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‘I Am…I Said’: The Story Behind The Neil Diamond Classic

For Neil, the song was ‘what my dreams were about, what my aspirations were about, and what I was about.’

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Photo: RB/Redferns

In 1970, Neil Diamond auditioned to play the lead role in a film about the comic Lenny Bruce. He didn’t get the part, but he did come away from the experience with a classic song, “I Am… I Said.”

While his previous hits were mainly character songs or universally themed love songs, “I Am… I Said” was the first to tell you exactly what was on Neil Diamond’s mind. Reaching that point wasn’t easy. Diamond was serious about getting into the movies in 1970, though he’d as yet done very little acting. When producer Marvin Worth courted him about a Lenny Bruce biopic, he threw himself into it – to the point of performing a full set of standup comedy at The Bitter End West in West Hollywood. (To fans’ eternal frustration, no recordings of this have ever turned up.)

Listen to the playlist Not Sweet Caroline, which celebrates some of Neil Diamond’s biggest hits.

By all accounts, Diamond did a perfectly good job at the audition, but the experience shook him up a bit. For one thing, Bruce’s mother, Sally Marr, was present. Diamond was unsettled by speaking a deceased artist’s words with his mother looking on. For another, Bruce’s material is considerably more risque than Diamond’s, and as the song later pointed out, he was “not a man who likes to swear.” As he told Rolling Stone afterward, “He was just saying all those things I had been holding in. It was all the anger that was pent up in me. Suddenly here I was, speaking words that I had never spoken before. These violent monologues of his, and the way he acted. And I went into therapy almost immediately after that.”

Writing the song was therapeutic, and came out of a period of introspection. He referred to this in a couple of 2008 interviews, telling Mojo that the song “was consciously an attempt on my part to express what my dreams were about, what my aspirations were about, and what I was about. And without any question, it came from my sessions with the analyst.” The lyric also referred to the sense of dislocation he felt at leaving his birthplace of New York City for Los Angeles, where he still felt like an outsider. In a separate interview with Q, he admitted it was still tough for him to gather himself after performing the song, even decades after writing it.

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Some of the classic Diamond songs were written quickly – he once claimed “Heartlight” took an hour – but “I Am…I Said” was definitely not one of those. In fact, he’s often named it the toughest song he’s ever written, eating up four months of constant work. Even the song’s complex rhyme scheme made it difficult to complete: “I wrote the first verse, and when it came to writing the second, I had to use the same format, and the first verse was so complicated that it was almost impossible to write that form when I came to the second. It had to be the exact same rhyming pattern.”

The hard work paid off: “I Am…I Said” was released in March 1971 and became a radio fixture for months, finally hitting its chart peak in May. “I Am…I Said” was also the first Neil Diamond song to appear on the same album twice. It opens and closes the 1971 album Stones, which could be called his homage to the singer-songwriter movement. With only three original songs, Stones found him interpreting classic numbers by Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, and Randy Newman. Stones opened with the single version of “I Am..I Said” and closed with a reprise, which begins with the second verse and continues after the single fades, with Diamond shouting “I am!” with only strings for accompaniment. Rolling Stone reviewer Paul Gambaccini singled this moment out, calling it “as touching as the single itself.”

But the definitive version of “I Am…I Said” may well be the one on the 1972 live album Hot August Night. Though it was the finale of his main set, it’s actually more intimate than the single, beginning with just acoustic guitar and never reaching the expected crescendo. Diamond’s delivery evinces all the emotional turmoil that birthed the song, along with the toughness and confidence that came out of it.

Listen to the playlist Not Sweet Caroline, which celebrates some of Neil Diamond’s biggest hits.

15 Comments

15 Comments

  1. Robert Taylor

    February 10, 2024 at 1:46 pm

    “Beautiful “- Nice compendium of who Neil is all about! Love it ❗️- RLT. Many thanks ❗️

  2. Joan Imlach

    February 10, 2024 at 5:29 pm

    Neil Diamond song writing is amazing in any of his magical music and lyrics. Every single song he wrote himself has different meanings. To me he is one of the greats in music history.

  3. Peter

    February 11, 2024 at 12:42 am

    Best of the best king of a long line of superstars, well done Neil!!

  4. Cathy Keats

    February 11, 2024 at 11:54 am

    Neil Diamond writes and sings from the heart Always a pleasure to listen

  5. John

    February 11, 2024 at 12:38 pm

    Neil wrote music and lyrics that span AND connect generations. While Neil has a string of commercial / pop hits, I’m drawn to the lesser known, reflective songs such as ‘and The Singer Sings His Songs’, ‘The Grass Won’t Pay No Mind’, ‘Two-Bit Manchild’, ‘Morningside’, ‘I’ve Been this Way Before’, and the deeply reflective ‘Brooklyn Roads’, and the beautifully penned ‘Stones’- With my favorite lyric line of all time- ‘…and being lost, is worth the coming home’. And I don’t know about the rest of you fans, but one of my favorite pick me up songs that never fails to get me fired up is ‘Crunchy Granola Suite’ from the Hot August Night album!

    Thank you Neil, for all the memories, and for being a wonderful companion to a boy / young man, just trying to find his way ❤️

  6. ValinAz

    February 11, 2024 at 12:56 pm

    I understand this song far more than I wish I do. Beautifully written, but brings me to tears for more than one reason.

  7. Elicia Nolan

    February 11, 2024 at 1:33 pm

    I grew up listening to Neil Diamond from the back seat. My husband and I saw the Broadway show about his life, A Beautiful Noise, and I was astonished at how I knew all the songs by heart. And THIS song, breaks my heart.

  8. Fred Waiss

    February 11, 2024 at 6:21 pm

    Agreed all the way. Especially the observation about Crunchy Granola Suite. I also like Porcupine Pie.

  9. Donna Perras

    February 11, 2024 at 7:57 pm

    Neil Diamond is my all-time favorite singer songwriter. I think my favorite album was always Hot August Night. When I was younger and laid out in the sun to tan, I would listen to that album and it would give me goosebumps so that I would cool off. It’s still does give me those goosebumps and always will. I think I will have it played at my funeral to give the “crowd” some joy.

    I may have to add the Beatles White Album and Barbra Streisand‘s first album.

  10. Joe cebina

    February 13, 2024 at 12:42 am

    My uncle joe interduce me to his music he’s gone now but it was one of the best things he did and Iam so grateful to him and Neal uncle joe had all his records and so do I Iam 82 years old and play them a lot I can feel the music just like Neil does I can cry with sad song and relate to a love song, he knows how emotionally move a human beening feelings. Greatest artist ever. God Bless you Neiland I mean it form my hart,

  11. Carol Seskin

    February 14, 2024 at 1:08 am

    I have loved Neil’s music for as long as I
    can recall, from the ‘70’s when a close
    friend told me to check it out. I agree
    wholeheartedly with the earlier comments,
    that his beautiful music has added most
    of the background to my own life. I am in
    my early’80’s and still enjoy his songs. I
    also had every album he made, and attended
    every concert in the NYC area. thank you Neil.

  12. Princess

    February 14, 2024 at 2:57 am

    Neil Diamond! Hands down the best singer and songwriter ever!!!

  13. Jesse Charles

    February 14, 2024 at 5:31 am

    The odd things that happen in life, huh? I was a HUGE fan of ND growing up. Eventually began dating a girl who was also a fan. It got serious. A concert was in town and I bought GOOD tickets, better seats than I could reasonably afford, but her birthday was soon. She also got invited to go with a friend of hers whose family was RICH and she accepted the friend’s gift instead of mine. Back story omitted but it left me pretty raw. When we broke up the following year, and yes, this DID contribute to it, it greatly affected my ability to listen to ND. Don’t think I’ll ever forgive her for that.

  14. Alex Breeding

    February 14, 2024 at 5:43 am

    I agree that Neil is a talented writer, but I don’t know if I would say he’s the best. I’ll give him top 10 status, but considering the competition of the likes of Kristofferson, Dolly Parton, John Lennon, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, and Gordon Lighfoot just to name the ones that immediately come to mind. And if you’ve never listened to Colin Hay’s “Waiting for My Real Life to Begin” please do yourself a favor and find it NOW! That man is a living TREASURE!!

  15. Jeff Lowery

    February 18, 2024 at 8:12 pm

    He tought me more about life than I ever cared to know…Diamond is the greatest entertainer that ever lived .A true gem .

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