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Michael Healy

Neil Diamond and The Metaphysics of the Person

Dec. 11 at 3:51pm

Pop music in general often deals with superficial things, e.g., Jan and Dean’s hit song “Honolulu Lulu” about the courage of a curvy surfer girl to go out and face the big waves.  (In its defense, it does have the one great line revealing the level of religious awareness in the surfing culture: “When the beach is quiet and you know you’re out of luck, we pray for surf while makin’ out in the truck.”)  

Other songs, on a bit higher level, deal with intense emotions, though these powerful feelings are not always particularly well-ordered or understood.  In Neil Diamond’s repertoire, such songs would include “Cracklin’ Rosie,” “Cherry, Cherry,” “Kentucky Woman,” “Thank the Lord for the Night Time,” and even “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show,” which has a religious context but really just gets lost in the emotion, not the truth, of religion. 

However, what’s more interesting to me as a philosopher is that pop music sometimes raises extremely serious metaphysical questions.  Even such proponents of utter hedonism as The Rolling Stones sometimes stumble on wisdom (“You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need”) or on deep reflections about life (as in their powerful presentation in words and music on how death effects the natural man in “Paint It, Black”). 

Neil Diamond wrote and performed such a song, i.e., with genuine metaphysical import, in his “I am…I said,” reaching the Top 5 both here and in England in 1971—a song which I like to humorously re-title as “Cartesian Lament.”  Pop music doesn’t often offer answers, nor a transcendent perspective sub specie aeternitatis, but it can very well present the problems of human life at times. 

However, let’s defer the personalist philosophical analysis for a moment in favor of some opening wit. Dave Barry, Pulitzer prize winning humor columnist for the Miami Herald, once wrote a column on “bad” songs, which provoked such a storm of reaction after his comments on this very song by Neil Diamond that he developed it into a book, quoting his earlier column: 

So anyway, in this column I was ranting about songs that I don’t particularly care for, and I happened to bring up Neil Diamond.  I didn’t say I hate all Neil Diamond songs, I actually like some of them.  Here’s exactly what I wrote: “It would not trouble me if the radio totally ceased playing ballad-type songs by Neil Diamond. I realize that many of you are huge Neil Diamond fans, so let me stress that, in matters of musical taste, everybody is entitled to an opinion, and yours is wrong.  Consider the song “I Am, I Said,” wherein Neil, with great emotion, sings:

            I am, I said

            To no one there

            And no one heard at all

            Not even the chair. 

What kind of a line is that?  Is Neil telling us that he’s surprised that the chair didn’t hear him?  Maybe he expected the chair to say, ‘Whoa, I heard THAT.’ My guess is that Neil was really desperate to come up with something to rhyme with ‘there,’ and he had already rejected ‘So I ate a pear,’ ‘Like Smokey the Bear,’ and 'There were nits in my hair.’”

So that was what I wrote: A restrained, fair, and totally unbiased analysis of this song.  Who could possibly be offended?

Well.  You think Salmon Rushdie got into trouble.  It turns out that Neil Diamond has a great many serious fans out there, and virtually every one of them took the time to send me an extremely hostile, spittle-flecked letter.  In a subsequent column, I combined the key elements of these letters into one all-purpose irate-Neil Diamond-fan letter, as follows: 

Dear Pukenose:

Just who the hell do you think you are to blah blah a great artist like Neil blah more than twenty gold records blah blah how many gold records do YOU have, you scumsucking wad of blah I personally have attended 1794 of Neil’s concerts blah blah What about “Love on the Rocks,” huh? What about “Cracklin’ Rosie”? blah blah If you had ONE-TENTH of Neil’s talent blah blah so I listened to “Heart Light” forty times in a row and the next day the cyst was GONE and the doctor said he had never seen such a rapid blah blah What about “Play Me”?  What about “Song Sung Blah”?  Cancel my subscription, if I have one. 

So what is this song?  Well, let’s take a more serious look.  It deserves more than just humorous jabs, inasmuch as Neil reportedly spent four months writing it (one of his “most intensely personal efforts” according to one critic), in contrast to some other hits which he wrote very quickly (e.g., it took him just one hour, in a Memphis hotel, to write the lyrics and compose the music to “Sweet Caroline”--inspired by a picture of Caroline Kennedy in an equestrian riding outfit on the cover of Life magazine).

He begins with reflections about his earthly status in regards to “home” and concludes that he really doesn’t have one due to his lifestyle and success and what it's done to his life—first two stanzas:           

L.A.'s fine, the sun shines most the time, 


And the feeling is lay back. 


Palm trees grow and rents are low, 


But you know I keep thinkin' about 


Making my way back. 



 

Well I'm New York City born and raised, 


But nowadays, 
I'm lost between two shores. 


L.A.'s fine, but it ain't home. 


New York's home, 
But it ain't mine no more. 
 

Now these lines already recall some very beautiful and serious themes and reflections of Dietrich von Hildebrand in The Nature of Love about the importance of a “homeplace” in human life, a place where you feel warmly sheltered and well-received due to long-standing familiarity with the place and the deep, loving formative events that occurred there.


Neil’s stanzas also recall interesting themes in Gabriel Marcel’s Homo Viator, Introduction to a Metaphysic of Hope, wherein the author—even back in the 1940’s and ‘50’s, but much moreso today—laments the nomadic lifestyle of modern society cutting people off from their roots, heritage, extended family, etc.  He analyses this as one of the crisis points of modern society. So, what Neil expresses on the pop level has deeper implications that some of the greatest minds of the 20th century have pondered.

Then the song goes on to a new level of what might be called not just social isolation but “metaphysical loneliness,”  “solitariness,” or “isolation:”           

"I am," I said, 


To no one there. 


And no one heard at all - 


Not even the chair. 



"I am"... I cried.

"I am," said I. 


And I am lost and I can't 


Even say why - 


Leavin' me lonely still. 

 

Now here again, mystics, spiritual writers, as well as Christian existentialist philosophers like Soren Kierkegaard have emphasized that each human person is, on his deepest level, alone before God.  Again, Karol Wojtyla in his reflections on Original Unity of Man and Woman comments on the “Meaning of Man’s Original Solitude”—i.e., the fact that Adam (representing every human being whether male or female) was originally alone before God but that Yahweh saw that it was “not good for man to be alone.”  We are ordained for communion and love for one another while ultimately meant for union with God and in God together.  But if someone (Neil?) has not yet discovered his God-relationship as his living foundation, then he may experience a more absolute kind of loneliness psychologically as a threat to his life, happiness, and the meaning of his existence. This is where man is left—ultimately alone, abandoned—by the atheistic existentialists of the absurd, like Sartre and Camus. Such levels of implication are there in the song, even if only implicitly. 

Then Neil develops further philosophical themes, themes which go all the way back to Socrates.  He speaks of the way all his earthly dreams have come true—almost miraculously—in terms of world-wide renown, success, money, applause, awards, etc., but it is simply not enough.  Fulfillment requires much more, and on a different level, than worldly success.  Such themes are a constant refrain in Plato and Aristotle, who stresses, remember, that man cannot be truly happy without deep friendships and intimate love relationships (Bks. 8-9, Nicomachean Ethics).  So, Neil writes: 

Did you ever read about a frog 


Who dreamed of bein' a king 


And then became one? 


Well except for the names 


And a few other changes 


If you talk about me, 


The story's the same one. 



But I got an emptiness deep inside 


And I've tried 


But it won't let me go. 


And I'm not a man who likes to swear, 


But I never cared 


For the sound of being alone. 

"I am," I said, 


To no one there. 


And no one heard at all - 


Not even the chair 


"I am," I cried! 


"I am," said I. 


And I am lost and I can't 


Even say why. 


"I am," I said. 


"I am," I cried! 


"I am." 

He seems to acknowledge something unique about his existence as a human person, yet he can’t figure out what it is, what he’s missing, what his purpose or end is, what the meaning of his life is.  He feels the threat of his loneliness and isolation socially, and even metaphysically, but he doesn’t have a solution, either on the human level or that of the divine. 

Good presentation of the problem here, but he knows not where to turn for hope and a way out.  Therefore, despite all its interesting implications, I doubt if the present website will be adding Neil Diamond to its pantheon of personalist philosophers and mentors any time soon! 

By the way, the song is here on YouTube: ‪I Am... I Said - Neil Diamond


 

Patrick Dunn

I've noticed something similar with David Bowie in two recent albums: "Heathen" and "Reality".

Songs on both deal with existential angst. 

From "Reality," "Never Get Old":

I'm screaming that I'm gonna be living on till the end of time
Forever
The sky splits open to a dull red skull
My head hangs low 'cause it's all over now

And there's never gonna be enough money
And there's never gonna be enough drugs
And I'm never ever gonna get old
There's never gonna be enough bullets
There's never gonna be enough sex
And I'm never ever gonna get old
So I'm never ever gonna get high
And I'm never ever gonna get low
And I'm never ever gonna get old

The last song on the album, "Bring Me the Disco King," gives way to a plea against the meaninglessness (perhaps provoked, in part, from a one point looking for 'enough' money, drugs, sex, whatever):

You promised me the ending would be clear
You'd let me know when the time was now
Don't let me know when you're opening the door
Stab me in the dark, let me disappear

Memories that flutter like bats out of hell
Stab you from the city spires
Life wasn't worth the balance
Or the crumpled paper it was written on

Don't let me know we're invisible
Don't let me know we're invisible

#1 - Dec. 12 at 10:20am | quote

 

Patrick Dunn

Later, he is wondering about/searching for/specifically addressing the "Disco King" - God, or some conception of Him:

Feed me no lies
I don't know about you, I don't know about you
Breathe through the years
I don't know about you, I don't know about you
Bring me the disco king
I don't know about you, I don't know about you
Dead or alive, bring me the disco king
Bring me the disco king, bring me the disco king
Bring me the disco king

This expresses fear, wonder, worry, desire, confusion (and confusion too amidst the inner logic of the one singing), frustration, disappointment.  It is the search for meaning, for God.

But this may be the most profound and explicit; from "Heathen," there is "I Would Be Your Slave":

Walking in the snowy street
Let me understand
Drifting down a silent park
Stumbling over land
Open up your heart to me
Show me who you are
And I would be your slave

Do you sleep in quietude?
Do you walk in peace?
Do you laugh out loud at me?
No one else that is free
Open up your heart to me
Show me all you are
And I would be your slave

I don't sit around and wait
I don't give a damn
I don't see the point at all
No footprints in the sand

#2 - Dec. 12 at 10:29am | quote

 

Patrick Dunn

I imagine David Bowie, with world-wide renown, success, money, applause, awards, etc., having decided to quite smoking several years prior - perhaps sensing his own mortality and the yearning to cling to life - putting words to a depth in his soul that God was probably fashioning for many years, through all the costumes and tours and everything.

I know I'm speculating and I can't presume to know any of this.  It's how I see him and what I experienced listening to his songs.

#3 - Dec. 12 at 10:38am | quote

Michael Healy

I find that hearing such anguished songs, as well as the more superficial rock'n'roll type "excitement" songs, plus the more "bluesy" types of laments, all remind me of what we have been saved from.  Earthly despair, earthly excitement, the "blues"--none of these is the truth!  Alleluia!

#4 - Dec. 12 at 11:13am | quote

 

Don

Michael,

How familiar are you with Leonard Cohen. HIs early work has a lot of religious overtones. I recall hearing the lyric " you are locked into your suffering and your pleasures are the seal" and wondering if he was Catholic. He seems like a soul that is seeking but doesn't quite make it or doesn't want to make it. Kind of like " Lord make me holy but just not yet". He has a lot of fans. What are your thoughts. 

#5 - Dec. 12 at 2:41pm | quote

Michael Healy

I am not so knowledgeable about Mr. Cohen and his music, but have some acquaintance.  I have noticed that many of his songs deal with serious topics and are the type to raise deep questions.  His background is Jewish, with Zen Buddhist overtones, and he has battled with depression.  So, from his experience individually and culturally he can address many central and transcendent topics--presenting the problems, but also sometimes even pointing toward answers.

#6 - Dec. 12 at 3:35pm | quote

 

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