The great Paul Simon once said: “I’d rather be a bucket than a pail”. Ok, maybe he didn’t but perhaps he should have. Anyway, this is not about rhymin’ Simon, this is about rhymin’ Diamond who once said:
I am, I said
To no one there
And no one heard at all
Not even the chair
Implying that, in a room containing inanimate objects, the object most likely to reply would be a chair. That chair is important, not just because it rhymes with “there”. The chair suggests that Neil is in a room, and there is only one chair (“the chair”), so Neil is most likely lying on a bed and of course he is alone, so alone that he has resorted to talking to the furniture. Without the chair, he could be anywhere, it becomes the focus of his existential crisis. This is a “pop song”, grab the attention of the audience or they are gone and it has to look easy and that’s hard and he does it through that one detail, the chair.
It has to be said that Neil is perhaps not at the same level as Paul Simon when it comes to poetic, sophisticated lyrics, but he has his moments. Take the first verse of “ Cracklin’ Rosie”:
“Aw, Cracklin’ Rosie, get on board
We’re gonna ride
Till there ain’t no more to go
Taking it slow
And Lord, don’t you know
We’ll have me a time with a poor man’s lady”
There’s that internal rhyme happening – board, more, Lord, poor -and all those ‘O’s’, fifteen in total! And the assonance in the chorus of
You’re a store-bought woman”
It goes a bit downhill after that – “you make me sing like a guitar hummin’” – hummin’ and woman – ouch!
But, for my money, Neil’s finest moment when it comes to writing lyrics is in “Sweet Caroline”. The song, admittedly, is not without some absolute groaners:
“Where it began,
I can’t begin to knowin’”
And that’s the first two lines.
Even the chorus, which contains that finest moment is a syntactical nightmare:
Good times never seemed so good
I’ve been inclined,
To believe they never would
Oh, no, no
I have wrestled with this for some time and the best I can come up with is this: ”I’ve been inclined to believe that good times never would never seem so good”. Think about that too long and I guarantee that steam will come out of your ears. But it doesn’t matter, because all that matters is that rhyme between “Sweet Caroline” and “I’ve been inclined”. He could have gone for “fine”, “wine”, “mine” etc but there is something about “inclined” that is so unexpected, so colloquial, so conversational. It surprises every time you hear it. And of course, the acid test of any chorus is how well it does in a pub or bar late in the evening and everyone is a little hammered and some skinny guy on acoustic guitar hauls out “Sweet Caroline” and everyone is just waiting to belt out that chorus and I guarantee you that the volume will perceptibly increase when they reach that line and everyone takes just a little credit for recognising how clever it is.
I like Neil Diamond. His recent work is worth listening to as well.
Pop music lyrics often defy dissection I think. They are one with the music, the meaning being meaningless. Consider the Beach Boys…
you make a very good point…separated from the music, the lyrics often don’t stand up well.
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