“There are two types of people in this world,” Bill Murray’s Bob tells his therapist Leo (Richard Dreyfuss) in the 1991 movie What About Bob? “Those who like Neil Diamond, and those who don’t.” Many of us here at The A.V. Club fall into that former camp, even though Diamond’s long career has definitely had its peaks (“America”) and valleys (“Song Sung Blue”). So welcome back for part two of our Inventory exploration of one of the nation’s greatest Americans in this Independence Day week. As with yesterday’s list, each milestone on Diamond’s pop-culture landscape comes with a “Neil Diamond Cool Rating” to assess levels of Diamond hipness.
1. “Sweet Caroline” becomes the theme song for Red Sox Nation (1990s)
“Sweet Caroline” is as much a part of the Fenway Park experience as the Green Monster and nine-dollar beers, but nobody knows exactly why. Released as a single in 1969 and reaching No. 4 on the charts, the song is a softly rocking, slightly creepy ditty that has absolutely nothing to do with baseball or Boston. Legend has it that Fenway music coordinator Amy Tobey played the song in the late ’90s to honor the birth of a friend’s daughter named Caroline, and continued to play it sporadically for several years until it became entrenched in the middle of the eighth inning around 2002. The Fenway faithful dutifully sing along at every home game, injecting BA-BA-BAs and chants of “So good! So good! So good!” whether the team is winning or trailing by 10 runs, an embarrassing state of affairs that has led to a “Banish ‘Sweet Caroline’” movement among some hardcore Red Sox fans. None of this is Diamond’s fault, of course, except for recording the song in the first place.
Neil Diamond Cool Rating: 4. Neil gets one bonus point for performing the song live at Fenway in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing. [Scott Von Doviak]
2. ’90s comeback with Urge Overkill cover of “Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon” on Pulp Fiction soundtrack (1994)
In the early ’90s, Neil Diamond released two Christmas albums and a collection of Brill Building covers, all of which were geared toward an older audience. Then director Quentin Tarantino cemented Diamond’s cultural cachet with a younger generation by including Urge Overkill’s seductive-but-unsettled take on his 1967 hit “Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon” in 1994’s Pulp Fiction. This modern version of the song resonated on radio and MTV thanks to frontman Nash Kato’s froggy vocals and the spaghetti-Western musical intrigue, the latter of which was in line with Urge Overkill’s deep, abiding, and unironic love of retro kitsch. Of course, the cover also sent the message that Diamond was a more subtle artist than perhaps people realized, and served as a welcome reminder of his more personal, romantic early songwriting.
Neil Diamond Cool Rating: 9. This song represents the pinnacle of Diamond’s ’90s renaissance, and buoyed him with momentum that lingered for years to come. [Annie Zaleski]
3. Documentary Neil Diamond Parking Lot (1996)
Documentary filmmakers John Heyn and Jeff Krulik had a cult hit with Heavy Metal Parking Lot, which filmed psyched, tailgating fans before and after a Judas Priest concert. For their follow-up, they went for a crowd just as rabid: Neil Diamond fans. There were some significant differences between these two populaces: shirtless people versus people wearing Neil Diamond T-shirts, varying intoxication and tripping levels, and Diamond’s crowd is unreasonably excited that he recently went through his second divorce, making him (briefly) single again. But one Diamond fan perfectly mimicked a metalhead post-concert as she gave the performance a thumbs-down, telling the filmmakers: “Too many new songs.”
Neil Diamond Cool Rating: 8. You know of any other performers so popular they get a documentary just of fans in their concert parking lot? Um, other than Judas Priest, that is? [Gwen Ihnat]
4. Parodied by Will Ferrell on Saturday Night Live (1997-2002)
Will Ferrell’s impressions don’t have nearly the technical precision of his Saturday Night Live castmate Darrell Hammond—or even the mimicry skills of his castmate Jimmy Fallon. But during his time on SNL, Ferrell had a brilliant knack for latching onto a specific and sometimes strange idea about a public figure—and somehow making those figures more likable in the process, even if his takes sometimes represented outright distortions. His Neil Diamond, for example—spun off from the real Diamond’s sometimes-theatrical persona and sometimes-oddball lyrics—is far more racist, drug-addled, and aggressive than the real thing. Yet as with so many Ferrell characters, he takes on an absurd grandeur that seems of a piece with the subject of his parody. Ferrell’s most famous Diamond sketch is his 1997 version of the singer on Storytellers, explaining how “Sweet Caroline” came to him in the aftermath of a hit-and-run accident and “Forever In Blue Jeans” was written “after I killed a drifter to get an erection.” But a less-heralded and even weirder, possibly funnier turn came in a 2002 sketch where Diamond advertised a dubious record of duets recorded with Bigfoot (played by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson). Ferrell’s Diamond also turned up in real ads for Gap, blurring the reality-parody lines even further, despite being an unmistakably Ferrell creation.
Neil Diamond Cool Rating: 7. For inspiring a great Ferrell riff without even needing to be a terrible president. [Jesse Hassenger]
5. David Spade wins over crowd with Neil Diamond song in Lost And Found (1999)
Lost And Found was David Spade’s failed 1999 attempt to convince the moviegoing public that he could carry a movie without Chris Farley. Still, the movie contains one notable scene. Spade is trying to win over a crowd of wealthy fat cats: What better way to do this than to lip-synch Neil Diamond’s famous crowd-pleaser, “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show”? Spade even has Neil’s moves down pat, but then his dastardly nemesis steals his CD. What’s a Neil Diamond-wannabe to do? Fortunately, the event has a full band at the ready, with the backup singers all set to go into ”Brother Love” for real. Spade shakes his head perfunctorily, then unsurprisingly rises to the occasion. Spade clinches the deal with bigwig Martin Sheen with his performance, even though he winds up throwing Sheen’s wife through a table in all the excitement.
Neil Diamond Cool Rating: 4. Even from this terrible movie, we learn two things: Neil Diamond’s voice is about a million times better than David Spade’s, and the power of a Neil Diamond song can accomplish just about anything. [Gwen Ihnat]
6. Johnny Cash names his third American Recordings release Solitary Man, and includes a cover (2000)
Neil Diamond wasn’t the only ’60s songwriter to see a 1990s resurgence: Johnny Cash reinvigorated his career with his amazing string of American Recording albums, in which he covered his favorite songs in a bare manner, produced by Rick Rubin. For volume three, Cash not only finally selected Neil Diamond’s early hit “Solitary Man,” he used it as the collection title. For his third American outing, Cash got some vocal help on this cut from Tom Petty, making this title rather ironic. Still, Cash’s smoky, jaded vocals effectively sell the isolation of the song, about a bitter lover who’s sick of love being a “part-time thing / paper ring,” and one of Diamond’s best.
Neil Diamond Cool Rating: 10. The Man In Black defined cool, so it’s the ultimate in hipness validation to have him cover your music. [Gwen Ihnat]
7. Appears as himself in Saving Silverman, which features a Neil Diamond tribute band (2001)
There are few celebrities who can claim to have the entire plot of a movie hinge entirely on their persona. Saving Silverman’s plot is so inherently ludicrous, it’s almost difficult to recount here: Three best-friend Diamond diehards (and members of cover band Diamonds In The Rough) are split apart when one of their own, Darren (Jason Biggs), falls for domineering psychologist Judith (Amanda Peet). So J.D. (Steve Zahn) and Wayne (Jack Black) attempt to break them up, using tactics as wide-ranging as arm-wrestling contests to straight-up kidnapping of both Judith (who escapes) and Diamond himself. Of course, the film has a positively Shakespearean end that involves three weddings—Judith and Wayne, J.D. and their fugitive high school coach, and Darren and his ex-nun crush—and a cast sing-along to the irrepressible “Holly Holy.”
Neil Diamond Cool Rating: 5. Saving Silverman is awful and not particularly kind to women, but props to Diamond for parodying himself. [Molly Eichel]
8. Opens his concerts with “America” after 9/11 (2001)
In the fall of 2001, Neil Diamond was on one of his typically massive, seemingly incessant world tours. Then 9/11 happened, which shattered the nation and made many people understandably uneasy about attending large stadium events. Diamond forged ahead with his tour, and for his still-huge crowds, switched up his set, an unusual move for a performer who had long ago polished his song list to perfection. After 9/11, Diamond made his typical concert closer, “America,” his opener, in front of a giant American flag backdrop. The catchy “America” was the national anthem Neil’s fans needed at that moment. Shouting out the rousing “Today!” in the chorus gave his crowds a cathartic chance to loudly declare their patriotism at one of the most unsettling times in the country’s history.
Neil Diamond Cool Rating: 8. Extra points for patriotism and song excellence. [Gwen Ihnat]
9. Stellar comeback album 12 Songs gets embroiled in a software scandal (2005)
Back in the mid-’00s, major labels were still wringing their hands over music piracy and the virus-like spread of MP3s. Sony BMG’s solution was to install copy-protection software called XCP on the CDs it released. To say this move backfired is a vast understatement: Not only was this software annoying, but it made computers vulnerable to malware, modified operating systems in pernicious (and unwelcome) ways, and was nearly impossible to uninstall without, say, damaging the CD-ROM drive. One of the albums affected by this software intrusion was Neil Diamond’s Rick Rubin-produced 2005 album, 12 Songs. The record deserved a better fate: Diamond’s stark acoustic guitar and dusk-tinged voice drive this affecting collection of all-original songs. Although 12 Songs debuted at No. 4 and was warmly received, Sony BMG had to recall it (and every other album infected with the software), which put a wedge between Diamond and his record company. Rubin told The New York Times, “We came out on a Tuesday, by the following week the CD was not available. Columbia released it again in a month, but we never recovered. Neil was furious, and I vowed never to make another album with Columbia.” Nevertheless, Diamond’s next album, 2008’s Rubin-produced Home Before Dark, was released via the label. This record may be even better than 12 Songs, thanks to Diamond’s increasing comfort writing for and performing in a stripped-down environment.
Neil Diamond Cool Rating: 5. Having a great record unwittingly caught up in lame record-company shenanigans is about as uncool as it gets, but Neil redeems himself by following up that album with yet another solid effort. [Annie Zaleski]
10. Gives blessing to indie documentary Song Sung Blue, which follows a Neil Diamond impersonator around, after Eddie Vedder intervenes (2008)
The heart-wrenching 2008 documentary Song Sung Blue follows the lives of Mike and Claire Sardina, the husband-wife Neil Diamond tribute act Lightning & Thunder, who survive tragedy after tragedy (Claire losing her leg in a freak accident, marital problems) while pursuing their musical career. Off-screen, the duo’s story was just as bittersweet: Mike died in 2006, several years before the movie premiered and before he had a chance to meet his idol. Thanks to the efforts of Eddie Vedder, however, Claire’s story took a happier turn. Pearl Jam had invited Lightning & Thunder to perform “Forever In Blue Jeans” with them at a 1995 show, and it was Vedder who passed along Song Sung Blue to Diamond to watch. (The documentary needed Diamond’s permission to feature his songs.) Not only did Diamond say yes to his music being included, he blurbed the film (“I’m honored to have my songs be part of this love story”) and met Claire before a 2008 Milwaukee concert. The description of the long-awaited meeting, written by Claire’s brother, Jim Stingl, is a must-read.
Neil Diamond Cool Rating: 10. Just try to keep a dry eye while reading the story of Diamond meeting Claire. [Annie Zaleski]
11. Clint Eastwood blames Neil Diamond’s “I Am… I Said” for bizarre chair rant at the 2012 Republican National Convention (2013)
A starstruck Mitt Romney probably thought having Clint Eastwood speak at the Republican National Convention in 2012 during Romney’s run for president was a great idea. But an addled Eastwood’s speech quickly went off the rails as he started having a conversation with an onstage chair, which he used as a stand-in for President Obama. Things got even weirder when it appeared the furniture was talking back to Clint, who offered retorts to the chair like, “What do you mean, shut up?” According to the 2013 book Double Down: Game Change 2012 by Game Change authors Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, Eastwood’s speech caused a Romney staffer to vomit, and the bizarre nature of its source can be traced to yes, a Neil Diamond song. Eastwood maintains that in his hotel room before his speech, he heard Diamond’s “I Am… I Said” which includes the lines “I am, I said / To no one there / And no one heard at all, not even the chair.” Of course, Diamond got the reference right away:
Neil Diamond Cool Rating: 7. Romney’s campaign likely would have gone down in flames anyway, but this certainly didn’t hurt. [Gwen Ihnat]
12. Returns to his old high school to play his first-ever show in Brooklyn (2014)
Erasmus Hall is a Brooklyn institution that has produced a lot of notable alumni—Barbra Streisand, Barbara Stanwyck, Clive Davis, Ralph Malph, uh, Shaggy—although Neil Diamond is not among them. Diamond attended the famous school in the late ’50s but graduated from a different one. Still, the way Diamond tells it, he was inspired to go into music by his time at Erasmus Hall, so he played what was somehow his first-ever Brooklyn show there last September. The short set mixed classics with material from his new album, Melody Road, including, naturally, a performance of “Brooklyn Roads.”
Neil Diamond Cool Rating: 10. It doesn’t get cooler than Brooklyn. [Kyle Ryan]