It’s easy to forget just how hard it’s been to pin down Neil Diamond over the years. If Rick Rubin is to be believed, it took close to a decade just to get Diamond to agree to collaborate on the American Recordings–style project that finally bore fruit with 12 Songs (American/Columbia) debuting at the four spot on the Billboard chart back in November. But Diamond was an elusive figure in the pop world long before Rubin came along. He’s known as a songwriter’s songwriter, a product of the Brill Building who was on hand for the birth of rock and roll. But unlike his Brill Building peers — even the ones who went on to become performers, like Carole King — Diamond’s also known as a performer’s performer, a glitzy pop star in glass-bead-studded, half-open shirts capable of breaking attendance records at arenas around the world. And, like so many of his singles, with their classic A-sides and forgettable, even embarrassing B-sides ("Red, Red Wine" backed by "Red Rubber Ball"), the contradictions run deeper still. I remember wondering what Diamond was doing on stage in the Band’s The Last Waltz alongside the likes of Bob Dylan and Neil Young. And that was before I knew that, in its original form, his ridiculously titled 1968 album, Velvet Gloves and Spit (MCA), included the anti-drug ditty "The Pot Smoker’s Song."
But the story doesn’t end there. Diamond may have seemed out of place in The Last Waltz, but there’s no mystery surrounding his connection to the Band. As the credits for Diamond’s 1976 album, Beautiful Noise (Columbia), reveal, Rubin isn’t the first unlikely producer to take the other man in black under his wing. Back when the Band were riding high in both senses of the word, Robbie Robertson produced what turned out to be one of Diamond’s best-received albums. In fact, in terms of casting a hip light on Diamond, Beautiful Noise is the obvious blueprint for 12 Songs. It’s not as hit-packed as you might expect from an album that received "unusually warm critical praise," as Laura Jackson takes pains to point out in her new biography, Neil Diamond: His Life, His Music, His Passion (ECW). It, too, hit the No. 4 spot on the American charts and, as Jackson goes on to detail, "rapidly became West Germany’s biggest-selling album of 1976."