Neil Diamond, Rod Stewart and the Road More Traveled

by M.C. Antil on September 9, 2010

One of the advantages of living through any era is that you can watch an artist’s career play out in real time, without obscuring filters like hindsight and historical perspective.  And if you’re the kind who really pays attention as a career unfolds, you can note the subtle shifts that occur, shifts that years later become more difficult, if not impossible, to detect.

Take, for example, the careers of Rod Stewart and Neil Diamond.

Rock critics, music historians, comedy writers and just about everyone with any sense of irony at all have conspired to turn them into cultural punch lines (Rick Rubin’s noble efforts with Diamond notwithstanding).  And both probably deserve it.  But in a way that’s very sad, because there was a time when both Diamond and Stewart could have strode into their golden years as musical gods.

It seems almost laughable to write this now, but much like revered icons like Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Bruce Springsteen, and to a lesser extent Paul Simon – artists who continue to make music that both reflects and influences the generation to which they belong – Diamond and Stewart were once thought of in those terms.  Time was, they really were that good.

What happened to Rod? It appears the 70's happened.

For example, Diamond’s early compositions remain some of the greatest pop songs ever written.  And the musical persona he created while still in his twenties – the dressed-in-black, hard-strumming, solitary rebel/poet – could have played well into mid-life, and perhaps beyond.  The songs he wrote and sang in the 60’s – “You Got to Me,” “Cherry Baby,” “Thank the Lord for the Nighttime,” “I Got the Feeling” and in particular, “Solitary Man” – have not only stood the test of time; some of them have even, somehow, gotten better with age.

And the songs he wrote covered by others, like“I’m a Believer” (Monkees), “The Boat that I Row” (Lulu), “Red, Red Wine” (UB40) and “The Grass Won’t Pay No Mind” (Mark Lindsay), were strong evidence that even if Neil Diamond never sang a single note in his life, his songwriting alone would have left an indelible stamp of the pages of pop music history.

As for Stewart, during his time with the British rock group the Faces he proved himself to be an R&B singer of the highest order.  In those days his raspy, sandpaper-like voice, which somehow maintained its passion and unique tonal quality whether it was screaming or whispering, made Stewart a singer virtually impossible to ignore.

On his first three solo albums he went beyond the traditional bar-band sounds of the Faces and tapped into something altogether different.  In fact, so many of his songs seemed so fresh and so original that they almost defied categorization.  Looking back, it’s probably safe to say that many of the elements you’d find in an early Rod Stewart song were the same elements that today make up what critics call Americana: hints of blues, folk and country, all presented with a working-class sensibility and backed by jaw-dropping musicianship (tasteful, understated licks played not just on traditional rock instruments, but fiddle, accordion, mandolin and steel guitar).

As a songwriter Stewart was responsible, at least in part, for such agonizingly soulful chestnuts as “Gasoline Alley”, “Maggie May”, “Every Picture Tells a Story” and “Mandolin Wind.”  Plus, he had an almost savant-like ability to recognize a great song and make it even better.

Rod and the Faces: seems like a lifetime ago

When he was just 23, for example, Stewart fell in love with a little-known Mike D’Abo song called “Handbags and Gladrags,” but felt there something was missing in the version by Chris Farlowe, which at the time was a marginal hit in England.  In his mind’s ear Stewart heard a solitary reed instrument playing underneath the song’s melancholy melody, so the night before he was scheduled to go into the studio to start working on his first solo album, Stewart stopped by D’Abo’s flat and asked him to compose a second, minor theme for the song.  What D’Abo came up with overnight – which much like Jeff Lebowski’s rug, really tiedthe song together – was the beautifully haunting oboe part which, combined with Stewart’s plaintive vocals, elevated “Handbags and Gladrags” from something merely terrific to something utterly timeless.

So what happened?  Hard to say; but in the case of Rod Stewart and Neil Diamond, it seems as though the 70’s happened.

Stewart never became the artistic titan he once was destined to become. Instead, he turned himself into a musical wind sock, blowing whichever way popular culture happened to take him.  And because he did that, he subsequently allowed himself to morph over the next three long decades into a succession of laughable musical archetypes: a plodding cover artist (“Twistin’ the Night Away”), a all-too-playful disco king (“Do You Think I’m Sexy?”), a crooning balladeer (“Have I Told You Lately That I Love You?”) and eventually, a by-the-numbers, almost somnambulant interpreter of the Great American Songbook (“Stardust”).

It was as though, much like many of his contemporaries who had fallen prey to drugs in the previous decade, Stewart couldn’t quite escape the seductive clutches of the disco lifestyle.  The success he realized the 70’s, coupled with the money, fame and other accouterments of rock and roll stardom, seemed to drown the incredible talent that once burned within him.  It’s not hard to envision Stewart’s muse waiting patiently for the better part of a decade, before finally covering its ears, shaking its head in frustration and screaming, “That’s it! I can’t take it anymore. I’m outta here.”

Today Diamond is just a whole big pile of what-might-have-been.

As for Diamond, in the Seventies he threw off his rockin’ rebel persona and turned himself into what might be charitably described as the song-writing equivalent of a cotton candy machine.  And when he did that his songs seemed to develop more a spiritual kinship with a Hallmark greeting card than the fearless, rugged individualism of the singer/songwriter era he helped create.

What’s more, in that decade still noteworthy for its blown-dry hair, its synthetic fabrics and its bizarre sense what looks good on a man, he adopted a look that, remarkably, he still sports today: a cheesy Vegas-style amalgam of early Tom Jones and late Elvis Presley.

During the 70’s, Diamond’s songs no longer used an economy of words or the kind of simple but profound musical hooks that gave his early efforts such power.  Instead, his songs became something entirely different, something insufferably self-righteous in their grandeur.  His music of that era seemed to fall into one of two categories:  either syrupy existential blatherings like “I Am, I Said” or overwrought, overproduced and utterly self-conscious talk-sung ballads like “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers.”

And that’s not to mention his utterly gag-inducing score to Jonathan Livingston Seagull, a movie which has never achieved its rightful place in the annals of bad cinema, in part because words alone seem incapable of fully capturing its level of awfulness.

Even “Sweet Caroline,” a Diamond song from that decade that has gone on to achieve iconic status in Fenway Park and other baseball stadiums, is not so much a great song, as it is a great example of 20th Century kitsch.  Much like ABBA, vintage bowling shoes and velvet paintings of Elvis, which are today much cooler as retro touchstones than they ever used to be as contemporary pop artifacts, “Sweet Caroline” has attained a status in its second life that it never came close to achieving its first.

And to watch a bar full of kids or a stadium full of baseball fans singing the song at the top of their lungs (with its now obligatory vocal frill, “So good…so good…so good!”) is today far more amusing than profound.  While it’s clear that everyone is having a great time, one can’t help but feel that Fenway Park’s 7th inning stretch tradition started not so much because people wanted to laugh with Neil Diamond, but because somewhere along the line they started laughing at him.

(And for what it’s worth, I nominate the late director Ted Demme as the originator of the “Sweet Caroline” renaissance.  In his terrific little movie, “Beautiful Girls,” Tim Hutton’s character, an out of work jazz pianist, is asked to play something for Uma Thurman’s alluring and slightly mysterious character, an out-of-towner just in for a visit.  After a rolling, spirited and rather pompous intro, Hutton’s Willie abruptly breaks into “Sweet Caroline” which immediately draws laughs from his friends, who then join him in an inebriated and very much out-of-tune sing-along.)

But that wasn’t the only time Hollywood weighed in on the ironic nature of Diamond as an artist.  In another wonderful little movie “What About Bob,” Bill Murray’s character tries to explain to his therapist why he and his wife split.  “There are two types of people in the world,” says Murray’s character, “Those who like Neil Diamond, and those who don’t.”

And that, unfortunately, is what both of these one-time great artists have been reduced to. They are no longer musicians as much as they are cultural dividing lines.  If you’re on one side of that line, when you hear “Song Sung Blue” or “Tonight’s the Night” you get all weepy and sentimental and start singing along like there’s no one looking.  And if you’re on the other, you stand there with your your mouth agape, watching those on the other side of the line.

Me, I’m old enough to feel both ways.  I remember both Neil Diamond and Rod Stewart for what they were and what they might have been, and I carry around  a small measure of respect for all the great music the twenty-something versions of themselves left in their wake.

Mostly though, I side with a sentiment I once heard uttered by the legendary Cleveland talk-radio host Pete Franklin about the bitterly disappointing Montreal Expo, Ellis Valentine.  Franklin spoke of all the talent that Valentine was blessed with and how, if he had only bothered to work harder as a young player and had more inclined to use the gifts God had bestowed upon him, he could have become one of the greatest players to ever set foot on a baseball diamond.

At the end of his tirade Franklin bestowed upon Valentine’s major league career a simple six-word epitaph, that I’ve since co-opted for times such as this.  As he tossed it to commercial , Franklin broke into a voice brimming with equal parts bitterness and regret.

 “Ellis Valentine,” he said, “What a felonious waste of talent.”

Previous post:

Next post: