Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Feuerzeig Video Covers Project. Part 7: "'I Am,'' I Said" (Neil Diamond)

The Feuerzeig Video Covers Project. Part 7:“I Am,” I Said (Neil Diamond)

I.               A Brief Cultural History of Neil Diamond (for Ricki Lisi)

When people ask for LA song, Neil Diamond’s “’I Am,’ I Said” is a better choice than most. It’s a deeply personal song, but it’s also an emblematic lament, both for and of, a musical and cultural trend that happened around 1970. Specifically it’s a “1970 LA Song.” To put it in context, I’ll begin with an excerpt from the draft of my History Of Radio published on the Radio Survivor website.

The Dominance of the LP
Although the major record labels had needed to piggy-back, and be subjugated to the whims, of the more popular medium of radio for decades, by 1970 they were seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, and could gain more control of A&R and markets than before, even if they had to temporarily align themselves with the underground FM-DJS, as well as TV and Hollywood to do so. One of the ways Hollywood recovered in the 1970s was by luring its enemy, the relatively independent network of regional labels to relocate to L.A. and (re)-centralize the industry. In LA, the major media conglomerates could defeat the independents through co-optation; Motown perhaps being the best case in point, but this was paradigmatic around 1970s.

As Hollywood made a comeback in the 1970s, the album grew. 1970 marks the first major shift toward re-centralization. By the early 1970s FM had adopted the AOR Format. Now there were more movies “about” music; bigger meant better. The industry’s move to LA cleaned up (or white washed) the music business. Radio was now more efficient and cost effective at no loss of quality (researches showed). Playlists prevented any messy payola scandals, just as Lake Erie was magically cleaned when the calendar changed to 1/1/1970. (http://radiosurvivor.com/2011/06/09/a-history-of-radio-and-content-part-iii-the-rise-of-fm-music-radio/ )

Neil Diamond’s career from roughly 1966 to 1971 is emblematic of this paradigm shift. Cutting his teeth during the heyday of the Brill Building, Neil achieved fame as one of the last great singles artists. Many of his first hits, from his trilogy of catchy Monkees’ songs to his string of smashes on Bang Records, had a signature sound (Black Gospel as performed at a Latin-tinged Bar Mitzvah, packed economically into a hook laden pop arrangement with heavily melodic verses and sing-along choruses)—but he also had beautiful crying ballads (“Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon” and “Shiloh”). As his hit-songwriting grew from that basic groove foundation, he took it about as far as it could go with “Cracklin’ Rose.” And then the paradigm shift happened: “’I Am,’ I Said” straddles the old and the new as the singer tries to straddle two shores.

LA’s fine, the sun shines most the time
And the feeling’s laid back
Palm trees grow, the rents are low…

While a new crop of “California Sound” bands like The Eagles were having hits with “laid back” songs like “Take It Easy” (co-written with Jackson Browne), Neil Diamond moved to LA, but just couldn’t (or wouldn’t) quite do laid-back, much less “singer/songwriter,” though "Forever In Blue Jeans" would come close. The song teases us with a seemingly laid-back beginning, but it doesn’t take long for his nostalgia for the good old days of New York’s Brill Building’s competitive community to overtake him, as the song rises to its emotional climax:

Well I’m New York City born and raised,
but now days I’m lost between two shores
LA’s fine but it ain’t home;
New York’s home but it ain’t mine no more.

Like Motown’s Hitsville USA House, The Brill Building was becoming a ghost-town; many of its exiles (whether famous like Neil or not) were moving to LA, in search of, if not the next big thing, at least a gig. He didn’t necessarily want to move to LA, but the music industry did. I can hear the compulsion—“I moved under duress” in his voice. Thus the solitary cry, the tree-falling-in-the-forest, of the chorus bespeaks not simply a personal isolation, but also a cultural phenomenon. Neil was no ‘singer songwriter,’ but he was still the ‘solitary man,’ and would survive the 70s as singular mega-platinum album artist. I’d argue that “’I Am,’ I Said” is his last great single.[1]

2. What The Song Has Meant To Me: 2003 & 2013

When I left NYC for a plum day-job in the SF Bay Area as Visiting Distinguish Poet In Residence that enabled me to take summers’ off and finally afford a rehearsal space to get a band going in 2003, “I Am, I Said” was the band’s crowd-pleasing cover; we often saved it for encores. We usually extended the final two chords into a long rave up; guitarist Pete Nochisaki and I would transform our little songwriting-based band into about as close to psych-noise groove as we got.

This cover had a kind of “campy cred” among for the “indie hipster” crowd, which we of course were “above” (ha!). A lot of this campy cred has a lot to do with one particular line, which most people I know single out as an example of bad songwriting:

And no one cared at all, not even the chair

But the more I listened to this line, the more it made sense. When singer-songwriter Phranc devoted an entire album to Neil Diamond covers in the late 1990s, she had a similar epiphany. Here’s a guy who has an intimate relationship with his chair! As one who cut his teeth in a Brill Building songwriting factory, Neil certainly would’ve appreciated Leiber and Stoller’s “If you can’t find a partner use a wooden chair,” to say nothing of Willie Nelson’s first major hit as a songwriter when he worked in a Nashville songwriting factory, “Hello Walls,” with its poignant use of the pathetic fallacy (when he talks to the walls, and notices they’re crying and says, “don’t you try to tell me that it’s rain.”). But, for Neil, in his isolation, even the musical chair is  letting him down.

And then there’s the title, it almost sounds like Dr. Seuss, or, far worse, Rene Descartes! But it’s better than the logo-centric Cartesian Cogito (disembodied thought). After all, Neil doesn’t say “I am,” he sings, and even shouts, it. Campy-cred aside, I liked it because Neil also meant it, and could express my own conundrum, and loneliness.

In our live shows during this time (2003/04), I could emotionally relate to the lyrics to both verses of the song, with the only major difference being that I was in Oakland/San Francisco, not LA: In the Bay Area, palm trees are transplanted and the rents rivaled NYC for highest in the country, but that’s relatively incidental. More importantly I was definitely torn between the two coasts as this speaker is. I could also relate to the second verse:

Did you ever read about a frog who dreamed of being a king
And then became one
Well, except for the names and a few other changes when you talk about me
The story’s the same one…

Sure, I didn’t think of myself as a “King,” certainly on the level that Neil Diamond could claim in 1971, with numerous gold records and, more importantly, catchy melodies that millions of people knew, but I had the enviable job, a band with a rising reputation in the “indie-rock” world—even though my friends, publishers and, most importantly, my girlfriend, were still in NYC.  I was definitely “lost between two shores” then; I thought I’d eventually acclimate to California, or find a way back east, but then I fell down and broke my “crown.”

As a result, I relate to the lyrics of the first verse much more than the second these days—especially when I found myself actually homeless in LA. In moments of despair, I can look back on my 2003 self and say, “get over it, mere loneliness isn’t that big of a deal; I got to deal with disability and homelessness now!” But the song can still have a kind of power, even if it offers no way out, and no way back to the life I lost when I left NYC. If I pretend or imagine that chair is Neil Diamond, it still may not care, but at least I could let Neil know that his art and the soul that comes through it at its best is loved by many younger poor people (as I read in  Newseek several years back, when I could afford dentists: Billy Joel, down; Neil Diamond, up!).

Here's the Piano Van version Jeff Feuerzeig recorded: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rR1xXGTt0Ig&

[1] Around the same time (1970), Mike Nesmith released a song called “Hollywood,”
In which he characterizes his years on the TV show that, probably more than anything, effected the transition of the industry from New York to LA, and the dissolution of The Brill Buildng:

It’s not the countryside that appealed to my heart,
It’s the spirit and it captured my mind
But the things I tried to be made a wreck out of me
Now a different road I must find.”

Nesmith had to get out of there, and like Doug Sahm return to his Texas roots, and even the Eagles, for all their laid-back California Songs in the early 70s, transformed into the dark coke-laden paranoia of Hotel California by 1976. Neil saw through the “California Ruse,” much earlier, and much deeper.

No comments:

Post a Comment