Call me Dave The Rock Critic.
I'm like Joe the Plumber, with a few more hairs but without any useful skills. Yes, I know that's not nearly as good a lead as "Call me Ishmael," but please keep reading.
Ladies and gentlemen, I have gathered you all here because I have realized exactly how we can heal our troubled economy - and ease my own personal credit crisis. Here's the deal: buy my new book that comes out today - He Is . . . I Say: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Neil Diamond.
First, it's a good and decent book made in America -- which just so happens to be Neil Diamond's favorite country!. Don't trust me - I'm just Dave The Rock Critic -- trust the more famous people who I successfully browbeat into giving me blurbs for the back cover. As Judd Apatow puts it, "David Wild has written a smart, witty, and entertaining salute to two people who he really loves -- Neil Diamond and himself. If you, like me, are one of the millions of Neil Diamond fans - or one of the dozens of David Wild fans -- then you will love this book too."
How did I get such a cool blurb? Well, fortunately Judd has asked me to write liner notes for the Freaks & Geeks soundtrack years ago. Then I had the pleasure of consulting for Judd doing some projects surrounding Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. The week the publisher asked me to score some blurbs -- the smack of the book set -- I ran into Judd and his lovely and talented wife Leslie Mann at the after party for the VH1 Rock Honors Who tribute for which I'd been a writer and producer. "David, so glad to see you." Judd said as soon as I arrived. "Can you loan us a few bucks?" That's right, boys and girls, the reigning King of Hollywood and his movie star wife had left home without any cash. Sadly, I didn't have any scratch either, but in exchange for a blurb, I quickly borrowed $20 from the Executive Producer. That was the best $20 that I ever legally spent.
In his blurb, Cameron Crowe without any money exchanging hands called me "Master interviewer and journalist David Wild," even though everybody knows that Cameron is himself the true master, Cameron also directed Jerry Maguire and married that babe from Heart. In my own defense, I saw Jerry Maguire and married a babe with a lot of heart.
This all brings me to the pressing matter of how buying my new book will jumpstart our economy. See if you buy my book today, immediately those funds will start trickling down to so many others: to my wife Fran, to our two sons in private school, and to countless other patriotic Americans who are even less deserving.
Because these are tough times -- and because I really like the cut of your Huffington Post jib -- I'm gonna give you a little taste gratis. So below is the opening of the book -- for free.
There's lots more where that came from, but from here on, you're going to have to pay.
So do the right thing, and buy the book today.
My fellow Americans, for at least one of us, prosperity really is just around the corner.
Coming to America, More Specifically North Jersey
Far we've been traveling far
Without a home, but not without a star
Free, only want to be free
We huddle close, hang on to a dream"
-- From "America" by Neil Diamond
"Mr. Diamond would like to see you, Mrs. Wild."
The dreamy invitation for my mother to enjoy a personal audience with Neil Diamond -- our own King of Kings, our Jewish American Elvis -- arrived not from an angel on high, but from a large, formally dressed, middle-aged security man who carried himself with the impressive, monotone self-seriousness of a Secret Service operative. It was the fall of 1988, and there was only a matter of moments before the night's big Neil Diamond concert was scheduled to start before a sold-out crowd of more than 20,000 at the then Brendan Byrne Arena in East Rutherford, New Jersey -- a grand Garden State gathering place that would later become the Continental Airlines Arena, and then perhaps most fashionably of all, The Izod Center.
Scanning the rest of our small concert-going party -- my older brother Jeff, his wife Susan and myself -- and doing a quick threat assessment, the security man then added, "Will you all follow me . . . now" as he firmly motioned for us to hurry up and come along. The simple fact that this oversized fellow knew exactly in which seats to find the Wild party was enough to convince us that he was a properly authorized representative of all that is good in the universe -- namely, Neil Diamond -- rather than some nefarious figure curiously bent on leading us out of the Byrne Arena so that we would miss the Man's impending show. Frankly, when somebody hands you the Garden State, reformed Jew equivalent of a backstage pass to the Vatican, your first instinct isn't to look too terribly hard for any reasons to say "No."
So it was with a collective sense of urgency that we did exactly as we were told, dutifully abandoning our choice floor seats as we followed this polite and possibly armed man down a hall past a security checkpoint at which we were ceremoniously presented our priceless "All Access" stickers, then through a maze of backstage pre-show buzz. At long last, we reached the door of an unmarked room outside of which an even more intimidating security man stood guard, bravely placing himself in harm's way as the last wall of defense between the Man Who Would Be Diamond and our potentially lethal clan of shorter-than-average, mostly pudgy Jews.
Understandably, we were not privy to the next few moments of whispered, coded and official-sounding conversations. Then finally and thankfully -- after a series of very professional-sounding walkie talkie transmissions and a super-secret pattern of knocks -- the door in front of us opened and we were ushered in past what looked very much like the Gates of Heaven -- at least if you happen to be someone who actually liked Neil Diamond's performance in The Jazz Singer.
And so while the rest of Diamond's flock faithfully waited in their seats just a few hundred yards and yet a million miles away, we alone were now being welcomed straight into the belly of the beast -- the inner sanctum of the Frog King himself, Neil Diamond. For anyone with a lifelong sweet tooth for "Cherry, Cherry" or "Crunchy Granola Suite," this moment in time truly was as good as it gets.
* * *
For as long as I can remember, Neil Diamond had been one of the more consistently appealing presences inside the Wild home at 25 Glenwood Road in Tenafly, New Jersey, an affluent New York City suburb whose population was even more white than Diamond's live audience. To be fair, for five glorious, irony-rich weeks in 1973 when I was twelve and suddenly concerned about the racial imbalance of my hometown, NBC broadcast a drama series about a black private eye called, of all things, Tenafly. The legend had it that some Hollywood hotshot was driving down Route 9W in Bergen County, spotted an exit sign in the corner of his eye, and somehow thought that the town's name had some of the urban cool of Superfly.
This Hollywood hotshot thought wrong. Tenafly wasn't a big hit show -- not even in Tenafly.
Neil Diamond, as I can personally attest, was big in Jersey well before Bruce Springsteen became The Boss. In our home in particular, his music was always near the very top of our pops. Coming of age in the early Seventies in a sort of dark ages after the breakup of the Beatles and before the rise of disco, the music of Neil Diamond took a central place both in our eight-track tape players and in our hearts & minds. Through his indelible and almost absurdly infectious songs, Diamond unknowingly provided the brooding yet beautiful soundtrack for the good, the bad and the ugly of our messy Wild Life. Heard most often in the full aural glamour of the sound systems of boxy station wagons that my mother drove, Diamond's passionate and poppy music spoke to us -- and to me in particular.
Through good times and even not-so-good times, Diamond offered suburban listeners like us the uplifting and radiant hope of "Sweet Caroline," for whom "Good times never seemed so good."
Whether or not anyone in our house was actually scoring at any given time, Diamond brought the courtly romance in "Play Me," the sexy zest for life of "Cracklin' Rose" and the exotic, Afro-tinged sensuality of "Soolaimon." In lieu of any more orthodox religious belief, we even looked to Diamond for the answers to life's bigger questions. And unlike our own local rabbi who was later charged with sexual misconduct involving young boys and a public park, Diamond never let us down. Like some charismatic spiritual leader, he provided us solace and inspiration with songs like "Holly Holy" and "Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show," the closest that I ever came to being truly saved with the possible exception of a subsequent teen tour in Israel. And while I personally never had an imaginary friend growing up, at least I had "Shilo," Diamond's great song about imagining a special pal.
In What About Bob? -- a 1991 film comedy -- the title character played by Bill Murray offered his intriguing world view that "There are two types of people in the world: those who like Neil Diamond and those who don't." In the movie, Bob emphatically did not like Diamond. Then again Bob was an obsessive-compulsive psychiatric patient with major issues and questionable judgment.
We Wilds, on the other hand, were in the far wiser, former group of life-long, red-white-and-Jew Diamondheads. My older brother Jeff and younger sister Wendy had became Diamondheads almost by association. For his part, my father Stanley also greatly admired the work of Neil Diamond; though truth be told, he was -- and always would be -- much more of a Frank Sinatra man. There was no Sopranos-like crime in that, particularly in Frank's native Garden State where we all lived as opposed to those "Brooklyn Roads" that Diamond had traveled on his way to the top.
Especially after my father moved out of our home sometime in the mid-Seventies, the exceedingly male yet deeply sensitive adult voice of our favorite "Solitary Man" became all the more welcome at 25 Glenwood Road -- which was apparently not walking distance to that "Glory Road" about which Diamond so poetically sang. Our biggest family sing-a-long was the almost absurdly catchy and life affirming "Song Song Blue" - or "Song Sung Jew" as we sometimes sang with a certain unsubtle but sweet Semitic charm.
* * *
All these years and one-way memories later, Neil Diamond - the man, the myth, the middle-aged Hebrew hunk - was speaking to us not through blown-out car speakers, but far more directly, person-to-person, or at least superstar-to-person. Actually, truth be told, Diamond was speaking first and foremost to my mother.
"Carol, it's an honor to meet you," Neil Diamond told her warmly. "Your son David tells me that you've been listening to my music for years. I want you to know I so appreciate it."
A few months earlier, I had interviewed Neil Diamond for a long and loving piece in Rolling Stone magazine -- exactly the sort of supposedly hip magazine that had often dismissed this legendary singer-songwriter and performer who has long been the people's choice as opposed to a critics' darling. The fact that Neil had generously donated to an anti-gun charity that publisher Jann Wenner had founded to honor his fallen friend John Lennon probably didn't hurt either.
Despite selling more than 100 million records - or perhaps because of selling more than 100 million records -- Neil Diamond had gotten pretty much everything in this world except the respect as an artist that he rightly deserved. Everyone from Frank Sinatra to Bob Dylan sang his songs, and even the uber-hip Miles Davis sang his praises, but for some it was never quite enough. For me, he was something much more worthwhile than hip; he was good. Make that great. And so, if showing Diamond that core respect right there in black and white meant that I would risk earning the scorn of some of my groovier than thou Rolling Stone colleagues, well, then so be it. After some soul searching, I ultimately decided that to deny my love for all things Diamond was to deny my very identity.
For his part, perhaps sensing my knowledge and affection for his work, Diamond was less guarded with me than then he had been with interviewers in the past. I first asked him about his immortalized performance alongside the likes of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and Van Morrison at The Last Waltz - the 1976 farewell performance by the acclaimed rock group The Band on Thanksgiving Day that was famously filmed by Martin Scorsese. Diamond was invited to take part in The Last Waltz because The Band's Robbie Robertson had produced Diamond's 1976 album Beautiful Noise, and he sung a beautiful version of one of his stellar songs from that album called "Dry Your Eyes." Yet, I pointed out , despite the fact that he was likely far and away the single best-selling recording artist at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco that night, there was still a curious sense of him being somehow apart and different from the other rock icons in the room.
"I don't fit in," Diamond confessed to me. "But you could put me in any show and I wouldn't fit in. You could put me in rock show and I wouldn't fit in. You cold put me in a country show and I wouldn't fit in. You could put me onstage with Sinatra and I wouldn't fit in. . . I just do not fit in. . . I'm sorry. I apologize to everybody. But I never tried to fit in, because that meant conforming what I could write or what I could do to a certain set of rules. . . The last group I remember joining was the Boy Scouts, and they threw me out for non-payment of dues. So I suppose you could say that I've always gone my own way."
I had flown to Los Angeles from New York to meet my hero, expecting him to be some splashy star-spangled figure, like Elvis in Vegas. Yet the man I met turned out to be infinitely more approachable and down-to-earth than that. Dressed in jeans and casual shirts and unshaven, he struck me as a far cooler and more interesting presence than his naysayers would ever bother to imagine.
As Diamond told me years later, from his point of view he was no Elvis, Jewish or otherwise. "When I first came up it was Elvis that was king and I was much more clean cut," he confessed. "He was black leather jackets and motorcycles, and I was just a nice kid who minded his manners and helped his dad out in the store after school everyday." Those who knew him in the beginning say Elvis too was actually a nice kid from Tupelo who loved his mama before he rocked the world.
As musical superstars who lived in Malibu went, Diamond was turning out to be a real haymish kind of famous guy from Brooklyn. For all he had been through, he was still at heart the New York Boy who went to Erasmus High on Flatbush Avenue where Bernard Malamud, Barbara Stanwyck, Mae West and Mickey Spillane had gone before him, as had a young girl named Barbara Joan Streisand who sang with him in the school's 100-member fixed chorus and who would later become a perfect duet partner. For the record, Diamond then graduated from Abraham Lincoln High on Ocean Parkway that also gave the world Joseph Heller, Mel Brooks, Neil "The Other Neil" Sedaka, Carole King and even Marv Albert.
Diamond was well aware that not everyone was a Diamondhead, but as he explained in Rolling Stone, that did not stop him for a moment from achieving his musical mission of touching me, touching you. "When you have done so many songs over the years, one of them has to have attracted at least somebody, you know? If you haven't liked one song that I've written, then I should probably hang it up. I tried for twenty years to get everybody to like at least one song. And if I haven't done that by now, I'll just have to spend the next twenty years trying to do it."
Having loved the guy's music forever, I found that I liked the actual man behind the music just as much. This was a lesson that I would learn again and again over the next twenty years: The bigger they were, the better they were to know. I would have the pleasure of getting to know three of the four Beatles, for instance, and found them all to be genuinely Fab. The Backstreet Boys - who would arrogantly keep me outside in the cold for hours waiting to interview them for a cover story -- not so much.
During our many hours of conversation over two days at Diamond's homey office on a tiny Los Angeles side street named Melrose Place, I had apparently mentioned that I was in fact a second-generation Diamond worshipper. Immediately after my article ran in the magazine, Diamond had written a very warm Thank You note on his personal stationary that bore an engraved illustration of a frog wearing a crown -- a charmingly self-deprecating reference to a famous line from "I Am. . . I Said," perhaps Diamond's most self-revelatory classic about being "a frog who dreamed of bein' a king and then became one." A few weeks later, his trusty publicist Sherrie Levy called and said that Neil wanted to invite my family and me to attend his show in New Jersey as his guest. And that, I assumed, would be the end of my relationship with Mister Neil Diamond.
Now here we stood just minutes before show time in Diamond's large, welcoming dressing room. Spread all around us were assorted signed items of merchandise -- Neil Diamond T-shirts, posters, tour books and CDs. Neil explained to my mother that it was all for her, a small token of his esteem. "You raised a real mensch," he said with a broad smile, "and I want you to know I really appreciate it." Having already gotten all the press he was likely to ever get from Rolling Stone, Neil Diamond had done everything for my mother short of bringing her flowers.
Predictably, my mother beamed with pure maternal pride and perhaps with some less pure feeling towards Diamond as well. For my part, I was dumbstruck in a somewhat different manner. Though only four years out of college, I had already become a journalist of sorts ever so slightly jaded about seeing stars up close and personal. Yet this grand gesture of generosity was stunning. After all of the not-so good times we'd been through together as a family, it was moving see my mother so well treated by our very own family icon. There was, you might say -- at least if you were an aging Jewish rock critic like me -- a whole lot of nachas going on.
It took a moment to fully grasp the reality that I had just been dubbed a mensch in good standing by Neil Diamond himself. As I remember it, my mother was left speechless and found herself in a highly emotional state that the even vaguely Yiddish-speaking among us will recognize as a full-body kvell. If so, one could hardly blame her since she had suddenly found herself in the presence of true pop royalty. Diamond looked every bit the part. Only moments before he was about to take the stage -- and I mean, really take it -- Diamond was already made up and dressed to kill onstage in all his now familiar glitz and glory. Despite being the man who brought the world "Forever In Blue Jeans," Diamond had long had a far less casual way of dressing for his fans. At just under six feet, the man was both taller and skinnier than he photographs -- and a lot taller and skinnier than anyone who had ever dipped their toes in the shallow genetic wadding pool of the Wilds. For tonight's show, he was wearing black pants and one of those shiny almost metallic, open-necked white stage peasant blouses that he stressed were made not of sequins, as commonly but wrongly theorized, but rather beads.
At one point I pulled myself together long enough to thank Diamond for this abundant and unexpected act of generosity. "Thank you, buddy," he said blessedly loud enough for the rest of my family to hear. For once, payback was not a bitch, but rather a mensch.
Just then a loud knock on Diamond's dressing room door served to remind us where we were and why we were there in the first place. As if he actually had any doubts, Diamond asked us to "Try and enjoy the show." Then right before we were hurriedly escorted back to our seats before the lights dimmed and the show began, Diamond made one small request: "Carol," he asked gallantly. "Would you mind terribly taking a photo with me?" A photographer emerged from out of the shadows of the Brendan Bryne hallway, and somehow we all jumped into the shot, and a quick photo was snapped, forever documenting a moment of actual shared joy just before we returned to our seats to hear our new buddy Neil's beautiful noise.
For two decades now, that very same photo has stood by my mother's bedside table. And even though the picture caught me in one of my least attractive phases - and that's marking on one hell of a steep curve -- I still look upon that image fondly, even if I do appear to be retaining much of the Hudson River as I hide behind a temporary beard and an oversized over coat.
Good times never seemed so good -- and rarely would again.
From the book He Is...I Say: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Neil Diamond, by David Wild. Excerpted by arrangement with Da Capo Press (www.dacapopress.com), a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2008.
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