Inspired in part by all the Rolling Stone Jewish artists listing of the 500 greatest songs, The Forward decided it was time to rank the best Jewish pop songs of all time. You can find the full list and accompanying essays here.
“Velvet Gloves and Spit”, Neil Diamond’s third album, generally gets a bad rap, thanks to its goofy title and even goofier inclusion of “The Pot Smoker’s Song” – an anti-drug song whose inane chorus, goofy attempts at social commentary and testimonial soundbites of “marijuana got me injecting acid in my spine” all added up to what was easily the least hip rock song of 1968.
Which is a real shame, because “Velvet Gloves and Spit” – in addition to containing Diamond’s underrated gems, “Two-Bit Manchild” and “Sunday Sun” – also contains “Brooklyn Roads”, one of the best and the most personal songs Diamond ever wrote.
A cinematic return to the singer’s childhood in Brooklyn, “Brooklyn Roads” begins as a simple exercise in nostalgia; if he closes his eyes, Neil can still hear his mother calling him and his brother for supper, feel the scratch of his father’s five o’clock shadow on his face in a loving embrace of welcome at home and smell the cooking smells that permeate the hallway of the humble Brooklyn building where his family lives in an apartment “two floors above the butcher / First door on the right”.
He can still imagine the view from his bedroom window, overlooking the hustle and bustle of working-class Brooklyn, and reconnect with those warm feelings of happiness, security, and wonder he instinctively associates with his childhood.
But in the second verse of the song, the nostalgia gives way to still painful memories of his mother being called to school to discuss her son’s failures. “He’s got a good head if he applies it,” insists the professor, as tears of shame stream down young Neil’s face. “But you know yourself / It’s always somewhere else.” They’ve clearly been through this before, and neither the public school system nor their achievement-oriented Jewish immigrant parents have a clue how to motivate a creative, introspective child to live up to their academic potential.
How Neil Diamond’s Most Personal Song Recounts His Journey Out of Brooklyn
At this point, the view from his bedroom window becomes a refuge from the pressures of school and his parents and a world in which he no longer seems to fit in. Instead of imagining himself amid the cars and pedestrians below, he spends his time at the window conjuring up fantasies of escape from castles, dragons and knights in shining armor. This bustling Brooklyn neighborhood may be his home, but Neil already knows he’s going to have to leave.
And go, he does; by the song’s third verse, he’s back in the present, and those old Brooklyn roads are now geographically and psychologically distant. He feels some lingering guilt about leaving the old neighborhood and considers returning for an in-person walk down memory lane, but fears it will reopen all the old emotional wounds this lonely man still carries with him. Plus, he’s pretty sure everyone he knew there is also gone by now, probably for greener, warmer, more upscale pastures.
Yet he can’t help wondering: is our old building still standing? And if so, is there another young child – maybe Jewish, maybe (due to demographic shifts) not – now sleeping in Neil’s old room? And does he get lost in the same kind of daydreams as Neil, while staring out the same window at those same Brooklyn roads below?
Although it only reached No. 58 on the Billboard singles chart, “Brooklyn Roads” represented a major artistic leap for Diamond; instead of relying on the three-chord bounce and amorous lyrics that had characterized most of its hits thus far, the song was moody, measured and evocative, delivered with the kind of sensibility, confidence and angsty drama that would mark his best work over the next decade.
Dan Epstein is Forward’s contributing music critic.