Friday Morning Download – "Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show" by Neil Diamond

There is a certain cycle to life – a movement that can begin with crisis, result in deep set shame and anger, and then move through healing, reconcilation, and yes, peace and contentment.

This pretty much sums up my relationship with Neil Diamond…

Let me go back to the 1970’s – those golden halcyon days of youth where I was beginning to understand that being 10 years old included establishing myself as “cool.” This entailed a certain level of image management: grape ripple Goodie comb sticking out of the back of the Sears Toughskins, pooka shells around the neck and whatnot…. you get the picture. My cooler than cool friends introduced me to the wonder of Disco and all those ‘conjunction’ bands – Kool AND the Gang; KC AND the Sunshine Band; Earth, Wind AND Fire. However, stepping into my families ’72 Red VW Campervan was a story in geek fear writ large. Of the 4 or 5
8-Tracks we owned, the majority of playtime was the Jazz Singer himself… Neil Diamond. I just tuned him out as much as I could and hoped that my folks didnt put any music on when it was our turn to drive kids home from swim team practice. Friends of mine would talk about their parents going to cool concerts – the only concerts I remember my folks ever attending were Neil Diamond. In a sense, it was almost liturgical. Neil Diamond would bring his big floor show to Seattle every fall and sell out the Arena for a week stay – it was my pre-Advent nightmare. The 33 1/3 albums would plop onto the turntable and Neil would start singing about “butterscotch sticking to all his senses.” To a 10 year old – it just sounded…well… gross.

Fast forward a few decades…

I don’t know if it is a sonic narcotic or what… but now I see the light: Neil Diamond is the original Emo boy. Before Bright Eyes, before Elliott Smith, before Death Cab, before The Arcade Fire, before Iron and Wine… there was “I Am I Said… to no one there…” He also was very interested in the performativity of religion – that faith is emotive and vibrant. One of the songs I consider a guilty pleasure is “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show” – a great tribute to the tent revival preaching of the southlands. The song builds from the lyric that would become the title of his platinum selling live album (and one of the most suggestive album covers to boot…) “Hot August Night”:

Hot August night
And the leaves hanging down
And the grass on the ground smelling sweet
Move up the road
To the outside of town
And the sound of that good gospel beat

As the gospel choir preps the song, building in volume, Diamond struts in – no longer Yussel Rabinowitz, a talented cantor from “The Jazz Singer” – but a revivalist preacher ready to ‘turn and burn’ a room:

Room gets suddenly still
And when you’d almost bet
You could hear yourself sweat,
he walks in
Eyes black as coal
And when he lifts his face
Every ear in the place is on him
Starting soft and slow
Like a small earthquake
And when he lets go
Half the valley shakes

Whether evoking images from “Night of the Hunter” or “The Apostle”, Diamond does a great job of making revival a sing along. It is just a great reminder that although Diamond’s career has certainly taken the all-too-painful turn toward self-parody (but it is a lucrative parody – Diamond’s 2005 box-office haul thus far is more than $42.4 million from 43 shows, 36 of them sell-outs) he still can write a great song.

However, this parody is going to change in November when Rick Rubin – the wunderkind producer noted for restoring Johnny Cash’s glory through the American Recordings series – is producing and releasing a spare, raw album by Diamond entitled simply “12 songs”. I am certainly looking forward to it. Granted, in the currency of music, Diamond is no Cash… but who knows? Maybe under Rubin’s heat… there might be some coal under that Diamond after all…


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