It’s hard at first to have much sympathy for the tale-teller of Neil Diamond’s 1971 hit “I Am … I Said.” He’s at the pinnacle but looking back to his earthbound days. Yet his ennui is not merely pitiable self-regard, but a leveling before the wider universe.
L.A.’s fine, the sun shines most the time
And the feeling is laid back
Palm trees grow, and rents are low
But you know I keep thinkin’ about
Making my way back
This character, easily identified as Diamond’s proxy, has that sense we all share of giving up something essential to grasp our ambitions. His origins are common. In the song’s four verses, there’s caviar on his tongue but he’s nostalgic for the flavor of dust.
Well I’m New York City born and raised
But nowadays, I’m lost between two shores
L.A.’s fine, but it ain’t home
New York’s home, but it ain’t mine no more
His problem in the chorus, though, is existential. His introspection leads him to a null place, where he feels he must assert not just pride in his achievement but his very fact of being. He earns not even an echo in reply.
“I am,” I said
To no one there
An no one heard at all
Not even the chair
“I am,” I cried
“I am,” said I
And I am lost, and I can’t even say why
Leavin’ me lonely still
The gesture is the primal cry of self-awareness. The declaration “I am” is the first act of consciousness that summons the universe into being. It recognizes the self, and thus acknowledges the void as being other, and therefore subject to Creation. Yahweh is both God and Word — “Tell them ‘I AM sent me to you‘” — His very name such a force of divine will that it’s hidden in the Tetragrammaton, four letters that simultaneously disclose and disguise the Lord’s declaration of selfhood.
Diamond goes further in the next verse, and recasts his story in mythopoetic terms. (Did you ever read about a frog/ who dreamed of being a king/ and then became one?) Conjuration by self-invocation is the province of deities alone, but that has never stopped men from trying. Diamond, raised Orthodox, knows this is vanity.
It is summer, 1970. Neil Diamond has been a star for four years. He has a song at No. 1 right now, “Cracklin’ Rosie,” although his twenty-two singles have only charted at No. 30 on average. Among his most noteworthy accomplishments is helping to create the Monkees. He is a king with reasons to doubt himself. He has just auditioned for his first movie role, and failed. He will not get another chance for ten years. Who is he now? A songwriter, a singer, an actor? Does he dare disturb the universe?
He opens his mouth to speak.