Saturday, May 24, 2014

Rhyme That Sprang From Me

Dave Barry's Book of Bad Songs, which we've discussed in this space before, has a lot of fun with Neil Diamond's song "I Am... I Said," particularly the line in the chorus where Neil laments the inability of a chair to hear him. "What kind of line is that?" Barry writes. "Is Neil telling us that he's surprised the chair didn't hear him? Maybe he expected the chair to say, 'Whoa, I heard THAT."

Dave Barry is great, but he's way off-line on this one, for several different reasons. For one thing, it's pretty clear that Neil wrote the line that way to emphasize his solitude, to point up the fact that he was all alone with nothing to keep him company but the furniture, and frankly the furniture doesn't even sound all that nice. It may be a little awkward and prone to misreading, but on its own terms, it makes sense.

On top of that, there's the fact that if you're looking for lines in "I Am...  I Said" that make even less sense than that one, you don't have to look far. "I'm not a man who likes to swear, but I never cared for the sound of being alone," Neil avers. That's great, but where's the swear? Maybe "I'm not a man who likes to swear" is just a helpful signpost letting us know that there won't be any cusswords in the song.

Then there's "Did you ever hear about a frog who dreamed of being a king/And then became one." Well, no, Neil, now that you mention it, I haven't heard that story. I heard about a prince who was turned into a frog, and wanted to kiss a princess to break the spell, and I guess frog -> prince -> demise of father and/or older brother -> king would make a logical progression, but I always just thought that frog dreamed of kissing a girl. (By the way, Diamond likes this line so much he made a logo out of it, a frog wearing a crown.)

Even the title doesn't make much sense. An ellipsis is used to show where some words have been left out, so if the song went "I am hungry for spareribs, as I said to the butcher," "I Am... I Said" would be a logical title. As the phrase is used in the song, the title should be punctuated "'I Am,' I Said," although obviously that's ungainly too. Strangely enough, Neil's song "Cherry, Cherry" never uses that word consecutively, so it should have been called "Cherry... Cherry." I guess it's too late to flip the punctuation in these songs' two titles.

But the real thing Dave Barry gets wrong about "I Am... I Said" is that the record is awesome. Neil Diamond was the ultimate pop craftsman, and this song is so beautifully put together. Consider how the first two lines of each stanza - "L.A.'s fine, the sun shines most of the time" - stay put on one note, as if he's just reciting then. By the next two lines, Neil has roused himself into a simple melody - "L.A.'s fine, but it ain't home, New York's home but it ain't mine no more."

Then we reach the chorus, where Neil bellows the four syllables of the title on four notes nearly an octave apart. The effect is that the song started crawling slowly from the primordial ooze, but by the time he's ready to make his declaration of purpose, it explodes.

The dynamics of the song follow a similar progression, from the relative softness of the verses to the hammer of the chorus - which then slips quickly back into a quieter, more pensive phase ("Leavin' me lonely still"). Maybe this is where the Pixies got those loud-soft-loud ideas from. And the fact that the song moves from those lugubrious lyrics about a frog who dreamed of being a king to the simplest declaration possible - "I AM!" Neil screams on the outro - emphasizes the power and simplicity of the chorus.

Most of the time that people complain about bad pop songs, it's because of a ridiculous lyric, but what they don't notice is the reason the song became a hit in the first place. "I Am... I Said" is a powerful song, even if it's not quite powerful enough to be heard by the chair.  If it's a bad Neil Diamond song you're looking for, I suggest you give a listen to "Heart Light.


  1. Debris Slide lives! Whoo-hoo!

    I'd like to cosign this post. So often it's not what you say, it's how you say it ("I am the eggman/We are the eggmen"), and Neil is clearly singing the hell out of this.

    His 1976 hit "If You Know What I Mean" is along the same line. The lyric is gibberish but it's so awesomely performed that it doesn't matter.

  2. You mean you don't understand "La la la la la la la la on stones"?

    "If You Know What I Mean" is probably my current favorite Neil Diamond song, even though - no, Neil, I have no idea what you mean.