There’s no shortage of candidates, but my vote for the worst song in Neil Diamond’s catalog goes to “The Pot Smoker’s Song” from 1968’s Velvet Gloves and Spit. While it’s possible to write a decent anti-pot song—Jonathan Richman’s “I’m Straight” comes to mind—it seems Diamond’s ruthless songwriting instincts, so adroit with other kinds of subject matter, led him to adopt the most hysterical position on cannabis: smoking grass leads directly to shooting scag. (As readers of the stoner bible Newsweek know, it does not.)
In ‘68, says Laura Jackson’s Neil Diamond: His Life, His Music, His Passion, the Jazz Singer’s visits to an NYC rehab called Phoenix House inspired him to start an anti-drug group called Musicians Against Drugs (MAD). The organization soon changed its name to Performers Against Drugs (PAD), though I’m not sure it’s a better acronym for an anti-drug group—doesn’t it make you think “crash pad”? Anyway, the crystallization of that late-60s drug activism is “The Pot Smoker’s Song,” an album track which combines grim field recordings with a jolly chorus. During the verses, actual junkies from Phoenix House talk about how grass made drug fiends of them and ruined their lives, accompanied by merry instrumentation and backing vocals. (I think this is how Neil Diamond does sardonic?) See if you can come up with a melody for the first verse:
I started when I was thirteen, and, uh, I had saw some people smoking pot, and I bought myself a nickel bag, and I went behind my building and sat on a bench all by myself, and I smoked that bag—y’know, until I finally got high. Uh, I started with pot ‘cause I was curious, and at that time I was having problems with my family. I remember on one trip, I was at a party, and, uh, I got very sick from, uh, from speed, from meth. And, uh, I used to shoot it in my spine. I also used to shoot acid in my spine. And, uh, I had too much, I was building a big thing up over a week, and I got sick, and I tried to commit suicide.
Jackson’s bio reports the song was subject to such derision that it was omitted from later pressings of Velvet Gloves and Spit. I see no evidence of this on Discogs, but the song was left off of one UK pressing. Never mind: “The Pot Smoker’s Song” was lame. Neil said:
“The Pot Smoker’s Song” almost cost me my career. People just laughed at it.
But in the fullness of time, the scales fell from Diamond’s eyes and he repented of his error. Ben Fong-Torres’ classic piece “The Importance of Being Neil Diamond,” from the September 23, 1976 issue of Rolling Stone, opens with a 50-man squad from LAPD and the LA Sheriff’s Department raiding Diamond’s house on a cocaine tip. The Man didn’t find any coke at Neil’s place, but the search did turn up a little herb. Fong-Torres knew Velvet Gloves and Spit, and he nailed Diamond:
There is a track on a 1970 [sic] Neil Diamond album called “The Pot Smoker’s Song.” It begins, “Pot, pot, gimme some pot, forget what you are, you can be what you’re not, high, high, I wanna get high, never give it up if you give it a try.” And between the bouncy choruses are spoken testimonials from kids connecting grass to speed, acid, suicide and worse.
Today, Diamond says “The Pot Smoker’s Song” was “essentially misdirected”; that he learned the real villain is heroin after “The Pot Smoker’s Song” came out. He started smoking dope – “mostly out of boredom,” usually on long road trips.
“Fortunately, when I went through this stage,” he adds, “I was old enough to discern between marijuana and heroin.” Diamond is 35.
Fortunately? I, for one, would really have enjoyed hearing the results of a scag habit on Diamond’s later work, but I guess my loss is his gain. It’s never too late to start, Neil…