Neil Diamond: “Solitary Man”
So…Neil Diamond. Where to begin? Who is/was this man? It seems there are/were several Neils, most of them not really my cup of tea. One could easily be forgiven for thinking of him only as the schlocky Vegas-style showman that he seemed to be for a good part of the ’70s (just look at the cover of Hot August Night for an example) and then the soft-rock (what an awful genre of music, if ever there was one) performer from there on (“You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” anyone?). If you happened to think that he stopped recording after the ’80s, you’d be wrong: it seems he was putting out an album every couple of years or so, albums of mostly covers that very few people noticed and that did nothing to change anyone’s opinion of him. Only very recently, with a pair of albums (2005’s 12 Songs and 2008’s Home Before Dark) recorded with Rick Rubin, the man who also brought Johnny Cash to a new and younger audience in the ’90s, did Diamond release original music again that hinted that he had actually once been a good songwriter and still had the ability to be one.
So what is his best music? Sure, “Cracklin’ Rosie” is fine and all, but the really great stuff, the stuff that keeps me from ever being able to write Neil off, is his much more stripped-down and lean ’60s material, when he was still transforming himself from a behind-the-scenes Brill Building songwriter to a performer in his own right. He wrote and recorded a number of classic pop-rock songs from 1966 to 1968 that earned him his reputation: “Cherry, Cherry,” “Kentucky Woman,” “I’m a Believer” (yes, the one also covered around the same time by the Monkees), “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” (later covered with tongue firmly in cheek by Urge Overkill and heard on the “Pulp Fiction” soundtrack), “Red, Red Wine” (later covered by UB40), and a number of others, all collected on the fantastic 1983 compilation, Classics: The Early Years. The songs on this album alone cement him a place in the history of pop music. And of all those songs, the one that I consider his greatest is “Solitary Man,” his melancholy but spirited declaration of independence from relationships that are built on anything less than true love. In just two verses and a chorus, Diamond lays out the details and then lays down the law for the way things will be from here on out:
I’ve had it to here bein’ where love’s a small word
Part time thing, paper ring
I know it’s been done having one girl who loves you
Right or wrong, weak or strong
There’s an economy to this song that makes it deceivingly simple, yet I would argue that there are few songwriters who could have packed so much into so little, getting the point across with such elegant simplicity that leaves no doubt as to where his pain is coming from. All in a melody that underscores the mood of the lyrics, along with a dynamite chorus. It was one of Diamond’s earliest hits — the lead track on his 1966 debut album, The Feel of Neil Diamond — and, given his track record, it will no doubt always be one of his best.