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.)
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.
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.