In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
You’ve seen Heavy Metal Parking Lot, right? In 1986, two DIY filmmakers, Jeff Krulik and John Heyn, took a video camera to a Judas Priest show at the Capital Centre, the since-demolished Maryland arena, filming the drunk and high and excited kids who were about to get their faces rocked off. It’s a gloriously silly time capsule that became a cult favorite, widely bootlegged and passed around. A decade later, Krulik and Heyn returned to the same place, then renamed the USAir Arena, to make a sequel called Neil Diamond Parking Lot.
Neil Diamond Parking Lot is, in its own way, as charming as Heavy Metal Parking Lot. If this documentary is to be believed, the crowd at this Neil Diamond show had plenty of mothers and daughters and a smattering of husbands, but it was mostly middle-aged women with teased-up hair, all vibrating with excitement at the idea that they’re about to see Diamond. They sing Diamond’s songs. They show off the T-shirts with Diamond’s face on them. They compare how many times they’ve all been to see Diamond. They all tease each other about the fact that Diamond is newly single, all giggling over the idea that they’d like a crack at him. It’s wonderful.
The Neil Diamond that they’re all about to see is the Diamond I remember from ads for Time-Life collections, the guy with the chin and the teeth and the sideburns. That Diamond was a grand, silly, unashamedly cheesy entertainer, a guy who could rock a sparkly suit jacket without the slightest shred of irony. Sometimes, artists age into images like that, gunning for Vegas glitz once their cultural moments are over. But a remarkable thing about Diamond was that he was pretty much already like that when he scored his first #1.
By 1970, when Diamond hit #1 with “Cracklin’ Rosie,” he was already a veteran. He’d been a broke Brooklyn kid, a collegiate fencing champion, and a Brill Building songwriter. He’d been recording singles since 1962, and he’d written a bunch of hits for the Monkees, including the almighty “I’m A Believer.” As a solo artist, he’d scored his big breakthrough with the 1966 garage-rock hookfest “Cherry Cherry” (which peaked at #6 and which is, no shit, a 10). He’d released a run of hits and gotten into what would be a long-running legal battle with his first label, Bang Records. And he’d settled on what would become his signature sound.
That’s the Diamond we hear on “Cracklin’ Rosie.” “Cracklin’ Rosie” is slick and ponderous and silly. It finds Diamond belting with toothsome brio over strummy acoustic guitars and melodramatic strings. You can practically hear Diamond’s grin on the record. He brings a real Broadway quality, a hammy sense of drama. He drops his voice into baritone just so that, a few lines later, he can pay it off by bringing that bray back to full volume. He’s not a graceful singer, but he makes up for it with the joyous passion that he brings to that delivery. His ridiculous confidence is his greatest gift.
Diamond wrote “Cracklin’ Rosie” after hearing a story about a native tribe in northern Canada with more men than women. The idea is that a man with no girlfriend could buy a bottle of cheap wine, and that wine would become his girlfriend for the weekend. That sounds like a depressing situation, but that’s not how Diamond plays it. Instead, he sings about that wine with overcharged delight: “Cracklin’ Rosie, you’re a store-bought woman / But you make me sing like a guitar hummin’.” He’s a happy drunk.
The orchestration on “Cracklin’ Rosie” is chintzy, and there’s a game-show theme-music quality to the intro that never quite wears off over the course of the song. But Diamond sells the hell out of it anyway, and the daffy zero-subtlety intensity that he brings to it is what packed so many of those women into that arena in 1997. It’s that same quality that inspires full-stadium singalongs now. It’s the quality of a guy who willed himself to stardom, at least in part by giving off the impression that he’d be a fun hang.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Shane MacGowan And The Popes’ perfectly drunk 1994 cover of “Cracklin’ Rosie”: