Holly Holy

I got on a Neil Diamond kick.

Reading about his fantastic live business my synapses fired, I needed to hear him RIGHT NOW!

Turns out I only had "Cherry, Cherry" in my iTunes library.  I distinctly remember downloading all his hits, where WERE they?  Must have been when I rebuilt my hard drive three times in a week back in 2000.  I couldn’t figure out the error messages.  Ultimately turns out it was a bad RAM chip.  But I wasn’t worried about trashing my hard drive, I could just go back onto Napster and get the MP3s I lost almost INSTANTLY!

Napster was a club.  Made up of everybody who loved music.  Pre-teens to grandparents.  Anybody who wasn’t afraid of technology, who could use a computer.  I found obscure stuff on the service that I haven’t been able to locate since.  Tracks that were never released on CD, that I’d worn out the vinyl of.

Nothing as good exists today.  Oh, BitTorrent’s fine if you want something new or big or both.  But if you’re a fan, a BELIEVER, you’re frustrated.  Stuff like Danny Wilde’s "The Boyfriend" isn’t on iTunes.  But Neil Diamond, you can get Neil Diamond.  It comes down almost INSTANTLY P2P!

Of course I needed "Sweet Caroline".  But since it was all free, I took all the hits.  I cross-referenced with Amazon.  Oh, I remembered some of the hits, like "Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show", but I needed the Website to jog my memory of "Holly Holy".

You see Neil Diamond started off as a rocker.  All energy.  Listen to "Cherry, Cherry" and your body starts to pop.  What came after…was slowed down and bloated.  In an era where FM was taking over, Neil Diamond was someone you heard on AM.  And, since you didn’t have an FM radio in your car in 1969, you knew his tunes well.  And that’s how I discovered "Sweet Caroline".

Actually, before that came the aforementioned "Brother Love", in the spring of ’69.  I taped that from the radio.  WDRC in Hartford.  I had my Norelco plugged into the back of my Columbia all-in-one stereo.  A reverse Y-adapter.  Turning stereo into mono.  It was a ritual, I’d sit in front of the box and when something came on I wanted I pushed record.  Of course, I didn’t get the whole song, and that’s how I remember it, with the intro cut off.  But, listening to my newly-downloaded copy, I was stunned to hear the introductory lines…

Hot August night
And the leaves hanging down
And the grass on the ground smelling sweet

So, THAT’S why the legendary live album is entitled "Hot August Night"!  WHO KNEW!  See, even we people who LIVED through the era can discover things.

And "Brother Love" was good, but not transcendent.  There was this certain vocal inflection.  And the raucousness of the vocal.  But it wasn’t in the league of what came after, "Sweet Caroline".  It was the intro.  The anticipation.  With the all the hope, the OPTIMISM of the sixties.

That’s when you know you’re a true music fan.  When you can love something as sappy as "Sweet Caroline".  Something on paper that’s too ordinary, too bloated, too mainstream, yet sounds so GREAT!  You couldn’t hear it without singing along with the chorus.  The English rockers might have ruled the FM airwaves and concert venues, but "Sweet Caroline" was a king on AM, Mariah Carey’s "We Belong Together", but bigger, and better.

Then, "Sweet Caroline" was followed up by "Holly Holy".  A denouement in tempo and quality.  A bombastic, over the top slow-burner that one could like, but not love.  But listen today.  Listen today.  It’s shocking.

Taken out of context, removed from that revolutionary era, "Holly Holy" is a revelation.

You can see the recording session.  Everybody in one big room.  The piano player.  The bass player.  The plethora of backup singers.  And, in the middle, Neil himself.

Oh, the tune starts with one of those guitar figures off a Glen Campbell record, laconic yet meaningful.  And, underneath it, a bass so rich and fat it’s as if the musician is plucking Pavarotti.  Like there’s a fat man with a deep bass voice resonating.  Then, as if he’s a male Aretha Franklin, Neil starts to croon like he’s in church, like his soul depends on it.  And then the piano enters, ACCENTING the bass figure.  And the great morass of backup singers, culled from far and wide to sing on this track, straight from the gig exercising their pipes on "Oh Happy Day", they sway back and forth and sing in voices just a tad above whisper, but there are so damn MANY of them that it resembles an army, a musical army, one that doesn’t kill, but makes people COME ALIVE with its music.

And then they do come alive.  They amp it up, they start to expend the energy in their souls.  And then come the STRINGS!  REAL strings, not the canned type.  Oh, they’re singing like sopranos.  Way up in the upper register.  And now, EVERYBODY’S AT NINE!

No, not ten.  You know they’ve got a little bit left.  That they can turn on if they want to.  This is not Mariah Carey giving it her all, rather real people singing the SONG, not trying to blow you away with their power but the MEANING, the PURE JOY of what they’re part of, what they’re creating.

Sing a song
Sing a song of songs
Sing it out
Sing it strong


It’s the "yeah".  It’s kind of like Don Henley’s "Are you with me SO far?" in "Life In The Fast Lane".  It reaches OUTSIDE the song.  To YOU, in the AUDIENCE!  It’s pure EXUBERANCE!!  You can no longer stay seated, you jump up now too, you’ve got to PARTICIPATE!

In the best part of the record…

Call the sun in the dead of the night
And the sun’s gonna rise in the sky
Touch a man who can’t walk upright
And that lame man, he’s gonna fly
And I fly
And I fly

Right in front of your very eyes, Neil’s POSSESSED!  He’s got God in him in a way no pontificating politician ever could.  He’s writhing, what comes out of his body is pure emotion.

Then they retreat, and do it again.

And finally, almost three minutes and fifty seconds into the song, a kettle drum erupts and everybody finally goes to 10, 11!  Everybody’s at full force, full volume.  It’s astounding.

Now, back in the day, we had to stay tuned to the radio.  Waiting to hear something again.  Now, with the blessing of digital media, we can go straight back to the top, and play a song again.  Go from slow to fast, from 0-60, all in under five minutes.

AM had terrible sound.  But, our car stereos were even worse.  We never heard these songs the way we were supposed to, the way they were cut.

Oh, we bought "Abbey Road" and component stereos.  Got infatuated with turntables and cartridges.  Bathed in quality sound.  But, we didn’t buy Neil Diamond albums.  At most, we had 45s, which were dirty and scratched up after being beaten to hell on our little record players.  But now blemish-free, with subwoofers, even at a low rip rate, the true GENIUS emerges.

Oh, it’s not about the lyrics.  The music says more than words ever could.  And, it’s not an intellectual experience anyway.  It’s emotional.  It’s happening deep in your heart.

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