#224: Neil Diamond, "The Neil Diamond Collection" (1999)

The first time I remember hearing “Forever in Blue Jeans” was in Michael Smith’s performance art class. It was the ending crescendo of what would become one of my favorite pieces of his work, Secret Horror, in which Smith plays his forever-stuck-behind-the-times protagonist, Mike. In Secret Horror, Mike is confronted by a series of horrors, from emulating ghosts to drop ceilings. One of the things I’ve always loved about Mike’s work is his hyper-focus on sound and music as a crucial part of the narrative and artistic device. Instead of using a subtle layering of literal sounds accompanied by a score which is an undertone for the scene, Smith uses folly, voice-overs, and songs in loud, distinct brush strokes of solid colors that are specific and designed to be exclamations. I will never forget a slide I saw of Mike performing a piece where he had a radio to one ear while blowing a huge bubble of lavishly pink gum. The image and piece were the promise of pop music, and it was this idea, a sort of manifesto on how music is symbolic and important to art as a canvas or chisel, that struck me about Mike’s work. Likewise, in Secret Horror he goes from huge strokes of things like a hissing iron, to a more charming almost impressionistic musical bookend at the conclusion of the piece, where the proverbial drop ceiling literally falls onto Mike, breaking his arm as the ghosts who copy him then abandon him one by one. Smith then masterfully and subtly finishes the piece alone with a dance and credit sequence set to “Forever in Blue Jeans”.

There’s a whole other terrible book of unresearched ideas I could write on why music means anything to anyone. Maybe I liked “Forever in Blue Jeans” because of Mike’s video; maybe I liked it because of Mike: I think therefore I am a fan of “Forever in Blue Jeans”. Whatever the case, I was excited to write about the Neil Diamond Collection because naturally in my mind it featured that song and I could expound on all the reasons we like something more than something else or seek meaning in an otherwise meaningless existence. But here’s the shit of it…


There are 18 goddamn songs on this “collection” and not one of them is “Forever in Blues” OR “Girl You’ll be a Woman Soon”. This is where I might acknowledge my own cognitive bias or the events in my life that lead me to believe that I couldn’t let my own opinions waver. It might be the reason I’m never emotionally ready for new episodes of Adventure Time that I watch clutching my kids. But, that would mean Neil Diamond wins, that I’m not aging gracefully, and that the things that happen between me and my friends aren’t as funny, if not funnier, than Master of None. An imperfect existence in an otherwise perfect series of rules and processes that justify and give meaning to our lives.

So, in light of this injustice to my specific and personal memory, and because I really don’t know shit about Neil Diamond outside of “Forever in Blue Jeans,” “Sweet Caroline,” “They’re Coming to America,” and “Girl You’ll be a Woman Soon,” I’m going to proceed to go through each track of the Neil Diamond Collection and determine why said track isn’t nearly as good as “Forever in Blue Jeans,” thus wallowing in my own emotional narrative, forever “Forever in Blue Jeans”. Otherwise, we might as well believe all the shit on Ancient Aliens.


Track 1 - Sweet Caroline

I’m going to be honest, this is a song that few people could have a problem with. With that said, I’m going to present you with the karaoke dilemma regarding it. If you were to sing “Forever in Blue Jeans” to a room of drunks you might garnish their favor; you can create enough gusto towards the end of that song to make friends out of most enemies, further, if your friend already loves that song they’re going to end up your best friend.

The problem with “Sweet Caroline” is that everyone loves that fucking song, I don’t even have to give a very scientific reason for why everyone sings it (including its horn sections) at weddings or whenever it appears on a jukebox. And I’m not saying that that makes it bad. Like with Secret Horror, one of the more formative memories I have about film and being an emotional teen includes this song by way of one of the greatest worst movies, Beautiful Girls. In it, a bunch of sad-dick old friends get together, get drunk, and feel better about life by singing “Sweet Caroline” together. This is something I longed to do one day with my friends, not knowing that when that time came, we then were the sad dicks. Which gets me to my real exact point.

Everyone loves to have rejoinders and sing along to “Sweet Caroline”; enough beers and a tiny amount of sentimentality will inspire even the lowliest of patrons to sign up for it at karaoke. But while you might think you’re killing it because everyone in the bar, including your sad-dick old friends, are singing along with you singing “Sweet Caroline,” you’re also singing along with Brian.

Brian is wearing basketball shorts to a wedding reception that has spilled over to the bar.

Brian is a huge Warriors fan and we know this because he shouts “GO WARRIORS!”, “WARRIORS RULE!”, or just “WARRIORS” every time he begins and ends his painfully rehearsed Eminem songs. Seriously, he doesn't look at the words because he's tattooed them onto his bitter, gross heart; he has a moleish-looking face and you can tell that he talks too loudly and stands too close to you while he cough/laughs about beating up "faggots." You can tell he has little bits of pizza crusted around his thick lips. He doesn’t realize that the KJ is just playing the songs off YouTube just like he doesn’t realize that the words he’s shouting/dedicating to the bride and groom are about rape and choking some girl to death. “KELLY AND MIKE I FUCKING LOVE YOU! GO WARRIORS!”

That’s fucking Brian. And Brian is singing the shit out of “Sweet Caroline” with you. And when you’re done, you and all your friends will still be sad old dicks except now when you stare down at your own sad old dick and wonder what happened to your life, it will stare back at you with a not so new but realized face: the face of Brian.

That’s why “Forever in Blue Jeans” is a better song than even “Sweet Caroline”.


Track 2 - Cracklin’ Rosie

“Cracklin’ Rosie you’re a store-bought woman, but you make me sing like a guitar hummin.” And that’s why “Forever in Blue Jeans” is a better song than “Cracklin’ Rosie”.


Track 3 - Song Sung Blue

There’s both a really charming and depressing quality to a lot of Neil Diamond’s work; it’s like the morning after an emotionally draining hot Texas night of drinking where you smoked too many cigarettes watching your friends perform, very distracted, at a Moose Lodge. It sounds like this girl you sort of dated, your short involvement was superheated but also ill-informed and incompatible, and yet, in the end, that lack of both perceived and actual resolution made for a melancholy pop song that had both all the emotions and none of the substance. It’s the same thing as even though she was a writer, you guys never had the right words, just tearful shrugs and awkward sex, the verses of that pop song. The uncertain loneliness of either a hangover or of the feelings you thought you had or could have had, the chorus. And because I loved and sometimes miss those nights and because of all the years I shaved off my life in 2009, when I tried to magically believe through Lone Star and wild optimism that a different lady could cure all the struggles I reluctantly wouldn’t let go, and how sometimes that charming but depressing quality to a lot of Neil Diamond’s work takes me right back there, that’s why “Forever in Blue Jeans” is a better song than “Song Sung Blue”.


Track 4 - Play Me

My first thoughts were “‘Play Me’? ...Fuck off.”

This isn’t probably a real thing but I assume Leonard Cohen wrote this for Neil Diamond but Neil was like “Yo Leonard, your shit is just too dark for the Diamond,” and went about rewriting the better parts of the song and Leonard was like “Oh for fuck sakes man, just give me the goddamn check and don’t change the sort of guitar solo thing,” and Neil Diamond reluctantly, but knowing Leonard was right, agreed. And because this song with the right words could have saved some doomed relationship and because it used a sun and moon metaphor which was frankly even tired as fuck for 1972 and if it hadn’t it could have been Chelsea Hotel #3, that’s why “Forever in Blue Jeans” is a better song than “Play Me”.


Track 5 - Brooklyn Roads

This song has all the gusto I want in a Diamond song and if you close your eyes you can almost feel the same “Girl You’ll be a Woman Soon” singer making a leather clad return. There’s a great little bridge in this song where a french horn shows up with a horn and string section. He talks about his report card and if you could see it he got an A in the way his voice sounds both desperate but determined like his very vocal chords were trying to get into American Gods on Starz or AMC or whatever channel it’s on. It’s like the thing you love, fuck it’s a lot like that thing you love, but then you’re sort of lost and wondering what happened to the person who loved that show and did you love that thing because you were dumb and didn’t mind the main character was named Shadow Moon? Has your struggle to like American Gods somehow been mirrored by Neil Diamond’s own sentiment to recapture the time he spent as a youth running along those Brooklyn roads? “FUCK YOU WILL,” you would say to yourself if you were me. “Quit being such a goddamn slave to nostalgia and quit trying to get some kind of contact high off this repackaged thing you used to love. Either accept it for what it is now and enjoy it for what it is or keep curmudgeonly about it and reread the novel for an up to date perspective on the whole thing.”

The same goes for you Neil Diamond….that’s why “Forever in Blue Jeans” is a better song than “Brooklyn Roads”.


Track 6 - Shilo

“Shilo” starts with a strong pulse and guitar tick, which would lead you to believe the Diamond in Neil Diamond is true to being rock, but you would be wrong. Like “Brooklyn Roads,” this is a little generic ditty waxing nostalgically about a little lady named Shilo; I do my best to relate and even though this entire review is predicated on my own nostalgia, I just can’t. All I can think about is how Thomas Dolby really nailed this genre of it being okay to be personal and inside about a childhood crush and it not sound super creepy as you retell it as an adult. And again, it’s probably just my bias, but Neil Diamond on this track sounds adult contemporary as fuck in a time that wasn’t even current to my parents, so when that sound accompanies his voice calling out to a kid he’s musing about, I get the itchy tingles. Shilo is never going to be the pirate twins again and that’s why “Forever in Blue Jeans” is a better song than “Shilo”.


Track 7 - Crunchy Granola Suite

I’m not going to lie, for a hot second I thought “for a song with granola in the title this track has legs.” That’s when this La Bamba half baked guitar lick shows up and won’t shut up and Neil starts into this Bruce Springsteen baby talk which…it’s about growing teeth or some shit but then the La Bamba part gets to be all too much again and as much as I try to believe in America and get behind the fist-pumping freedom sounds in this song, that “Deetle-ly Dee!” shit creeps back in. It’s like trying to love the Hulkster, but you’ve seen his sex tape brother and what it did to Gawker. It’s like all those times he used the N-word are just hanging over your head when you’re just trying to enjoy the $5 Blu-ray of No Holds Barred you found at a gas station. It’s like the second I hear the word “granola” in a song, I go from loving the shit out of an all American Big Foot crushing cars to remembering “Fuck man, fossil fuels are going to fucking kill the world for my kid that I brought to the monster truck show at the Roanoke Civic Center, which to be honest is way too short of a run for monster trucks to monster. And fuck, is that Brian? Now I hope fossil fuels kill everything.” Quit getting in the way of your own fucking freedom and my right to enjoy it, Neil Diamond, and that’s why “Forever in Blue Jeans” is a better song than “Crunchy Granola Suite”.


Track 8 - And the Grass Won’t Pay No Mind

When God comes calling, would he be walking barefoot by a stream? I feel like if God did call you and put you on hold, the music would probably be similar to this song, at least the intro. This is another one of those times where Neil has just a generic enough playbook of metaphors and adjectives to keep the song functioning as a vehicle of sentiment and vague romanticism. “Touch my soul with your cries,” I’m pretty sure that’s what the lyric I just heard was….

Here’s the thing, Shaw and her man friend went looking for God once. They strapped themselves into the Prometheus with David because they thought they heard God calling. But you know what, it turns out God was just part of a death race who Ridley Scott assumed was mad about the way we killed Jesus/Prometheus/whoever, and like all lazy gods got sidetracked on their way to kill us. God was calling, we answered, and his message was “Bitch, I’m going to kill you.” So, it’s with some certainty after Alien: Covenant that the grass won’t mind if you fuck on it or go extinct because in the end gods are imperfect killers and grass is just grass. That’s why “Forever in Blue Jeans” is a better song than “And the Grass Won’t Pay No Mind”.


Track 9 - Holly Holy

I feel like this song was written on a shag carpet, recorded on a reel to reel, in a sunken living room of orange, brown, yellow, sunset themes. I don’t know Holly or if she’s holy but I do know there was a special time in which things still smelt of nicotine and the faith that cigarettes won’t kill you was strong. Neil goes to church and begins to preach as he sings, he talks about flying but it makes me think about how you used to be able to smoke on airplanes. Think about that shit. Your holy faith put into a soaring metal angel, smiling through brown stained teeth that mock god and cancer as you smoke in a pressurized tube. Sing Diamond sing and smoke up, in just a few short years after this song was written we’ll know that the greatest generation is going to need a shit ton of radiation therapy to break off the mass building in their lungs. The song builds like my intense focus on death, musing on my grandfather dying in his fifties because of a lifestyle that included both travel and smoking. If death begets death like the Greeks always knew, then the engineers were my grandfather and I can only hope I’m David. I can’t believe in you Neil and your house of golden sunset cigarettes and that’s why “Forever in Blue Jeans” is a better song than “Holly Holy”.


Track 10 - Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show

Fuck that’s a long title. I feel like we just covered a non secular song like this that was better than a title that’s not worth rewriting, so instead I’m going to talk more about Prometheus and Alien: Covenant. I have a lot of questions and maybe some of them actually relate to Neil Diamond because they’re about god/man/android’s need to create. Ultimately, is that what makes us human? Whether it’s to procreate or build, this theme is constant, even for old Diamond. All this religion bleeding through right now on the too-long title, his focus on pointless overhyped biological romance described in a way that feels natural but is ultimately meaningless. Is he just some kind of weird cocaine prophet? Like an entirely truthful rhinestone mirror that is just a meditation on the fact that his work resonates with you because, like everything, it means nothing?

The answer is: Yes.

And since I already knew that from watching the Alien movies and being rundown by life in general, that’s why “Forever in Blue Jeans” is a better song than that song called, you know.


Track 11 - Stones

“Lordy child” where are we even? I think I pride myself in being able to create scenarios for sound in my head, but Diamond even does that thing with the percussion in his songs. It’s so basic that it could have been a bossa nova afterthought or like it was a complete and realized western that radiated with a thousand points and facets. But it got thrown into a river called Neil Diamond and worn down, pummeled over and over til its individual points and references were just featureless ghosts, a green 3-D vector recording of an engineer running from something nearly 2,000 years before, but thanks to the hit engine that is Neil Diamond, we’ll never know what it was running from, how it really felt, or what Prometheus even really means. That’s why “Forever in Blue Jeans” is a better song than “Stones”.


Track 12 - Sooliamon

Solomon? What the fuck are you saying Neil? What’s with all this Blue Man Group percussion? Did some weird god hear my complaints about the last song and give me the exact opposite monkey paw wish that anything he did meant something or was distinct? I would say yes because we get to this sexy “HUAH!” chorus thing. Because this song seeks to fuck with my basic understanding of Neil Diamond and is probably the result of having too much money for “exotic” equipment, too much studio time and some stupid word instead of being the the lavish delights a cruel god has in taking heed of my curses to the sky, that’s why “Forever in Blue Jeans” is a better song than “Sooliamon”.


Track 13 - Walk on Water

I…I can’t.


Maybe it’s important for me to take a minute and reflect on this a little bit.

“Forever in Blue Jeans” has all the hallmarks of “Sweet Caroline” or even “Girl You’ll be a Woman Soon”. But instead of being like one of the spooks who are trying to impersonate Mike, it’s an original. Its exclusion from the collection that bears his namesake is something I’m fighting hard, and maybe in this way I can relate to Shaw more than I’m comfortable admitting. I don’t want to believe there is a world without justice or meaning, that the inclusion of “Forever in Blue Jeans” would mean that, in the words of my best friends Jacob, something innocent and perfect can’t exist in an otherwise flawed universe. That beautiful pure and precious stone, “Forever in Blue Jeans,” which bears similarities to its other ancestors and creators, but unlike “Walk on Water” or “Holly Holy,” it bears no hallmarks of man and his religion, ancient alien or otherwise. It’s why even though The Neil Diamond Collection made it onto the Rolling Stone 500 that just two short years later David, maybe the most beautiful of all god’s sons, set about creating The Essential Neil Diamond, which included “Girl You’ll be a Woman Soon,” “America,” and…“Forever in Blue Jeans”.

—Will Sellari