Still cool after all these years
By Greg Kot
Tribune music critic
Published July 31, 2005
If there was a dictionary of hipness, Neil Diamond would be MIA. In the 474-page Rolling Stone History of Rock & Roll, he barely exists, dismissed as a singer who “sold millions of records to a market hungry for maudlin middle-of-the-road pop rock.” He appeared in the Band’s legendary 1976 farewell concert, “The Last Waltz,” but few people seem to know why. Even Diamond himself says, “I don’t fit in.”
At 63, Diamond remains something of a musical vagabond, a singer and song-writer who has visited many camps, yet calls none of them home. Yet, as he head-lines two concerts Monday and Tuesday at the United Center, he stands as one of the most successful — and surprisingly influential — performers of the last 40 years.
On his previous tour, in 2001-02, Diamond played to more than 1.5 million fans in the United States, Canada and Europe and hauled in revenue of $88 million as he sold out 98 of 117 shows. In the ’90s, he earned $182 million from 461 shows, the decade’s most successful touring act, according to Billboard. In addition, he has sold more than 120 million albums worldwide.
Beyond the numbers, Diamond’s songs have endured. While everyone from the Monkees (“I’m a Believer,” a No. 1 hit that helped launch their career in 1966) to Frank Sinatra (“Sweet Caroline”) has covered his songs, he has also made an impression on several generations of musicians who might not necessarily be typecast as Diamond buffs. His “Kentucky Woman” was covered by British hard rockers Deep Purple in 1968 and hit the top 40, UB40 had a hit with a reggae version of his “Red Red Wine” in 1984, Urge Overkill provided a defining moment in Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 movie “Pulp Fiction” with its version of “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon,” and Johnny Cash titled his 2000 album “American III: Solitary Man” after a Diamond song that he recorded with producer Rick Rubin.
And this year, the singer recorded an album with Rubin, who has also previously worked with Slayer, the Beastie Boys and Rage Against the Machine — none of whom, you can bet, would ever be in regular rotation on Neil Diamond’s iPod. The still-untitled collaboration, to be released in November, is built on Diamond’s songs, voice and guitar-playing. It was designed by the producer as a throwback to the singer’s earliest days as one of the ’60s’ most distinctive singer-songwriters.
“The whole album is guitar-based and I was scared at the beginning,” Diamond says in an interview from his adopted hometown of Los Angeles. “I was basically forced [by Rubin] to play guitar on every one of those songs I had written. I had been away from it since I wrote `Kentucky Woman’ and `Cherry, Cherry’ in the ’60s, only because I felt there were better guitar players out there. We had an argument pretty much every day or any time we faced a new song. I tried to figure out a way where one of the other guitar players could cover my parts, so I could just worry about singing it. And Rick was pretty insistent that I play the part, and as it turned out he was absolutely right. The vocal performances he got out of me are better than I’ve heard in a long time, because Rick was trying to involve the artist and the instrument as one, and it became real intimate.”
Rubin, in an interview in his Los Angeles mansion before the recording sessions began, says he had been aiming to make a record with Diamond for years. The singer was finally persuaded to meet with Rubin, and was impressed by the bearded producer’s approach: “It’s all about great songs, and creating an environment for great songs to emerge,” Rubin says.
“Neil Diamond is one of my all-time favorite artists,” the producer says. “The live show is simply amazing. [Diamond’s 1972 double-album] `Hot August Night’ is probably my favorite live album. He’s got better songs on it than [The Who’s] `Live at Leeds.'”
Diamond, born to a working-class family in Brooklyn, New York, in 1941, dropped out of New York University in 1962 to concentrate on songwriting. He scuffled around the famed Brill Building, where songwriters such as Ellie Greenwich, Jeff Barry, Gerry Goffin and Carole King cranked out hits for the Ronettes, Righteous Brothers and countless other acts. “I was an abject failure,” Diamond says. “I spent eight years trying to get a break.”
Finding his voice
It wasn’t until he was encouraged to sing and perform his own songs by Greenwich that he broke through. “Solitary Man,” his debut for the Bang Records label, established him as a distinctive voice in the hurly-burly world made by the Beatles, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones in 1966: dark, brooding, introspective. He followed it with a string of now-classic hits: “Cherry, Cherry,” “You Got to Me,” “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon,” “Kentucky Woman,” “Sweet Caroline,” “Holly Holy,” “Shilo.”
The music touched on everything from rock and country to folk and gospel. Later on, he would flirt with symphonic orchestration and jazz harmonics.
“I felt it was important for me to change the musical presentation for the singles,” he says. “The Beatles led the way with that. They would come up with a hard-rock track, and then a softer ballad, and then an artier thing, a show thing. It kept the public interested, and they were very good at it. By the time I started making records, two or three years after the Beatles hit, it was something I consciously tried to do.”
Today, such willful stylistic hop-scotching would be frowned upon by a music industry that insists on slotting artists into particular formats and demographics. But in the ’60s, Diamond says, such distinctions were blurred.
“This was before genres and radio formats,” he says. In the early ’60s, “all you needed was a big pompadour and a half-decent song, and they’d let it fly. Then the Beatles hit and opened it up even more.”
In 1976, he recorded one of his best albums, “Beautiful Noise,” with the Band’s Robbie Robertson as producer. Later that year, Robertson invited Diamond to perform with the Band at its farewell show in San Francisco. The performance was filmed by Martin Scorsese, and “The Last Waltz” became one of rock’s most revered documentaries. Diamond’s appearance alongside counterculture figures such as Dylan, Van Morrison, Muddy Waters and Neil Young puzzled many observers. By then, Diamond had written songs that were more redolent of Broadway show tunes than the early folk-rock hits that first established him as an artist.
But upon the release of a boxed set documenting the concert in 2002, Robertson said Diamond was a crucial piece of the Band’s history.
“The Tin Pan Alley songwriters in New York crafted brilliant songs for people to record, but they weren’t performers,” Robertson said. “Neil Diamond bridged that world. When I worked with him on his record, people said, `Is this a put-on?’ No, it wasn’t. This guy is really good at what he does and comes from this tradition of songwriting. He wanted to be one of those people: [Jerry] Leiber and [Mike] Stoller, Carole King, Gerry Goffin. I thought what he does is as good as anybody who played `The Last Waltz.’ He was filling more arenas than any of us, that’s for sure. And he’s still doing it. He’s a phenomenon in his own kind of way. And he has written a lot of songs, a lot of great songs. But they were just a little bit on the other side of the tracks from most of the people on `The Last Waltz.’ He was never the critic’s darling because he didn’t fit in with what was deemed `cool.'”
The hits dried up for Diamond in the ’80s, but his tours continued to play to capacity audiences in arenas around the world.
“It’s amazing when any band can rock the last person in the third tier in the back row,” says Urge Overkill’s Nash Kato. “But for one person to do it — it’s a dying art form. All the way back to the enormo-dome, he grabs the audience.”
Some of Diamond’s more maudlin songs through the ’70s and ’80s cost him credibility with tastemakers. But Diamond’s passion for performing, Kato insists, crushes all quibbles.
“He believes more than anyone in these songs,” Kato says. “And he believes he is Neil Diamond. If there was one iota of doubt in his mind, I think the whole thing would collapse. You either buy it or you don’t, but what’s not up for debate is his conviction. Critics had a field day with him. But he would say, `The dogs may bark, but the caravan rolls on.'”
The Chicago trio was citing Diamond as an influence when the band was carving out its identity on the indie-rock circuit in the late ’80s. “It’s like Neil Diamond appearing on `Star Trek,'” Kato once said of the band’s early shows, a mix of Rat Pack-era Vegas swagger and guitar rock. The band recorded a gritty version of “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” to fill out a 1992 EP, “Stull,” and Tarantino later used it in “Pulp Fiction.” But first he sought Diamond’s permission to use the song in a key scene when a date between the characters played by John Travolta and Uma Thurman takes a sickening turn.
“I got sent the script and I read some of it, and I thought this is some kind of exploitation movie,” Diamond says. “The drugs, the shooting — I didn’t want any part of it, so I turned it down. Soon after, my music publisher called and said that Tarantino is a great filmmaker, and he doesn’t make exploitation movies, and would I reconsider? So I read it again. And from the eyes of a filmmaker, it started to make some sense. So I gave the OK. If you bought the movie to begin with, everything was part of the package and it seemed to work on that level. I thought Urge Overkill’s version was fine. They communicated what the director wanted in that scene.”
Kato still isn’t thrilled with the band’s interpretation, though it became the biggest hit of Urge’s career.
“When we recorded it, pitch, meter and tuning went right out the window,” he says. “It’s a squishy demo version of a great tune. But Tarantino is a genius of putting sound with vision: It was the wrong tune in the wrong scene that he made perfectly right. He gave it this creepy, haunting twist. It made sense, because the Neil of the Bang era was a dark guy. Dylan was the prophet, Cash was the man in black, but Neil was the solitary man. He bucked the trend. He was one of the first guys who not only wrote songs but sang them. He was this big-nosed Jewish kid from Brooklyn who defied all odds.”
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The singer and his songs
In an interview, Neil Diamond discusses his songs and songwriting:
His favorite cover: “Frank Sinatra’s version of `Sweet Caroline’ is my all-time favorite version of one of my songs. He did it like big-band swing. It’s one of my favorite records ever.”
His take on Johnny Cash’s version of “Solitary Man”: “I was saddened by that album. It was a very difficult album to listen to. I agree that it was a song that suited him, but I never got past the fact that this man was seriously ill and yet he was in the recording studio working on his music. That’s a tough thing for me to hear.”
His biggest influences: “The Everly Brothers sang like an angelic choir. I still adore them. I hear an Everly Brothers record now and still smile at the beauty of their sound. And the Weavers . . . knew all these songs, Woody Guthrie songs, that you could sing around the campfire. Those were the first songs I learned . . . to play on the guitar.”
On songwriting: “I still do think of myself as a songwriter. That’s what I started out to be, and it’s what I continue to do. Songwriting is a lot harder than giving a live performance. It’s something that has always attracted me, but it’s always a struggle. You’re always forced to create music and lyrics that cover new ground, and it’s always been the hardest thing that I do because there is no magic formula.”