Neil Diamond uncut: The singer on dancing with Princess Diana and how he nearly played Travis Bickle
By Lina Das
125 million records shifted (and two million more when you count next week’s Mail on Sunday free Neil Diamond CD)…In his own words, how he’s rocked all the way to 70 ‘The cardinal rule for any performer is that they should know themselves before they enter the spotlight, and I didn’t. I was just Neil and I did what I was supposed to do,’ said Neil Diamond.
With a career spanning more than 50 years and record sales of over 125 million worldwide, at 70 Neil Diamond should be enjoying his retirement, but his songs have continued to regenerate over the years, picking up fans as varied as Hollywood enfant terrible Quentin Tarantino and British royalty.
He was a favourite of the late Princess Diana (but must be the only person in the world not to have watched her son William’s wedding on the day we meet, ‘although I will watch it later,’ he promises) and even danced with her at a presidential ball held at the White House in 1985, during the Reagan years.
‘I danced with her for eight bars of September Morn and then later in the evening she came up to me and said: ”Is it proper for a lady to ask a gentleman to dance?” and I went: ”Absolutely!”
‘I have no recollection of what we danced to though, because all I could think was that I was dancing with the most beautiful princess in the world.’
Diamond is his real name – he wisely decided to pass over the early stage name Ice Cherry. When he saunters into an LA studio wearing faded jeans and baseball cap, he looks like a million other men of a certain age.
But he’s also responsible for some of the most moving love songs of all time. Love On The Rocks, Red Red Wine and the Barbra Streisand duet You Don’t Bring Me Flowers are all part of his vast canon, yet he remains touchingly modest about his achievements.
‘I may have a little bit of a talent for music, but I’ve learnt to tap into my own self when I write. When I put the drill bit inside my heart, sometimes I come up with something light and frothy, sometimes with something deep and painful, but it’s great to connect with the audience.
‘I love it because it allows me to express myself and tap into feelings that I sometimes didn’t even know existed. I’ve never been able to express those feelings any other way, certainly not with the depth that I can express them in song.’
‘I was an abject failure for almost eight years. And it was eight years of knocking on doors and trying to get inside the centres of power that determined who recorded and produced which songs’
His sultry Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon was covered by rockers Urge Overkill and used as the backdrop for Uma Thurman’s infamous overdose scene in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.
‘To be honest, I was hesitant about okaying it at first because I saw the script and didn’t know if I wanted the song in a scene where there was heavy drug use,’ says Diamond.
‘But I was talked into it and convinced that Tarantino was a serious film-maker and that it wasn’t going to be a sensationalist exploitation film. And actually,’ he smiles, ‘I thought it worked great.’
Diamond’s songs – including many of his greatest hits such as Beautiful Noise, Sweet Caroline and Cracklin’ Rosie, which are being given away on a free CD inside next week’s Mail On Sunday – have not only stood the test of time, many of them have also been covered by the greats (both Elvis and Sinatra did versions of Sweet Caroline). Today, he is surfing a new wave of critical and commercial popularity.
The Archangel Recording Studio, nestled among the noisy stretch of outdoor cafes and restaurants along Los Angeles’ West 3rd street, belongs to Diamond. He shows me around the studio’s anteroom, where life-size drawings of his band members adorn the walls.
He painted them 20 years ago when, scared of losing that voice, he gave up smoking – ‘cold turkey’ – and took to drawing as therapy. The drawings are beautiful; the voice even more so – ‘full of gravel, potholes, left turns and right turns’, in his own words. Not for nothing was he once dubbed ‘the Jewish Elvis’.
Like Elvis, Diamond has been somewhat unfairly judged by his early stage attire – the extravagant chest hair teamed with similarly extravagant sequined shirts.
‘We did go through a phase in the Eighties when they were pretty spectacular,’ he concedes, ‘but more than the cost was how heavy they weighed – they were about 10lb each! Some were a little outlandish, but I loved my designer and we were good friends and I didn’t want to hurt his feelings by not wearing one of his creations. After a while, I gave up commenting on them and just wore whatever he gave me. I felt the music was the important thing, after all.’
‘When I put the drill bit inside my heart, sometimes I come up with something light and frothy, sometimes with something deep and painful, but it’s great to connect with the audience’
The man clearly has a way with words, and women – twin skills he discovered at the age of 17 when he wrote his first song for a fellow high-school student, Jayne Posner.
‘It wasn’t a ploy to win her over,’ Diamond insists. ‘I wanted to get her a gift but I didn’t have a penny to my name, so I said, OK, I’ll make up a song. I’d never even thought of writing a song before, but I came up with this thing called Hear Them Bells. It was about getting married and I guess she probably liked the idea of having a song written for her, more than the song itself, because it really wasn’t great.’
It must have had something going for it, however, because five years later, the couple married. Diamond continued to write, eventually quitting university to take a series of low-paid jobs in New York’s legendary Brill Building – the hub of the musical Tin Pan Alley neighbourhood.
‘I was an abject failure for almost eight years. And it was eight years of knocking on doors and trying to get inside the centres of power that determined who recorded and produced which songs. It was a real hand-to-mouth existence in those early days – I’d have whatever dry cereal there was in the house for breakfast, 30 cents to spend on lunch and a hot dog for dinner. I did that for years. So there was definitely a hunger in me, of various kinds, to succeed.’
Dancing with Diana: ‘I have no recollection of what we danced to because all I could think was that I was dancing with the most beautiful princess in the world’
Succeed, however, he finally did, writing songs that were eventually performed by America’s premiere bubblegum pop band of the time, The Monkees, including A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You and I’m A Believer – the latter of which became America’s best-selling song of 1966.
Further hits such as Solitary Man and Kentucky Woman followed, although Diamond paid the price for his success in time-honoured fashion with the collapse of his first marriage. It had lasted six years and produced two daughters, Marjorie and Elyn, and for Diamond, still in his twenties, the break-up was traumatic.
‘It’s a terrible thing when a marriage breaks up, especially when you have kids,’ he says, ‘but I’d been on the road for five years, taking any job that was offered. I was exhausted, my marriage was over and I was with a new girl with whom it was starting to look serious (production assistant Marcia Murphey, whom he married in 1969).
‘There’s a saying that goes, you shouldn’t keep stumbling over the same rock. I didn’t want to repeat my mistakes so I stopped, took some time out and started having therapy. My songs were bringing up feelings inside of me I didn’t really understand, so I wanted to understand where they were coming from to help me be a better person and a better songwriter.’
Therapy proved a turning point for Diamond.
‘The cardinal rule for any performer is that they should know themselves before they enter the spotlight,’ he says, ‘and I didn’t. I was just Neil and I did what I was supposed to do. I was supposed to get married, so I got married. I was supposed to get a job, so I looked for work. I did what my parents told me to because I wanted to be a good son, but it was all about what other people expected of me – I didn’t have the vaguest idea of who I really was.
‘Marcia and I had a son, Jesse, and I got involved with my new baby in a way I hadn’t done with my two girls. I was still writing songs, but I wasn’t travelling and Jesse and I just hung out together and it was great. It was an important period in my life and a chance for me to finally start understanding who I was.’
‘You talkin’ to me?’: Neil was asked to audition for the part of Travis Bickle in the 1976 movie Taxi Driver
He started doing shows again in the mid-Seventies – the start of another productive period, not only as a singer-songwriter, but also as an actor. He played the lead role in the 1980 movie The Jazz Singer opposite Laurence Olivier, becoming the highest-paid debut actor ever with a pay cheque of $3.5 million. And he almost got to stand in front of his mirror and utter the immortal line: ‘You talkin’ to me?’ after he was asked to audition for the part of Travis Bickle in the 1976 movie, Taxi Driver.
‘I wasn’t actually offered the role,’ he says. ‘But I was considered for it for a whole minute before they signed Robert De Niro. I knew the producer and he must have thought I looked like that type of character – you know, sullen and crazy,’ he laughs.
‘But I was back on the road by then and had no time to do anything. Finally De Niro signed and did a great job.’
He was also up for the lead role of acerbic comedian Lenny Bruce in the 1974 biopic Lenny (the part went to Dustin Hoffman).
‘I did screen tests for that and was scared to death the entire time,’ he admits. ‘During the break, though, I was in my dressing room and started to write a song which turned out to be I Am…I Said (which earned Diamond his first Grammy nomination), so it was a pretty important screen test for me in the end.’
Drugs, he says, were never his thing.
‘I was afraid of drugs and didn’t need them either. Also, I was a father (son Jesse was later joined by his brother Micah) and I had to act like one. I was lucky because I saw people falling off the path and losing focus, but I couldn’t act like a child when I had children myself.’
His marriage to Marcia ended in 1995.
‘That did hurt and I’m still not really sure why it ended,’ he admits. ‘We were together 25 years and I loved Marcia very much – I still do. We had the most wonderful times but sadly the marriage crumbled. Neither of us complained about it and we both just went on with our lives.
‘This business isn’t really helpful to marriage because it takes a lot to overcome the absences, but I still have questions as to why it didn’t last forever. Maybe there should just be a 25-year limit on marriage.’
The divorce was arranged over the phone, minus lawyers, with a reputed $150 million settlement.
‘Which sounds lovely,’ says Diamond, ‘except it just wasn’t true. I told Marcia I’d have gladly given her $150 million, but I’m a working musician and even the biggest ones don’t make that amount. I know Marcia got all my houses (three of them) and she was well taken care of, but I honestly couldn’t put a figure on it. I’m not complaining at all. She was just wonderful. She earned every penny. My career wouldn’t have been the same without her.’
‘I ruled out the possibility of a third marriage (he has been seeing someone for two years, but won’t give too much else away) and has few extravagances for a man who ranks high among the biggest-selling artists of all time. He was the most profitable touring act of the Nineties, earning $182 million.
As well as his studio, he owns a place in LA, a cabin in Colorado and an apartment in New York.
‘Even though I can’t afford any of them, what money I have goes into those things. I grew up over a butcher’s store, so having them is very important to me. I need that security, but I also like having a nice home that I can bring people to. Growing up, I could never bring my school friends home because I was too embarrassed.’
A CD of ten classic tracks from Neil will be free inside next week’s The Mail on Sunday
Diamond was raised in Brooklyn, the elder of two brothers, to Jewish immigrants who ran a clothes shop.
‘Our place was beneath modest,’ says Diamond. ‘I took my son back there recently to show him where I spent my formative years and he couldn’t believe the bedroom. I shared it with my brother (Harvey) and it was about the size of a closet – there was only room for the bed, so you had to crawl in and out from the front of it.
‘Because we lived above a butcher’s store, there were a lot of mice and the traps were going off all the time. But it was fine. In Brooklyn, you didn’t live in your home – you lived on the streets, playing stick ball with your friends. Although now I find I love having my homes and my studio. I feel comfortable there.’
In his eyes, far from being a superstar, he’s just Neil, a simple ‘working musician’.
Although in his eighth decade, he says, ‘I don’t see retirement in my future, although maybe I’ll pull the gear back a notch and not be as busy as I have been.
‘I don’t think I’ll ever give up music though because, purely from a selfish perspective, it makes me happy. I don’t quite understand it, but I think it’s what I’m supposed to do on this Earth. It’s the best usage of me and my life.’
‘I can’t think of anything more useful that I can do.’
Neil Diamond’s album of classic hits, ‘The Bang Years 1966 – 1968’, is released on May 23. He tours the UK in June and July. Visit livenation.com
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