November 12, 2008
Wild about Diamond
Wild grew up in Tenafly, N.J., not even knowing anti-Semitism existed, he said, "because it took a few years before I knew there were non-Jews." It was at Loomis-Chafee prep school that he discovered, as he put it, that "there's no Hank Greenberg in lacrosse."
Early on, Wild developed a passion for music. He was a music critic for his middle school and high school papers, as well at Cornell University's Daily Sun. A college friendship with one of his teachers, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist William Kennedy, led to a job at Esquire magazine. Wild recalls: "I didn't even go to graduation. I went right from my last class with Kennedy ... to editing a story by him."
From Esquire, Wild proceeded to music mecca Rolling Stone. According to Wild, the magazine's co-founder, Jann Wenner, took a liking to his Jewish jokes. Over the years, Wild interviewed many of his heroes, including Diamond and three of the four Beatles. It's hard to beat hanging out with Paul McCartney in Buenos Aires on a South American tour (Wild confided that on another occasion, Linda McCartney pulled him aside and told him to marry the woman he was dating -- which he did).
At Rolling Stone, Wild rose to music editor and then started to write about TV, where he discovered he could be funnier and "more of a wiseass."
He also started to appear on VH-1 in its "Behind the Music" shows and was asked to produce one about Diamond, which Wild refers to as "the only scandal-free episode of 'Behind the Music.'" In the process, Wild discovered an ability to write TV specials (and more specifically to write for others, quickly), therby launching a successful career writing TV specials and awards shows.
On the Internet's IMDB database, Wild has credits for writing 63 shows, including several years of the Grammys, The Teen Music, TV Land and Country Music awards. Among the shows he is proudest of are "The Tribute to Heroes," following Sept. 11, "Live 8" and, of course, the aforementioned "Behind the Music" Diamond program.
So why Neil Diamond?
Diamond is the New York-native, Jewish singer-songwriter born in 1941, sometimes called "The Jewish Elvis." He was discovered by Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry and signed to Atlantic Records' Bang Label, where he recorded "Solitary Man" and "Cherry, Cherry"; wrote hits for the Monkees TV show, including "I'm a Believer" (or "The Shrek" song as my daughter refers to it); and many more hits, including "Holly, Holy," "Sweet Caroline," "Song Sung Blue," "Red, Red Wine," "Cracklin' Rosie" and "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon."
He also starred in a hard-to-watch remake of "The Jazz Singer"; has sold more than 125 million records, with 36 Top 40 hits; and played thousands of sold-out concerts the world over. Diamond's most recent album, "Home Before Dark," entered the charts at No. 1 for the first time in his career.
Now, a confession: I am not a Diamond fan. I like many of his songs when I hear them on the radio, but I don't buy his records or attend his concerts.
When I think of Diamond, I think of Al Jolson, known as the world's greatest entertainer and, not coincidentally, the original Jazz Singer. For me, there is something about Diamond that, like Jolson, seems too earnest, too on the nose. A little schmaltzy even. I respect Diamond as a songwriter and acknowledge his appeal as a performer, but he doesn't do it for me.
Wild, of course, has thought long and hard about Diamond and why not everyone shares his fervor. Wild believes that the areas where many detractors find fault are actually Diamond's strengths.
Wild also believes there is a generation that has grown up with irony as part of its cultural DNA, and Diamond is resolutely "unironic." Further, Wild says, "He is the son of a people who owned a store. More than most artists, he's been driven by keeping the customer satisfied." This, too, is not "cool."
Finally, Wild wants to put forward a theory that among some who don't get Diamond's appeal, he suspects another source: "In my heart of hearts, a considerable amount of the people who are skeptical or undervalue him are people who are uncomfortable with their own Judaism."
To which I respond, much as Larry David did in an episode of "Curb Your Enthusiasm": Jewish? Yes. Self-loathing? Definitely. But Jewish self-loathing? No way.
Still, I get his point.
As Jackie Mason is wont to remind us, "Too Jewish" is an expression used most often by Jews. Perhaps Diamond is the Ralph Lauren of music -- a success by everyone's standards, except those who fault him for having been born Ralph Lifshitz.
Wild's paean to Diamond is intended as a "generational apology" from the age of irony to the generation of Jewish men like Wild's father, whom he thinks we tend to undervalue. At the same time, Wild's desire to write his tribute to Diamond was born from a desire to express something about himself.
In the book, Wild writes that he was at prep school when he first worried about admitting his love for Diamond. I pointed out the obvious parallel that coming out as a Diamond fan among his peers is akin to coming out as a Jew among his WASPy prep schoolmates.
"It is so true," Wild said, "If he [Diamond] didn't exist, he would be a wonderful metaphor for being Jewish."
So consider Wild's book-length tribute album to Diamond to be the author's own "Song Sung Blue."
Or, perhaps, his "Song Sung Jew."
David Wild will read from and sign copies of his book "He Is .. I Say" at 7 p.m. on Nov. 19th at Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. (310) 659-3110.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.
David Wild. Photo by Richard Berman