— Maybe wearing those gaudy, sparkly shirts paid off after all for Neil Diamond.
The 69-year-old performer, who releases his new studio album, “Dreams,” Nov. 2, used to get criticized by the rock press for a lack of stylistic hipness back in the 1970s. Nothing exemplified Diamond’s “uncool” stature more than the shirts he donned for his concerts — the kind of clothing “you could see from two football fields away,” said Jon Bream, the music critic for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
And yet Diamond’s sartorial flair exemplified the kind of outsized gesture that allowed him to transcend the mundane trappings of most of his contemporaries. While he was never accorded the critical respect given to singer-songwriters like Paul Simon, Carole King or James Taylor, in the ensuing decades he’s arguably become more iconic than all of them.
According to Pollstar, he was one of the top 10 grossing concert acts of 2008, outselling artists who could be his grandkids. He also topped the album charts that year with “Home After Dark,” an intensely personal effort produced by Rick Rubin and reviewed favorably by critics. In September, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announced Diamond was one of its nominees for induction in 2011.
Had Diamond forsaken his trademark shirts and taken to performing forever in blue jeans, the Rock Hall nomination and critical acclaim might have come earlier. But his iconic status then might not have come at all.
It’s the image Diamond projected with his stage shows and often dramatic songs that made him a pop culture figure, said David Wild, author of “He Is I Say: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Neil Diamond.” “He turned himself into this showman and became one of the great showmen of all time,” Wild said.
It’s largely because of Diamond’s larger-than-life status that he’s inspired tribute bands, been featured in movies, had three books written about him in the last five years and also been discovered by a younger audience.
A tale of two Neils
“I think there are two sides to Neil Diamond,” said Allison Stewart, a freelance music writer who has interviewed Diamond. “There’s the serious singer-songwriter side and then there’s the cheesier side of him, for lack of a better term. But his peers — the sort of people who nominated him to the Hall — I think they always knew what he was capable of.”
As a songwriter, his range is impressive. He started out writing fun pop tunes such as “Cherry Cherry” before moving into more introspective songs such as “I Am I Said.” Along the way, he wrote a few genuine pop classics such as “Sweet Caroline” and “Cracklin’ Rosie” before settling into a sweeping adult contemporary style exemplified by such hits as “Heartlight” and “Coming to America.”
Diamond also penned songs that became hits for others, notably “I’m a Believer” and “Red Red Wine,” which were chart toppers for the Monkees and UB40 two decades apart.
“I think he’s one of pop music’s all time hook masters,” said Bream, who also wrote a book about Diamond, “Neil Diamond Is Forever: The Illustrated History of the Man and His Music.” “The guy has written as many earworms as anybody in the history of pop music. He has maybe 12 to 15 songs that stick in everyone’s head whether you like him or not.”
The brasher side of Diamond manifested itself in concert as the 1970s progressed. That was the side some called “cheesy.” Wild said Diamond’s stage persona is the key to his longevity.
“I think (the live album) ‘Hot August Night’ was the transcendent moment where that really began,” said Wild. “That’s why most artists who don’t have hit records anymore can’t perform in arenas. Neil Diamond has been able to sell out arenas for my entire life. That’s incredible.”
As with Elvis Presley, Diamond’s sense of style made him a natural for impersonators. In Diamond’s case, that’s come in the form of tribute bands. One such group, Super Diamond, has had a successful career playing his songs for almost two decades.
“He has his own style,” said the group’s lead singer Randy Cordero, who bills himself as the “Surreal Neil.” “When a musician or performer is totally unique and original, then I think that’s when they’re able to cross the line to iconic status.”
The kitsch factor
Diamond has joined Super Diamond on stage and spoofed himself by playing himself in the 2001 comedy “Saving Silverman.” The fact that he’s able to poke fun at himself has led to his appealing to a younger audience that appreciates irony, said Bream.
“Neil rolls with the humor,” Bream said. “A younger generation got turned onto him with ‘Saving Silverman.’ He played himself and you have to have a sense of humor about yourself to play yourself in a movie like that. Yes, on the one hand he takes himself very seriously but he understands that whole kitsch factor.”
“Saving Silverman” screenwriter Greg DePaul said that it’s Diamond’s presence in the film that’s remembered most all these years later: “People come up and say, ‘I love the film — I love Neil Diamond!’ I get that like once a week. I think it made it more iconic.”
But Diamond’s kitsch factor is the reason Wild said that “some people for whom hipness precedes all have never been entirely comfortable with him.
“I think Neil has always been at this weird crossroads where he has this tie to pre-rock show business,” Wild said. “By wearing for years those sparkly shirts he somehow tied himself to Al Jolson and Broadway — that sort of earlier era. The irony being that now here in the 21st century he is hip.”
Diamond is now comfortable enough with his own image to add some humor to his music, as evidenced by the title track of his 2009 holiday release, “A Cherry Cherry Christmas.” And he has little to prove as a songwriter: Like several of his releases, “Dreams” is a CD of other people’s songs. This time around he simply covers some of his old favorites, such as “Desperado” and “Ain’t No Sunshine.”
Cordero said that during the 18 years he’s performed Diamond’s songs, he’s noticed a change in the way people are viewing Diamond: “I don’t see as many people rip on him anymore. I think he’s crossing the threshold and becoming cool.”