Today is the birthday of Neil Diamond, a Brooklyn boy who began his career in the dwindling days of Tin Pan Alley, up there at the Brill Building cranking out hits for other people. We had The Monkees’ hit single of his “I’m a Believer” before anyone knew who Neil Diamond was. But we also had a couple of his early singles on Bang Records—“Solitary Man” and “Shiloh,” songs that would always be two of my favorites of his recordings.
Diamond was probably my mother’s favorite contemporary singer—I mean, Frankie was the King, of course, but of anyone whose career commenced after The Beatles, Diamond was tops. And today’s song “Cracklin’Rosie,” Diamond’s first #1 hit, was, I think, her favorite. Anyway, it always reminds me of her, if only because we tried parsing the lyrics to it together.
Released the very month I turned 11, “Cracklin’ Rosie” is the lead-off song on Taproot Manuscript, the album, featuring use of African rhythms and instruments, that earned Diamond artistic success. In other words, 1970 was the year when lots of people knew of Neil Diamond. Today’s song—which has been interpreted as in reference to “crackling rosé wine” or to Rosie, a woman who sells her favors—is one of those irresistible tunes matched to a lyric that doesn’t mean all that much. And yet, when you’ve got gaps in one’s oop they’re kind of maddening.
“Cracklin’ Rose, you’re a store-bought woman.” My initial reaction was that the guy has to fork out a lot of dough for the kinds of things the woman likes. But then I used to hear: “You’ve got the way to make me handy” rather than “happy.” It seemed the traditional domestic exchange, at least around our house. My mom bought stuff in stores and my dad did all the fix-it stuff around the house.
Initially though, I used to think it was “starboard woman”—like he met her on a boat? Anyway, it starts with “Aw, Cracklin’ Rosie get onboard.” So. Mom thought it was “scoreboard woman,” which actually isn't a bad figure, with the idea of keeping score between lovers, or of a guy really scoring with her or in getting her. And anyway my dad played football so maybe sports just naturally lent romantic metaphors for her.
The part I always liked was “Ain’t nothin’ here that I care to take along / Maybe a song / To sing when I want.” We had that part, and my mom got: “No need to say please to no man for a happy tune.” It all started to seem like it was about making music, with that gittar hummin’ and “play it now,” the part that would jump right out of the radio and grab you.
The logic of the song was a little lost on me back then. “Girl, if it lasts for an hour, that’s all right / We got all night to set the world right.” Well, an hour ain’t much, can you spare it, sporty? Of course, I thought “it” was the romance, not the act itself (I wasn’t even a teen yet), so even “all night” sounded like “til dawn do us part,” not exactly a lasting commitment. But then, after all, she’s only a “poor man’s lady”—my mom kinda saw that as suggesting Rosie wasn’t the kind you bring home to mother. An hour, a night, y’know.
“Find us a dream that don’t ask no questions”—yeah, how convenient. Slay ’em and lay ’em, Neil. I used to think he was getting testy there and saying “Five minutes to three and don’t ask me no questions”—like she wants to know what time it is because she’s gotta get home (mom’s probably waiting up) and he’s all like “don’t ask me now, I’m busy here.” Probably trying to figure out how to unhook her bra or something.
Anyway, the song makes you sing like a guitar hummin’, even if you don’t know all the words and even if guitars are not that important in this arrangement. What everyone remembers is the horns on the intro and the strings that come in after that bridge, and the way they syncopate, with horns, on the second “Oh I love my Rosie child” part. Speaking of which, I always thought it was “In love, don’t you know” not “Oh lord, don’t you know,” so I supposed Rosie was in love and Neil was giving her an hour or a night to make him happy and keep him humming.
Well at least he gave us a song we’ll all keep humming. My mom loved the dip of “Oh I love my Rosie child”; I think she would’ve listened to the song all day if it kept coming back to that part. And that little catch in his voice when he says “Our song keeps runnin’ on.” Indeed, it does.
Happy birthday, Mr. Diamond.