Jesse Jarnow

am i a believer?

One of my more half-surprising favorite reissues this year was the Neil Diamond collection, The Bang Years, comprising his first two solo albums, when he was a Brill Building songwriter. It features his original version of “I’m A Believer,” among others. I’ve always abhorred most of Diamond’s later hits that I was familiar with, give or take a soft spot for “Beautiful Noise,” because it appeared in a favorite Mets highlights video when I was a kid.

In fact, there’s one specific section of “I’m A Believer” that belongs to a peculiar sub-set of my memory, a slight turn in the melody in the phrase “the more I gave the less I got” that immediately connects me, via some direct and thorough current, to a familiar emotional tinge from my childhood. As far as I can tell, the tinge is unattached to any one point in the past. More, it’s that it is precisely the same primal response–in the present tense–that I had when I was 6. There’s a particular acoustic guitar strum on “We Can Work It Out” (1:09) that does the same thing. In the case of “I’m A Believer,” it is actually a product of the songwriting–something present both in The Monkees’ hit that I first heard and Diamond version from The Bang Years–and not merely a production flourish, as it frequently turns out to be with other songs in this category. And, in a peripheral way, the whole collection carries that same personal time-track residue in its songwriting. Whatever it is, Diamond’s thumbprints in the melody and changes, it seems entirely intended. Which makes sense. He was a professional songwriter.

We have a friend’s pretty great LP collection on semi-permanent loan, since she’s moved into a smaller apartment, and I recently dug out Velvet Gloves and Spit, the first after those represented on The Bang Years, and holy sweet merciful motherfuck is it square. That’s pretty much obvious from the Bang material, too, but it’s aspirations towards teen-pop carry the day. Velvet Gloves, though, is from 1968, and it’s easy to tell which side of the castle gates Diamond is positioning himself on, musically and otherwise. The music is all dense chintziness, the aural equivalent of candelabras. No idea if Mr. D. ever used stuff like that in his stage sets, but that’s what I see. The folksinger/Elvis get-up he sports on the cover the live album Hot August Night probably informs this. Also, Velvet Gloves’ “The Pot Song,” which would be a pretty good slab of stoner folk if not for the interspersed monologues of recovering drug addicts talking about the gateway aspects of herbal jazz cigarettes.

And on top of that, an inscription in the liner notes: The American Popular goes on and on…. Just like that. In italics. In curling fancypants heavily seriffed script, centered, about two-thirds down on an ever-so-stately Dodge Dart brown sleeve. It’s an odd divide in time, historically and in popular music, and it’s a little discombobulating to actually hear the divide as clearly and cleanly as Neil lays it out. The textures aren’t even that far off from The Bang Years stuff, bouncing organs and hand-claps, but the forward motion of the Brill Building is gone. It’s powered by something else, moves off in a different direction into a sophistication without rebellion. So that’s going back on the shelf for a while, unless somebody presents some compelling evidence otherwise. There’s some typical nostalgia at play, of course, in listening to these recordings from the mid-60s. But mostly it’s just listening to transparently great songs. Um, thumbs up.

Here’s The Monkees, Neil Diamond, and (of course) Robert Wyatt’s versions of “I’m A Believer,” in which his man-child yip-croon seems to blow up each one of those memory-rubbing melodic details.

Robert Wyatt with Nick Mason- I’m A Believer… by doleho

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