee Moon, was recorded in Nashville and is steeped in country music. Caught between heritage and heartland, Diamond symbolizes the eternal, noble struggle of the immigrant in America — to blend in or not to blend in.

THESIS 2: Neil Diamond as Metaphor for Mankind’s Existential Crisis in an Illogical Universe
Diamond has been a loner to the point of being one of the most perverse mainstream icons in pop. He has claimed to see himself as a cross between Beethoven, Gershwin, and Robert Frost, and he began writing songs back when genteel ballads reflected a world where sex meant a kiss. When his peers began tuning in and dropping out in the late ’60s, Diamond stuck with his romanticized vision and greaser pompadour. He mocked marijuana in ”The Pot Smoker’s Song” and formed Performers Against Drugs. He recorded orchestral suites like the Mantovani-style world beat of 1970’s ”The African Trilogy” (which, for some reason, has seven parts). And he did it all without shame or regret.

Symbolically, Diamond has been out of step in the larger, more universal sense of the phrase. We are all born alone and die alone, and in the years in between we subject ourselves to innumerable bad haircuts and gaudy clothes. Neil Diamond knows this. His first hit, in 1966, was ”Solitary Man,” and although peppier tunes followed, that tightly wound single pretty much set the tone. The introspective, throaty growl, the unsmiling mug that stares out from album covers, the songs with titles like ”Home Is a Wounded Heart” and ”Surviving the Life” — they all bespeak man’s innate loneliness.

During one of his many career peaks, in the early ’70s, he wrote one of his most enduring mini-symphonies, ”I Am…I Said.” He was wealthy, had a wife and children, and was one of music’s top-grossing acts. And yet, in the song’s string-swelling, angst-ridden surge of a chorus, he sang, ”I am, I said/To no one there/And no one heard at all/Not even the chair.” Neil Diamond could not even find comfort in a simple piece of furniture. If he can’t be happy, how can any of us be?

THESIS 3: Neil Diamond as Metaphor for the Escalation of Entertainment Economics During the Post-Woodstock Era
According to received rock wisdom, it was Woodstock that proved there was gold in them thar hippies. What isn’t discussed is the role of Neil Diamond in the emerging big business of pop music. In 1967 he signed with Uni (later MCA) Records for an unheard-of $250,000. Six years later, he topped himself with a 10-album, $4.5 million Columbia deal — the largest by any artist at that time.

Not stopping there on his quest to become the first King of Pop, Diamond took the idea of concert spectacle to new heights. In the back-to-basics early ’70s, James Taylor and his ilk may have preferred blue jeans and work shirts, but not Diamond, who expressed himself with glass-beaded shirts and a string section. In 1972, he sold out 20 shows at the Winter Garden Theater on Broadway, becoming the first rocker to play the Great White Way. In 1976, he beat Frank Sinatra by getting $500,000 for three shows in Vegas. He is still teaching his peers a lesson or two: His most recent U.S. tour, in 1993, grossed $14.6 million, seventh for the year. (Guns N’ Roses came in 10th.) At this moment in Diamond academe, however, there is only scant proof that he originated the hip-hop phrase ”gettin’ paid!”

THESIS 4: Neil Diamond as Metaphor for the Postwar Generation’s Emotional and Physiological Maturation
Last year, Neil Diamond was awarded his 31st gold album, making him second only to Elvis in that category for male solo artists. Beyond that, his career is in a tricky place: Until a full-blown, nationwide Gen-X rediscovery occurs, both he and his 40-and-up audience are considered too old and unhip for advertisers, and thus, for adult contemporary radio. Says one radio programmer, ”He’s an artist without a format right now.”

On the positive side, at least Diamond’s core following is aging with him. In his evolution from brooding, helmet-haired folk rocker to brooding, slacks-wearing, thinning-haired everyman, his fans see themselves. In his string of sensitive-male ballads (the autumnal melancholy of ”You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” and ”Love on the Rocks”), they hear the soundtrack of their own lives — the marriages, divorces, houses in the suburbs, and life long after the counterculture of their youth. Diamond himself has recently endured the breakup of his second marriage.

Yet even while Diamond and his following are pondering life’s great ticking clock, he is offering hope. In his concerts on his 1992-93 tour, during ”You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” he dropped to his female backup singer’s crotch. The crowd cooed and hooted. The gesture reminded the middle-aged men that they too could still be animals, that the sexual light did not flick off after a certain age. Diamond is their way of acknowledging the aging process and yet pushing it aside, at least for one night. Toss a shimmery shirt and a guitar to Ponce de Leon, and you’ve got Neil Diamond.

THESIS 5: Neil Diamond as Metaphor for the Overintellectualizing of Popular Music by the Cultural Elite
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