Current and classic interviews with the Jewish Elvis and a guide to his best music
This past summer, Neil Diamond ran into Mick Jagger at the Los Angeles studios where they were both working on new albums. “He came by to see what the hubbub was about, and we kidded around,” says Diamond, a tan, happy man who looks a decade younger than his sixty- four years but speaks in the slow Brooklynese of a real old-timer. “I told him, ‘Yuh business office made a big faux pas, because they booked yuh tour the same month I’m going out.’ I don’t think he liked that.” Diamond titters. “I thought it was funny.”
There’s more truth to this than the Stones might like to admit: Diamond has sold 120 million albums in his career, and his recent tour ranks with U2’s and Kenny Chesney’s as the top-grossing of this year. This month he releases 12 Songs, a Rick Rubin-produced album with the sound of his Sixties coffee-shop tunes: vocals, conga, a little keyboard and an acoustic guitar that he plays himself, for the first time in decades. The songs cast Diamond as a wise soul declaring “Love is all about we” and “Yeah, this crazy life around me, it confuses and confounds me/But it’s all the life I’ve got until I die.” (Hold “die” for three beats.)
By nature very shy, Diamond is semi- comfortable with his embrace as kitsch by hipsters and the high-concept cover band Super Diamond, and he was a little defensive when “this rap and rock & roll guy” Rubin first called him. He was surprised to find a kindred spirit, even a fan. “Rick’s got instincts and vision, and I go with that,” he says. “He’s a peaceful person, a kind of spiritual guru.” Later he says, “I haven’t seen him in a couple days, and I miss him. I feel safe with him.”
Safety is a priority for Diamond, who has worked with much the same staff in the same L.A. offices for thirty years. Tiny frog figurines, some of them strumming guitars, decorate available surfaces, and the bathroom walls are covered with needlepoint sayings (over the toilet, inexplicably: HOME IS WHERE THE HEART IS). Some of the staff ride in a motorcycle club called the Mild Ones, though Diamond recently put his bike away after a few falls. “We were mild but cool,” he says. T here is one youngster, Rae Farley, Diamond’s thirty-three-year-old Australian girlfriend of nine years, who also runs his marketing operation. She brings in a smoothie, and he perks up: “Hi, honey!”
Twice divorced, with two adult kids from each marriage, Diamond grew up the son of middle-class first-generation Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn’s Coney Island, picking up the guitar at camp in the Catskills after he saw a kid playing one get swarmed by the ladies. He attended NYU on a fencing scholarship, but in 1962 he dropped out to become a fifty-dollar-a- week Brill Building songwriter, eventually writing the Monkees’ 1967 Number One hit “I’m a Believer.” By then, Diamond was cutting his own songs for Bang Records: “Solitary Man,” “Cherry, Cherry,” “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” and “Kentucky Woman.”
Rubin pushed Diamond to listen to his earlier work for the first time in years, and in some cases decades. “He very politely asked me why my songs changed,” says Diamond. “I was taking a page from the Beatles’ book: Just let it fly, give it your best shot, make it interesting. Without realizing it, the records became bigger and bigger, and the songs became smaller and smaller.” In the Seventies, he moved to Los Angeles, to a house in Laurel Canyon with mirrors on the ceiling. “I wouldn’t have put them there, but there they were,” he says. “It was the indoctrination into the L.A. way of life — wow.” It was also the beginning of the Diamond onstage persona: the sequin- jumpsuited Uncle Neil who looks deeply in your eyes while feeling your knee under the table.
Touring is something he loves, the late-night games of poker with the other musicians and crew, all of them in the same hotel. Today, preparing to go on the road again, he’s filled with excitement. He stops by a pet store (“Do you have bells for cats?”), eats a hot dog (“I like to eat junk at home, so when I get on the road I can cool out”) and heads to Fred Segal to shop for new socks.
“I’m happy with the way things have gone, in life,” he says. “But worse than bad reviews is to be ignored. My dream is that this album will not pass without being noticed.”
(Posted Nov 03, 2005)