Neil (Leslie) Diamond Jay Cocks - Essay

Jay Cocks

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Neil Diamond] has written and sung some of the smoothest and best contemporary pop, yet he remains a performer in search of a tradition, a megabucks pilgrim looking for roots he never had and a place in which to settle. Rock really is not his neighborhood; his fur-lined melodies and forthright sentimentality make him stand out among rockers like a Couperde Ville at a demolition derby. Diamond has been a smash act in Las Vegas, but he is neither as smooth as Sinatra, as cloying as Wayne Newton nor as annoying as Steve Lawrence.

All this difficulty about categorization and definition sometimes gives even Diamond pause. "I fell between two musical generations," he admits. "I love Sinatra and Eddie Fisher. Yet I really loved the Beatles." The only folks who don't seem at all confused—or at least don't care if they are—are the millions of fans…. Diamond loyalists right now are making their boy's latest efforts two of the year's hottest records. Love on the Rocks, a typically canny Diamond ballad, is currently No. 2 on the charts, while the album it comes from, The Jazz Singer, is fifth among the top LPs….

The low drama and high sentiments of [the movie The Jazz Singer, in which Diamond stars,] may be only a glossy reflection of Diamond's life and sometimes troubled times. But the movie does pull off at least one tricky proposition: it finally and snugly tucks Neil Diamond inside a tradition. He is revealed as a rouser, a showman, a kind of bandmaster of the American mainstream. Like [Al] Jolson's, even Diamond's slickest movements seem sincere. The stuff may be corny but it's never prefab. Neil leans into the Kol Nidre as if it were a sacred version of his sound-track anthem for Jonathan Livingston Seagull. One may question his taste, but not his enthusiasm or his exuberance. America, his up-tempo celebration of the immigrant glories of American life that opens and closes The Jazz Singer, is equal parts Emma Lazarus and Irving Berlin, and none the worse for it. It is too close to Diamond's heart to be purely sappy. It is a showman's show-stopper, and it is not a bad little tune for a pilgrim, either.

Jay Cocks, "Bandmaster of the Mainstream," in Time, Vol. 117, No. 4, January 26, 1981, p. 71.