Solitary man a singular success

June 04, 1993|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

It's the last track on the new Chris Isaak album, and it sounds like an instant classic. The song starts quietly, with a mournful, minor-key guitar strum and the slow, shuffling pulse of brushes on a snare drum, and as Isaak starts into the verse --It's the last track on the new Chris Isaak album, and it sounds like an instant classic. The song starts quietly, with a mournful, minor-key guitar strum and the slow, shuffling pulse of brushes on a snare drum, and as Isaak starts into the verse -- "Melinda was mine/ 'Til the time/ That I found her/ Holding Jim . . ." -- you're instantly swept up, drawn into a tale of heartbreak and desolation so familiar you'd swear you've heard it somewhere before.

But it isn't until the chorus that the light bulb goes on: "I'll be what I am/ A solitary man/ Solitary man."

Of course it sounds like a classic. "Solitary Man" is one of the best things Neil Diamond has ever written, the song that crystallized his sound and kick-started his solo career some 26 years ago. And yet, as Isaak proved, the song remains as visceral and vital as the day it was written.

"I heard Chris' record, and I liked it a lot," says Diamond, over the phone from Little Rock, Ark. "I'm happy that it's still around and has some kind of value.

"I remember writing it. I didn't write it for me, I wrote it, I think, for Bobby Darin. He had a hit called 'If I Were A Carpenter,' which is kind of a folk song. So I had this in mind for him.

"But it was too natural for me not to do it."

Natural, indeed. "Solitary Man" was the first in a string of hits for Diamond (though it didn't crack the Top 40 until it was re-issued, in 1970, on the heels of "Cracklin' Rosie"), part of the process that made him one of the most commercially potent singer/songwriters of the early '70s. Yet when Diamond wrote the song, he wasn't looking for solo success; what he really wanted was to be as sharp a tunesmith as his idols in the Brill Building: Carole King. Burt Bacharach. Jeff Barry. Barry Mann.

"I was walking the streets while those guys were writing those big hits," he recalls. "From 1957 to '66, these writers were my heroes. That was what I aspired to write, songs like theirs.

"But I went my own way. I had to, because I couldn't compete with these people. They were brilliant in their own way. My songs had to be more personal, and 'Solitary Man' started it off. It was easier for me after that."

Diamond hasn't forgotten those early days, however. In fact, his next album -- due out in September -- is meant as his tribute to the songwriters who gave him his early inspiration. "It's kind of an homage to some of the greatest American songwriters of the '60s," he says. "Almost every one of the songs on the album was written while I was trying to get a foothold or get someone to listen to my stuff.

"The album has got everything from 'Don't Be Cruel' to 'Doo Wah Diddy' to 'You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling,' which is a duet with Dolly Parton, to 'Up on the Roof.' Wonderful, wonderful songs. It's a joy for me to do this album, because these are the songs that gave me goose bumps and made me want to become a writer."

For the moment, though, Diamond is content to work as a performer, singing his old stuff on tour. "I don't know if I like it better," he says of road work. "It is easier than writing, because there's not a lot of creative work done. It's mainly maintaining yourself physically.

"But the performance is the best part of it."

It doesn't hurt, of course, that Diamond is one of the top concert draws in popular music. Last year, he ranked with the likes of U2 and the Grateful Dead in terms of ticket sales and total attendance.

What's his secret?

"I don't really know," he says, seeming genuinely mystified. "I'm a little bit protected here from the rest of the business. We've just been going this way for so long that I've just got to take it for granted that somebody will show up.

"I don't know what to attribute it to," he adds. "I hope it's the music."

Still, as popular as Diamond's music appears to be, the singer has more than a few detractors, a group that ranges from rock critics to humorist Dave Barry (who went so far as to say that "I Am . . . I Said" had the stupidest lyrics of all time).

Diamond doesn't worry about bad reviews, though. "I actually try not to read them," he says. "And I try not to read the good ones, either. There's not a lot I can do about it.

"I'm doing everything that I can possibly think of -- and all the creative people around me can think of -- to present a great show or make a great record. I can look at myself in the mirror and say, 'I did everything that I could do.'

"What comes after that is irrelevant to the work."

Neil Diamond

When: Tomorrow and Sunday at 8 p.m.

Where: Baltimore Arena, 201 W. Baltimore St.

Tickets: $25 (tomorrow is sold out)

Call: (410) 347-2020 for information, (410) 481-7328 for tickets

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