Russell Baillie: Shine on, you crazy Diamond

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Good Lordy. Will you look at that? Neil Diamond is number one, here, there and everywhere.

First Indiana Jones comes roaring back from one ancient tomb of pop culture, now the only slightly older Diamond is again the pop star he hasn't been in quite some time.

Well, that's in terms of chart placings anyway, and they aren't what they once were in the sales-to-top-spot ratio.

But there it is - Home Before Dark has given him his first US number one album ever of the 50 or so he's released. It's topped the charts in Britain. It's also his first number one in New Zealand in 30 or so years since those heady, hairy-chested days of Beautiful Noise, Hot August Night and, lest we forget, You Don't Bring Me Flowers (that Streisand-sung hook is stuck in your brain now isn't it? Sorry about that. We'll find some better tunes to replace it with soon. Promise).

If you grew up in the early 70s in New Zealand, Diamond was the sound of the suburbs. Bob Dylan - previously the oldest man to have a US number one album before Diamond pipped him last week - might have been the voice of the great 60s uprising and like, really important. But Diamond was all pervading, the pop of the people. You didn't have to have his albums in the house to know his songs.

They were just there, like the weather which was always better back then.

If you were a kid interested in adding something groovy to your guitar or piano lessons, his sheet music was mysteriously thrust upon your easel. I can almost remember how Sweet Caroline goes on the piano, an instrument the song was clearly never designed for (altogether now: "Touching me ... touching youuuuuuu ...").

My mate Nigel, a man who hides his vast musical talents behind a mild-mannered exterior and a proper career, can top that though. He has a treasured tape of him as a pre-adolescent voice singing and playing Crunchy Granola Suite on the guitar in a talent quest. After a few drinks we've been known to drag it out and fall about the room laughing at is sheer cuteness. I remain jealous that Nigel mastered a Diamond tune and I never really did. Though he did pick one about muesli.

Back then, I also attempted to learn to play I Am, I Said by thumping its hydraulic chord changes on the family upright. It was never going to work. But it did give me one of my first lyrical conundrums, that very odd "not even the chair" line. Was his lyric so existentially powerful that random bits of furniture got caught up in its vortex? Or was it just an easy rhyme? And if a song that title had been a painting, would it have been a McCahon? You can have much fun contemplating the vast depths of the old Diamond mine. Especially as his songs are wrapped up in childhood memories - pre-teen, pre-record buying, pre-music snob.

And now, so many years later, Diamond is still with us.

He's still as regular as Elvis on Stars in their Eyes. Even Elvis covered the songs of the man they called "the Jewish Elvis". He's just popped up on American Idol mentoring this year's warblers, which may have something to do with his US and international chart momentum. And he's apparently writing 'em like he used to.

Well sort of. Diamond offers up some gems on Home Before Dark. But if you like it, go get the previous slightly better one 12 Songs. He also did that one with producer Rick Rubin - the studio guru who made Johnny Cash's final albums some of the best he had ever done. One of them included a version of Solitary Man.

My mate Nigel can do a pretty good version of that, too.

- NZ Herald

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