Songs Sung Blue . . . Diamond Reminisces

Copyright 1992/The Times Mirror Company
Los Angeles Times
Sunday, March 8, 1992, Home Edition
BYLINE: ROBERT HILBURN; Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic.

‘It's a tribute to the songs,’ Diamond said when asked recently about his continuing concert popularity. In some ways, however, the more realistic answer is that his continued drawing power is a tribute to the old songs, since Diamond's records no longer ignite the charts the way they did in the late '60 through early '80s--when the New York native registered three dozen Top 40 hits, from the celebration of ‘Cherry, Cherry’ to the salute of ‘America.’

Given his steady ability to sell out so many shows at the Forum, you'd think Diamond, 51, would be tempted to step up to the 55,000-seat Dodger Stadium on some return to Los Angeles--especially on some hot August night in a tip of the hat to the title of his hugely successful 1972 album recorded at the Greek Theatre.

‘No, no,’ he says firmly, as if startled by the question. ‘A stadium is too big. It would push me farther from the fans, and I want to get closer. I'd be more interested in the Troubadour,’ he says, referring to the West Hollywood club where he recorded an earlier live album. ‘. . . The whole idea of the new show is to get closer. That's why for the first time we are working in the round, and I love it because it brings everybody 50% closer. It makes you feel like the audience is in your lap.’

Though Diamond will sing songs from his latest album, ‘Lovescape,’ most certainly the heart of the two-hour Forum shows--Wednesday through March 16 and March 22-23--will rest in the body of hits. Unlike some artists who seem to resent singing the old favorites, Diamond seems as comfortable with the songs as his audience does. While reluctant to come up with a list of his 10 favorite or best songs, he agreed to react to my list, which is in chronological order.

Solitary Man
A No. 55 single in 1966.
That's my all-time favorite record and song (of mine) because it was my first chart record. It didn't get near the top of the charts, but it was enough to turn me from an unknown songwriter pounding the streets for eight years to a guy who has a record on the charts. I wasn't trying to write anything about myself necessarily at the time. I thought it was just a nice idea to write a song about a solitary guy. It wasn't until years later, when I went into Freudian analysis, that I understood that it was always me.

Brooklyn Roads
No. 58 in 1968.
Now that was consciously autobiographical. I wanted to try and capture what it was like growing up in Brooklyn--for myself, just to have that feeling for a moment. I never thought the song would be any kind of a hit, but--and it's always hard for people to understand this--the last thing I'm thinking about when writing a song is that it'll be a hit or not. I'm just trying to let the emotion speak for itself.

Sweet Caroline
No. 4 in 1969.
I wrote it in Memphis (Tenn.) in the hotel room on the day before a recording session. I had written "Holly Holy" and "Brother Love's Travelling Salvation Show," but we needed one more song. It's probably my most universal song. People sing along with it everywhere. In Ireland, I didn't have to sing at all. It just hit the right chord. No way to explain it. That's one of the mysteries of songwriting.

I Am . . . I Said
No. 4 in 1971.
That's also one of my favorites because I had to work with it so long. I had the idea while doing a screen test for a picture they were going to do about Lenny Bruce's life. I had done a couple of scenes in the morning, and during a lunch break, I felt really down and depressed. I had my guitar in the dressing room, and I wrote the melody and the title that day. But I spent the next four months trying to finish it. It was by far the most difficult song I have ever written--and probably the best song I have ever written.

Song Sung Blue
No. 1 in 1972.
That was a very simple song, a very light, easygoing thing that I never thought of as a single. I remember Russ Regan, who was the head of Uni Records, came into the studio and I played him ‘Play Me,’ which I thought was going to be the single from the album. But when I played ‘Song Sung Blue,’ he said, ‘Neil, that's the one,’ and he was right. It was my first No. 1 record. Even though I didn't realize it at the time, I feel now that I probably said more in less words than in any other song I've ever written, and I like it a lot for that reason. That's one of the fascinating things about songwriting . . . how you can write a song like ‘Sweet Caroline’ and ‘Song Sung Blue’ so fast and then have to struggle so long on "I Am . . . I Said." You never know where a song is going to come from. You can just be sitting there and suddenly the most extraordinary thing pops out. That's what every songwriter waits for.

I've Been This Way Before
No. 34 in 1975.
A lot of people say this is one of their favorites, but I've always felt a sense of disappointment in that song because I wrote it for the 'Jonathan Livingston Seagull' movie and didn't finish it in time to get it on the album. It was supposed to be the concluding statement.

Beautiful Noise
Title track of 1976 album.
I'd put that high on my list of favorites. I was visiting with my daughters at the Sherry-Netherland Hotel (in New York), which has a window right on 5th Avenue, and there was a Puerto Rican Day Parade going by with all sorts of bands in it. My daughter Marjorie looked out the window and said, "What a beautiful noise," and it just hit me like a bolt. I ran over and wrote it down. My parents were there, and I just sang the song into a tape recorder . . . another one that came very fast.

Dry Your Eyes
A track from the ‘Beautiful Noise’ album.
That's one I wrote with Robbie Robertson. It's basically the story of the '60s generation and what they lost . . . their innocence and heroes. I'd put it high on my list, but it's a sad song and I've only done it once in concert--at the ‘Last Waltz’ show in San Francisco. I don't know why I don't do it more. Maybe I should.

If You Know What I Mean
No. 11 in 1976.
That's also from ‘Beautiful Noise,’ and it had a real strong emotional peak on the record. I wouldn't put it in my Top 10 personal songs, but it would be in the next level.

The Story of My Life
A track on the 1986 "Headed for the Future" album.
I always liked the title, but I don't think I did the lyric as well as I could have. If I had to rewrite it, I would work on the second verse, maybe add a couple of lines.

Asked if he were surprised by any absences from my list, or if he wanted to mention any of his favorites, Diamond named two songs: ‘Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show’ (a No. 22 single in 1969) and ‘America’ (a No. 8 single in 1981).

About ‘Brother Love,’ he said: ‘That's special because it gave me a closer to my show. The song was originally called 'Mo Getta Mo,' which has the same number of syllables as the 'Love, brother, love' line. It was just a groove with a fun chorus, but Marsha (his wife) hated the title and she kept bothering me to change it all the way on the flight to Memphis. I had been toying with the idea of writing a full concept album about a revival preacher, so I rewrote the entire lyric of the song on the plane. It's basically an entire album concept condensed into one song.’

Of ‘America,’ Diamond said: ‘To me, it is the story of my grandparents. It's my gift to them, and it's very real for me. Maybe that's why it became so popular. It wasn't thought out or intellectualized, just sheer emotion. In a way, it speaks to the immigrant in all of us. That's what makes it so easy to empathize with the song.’

Copyright 1992/The Times Mirror Company


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