Neil Diamond and The Last Waltz…WTF? (or An Appeal for Neil)

Recently, Neil Diamond was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which prompted the requisite confusion that accompanies any sentence with the words “Neil Diamond” and “Rock and Roll” in it. A few years ago, I would have joined in on the Neil-bashing, since I, too, have had contempt for him for most of my life. Luckily, I have a few cronies who’ve set me straight.

Honestly, my fandom is limited mostly to his first singles, the mid-60s period when he was on Bang records and rose to stardom on such hits as “Solitary Man,” “Cherry, Cherry,” and “Kentucky Woman.” Jesus, they’re great songs. And anytime I’m a late-comer to an artist, film or LP, I rack my brain to figure out why, why, why? Why have I lost decades I could have spent listening to “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon,” which I now have to make up for, replaying it morning, noon and night (much to my wife’s frustration).

Why did I forsake you, Neil?

The answer is simple: Martin Scorsese’s 1978 film The Last Waltz.

I got the film on an RCA CED videodisc in 1983. My brother got it, actually, convinced by some elders that any self-respecting rock and roll fan should love that film. (Sound advice.) I was unfamiliar with most of the performers in the film, and I inched my way through it a song at a time. I’d hear an Eric Clapton song on the radio, then I’d queue up “Further on Up the Road” in The Last Waltz. I’d notice “Mannish Boy” in Risky Business, so I’d revisit Muddy Waters’s version in the documentary. I’d see Dr. John on SCTV and –boom–I’d have a fresh take on his performance from the Scorsese film. And so on. Before long, I was wearing a scarf around high school, à la Robbie Robertson (see below) and named my first car “Ophelia,” after the Band song.

But one ongoing sticking point was that damned “Dry Your Eyes” number smack dab in the middle of the film. In 1983, at age 13, I already had a dim view on Neil Diamond. He was beloved by people’s parents, but not for me and my expanding rock and roll palate. He was too busy being that jazz singer who stopped bringing flowers to Barbra. I was alienated by his presence in Scorsese’s film, thought he was a stiff snooze, and that this was the last nail in Neil’s coffin: I wrote him off and closed my ears and heart to All Things Neil. He was dead to me.

If you need a reminder of Neil’s contribution to the 1976 concert/1978 film, here it is…

And if you’re still reading, you probably fall under one of three categories: 1. Neil Diamond fans who will follow him anywhere; 2. Last Waltz fans who are strongly opinionated about his appearance in the film, pro or con; or 3. someone who just saw the film and wonder why that sunglasses-wearing sore thumb was on the stage. If you’re in that last category, than this post is for you. This is what I wish I could have read when I was 13 years old.

In the next few paragraphs, I’ll explain why Diamond was there that night; why his performance misfired; and how it might have gone down if it were handled differently.

Fashion hero Robbie Robertson

Intellectually, Neil’s participation in The Last Waltz makes some sense: Band member Robbie Robertson had spearheaded the event and wanted representation from all the aspects of the Band’s sound, their “musical wheel,” as he called it: Southern blues, Canadian folk, New Orleans funk, and so on. Neil Diamond represented the NYC-based “Brill Building Sound,” named after the building on Broadway where several talented songwriters wrote hit after hit in the 60s, writers that included Leiber & Stoller, Goffin & King, Bacharach & David, and Greenwich & Berry. Although the Band sound didn’t exactly scream “New York City,” Robbie had an affinity for that era of popular song writing. In fact, he had just produced Neil Diamond’s latest LP, the critically-acclaimed but poor-selling Beautiful Noise. (You can raise a cynical eyebrow now, if you like.)

So there is a heady logic to Neil taking the stage after Joni Mitchell and before Van Morrison. After that, logic falls apart at every turn, blame falling entirely on the choice of song. Whether or not “Dry Your Eyes” is a good song is irrelevant; it’s a woefully inappropriate song for that concert.

Neil Diamond was one of the only two performers that night to perform exclusively new material. Every artist that performed more than one song shrewdly included one tried-and-true house burner: Neil Young wowed them “Helpless,” Van Morrison slayed with “Caravan,” Muddy Waters destroyed with “Mannish Boy,” and so on. And the artists who did perform only one song, each chose a surefire classic: Dr. John brought the house down with “Such a Night,” Ronnie Hawkins’s “Who Do You Love?” turned the Winterland into the world’s largest backwoods bar, Paul Butterfield (dueting with Levon Helm) took everyone on the “Mystery Train.” Besides Neil Diamond, only Joni Mitchell did all new material, but I don’t think anyone was expecting her to come out singing “Help Me.”

You could argue that Neil’s peers played it safe—or you could say they gave the fans what they wanted. Irregardless, Neil Diamond comes out, sporting stand-offish sunglasses and “looking more like a movie producer than a musician” (to quote music journalist Barney Hoskyns) and does a song that no one could sing along with, a song that just doesn’t swing, y’know?

And there’s the rub: Robbie wanted representation from the 60s NYC pop scene—but chose a song written in the 70s, on the West Coast—coincidentally, a song that just happened to be co-written by Robbie Robertson. (Being a huge Robbie supporter, that detail has always pained me. It’s just reeks of opportunism.)

If Neil had “played it safe” and performed something he’d literally written in the Brill Building, there would have been plenty to choose from, all familiar to the audience. At the very least, the Winterland’s universal voice would have said, “Aw, man, I know this tune,” as opposed to, “Huh…? Dry your what…?”

And how would have that sounded if Neil had played something surefire? What if, for example, he went all the way back, to his first single, “Solitary Man” from 1966? It might have sounded like this, which is his performance in Australia six months before The Last Waltz.

OK, it’s definitely not as good looking as The Last Waltz—and Neil’s swapped his lapels and shades for rhinestones and leather pants. But that aside, I could imagine the Band backing him on this, with Garth Hudson providing sweeping organ fills and Robbie punctuating the lyrics with his fractured-note style. (That night, the Band did an excellent job of making sure their guests did not sound like oldies acts.)

And then maybe in 1983, the 13-year-old version of me—a Neil Diamond skeptic—would have sought out the original version of the tune, and embraced it, and become one of those gung-ho NeilHeads you meet every now and then.

So my parting advice to anyone who’s written off Neil Diamond because of his 3 (long) minutes in that great, great film, The Last Waltz: Don’t give up on the Man. Check out the recently released The Bang Years 1966-68 collection and you’ll hear some timeless music.

And for those Neil Loyalists out there who defend him to the grave and insist on putting that 1976 performance on a pedestal, just remember this: that was the only time Neil ever performed “Dry Your Eyes” live, so perhaps Neil himself isn’t a fan of his performance that night.

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22 Comments

Filed under Film, Music

22 responses to “Neil Diamond and The Last Waltz…WTF? (or An Appeal for Neil)

  1. Elizabeth

    Couldn’t have put it better myself.
    – Elizabeth

  2. AdamL

    you know how i feel already…

    (great post)

  3. Elizabeth

    Me again. Your post has sparked much thought and debate this morning. I forwarded this to my most rabid fellow Neilie and she agreed: Not cool. True Neil fans won’t stand by him on this one. I see it like being a patriot, in that to criticize is patriotic, and you do so loudly and ferociously because you know the country can do better.

    But one thing about Neil: He didn’t play it safe. The results weren’t always pretty, but he did whatever he wanted. Was Neil Diamond the James Franco of his time? Hmm.

    • “But one thing about Neil: He didn’t play it safe.”
      This is a valid point that I only regard in passing. I had plenty to say about it, too, like I did for other parts of the post–but subsequently kept things semi-lean. Not playing it safe IS respectable–but in my case (and in others I’ve spoken to) it was a counter-productive move. He could have played something else from the Beautiful Noise LP–which still would have been taking a chance–and he might have fared better. It was a big gamble to play material that was largely unfamiliar as a live version to everyone in the room: the musicians, the audience, even himself.

      I also wish we knew for sure that it was entirely HIS choice to play THAT song. I read so many stories about evolving setlists, set lists that evolved for reasons personal and political and practical, it’s hard to come to a solid, factual conclusion.

      But it sure does make for nice back-and-forth banter!

  4. In The Last Waltz, Diamond indeed looks like Robert Evans, like an old, out-of-touch pretender trying to hang with the real deal, i.e., the Band, or Dylan, or Young, and the others. He’s pure schmaltz.

  5. Jansen

    Awesome post! I was wondering, after you spliced Uma with Neil, if you’d start digging deep into the Jewish Elvis.
    I’ve never heard of the ” brill building” sound. Bacharach is another whom I used to hate and now love. I have passed through the same distaste for, and then awakening to, the genius of Neil. I think i’m with you as far as his 60’s stuff. Although, i’ve come to love the cheese as well.
    When I was a kid in the 70’s there was simply no escape from three things 1) the Grease soundtrack 2) Supertramp: Breakfast in America ( ” take a look at my girlfriend…” ) and finally, and most painfully 3) THE JAZZ SINGER!!!!!
    The outstretched arm, the cheesy overbearing delivery.. ” HELLOOOOOO AGAIN…. hello….
    just CALLLLLLED…… TO SAY… hello…” I’d
    wake up with cold sweats praying for it to stop repeating endlessly in my head. (a testament to his insidiously catchy song crafting) I wasn’t into
    jazz yet, but I doubted highly that what Neil was singing, was jazz.
    Fast forward to the last decade. Late one night, after a long shoot in Chinatown, looking for a place to get a beer, me and some crew buddies stumble upon a Chinese bar called Winnies. It’s a narrow straight place. Low ceiling. Bar on the left, booths on the right. At the end, a TV. and an old 80’s Pioneer laserdisc kereoke machine. There’s nothing in their collection past 1989. As we entered the bar ( probably 3 am) the entire place was in the last endless chorus of Hey Jude. A bizarre collection of young, old, Asian. White. maybe even an Albanian or two. It was insane. ” naaaaah nah nah NAH NAH NAH NAH!!!! hey Juuuuude..” add drunken slurs and total strangers embracing, pressed so hard towards the small stage it was more like
    Springsteen at the Stone Pony than a Kereoke bar.
    It was love at first sight.
    I would end up torturng my wife with many birthdays there. I think she tolerated the place because it’s also where we had our first date and first kiss, but I digress. (What does this have to do with Neil?) On a dare, my first kereoke was “‘Sweet Caroline”. I do a pretty good Neil imitation. I thought , “this will be good for a laugh”, and indeed it was. The lyrics are a hoot. But I must say, when I hit that first build up to the chorus, the one that everyone knows —
    “reaching out! Touching me… TOUCHING YOU! ‘ SWEEEEET CAROLINE!!— the entire bar responding with “BAH BAH BAHHHHH—”
    …I could no longer deny the power and the majesty of the Jazz Singer. Cornball as it was, dripping with cheese as it may be, it was undeniably catchy, and a crowd pleaser, and it felt great to be in the middle of it.
    What really sealed my respect for Mr. Diamond, was Johnny Cash. On his third collaboration with Rick Rubin,
    American III: Solitary Man, he does the Neal classic. Something about hearing Cash do it so straight made me hear the song itself for the first time. With Neil’s over the top persona removed, the songwriting and great lyrics came to the fore. It made me completely reconsider him. I also started to appreciate his fearlessness. Whatever he decides to sing about he’s completely engaged in it and totally committed. He’s not afraid to look foolish. He’s singin his song, man, take it or leave it…
    Check this wild piece of TV. Neal on the johnny cash show…

    • Thanks for sharing all of this, Jansen! Your path to discovering his music is different than mine, but we’ve come to the same destination.

      I think the collective opinion of Neil’s late 70s output tarnished his accessibility for people approximately our age. But folks 15 years younger than us, can pick and choose–and aren’t ever really “subjected” to him. (Or anything else you referred, too.) Ultimately, I think that allows for the better stuff to rise to the surface. (My favorite example of “waiting something out”: I used to worry that Jane Fonda would be remembered only as the aerobics lady, instead of her intense portrayals in the early 70s. Well, go figure: most younger people are unaware of anything she’s done, which isn’t a bad place to start.)

  6. Sam

    This is a great one Altobello. I can get down to “You’ll Be a Woman Soon” but that doesn’t make up for the rest of it. I blame Robbie Robertson mostly for “Dry Your Eyes” and the one low point in the Last Waltz. If I remember correctly, Levon wrote that he was pushing to cut Muddy Waters so he could include Diamond and whoever else. I think the song was a good indication of where Robertson was headed with his solo projects post-The Band–nowhere nice.

  7. Pingback: Neil Diamond

  8. Magnus

    Thanks for the article. Me myself was far to young at the time and have discovered TB later in recent years, the movie is fantastic. I have kind of been surprised of the Dry your eyes song, but…. now I just love it. It is so bold and the lyrics is really beautiful. Would love to know more about the song and its meaning.

  9. Nice post. A couple of things, though — Beautiful Noise went platinum so it is not “poor-selling”. As for the selection of ‘Dry Your Eyes’, it and the entire (Beautiful Noise) album are Diamond’s look back at his Brill Building days as a struggling songwriter. Thus, and within the context of Robertson’s “musical wheel”, it probably makes more sense than ‘Solitary Man’ which may well have been written after Diamond left the Brill Building but was definitely a hit after he had escaped the song-writing factory. The Monkees hit, ‘I’m A Believer’ – penned by Diamond – is a song from the Brill Building but my guess is a lot of people in the audience would have wondered why he was ‘covering’ that song. And finally, I too thought (back in 1983) Diamond out of place and the song not powerfully performed (as compared to say ‘Holly Holy’ on ‘Hot August Night’, but I appreciate it a lot more now. The song reflects a contemporary social awareness that is usually out of Diamond’s comfort zone and thus represents a bold choice. A careful listen suggests that the audience really liked it and Diamond…do you agree the applause is pretty loud and sustained?

  10. Andrew

    I admire and agree with your overall post (the next word is “but”), but I have to quibble. First, Neil Young “wowed them” with “Helpless”? Hardly. By his own admission, Young was higher then a Georgia pine tree, who barely managed to stagger onstage, and needed Joni Mitchell (hastily mic’d offstage) to sing backup in order to keep him on key. Second, “Dry Your Eyes” isn’t really a bad song. Diamond’s performance of it was impassioned. However, you are dead-on correct that it was a completely wrong song choice. Not only was it completely foreign to the audience, it also didn’t “rock”. It was a freaking military march that utterly failed to showcase the talents of Diamond or The Band.

  11. Mike Kaylor

    Beautiful Noise did sell well! I don’t know where that came from. It was platinum within months of entering the charts, and eventually sold 3.5 million by the ’80s. I think Dry Your Eyes is a great song that talks about Tin Pan Alley, and it certainly fits as he wrote it with Robbie. About Neil’s wardrobe; What the crap is wrong with it? it was the ’70s. Muddy Waters suit wasn’t much different, Bob Dylan in polka dots. Who gives a flying flock what he wore, he gave a great performance.

  12. Charles Reiffel

    I take an opposite position on the ‘Neil was schmaltz’ sentiments; and disagree that his choice of the song Dry Your Eyes for The Last Waltz film was a WTF or dull moment in the film. The dismissals completely mis the point of WHY the Band chose the musicians that they chose. His moment on the film is only dull for viewers used to seeing half wit dancers, extreme light shows, sexed up fake hip hop machismo careerists. That’s just showbiz. Neil Diamond was/is first a songwriter. His choice of Dry Your Eyes was appropriate and was a powerful statement of sadness–symbolic of the changing of the guard regarding The Band’s breakup. And it makes perfect sense that Robertson asked him to appear—one songwriter to another is how I saw it. The BAND invited a broad spectrum of musicians & songwriters of varying backgrounds to perform on the film…ones that were symbolic of the variety of sources that influenced the Band as a whole—and I think THAT message was important for the Band to communicate to the audience and on film. And they did. Hence you get Neil Diamond. The fact that ND & RR had been recently working together probably made it a perfect opportunity. As for the song itself it is one of Diamond’s most electrifying live performances. If you notice in the film there is at first a sense of “WHAT?” when Diamond’s name is announced. Then as the song develops there becomes a sense of transformation as Diamond completely wins over the crowd and they become engulfed in stunned amazement at this powerful song. For years many people and I count myself in this lot, had seen, watched & heard Neil Diamond but dismissed him out as a commercial pop performer. And it didn’t help that he came off as a borscht belt crooner, a second rate imitation of a former era. In fact he was—in his time–vital; and a fine enormously successful and consistent songwriter. Heck he still is. This performance also demonstrated that Diamond had commanding charisma and could grab a contemporary audience’s attention and reach that higher level of transformation that moves a performance into the spiritual…and do it powerfully. This performance caused me to reevaluate Diamond and go back and reflect on my previous dismissal of him BECAUSE Robbie invited him. ND was/is the real deal. Robbie knew it. And so did his fellow musicians and the music industry. By performing with this stellar crowd of musicians in The Last Waltz Neil Diamond took his rightful position and gained much deserved respect.

  13. Jean

    I’m just trying to figure out who he was singing about. It had to be a recent death. Late sixties, early senventies? We’re supposed to dry our eyes and celebrate this person by singing his song. Who’s song are we supposed to sing out loud?

  14. Gene K.

    From the Wikipedia article on The Last Waltz: In his autobiography, Levon Helm was critical of the inclusion of Diamond, not discerning any musical connection to The Band. Reportedly, when Diamond came off stage he remarked to Dylan, “Follow that,” to which Dylan responded, “What do I have to do, go on stage and fall asleep?”

  15. Sandra

    I read every single comment and I loved all of your views and respect each one. I am a child of the late 70’s and 80’s, so in all honesty, I cannot appreciate The Band like you guys do. I can, however, appreciate the solo performances of the artists.
    For me, Dry your eyes, is a very powerful song. I grew up with my dad listening to ND and to this day I still love ND. I also grew up in a time of political turmoil and Border War in South Africa and my dad, being in the army, was constantly off to war to fight in the war. I recall the tunes and recall the singers as they marched off to war. I recall the military marches and bands.
    So to me this song will always be in my hall of fame. It represents an era of innocence for me and also the end of an era when reality kicked in regarding the war and the contribution of my dad and other dads.
    Dry your eyes, as with The Band, represents the end of an era when ND was played all over radio and it made way to an uncertain music era of pop, then boy bands and then hip hop. The end of an era of known gods and unsung hero’s to unknown legends in the making.

    *Salute*
    🙂

  16. I still love Neil Diamond. Well written! Found your blog post looking for something else and enjoyed your blog on T.E. Lawrence’s book & bed room too.

  17. Clyde Davis

    irregardless isn’t a word. you know less about writing than you do about music

  18. Tyler

    I agree with almost everything in this article except for two crucial points. First is that Dry Your Eyes was the only fitting Diamond song for him to play. It’s about the tragic assassinations of the 60s. This concert was all about the sad end to one of the greatest bands to ever play rock n roll. In my opinion, it’s neil diamond’s best song and is a perfect bittersweet moment in the film. Another is the writers fandom of Robbie Robertson. Robertson cheated all of his so-called friends out of so much well deserved money. All of those songs are based off stories from Levon and we’re all worked out together as a team and Robertson and the evil manager of the band stole all of the writing credits and royalties. Also, The Last Waltz and the break-up of the band was all orchestrated by Robertson. Don’t get me wrong, The Last Waltz will always be the greatest Rockumentary ever filmed and I’m greatful to have it but the rest of The Band did not want to stop. This writer is right in his intention but wrong on a lot of the details.

  19. barbara

    Tyler, you are close but….
    1) The ONLY reason Neil Diamond was there was because of his involvement with Robertson. The choice of song was all Robertson–if Diamond didn’t sing ‘Dry Your Eyes’ (co-written by Robertson who produced Diamond’s newest album at the time), he wouldn’t have been there. His presence at The Last Waltz was all about Robbie promoting Robbie. “In fact, he had just produced Neil Diamond’s latest LP, the critically-acclaimed but poor-selling Beautiful Noise. (You can raise a cynical eyebrow now, if you like.)”
    2) Levon was right. Neil Diamond didn’t belong at the Last Waltz. He had nothing to do with The Band, in any way but especially, musically. Whether you like his music or you don’t, whether you liked ‘Dry Your Eyes’ or not, he just didn’t belong at this particular concert.

    I was 19 in 1976 and the loss of The Band was heartbreaking enough but to watch Robertson manipulate his band mates the way he did, well it was just ugly and a side of him that even his greatest fans, myself included, could not bear to witness.

    The performances in the movie were amazing. The premise of why the movie was being made and the mixed feelings and hard feelings among the band mates was heartbreaking.

    • Mike Kaylor

      You don’t have a clue about Neil and the Last Waltz. Beautiful Noise went platinum with 6 weeks, and had sold 6 million by 1982. Probably more for a single album of anyone else on the stage with the exception of Bob Dylan and maybe Clapton. Everyone on the stage was there because of their involvement with a member of the Band, including Muddy Waters, Levon produced an album for him.
      I love the Band as well, but Levon was a bitter old man. He is just like Ginger Baker fussing about Jack Bruce getting the majority of royalty from Cream songs. But as the drummer from the Police said in the film about Ginger; you don’t get credit for a song because of helping to arrange it, only the writer that comes in with the melody and the lyrics. Neil belonged there as much as anyone,and he proved it with his performance.

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