Sunday, March 8, 2009

Tap Root Manuscript

Here is an early music memory: I am very young. If not still a toddler, then not much older. I am running around the living room, squealing with unrestrained delight, while my dad chases me to the tune of "I Am the Lion" by Neil Diamond (Ba-pa-la ding-ga!). He's reached deep down and pulled out his big baritone voice—the one he also used for "Old Man River" on occasion; the one that always awed me. It's the early 1970s, and although hopelessly pop and showy, there is no shame in liking Neil Diamond. Not at this time. Later, I'd go through nearly two decades of keeping this (admittedly) often schmaltzy artist at more than arm's length. When I bothered to remember Neil Diamond, which generally I didn't, I thought of him more like a skeleton in my musical closet; a dirty little secret that, if exposed, would set me up for some heavy razzing from friends. I don't remember when it was that I recovered my dad's Tap Root Manuscript album. It was some time ago, since I still had my turntable and a couple crates of vinyl. I think I turned a boyfriend on to the album, and then (like the boyfriend) the album was banished from my life once more—for no other reason than I was switching to CDs, and (unlike the boyfriend) TRM was not something I wanted to replace. But I have to say, no matter what you think of "Sweet Caroline" or "Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show" (and, god, please don't even talk to me about "You Don't Bring Me Flowers"!), the Neil Diamond of Tap Root Manuscript was truly amazing. Considering that the album came out in 1970, a year after I was born, it was adventurous and experimental for music at that time. It plunged into Africa, and it was more unapologetically Christian—exposing the deep religious missionary traditions on that continent—than collaborations to come in later years (think of Paul Simon's Graceland, another great album). Digging around a bit, I found the following reproduction of a note from Diamond that appeared in the original TRM album packaging: "When rhythm and blues lost its sensuality for me I fell in love with a woman named gospel. We met secretly in the churches of Harlem, and made love at revival meetings in Mississippi. And loving her as I did, I found a great yearning to know of her roots. And I found them. And they were in Africa. And they left me breathless. The African Trilogy is an attempt to convey my passion for the folk music of that black continent." For me, Tap Root Manuscript provides another passion: the passion of childhood abandon, the passion of laughter that I always associate with the album and the duets I would sing with my father when we turned up the volume on this collection of songs. My dad has replaced the old album with a CD, I know. I found it one time when I was visiting with my own toddler son. Unable to resist, I put the album on, and my son and I chased and laughed and sang in the living room to what I consider the three-song heart of the album: "Child Song," "I Am the Lion," and "Soolaimon" (at least, those were always my favorites). She callin'/Bring home my name/On the wings of a flea/Wind in the plains/Dance once for me. Soo, soo-lai-mon. Soolai, soolai, soolaimon.


  1. You have hit it on the head for me. TRM has been and will always be my favorite album by Neil. And, just like you wrote, my memories of listening to the album include being in the living room with my parents, my father sitting on the couch with the album cover in his lap. His head would be resting on the back of the sofa, his eyes closed and was totally immersed in the music. My mother and I would sit next to each other and try to sing along.

    What great and precious memories, thanks to Neil.

  2. Like a man with a tiger outside his gate
    Not only couldn't relax but he couldn't relate
    Now he can, family man, tried my plan....

    That was the song we danced to (I think Bob Fosse did too). Thank you!

  3. Concerning Taproot, you have mastered the hipster critics technique of the back-handed-always-preface-a-compliment-with-a-slam to assure your friends of your hipness creds and keep your membership card in the cool kids club. Your swipe at "Broter Love" is strange given that is one song that even his harshest critics like and "Caroline" in practically a second national anthem. Oh well, baby steps I guess. Try "12 Songs" and "Home Before Dark".

  4. Thanks to those of you who have commented so far. To "nmgirl98" and to Rachel: I'm glad that the TRM post resonated for you and brought some good memories. I appreciate your taking the time to let me know.

    To "Anonymous," I think maybe you mistake me for someone else. Criticism is not a problem, but I have no "hipness creds" or "cool kids club" card, and you seem to lump me along with Diamond's "harshest critics." Actually, I didn't really say what I thought of "Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show" or "Sweet Caroline," though it's true that my selection of them in contrast does point to the fact that I don't like them nearly as much as anything on the TRM album. I did come down hard on "You Don't Bring Me Flowers," which was also wildly successful, and (IMHO) quite saccharine. When we're young, we are all influenced by what our friends are listening to; hopefully, and I can say this is true in my case, that wears off—at least in terms of feeling that you need to make impressions or excuses. We are all entitled to our opinions, and I'm glad you shared yours. The fact that critics like a song, though, or that another becomes a "national anthem" of sorts, does not mean that I need to like them—or that if I don't, it's necessarily "strange." That's actually the kind of assumption usually made by those who do try to keep the "cool club" memberships under their control. Their logic goes like this: think like everyone else, and you too can be acceptable.

  5. I love Neil Diamond but hated him too for what he became in the 80s and 90s. However, there is no denying that from the mid 60s to the early 70s Diamond was one of the best songwriters around and was light years ahead of the pack. Heaven only knows why Diamond is not considered a pop-original. Tap Root Manuscript experimented with African rythyms a good decade and a half before Paul Simon did the same with Graceland to critical accclaim. Done Too Soon was almost two decades before Billy Joel's similar themed We Didn't Start the Fire. Critics have been unfair to Diamond although Diamond's two decade long digression into MOR & Vegas was not helpful to his cause. However, thanks to Rick Rubin he is back to his songwriting roots and the last two albums have been outstanding and arguably among his best. Will Diamond save himself from going down in pop history as a purveyor of Schlock for half his career? Probably not, but equal weight will be given to his ability as a great songwriter and performer. Two or three more great albums will see to that.

  6. Great remembrances of Taproot, one of my favorites and certainly an eye-opener to a teen-ager conditioned to the American Top 40. Probably the album that sealed my so-far life-long soul connection to Diamond's music. I cannot say I like every song he recorded over these years, but for someone to say they "...hated him to for what he became..." just puzzles me. Diamond is who he is, and who am I to judge him for exploring different avenues and expressing what he felt and what sounded right to him at the time. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and clearly enough of us felt that music was beautiful because those albums still sell. We grow, we change, we explore, we retreat and redirect. Hate's a pretty strong word for that, especially when we don't really know what was in the man's head. Wait, yes, we do -- he's shared his songs with us.

  7. "We grow, we change, we explore, we retreat and redirect..."
    It's true that this is what the creative journey is all about—for musicians and other artists, yes, but also for all of us on our life journeys. And it's quite a gift when people are willing to share their visions with us, whether or not we share them.
    Thanks for posting.