My mother passed away last Sunday. She was born in the late 1930s in Bastrop, La., where her father, a reverend in the Anglican Church, and mother, a nurse, lived at the time. Three days later, her mother died and my grandfather, grief-stricken and unsure of what to do, left my mom in the hospital nursery for the next three months. It’s said that babies devoid of human touch often develop an array of issues, both physical and psychological, so the nurses who cared for her must have practiced a hands-on approach. She was as wonderful and loving a wife, mother, grandmother and friend as there ever was.
I start there because, as most sentient folks can attest, certain songs and albums are forever intertwined not just with memories, but loved ones. Neil Diamond’s Tap Root Manuscript, released on October 15, 1970, is such a case for me. Along with his other late ‘60s and early ‘70s works, for me it’s intrinsically linked to my mom. Upon the first notes of “Cracklin’ Rosie,” for instance, I immediately see her bopping along to the beat while sitting on the carpet of our cookie-cutter cement villa on the Raytheon compound in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (For those curious, I revisited those years here and here.) At the conclusion of Side 2, “Childsong (Reprise),” I see her entranced with the angelic children’s choir. And during the in-between, she’s lost in the music.
She was in her early 30s by then, I should mention, a little old for rock ’n’ roll but not so for the era’s pop. Did she like Neil Diamond prior to our arrival in the Desert Kingdom in August 1970? It’s possible. His catchy “Sweet Caroline” was released as a single in May 1969 and rose to No. 4 in the charts, while “Holly Holy,” released that fall, made it all the way to No. 6. She would have heard both on the radio, I’m sure. She may have also seen him on TV, as he appeared on both Glen Campbell’s and Johnny Cash’s primetime variety shows in late 1969 and early ’70—and she watched the Cash show more often than not, from what she told me long after the fact. But it’s just as conceivable that she discovered Diamond via the low-watt FM station that my dad helped run in his spare time; it provided a touch of home to the families on the compound. “Sweet Caroline” and “Song Sung Blue” would have fit right in with the DIY playlist.
However she happened upon it, this I can say with the certainty of a biased listener: Side 1 of Tap Root Manuscript is packed with one strong song after the next. The ode to red wine, “Cracklin’ Rosie,” is catchy as all get-out—and became his first No. 1 hit.
I first heard it sometime in late 1970 or 1971, I’m sure, when I was 5, and for the longest time I heard the first line, “Ah, Cracklin’ Rosie, get on board,” as “Ah, Cracklin’ Rosie peed on ma.” (Laugh all you want, but trust me—now you’ll hear it, too.) It was an album—cassette, actually—that she played fairly often. I don’t remember us having a turntable in the hi-fi system that my dad cobbled together after we arrived in Saudi, but a reel-to-reel machine that eventually gave way to an Akai cassette deck. Cassettes of Western music were plentiful in the downtown suuq as well as the stores in Beirut, where many ex-pats (including us) vacationed from time to time, so the switch made sense.
The mid-tempo “Free Life” is, presumably, about free love, though the oblique lyrics make it possible to misread their intent, while the melancholic “Coldwater Morning” finds him yearning for a new special someone following a failed relationship. The mixed-tempo “Done Too Soon” conjures Burt Bacharach at his melodic best; he spews a litany of well-known names to make a point: “And each one there/Has one thing shared/They have sweated/Beneath the same sun/Looked up in wonder/At the same moon/And wept when it was all done.” It leads into what may well be the greatest rendition of the much-covered “He Ain’t Heavy…He’s My Brother” yet pressed to wax. Written by Bobbie Scott and Bob Russell, it was first recorded by Kelly Gordon in early 1969, while the Hollies took it to the Top 10 later the same year; countless other artists covered it in the years that followed. Neil’s version, which closes Side 1, adds a dramatic flourish that’s missing from the others.
Side 2 is where things get interesting. In the liner notes that came with the original LP, he wrote, “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.”
Rather than replicate African folk music, he shares his interpretation of the same. It’s a cultural appreciation framed through the prism of what Diamond knows best: How to write a hook. The entire side plays like a pop opera as a result, including instrumentals (“Madrigal,” “The African Trilogy”), a choir piece and a folktale set to song (“I Am the Lion”), plus the upbeat “Soolaimon,” which hit No. 30 on the pop charts. Orchestral underpinnings accent some songs, while sound effects—including rain and thunder—further the mood.
The critical consensus for Tap Root Manuscript was decidedly mixed at the time of its release. Jayne Sippl of the Wassau Daily Herald called it “a refreshing change of pace in the rock music field,” while Thomas Popson of the Chicago Tribune wrote that “the whole thing tends to evoke images of a Warner Brothers backlot rather than the African veldt.” Rolling Stone’s Alec Dubro, for his part, enjoyed most of Side 1 and found Side 2 “quite charming” despite having a few quibbles with it. His main lament? He was unsure who would want to hear it, as Diamond’s normal audience didn’t seem so adventurous and “freaks” would dismiss it out of hand.
As it happened, however, a lot of people wanted to hear it beyond my mother. The album went gold within three months and eventually platinum, with its peak position coming in mid-December at No. 13—not bad for a one-time Brill Building songwriter! I returned to it in my early 40s, while putting together the soundtrack for home movies I’d had digitalized, and was amazed not just at how well I knew the songs but by how much I liked what I heard. It’s an album well worth revisiting or, if you haven’t heard it before, digging into for the first time.
The track list: