Wild horses couldn’t drag a non-Monkees Neil Diamond song out of my throat. Tie five frothing stallions to my limbs and I’d fall to pieces, resisting a command performance of “Song Sung Blue” or “Longfellow Serenade,” “Coming to America” or “So Good So Good” (formerly “Sweet Caroline”). To me, Diamond’s great talent with melody is ruined by the pompous earnestness of his lyrics and the false gravitas of his delivery. The finest art of his career is the cover of his Hot August Night album, on which he mimes an exaggerated caricature of a man caught in a profane act of self-pleasure. It is a pictorial definition of Neil Diamond who, in his shameless exhibitionism, has never had any trouble attracting hoards of looky-loos. But as I say, I would never cover any of his non-Monkees stuff. Unless there was a lot of money involved. Or if Jeff Berkley asked me to.
Well, Jeff Berkley called me recently.
For quite a while, there had been heated rumors (as opposed to tepid ones) that the venerable O Berkley, Where Hart Thou? would spawn a new theatrical presentation – the legendary Tom Waits-inspired Looking for the Berkley Hart of Saturday Night seemed close to finally becoming a reality and tongues within the music scene were wagging outside their normal bodily targets. Finally, the speculation was ended. Time magazine (or maybe it was the Troubadour; I get them confused) announced the new piece would be called The Last Waltz, a live concert recreation of the Martin Scorsese documentary of a 1976 Thanksgiving show by The Band, which featured guest spots by several of the group’s famous friends, including Joni Mitchell. And Van Morrison, who had recently quit the Doors. (Just seeing if you’re paying attention.) Neil Young’s cocaine-crusted nose.
And there’s a guest spot that features Neil Frigging Diamond. Jeff Berkley wanted to know if I would like to perform the Neil Diamond tune. I’d be backed by a band with which any singer would be thrilled to perform.
My immediate thought was that Mr. Berkley had lost his marbles… then that melted into a crashing wave of humility when it became clear that he was serious. I said yes without hesitation, and Jeff loaned me his DVD of The Last Waltz so that I could learn Neil Diamond’s song. This would be my third time seeing the film; I caught it at a movie house when it was first released and ran it at a screening at the Museum of Photographic Arts in 2000. In truth I was never a fan of The Band or the film, but now watching it at home was enjoyable and fascinating. The DVD has a superb commentary track, which makes the entire film much more interesting, so much so that it caused me then to run the feature again. By the end I was thoroughly charmed.
So now I’m feeling somewhat like I did as a kid coming home from kindergarten to find that Mommy has made me a new big black Zorro cape – I get to play Zorro now in the back yard with enhanced verisimilitude. Now as a grown-up (on paper, at least) I get to play The Last Waltz with the reality and presence of the finest musicians in town. Mommy, make a note of this one, please…
I began to study and learn the Neil Diamond dirge – uh, I mean song – and came to the conclusion that it’s a remarkable representation of the artist and what he means to me personally. There is a studied seriousness to it, a stateliness that seems to be screaming “Listen up, you cretins, this is life-changingly important!” A lot of lines begin with the word “And” just like… like where? Oh yeah, just like in the Bible!
This is heavy stuff.
If I didn’t know better (and I truly don’t, by the way), I would say Neil’s making up the lyrics as he goes along. I see him giving The Band a rundown of the chords earlier in the day, then telling them, “Don’t worry about the words. I’ll put myself on AutoProfound and they’ll be in awe, I swear.”
Well, I swear to you that I studied the damned thing for hours and my unchanging verdict is that the song lyrically doesn’t make a bit of sense. It’s so “open to interpretation” that it could be as much about the Pope’s pajamas as it could be about Sarah Palin’s brain injuries. I mean, early Bernie Taupin is nowhere compared to this one, babe.
And it was more than being holy but it was less than being free
And if you can’t recall the reason can you hear the people sing
Right through the lighting and tha thunda to the dark side of the moon
To that distant falling angel that descended much too soon
No, I ain’t makin’ this up. With each word such a timeless treasure, my work is certainly cut out for me here.
I must ask for your help. And God’s.
Unfortunately, in the movie, Scorsese cuts from a close up to a long shot right before Neil sings “tha thunda” (which he emphasizes so strongly) so that the viewer is probably spared a clear view of Mr. Diamond smirking at his audience. Now my plan is not to do any sort of Neil Diamond impression (oh god, isn’t that what all actors say nowadays?) but simply be José Sinatra interpreting the song in his very own personal way, never forgetting how everything in the Diamond Canon is ultimately about getting oneself off in front of a bunch of voyeurs.
In The Last Waltz, he’s dressed rather low-key for Neil, I think, and certainly far too low-key for The Hose. So I’m on my own in that department, though I’ll have the Diamond spirit in mind. What would he have worn, I’ll ask myself, had he been as awesomely accomplished, professionally polished, and sexually provocative as The Hose at that relatively early point in his career? And I shall do my utmost to answer myself with honesty and candor. (Remember: Five-sixths of “candor” is “can do”!) Neil even has since proved to be quite effective without going all hunnert-per-sayent Las Vegas glitzy (witness his superb performance as Richie Valens in the biopic La Bamba) but frankly, I’m not so sure I can… I don’t want to risk letting my fans down by eschewing the costly fabrics and color-bending designs that customarily caress my supple form in performance.
And there’s one thing he seems particularly enamored of that I will simply refuse to consider or do. I refuse to style my eyebrows. Please, if you ever catch me styling my eyebrows, shoot me. Just say I had rabies and tried to bite your arm off. Please.
Verily I say unto you: It will be one hot November night. No doubts are possible.
Don’t miss The Last Waltz, presented by Berkley Hart and Back to the Garden. Saturday, November 16, 8pm at Poway Center for the Performing Arts, 15498 Espola Rd., Poway. For further information, go to: powaycenter.com