Monday, July 17, 2006

Notes Toward A Neil Diamond Case Study

by Ken Houghton

The recent death of Billy Preston reminds me once again that I have not written the long-threatened Neil Diamond appreciation for this blog. Since almost no one (hi, Tim) has complained about the Manilow-related post, now would appear to be the time.

I haven’t considered Neil Diamond interesting since around the time Tom was going to Archmere Academy. There hasn’t been a reason to pay attention as album after album of detritus was released. Sure, there was Up on the Roof, a collection of Brill Building songs that should have been a great album. But it wasn’t, even with--or perhaps because of--the help of the likes of Mary’s Danish and Dolly Parton, it seemed more calculated than honest; and that many of the productions sounded as if Nelson Riddle had gone through the original masters to smooth out any trace of passion or variance was part of the reason why. The few bright notes were covers of the older songs by groups such as UB40 and Urge Overkill (or even Smash Mouth) that reinforced the belief that the Diamond of the late 1960s and early 1970s was providing something that could resonate, and that his performance in The Last Waltz was more an apotheosis than a fluke.

Since then, there had been little reason to hope. The A&E Special (around the time of Three Chord Opera, whose title alone prevented purchase) was a performer on his last vocal chords. The most memorable thing about the show was an anecdote about Muhammad Ali asking him to sing “I Am, I Said”--and that only through early in the second verse. (That the anecdote was following not by the song written when he didn’t get the Lenny role in Lenny but rather by the odious “America” from the soundtrack to the career-[and eye-] destroying The Jazz Singer did not help.)

The enthusiasm of one of my wife’s cousins (“yes, he’s lost his voice, but it’s a great show”) notwithstanding, I realised once again that there was no need to pay attention.

And then came Rick Rubin, whose four (now five, with a sixth promised) American Recordings discs with Johnny Cash include some of the best work Cash ever did (especially notable in this context is the third disc with the consensus best version of U2's “One” and the title track: Neil Diamond's “Solitary Man”).

And Rick Rubin produced a Neil Diamond album called 12 Songs, and talked in interviews about how this was an album of songs written by Diamond, featuring a trimmed-down production, about facing mortality.

The man who wrote “Morningside” and “Done Too Soon” as a young man, reflecting on mortality. This would be worth a listen. Possibly even--for old time's sake, as it were--purchasing.

The Enhanced disc, with two extra songs, was available at Costco for $12.49, which is high for them but not necessarily extreme. That, the cognitive dissonance of buying a disc called 12 Songs with 14 songs on it, and a short-term cashflow problem combined to make me wait a couple of weeks.

And a good thing, that, since shortly thereafter Sony was forced to admit that 52 discs (including 12 Songs) used XCP “protection&rdquo contained a virus-like enhancement (“rootkit”) ; for on any Windows PC on which they were played. And eventually recalling, and reissuing the discs.

But a funny thing happy in the process of reissuing. Suddenly, $12.49 was the price for the 12-song 12 Songs. The Enhanced disc with the extra tracks was priced at $14.99.

The Case Study of this should be fascinating: nearly everything, from a customer-centric point of view, was done incorrectly. First, the original product was defective. Second, the company refused for some time to admit the defect. Third, the valid product was priced to cover the cost of the initial defect—charging the consumer for the company's mistake.

And that's my Neil Diamond post, which is a long explanation of how Sony
failed to reap any income from me despite favourable conditions.
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