neil diamond real diamonds which is better sam leith

Neil Diamond or real diamonds?

Investigating the merits of shiny stones and singer-songwriters

(Words by)
Sam Leith

OVERRATED: Diamonds

neil diamond real diamonds which is better sam leith

Girl’s best friend, my peachy posterior. Diamonds are just uppity lumps of coal, and the pressure on every young suitor to provide his inamorata with a solitaire example of same is one of the great marketing cons perpetrated on the modern world. The idea of the mandatory diamond engagement ring doesn’t, you might be interested to know, date back to the pharoahs or the medieval kings. It’s more recent even than Scottish tartan, that home-made tradition of the late 19th century.

The idea of the diamond sparkler on betrothal was popularised, in fact, by the marketing department of De Beers from the 1930s onwards. They’d got a diamond mine up and running and they needed some rubes to sell them to. “A diamond is forever” was an ad-line from 1947. Cunning television ads, product placement and a nice tip of the hat from Ian Fleming more or less did the rest.

Big diamonds have historically been prized — though the Mughals preferred coloured stones, because why wouldn’t you? — but the big ones almost always mean bad luck, supernaturally cursed or not. Diamonds have provided the fuel for any number of African wars and propped up many a bloody dictatorship.

neil diamond real diamonds which is better sam leith

And for what? Something that sits on a finger and which (unless you keep it overnight in a glass of gin, which is a total waste of gin) will look more or less indistinguishable from zircon or glass under any normal light and at any distance. What’s more, they are the gift that keeps on taking. Fool that I am, I spent more months of my salary than I care to recall buying a diamond ring for my now wife when we got engaged. The result? It’s almost impossible to buy contents insurance for my home: when I mention the ring’s very existence the actuaries treble the price and insist on panic-room-style locks, a burglar alarm that would not disgrace Elon Musk’s supervillain lair, and a safe set in concrete in the cellar. “Oh,” I say. “Don’t insure the diamond then — we’ll take our chances.” No, they say: now that they know it even exists they have to put the premium that high in case some burglar breaks in specifically to steal it and, I dunno, has away with my telly while he’s at it.

My wife, sentimentalist that she is, thinks we ought to just flog the damn thing and use the proceeds to pay for a nice holiday – and I’m starting to agree with her.

UNDERRATED: Neil Diamond

neil diamond real diamonds which is better sam leith

Neil Diamond? Now you’re talking. He’s still alive, actually — I just checked. Not that you’d know it from the way that the idiots in the newspapers keep going on about Stormzy and Lady Gaga and suchlike. Neil Diamond is one of the all-time greats, and his 1978 album 20 Golden Greats is both golden and, well, great. Every track is a winner, and the 100 million-odd records the man has sold over his six-decade career show that even if critics now ignore him there are an awful lot of people who agree with me.

Most uncool mainstream recording artists of the second half of the last century — think of those saps like John Denver and Neil Sedaka — sound even more uncool these days. But even if Diamond sold to the same public as those artists he had something altogether else going on. He’s Tin Pan Alley. He’s gospel. He’s country. He’s travelling minstrel. He’s rock ‘n’ roll. He had, if you’ll forgive me, facets and edges. He rocked. You could imagine the Ramones or Sonic Youth covering a Neil Diamond song. Not so much a Neil Sedaka.

Think of the timeless swing and melodic freshness of “Sweet Caroline”, the rough edge of his voice as he leads — “Aaah…” — into the opening phrase of “Cracklin’ Rosie”, the insistent boogie of “Kentucky Woman”, the crisp phrasing of “Cold Water Morning”, New York Boy” or “Brother Love’s Travellin’ Salvation Show”, the cracked plangency of “Mr Bojangles” or the operatic existential grandeur of “I Am, I Said.”

“I Am, I Said” is a good song to look at, in fact. Listen to the crystal-bright guitar picking of the opening; and then the voice coming in. Listen to the modulations of tone, to the way he winds between something like talking blues and a great melodic skirl; at the foxy way he enjambs the lines and winds through the plait of assonances and feminine rhymes (“lay back”…”way back”; “became one”… “same one”); and then to the way he opens it up in the last verse, hitting the stresses, skittering swiftly towards that great crescendo to set up the last chorus: “And I’m not a man who likes to swear/ But I never cared/ For the sound of being alone.”

The songwriting is sublime; the voice and musicianship more than equal to it. Neil Diamond really is forever.

Want more musicians? Here’s Aloe Blacc on his accidental career…

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