Guilty Pleasures, Round One: Neil Diamond (7) vs. John Denver (10)
EW’s Music Mix is searching for the Greatest Guilty Pleasure Musical Act of All Time. With 32 seeded contestants (see all the matchups), this tournament is sure to change hearts, minds, and lives for weeks to come. Read/listen to the following, and then cast your vote in the poll after the jump; reader comments will be used in subsequent rounds, so we encourage you to also post a comment explaining why you chose the way you did. Note: In case of a tie, please select the artist you feel more ashamed to adore. Thank you.
The man’s career spans four decades with more than 125 million records sold and 36 Top 40 hits. (Somehow, he’s only won one Grammy — for composing original music for the 1973 film Jonathan Livingston Seagull — and was never nominated for an Oscar for 1980’s The Jazz Singer. We’re lamenting his omission from the original song category, obviously. “Love on the Rocks,” “Hello Again,” or “America,” anyone?) So what’s guilty about loving the man who can still sell out Madison Square Garden (and tape it for a primetime CBS special and DVD)? Well, there’s the issue of those glass-beaded shirts he used to wear so the people in the cheap seats could see him — and the fact that deep down, you kinda miss ‘em. Then there’s the occasional lyric like “I am… I said, to no one there/ And no one heard at all not even the chair”* — and the fact that it’s from one of your karaoke fallbacks. And, of course, there’s that odd feeling you get anytime you hear “Play Me” — sorta John Denvery, only sexual. (“You are the sun, I am the moon/ You are the words, I am the tune, play me…”)
But really, it’s not Diamond’s music that’s the problem, it’s what it brings out in his fans. “I almost got into a fight with a guy next to me at a Neil Diamond concert,” Rob Zombie happened to confess to me recently. “You know what the Neil Diamond crowd is, they’re people that don’t drink except that one night a year. So you get this drunken lawyer next to you, and you go, I swear to god, I am gonna punch this guy in the face the next time he bumps into me. And if he spills that drink on Sheri [Zombie’s wife] it’s on. I was sittin’ there like, I’m gonna kill this f—in’ guy, and I’m at a Neil Diamond concert. Go to Ozzfest, it’s like, these people drink for a living, they’re fine. You go to Neil Diamond, it’s like everyone’s a jackhole.”
That is the power — and danger — of the audience-participation chorus of “Sweet Caroline” (I like to add hip action that most people reserve for “Cherry Cherry” to make it my own) and the talking portion of “America.” But you know what: Even a jackhole will sit silently and listen to Diamond sing the soul-baring “Hell Yeah” in what EW critic David Browne called “that voice of God” in his Grade-A 2005 song review of 12 Songs: “He’s a bit of a windbag, but you like him anyway, especially when he hauls out a well-trod idea like ‘Be careful how time’s spent, because it’s never gonna last’ and makes it sound like anything but a cliché.” — Mandi Bierly
*Sometimes, Neil Diamond’s tweets are lyrical. Sample: “My work is done and it seems all right / so Clamper and I bid you all a good night.” (Clamper is the sea scallop he rescued recently on the beach and now keeps as a pet. We’ve seen video.)
I could write about my love for the late John Denver — whose “Annie’s Song” and “Take Me Home, Country Roads” always seem to end up in rotation when I go longer than a month without visiting my hometown in Happy Valley, PA — but I think the fact that I still remember what Dave Matthews said about him in the pages of EW six years ago says enough. At the end of a roundtable discussion with Matthews, Pink, and Outkast, writer Chris Willman asked them to each name an influence on their music that he or she was confident the others would not share. Matthews expressed both the genius and the guilt perfectly.
DAVE The one nobody would listen to that I think is a big influence on me…it keeps coming to my mind, even though I don’t feel cool as the wind about it… [hesitating] John Denver.
PINK I’m a die-hard fan. My dad sang me to sleep every night with John Denver and Don McLean.
DAVE He just knew how to write tunes, man. Good God. I don’t care if he was the happiest, Kermit the Frog-looking dude. He looked exactly like Kermit, and that was why he was always on The Muppets. You can go to Zimbabwe, and go, ”Thank God I’m a…” and everybody would go, ”…country boy!” They might not even speak English but they’d know West Virginia because of him. He’s one of those weird guys who crept all over the planet. Everybody knew John Denver.
ANDRE 3000 Except me. But hey, as long as it’s a great melody…
DAVE Oh, he’s got great melodies. It’s like simple melodies that’ll make you want to punch him. You know that kind of melody? ”I like it — Goddamn it! I’m angry that it makes me feel good.” — MB
Photo Credit: Diamond: Everett Collection; Denver: Andre Csillag/Rex Features/Everett Collection