Vip Suite RTE Radio (2-14-99)
Gloria: A very good morning…Now I hope you’re having a really enjoyable St. Valentine’s Day weekend and that maybe we can add to it in some way, because when it comes to love songs, my guest in the VIP Suite this week knows all about writing and indeed singing them. Now, he has been described as one of the most important singer-songwriters in this century, a perennial superstar, and one of the greatest ever live performers. Certainly, fans have been alive to his music all this week at The Point, in Dublin, where he chose to begin his world tour. And here’s a taster of some of those songs:
Clips from the following songs are played:
Song Sung Blue
I Am…I Said
Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show
Gloria: Well, Neil Diamond, it’s very nice to be in your VIP Suite instead of in our own VIP suite out at the radio station.
Gloria: How’s it been going in Ireland this week?
Neil: Oh, Great. The Irish audiences are spectacular, so even if you’re not doing well on a song, they’re singing it and probably doing it better than you are. We always have a good time in Ireland.
Gloria: Is Ireland a bit special, in that you seem to truly enjoy coming back to it?
Neil: Yes, it is. It’s the people. It’s the city of Dublin. It’s walking around. There’s a vibe here and there’s a soul in this country that is very uplifting for us, so if I tell the band we’re going to Europe and we’re going to kick it off in Ireland, then, you know, I’ll get a cheer. And everybody’s hungry for their, you know, that first Guinness, off the plane, just to get the real stuff. I had mine for breakfast with eggs. I just had to have it. I’ve been waiting for two years.
Gloria: So do you find when you come to Dublin you can move around quite freely and go shopping and do quite normal things.
Neil: Oh, yes. There are a lot of people around and they’re all into their own things. It’s a great city to walk in.
Gloria: What kind of routine do you have to go through to build up for a tour like this, because it does take a lot of stamina?
Neil: Well, I try to keep my weight, you know, keep some kind of control on that, because I’m carrying around extra work while I’m working and that’s not good. I stopped smoking about six, or seven or eight years ago, cigarettes, anyway, and I think that’s helped a lot with my endurance and my voice. And I try to eat well and get as much sleep as I can. Every hotel is a strange place and you have to do the best you can to keep yourself healthy.
Gloria: Now, you say you gave up smoking, but you’re catching in your left hand an enormous cigar–not lit, mind you–
Neil: Not lit…no. It’s safer that way, and it’s cheaper! You know, it lasts longer.
Gloria: Is this a kind of crutch that you kind of hang onto, just in case?
Neil: Actually, I came back from a walk, and I wanted a cigar, but I don’t want to smoke it in here because it’s a tiny little room. So, I’ll wait.
Gloria: Did it make a huge difference to your voice, do you think, when you gave up smoking?
Neil: It made a big difference. It was substantial in my endurance–my physical endurance. I found I was able to do 10 or 15% longer on stage without being totally vaporized by the experience. And my voice is better, I’m singing better. It’s just good in every way. So I’m glad I’m finished with cigarettes.
Gloria: In the past, it’s been quite well documented that you used to suffer from stage fright. Now, watching you on stage, it’s very hard to believe that, because you have this enormous confidence of course, but do you still have sort of little tremors of it?
Neil: I think subconsciously, you know, you walk around…even today, I was just walking on the streets and relaxing and not thinking of anything and then I realized I had to get back here to do the interview and suddenly I became very serious again and had to get back to business and think about the show and what we’re going to do. But it’s a fun experience for me to go up on stage and do a show, especially for a wonderful audience, because they are half the show, at least. And, uh, I don’t know, maybe a little butterflies but not to many. I’m more excited about the prospect than fearful of it.
Gloria: Well, of course at the beginning, you said that the audiences in Ireland are the best, so we’re going to play Sweet Caroline. How did it transpire that they developed this song and started to sing so much of it with you?
Neil: Well, you know, everybody in this country believes they are a singer, and they sing freely and joyfully, and it’s beautiful to behold.
Gloria: Is it true that the Irish audiences added the “woh, woh” bit to Sweet Caroline?
Neil: Yes, they did. They did, because I recorded it and put it out on some album–I forget which–but it spread around the world, so now, every audience does that, which is the most fun.
Gloria: So now, you don’t have to sing the song at all, basically, they sing it for you.
Neil: Yeah, that’s what I’m working towards. I’m just going to stand and listen.
Gloria: We’ll, we’re going to play the record.
“Sweet Caroline” plays.
Gloria: Well of course it has to be that our guest on the program today is Neil Diamond. We’re thrilled that he’s here with us in the VIP Suite. And any of you who have been to The Point this week will have had more than ample opportunity to sing along with “Sweet Caroline.” If my memory serves me right, it was about 1969 when that was #4 on the charts. When did you actually write it?
Neil: I guess it was just shortly before it was released. I don’t actually remember the dates–it goes back for a while. But I did write it the night before the recording session–THAT, I knew. We had two songs prepared for the recording session, and we were preparing for three. And Sweet Caroline just came out in a hotel room, and, gosh, it’s been keeping my kids out of trouble since then.
Gloria: It’s extraordinary that you can write that quickly and write something that was to become such a classic.
Neil: Well, it doesn’t happen that often. I’m not sure it’s ever happened to me like that, but it’s a beautiful thing when it happens. It tells you that there’s something natural about the song, maybe, I don’t know.
Gloria: Did you know a Caroline?
Neil: No, I never did. It was just a name I liked, and it fit beautifully into the song. I needed a name with three syllables.
Gloria: Obviously at the moment, there’s an emphasis on The Movie Album. And this is unusual for you because of course, as the consumer, we’re used to hearing you sing your own songs. But here you are, taking the best of everybody else’s. So, what was the motivation for the album?
Neil: Well, uh, I think between Columbia records and myself, we wanted to do a big romantic album, full orchestra and songs that people knew, and we just stumbled on this movie theme and it turned out that there were so many wonderful, wonderful songs from the movies that we could have filled up five albums. And I started to go through it seriously, and I came up with about a hundred songs that I could sing, and I felt good about. Then we pared it down to about fifty and made about forty demos of those, and then picked the top twenty or so. But it was a beautiful experience because it was one of those situations where I came in just as the singer. And I didn’t have to write the music, which is very hard work, and there was a full orchestra waiting for me, conducted by a great and talented conductor.
Gloria: Elmer Bernstein.
Neil: Elmer Bernstein. And so it was a big thrill for me. I mean the whole album took about two or three weeks to make, which is unheard of. You know, I’ll spend a year just writing the songs before recording an album, so this was a real guilty pleasure for me.
Gloria: Did you go around asking various people–say in your family or close friends–what’s your favorite song from the movies?
Neil: My family I didn’t have to ask. They told me without asking.
Gloria: What sort of things for example?
Neil: My mom liked “Windmills of Your Mind,” which I didn’t expect her to like. It’s a little art-y.
Gloria: Yes, I’m going to play that later, actually.
Neil: Oh, good, it’s one of my favorites, but different people have different favorites. The songs are all known. The Elvis Presley “I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You,” and we were able to do a tribute to Frank Sinatra with a couple of his movie songs, and just such great songs, really. We just scraped the surface.
Gloria: I went to your studio in Los Angeles once, to do a similar recording to today, and you told me the story that your studio there used to be a movie studio.
Neil: That’s right. It was a tiny movie studio and they made “B” films of early Hollywood of all the “Flash Gordon” movies. I don’ t know if you remember seeing them on television–those ancient movies with the rocket ships that had all the smoke coming out and getting all over the place–they made those films there. And then it turned into a recording studio. A lot of jazz people in the 50’s and 60’s in L.A. recorded there. And I finally took it over some time in the 70’s, and I’ve just used it really as a workshop to work my own music and to make my own demos and some of my records, and it’s worked out great for me.
Gloria: You’ve had a brush obviously with being a film actor on a few occasions in your life.
Neil: Yes, uh, I had a near brush with it.
Gloria: Well, we’ll maybe talk about “The Jazz Singer” in detail later on, but “The Lenny Bruce” is something you went for way, way back in your career, but you didn’t actually get that one, did you?
Neil: No, and thank God I didn’t, because, you know, I knew nothing about acting. It was just one of those situations where the director thought I looked right and I was the right kind of personality to play this part. He gave me a screen test. And actually, I was chosen. There were a number of people who did the test, and the director wanted me to do it. Eventually, the movie company that was to make it decided not to make it, thank God, I’m really thankful for that. And it went to Broadway. And then it eventually became a movie with Dustin Hoffman playing the lead.
Gloria: So…you were scooped by Dustin Hoffman?
Neil: Yes, and I should send him a thank you card.
Gloria: How did you enjoy, then, making “The Jazz Singer?” I mean although at the time, it wasn’t critically acclaimed, but it has subsequently gone into that mode of a very watch-able film that people truly enjoy, so it survived the critics very well.
Neil: It was a very interesting experience for me as a stage performer and as a songwriter. To go in front of the cameras for the first time…it was interesting, it was frightening it was all kind of feelings mixed up.
Gloria: Did you learn a lot from Sir Laurence Olivier just watching him work?
Neil: I did learn a lot from him because I knew he was among the greats. I just watched what he did, and how he did it, and how he handled himself. He was a consummate professional. He was able to conserve his energy in a way I didn’t understand. He was in his mid-70’s when he did the movie. At the end of the day of filming, I would be taken home in a van and dumped on my front doorstep and carried up to bed, whereas Sir Laurence would be taken back to his hotel, do his exercise laps in the swimming pool, and then go out to dinner with friends. So, that was the difference between someone who knows what they’re doing and you know doesn’t waste an ounce of energy or emotion on it, and someone who is totally out there and exhausted at the end of the day. But there was a lesson in there somewhere; though, I’m not sure what it was.
Gloria: Well, we want to play some music. Some of these wonderful lush arrangements from The Movie Album, and I think we might as well take the title track, so why did you make this one actually the main one?
Neil: First of all, it kind of thematically tells the story of the album because all the songs in this album are movie songs that date back to the mid-30’s and bring us right up to the present, practically, so As Time Goes By seemed to be the right idea for the album. And also it is one of the most famous and most classic movie songs of all time.
“As Time Goes By” plays.
Neil: They don’t write them like that anymore. It’s an exquisite song, and to me, the interesting thing was it showed an insight into the character of Humphrey Bogart in that picture–the song comes from the picture, “Casablanca,”–and it gave a real insight to me into the character, because he was a very tough guy and he never showed his feelings during the film, except for this one time when he missed this woman that he was in love with and there was this song that connected them. And I thought it was very powerful for that reason because it showed an insight into the character without having to use dialog.
Gloria: When you were a budding songwriter, were you also listening to the great songs and the great lyricists and listening to what they were doing?
Neil: Yes, in a way, I studied under them. I had show albums when I was a teenager that I listened to over and over again, and read the lyrics–I think, probably “My Fair Lady” in particular, and maybe “West Side Story” too. But the lyrics were so brilliant and witty. For a budding lyricist, it was a course in that field. It was like studying at the university. That’s what I’ve always aspired to–beautiful words, images, truth. But beauty is, I think, the first on that list.
Gloria: So what age were you, actually, when you started to put songs together?
Neil: I guess I was about 16 or 17.
Gloria: And living where, at that point?
Neil: Living at home, with my parents in Brooklyn, finishing up high school, preparing to go into college. I guess I was about 16 when I started writing.
Gloria: And because I’m going to play your Mom’s favorite off this movie album in a minute, tell me about her. What kind of mother was she?
Neil: She was always a terrific mother. She would always welcome all my friends into the house. They all loved her…they still do. All of my old friends from school, they always want to know about her before they want to know about me. Also, both parents were very encouraging for what I wanted to do for myself. As music became the more apparent thing for my career, they were fully supportive, which is kind of strange because it’s an odd choice for a life’s work.
Gloria: And what business were they in at that point?
Neil: They were in retail shop. They had a shop in Brooklyn. They’d have one in one place for a few years and then another place for a few years…in Brooklyn, and I worked in the shop after school.
Gloria: So is this where your great reputation for helping ladies into bras and corsets really emerged?
Neil: Yes…and later, I learned to help to get them out of them.
Gloria: Isn’t it funny that it’s harder to get them out than it is to get them in?
Neil: It sure is. You know, somebody should come up with something!
Gloria: So this was their line of clothing that they were selling?
Neil: Yes, I don’t know what you call it here. Haberdashery? Dry Goods? Just basic garments, nothing fancy–stockings for women. I got to know every conceivable color of stocking and how to show the stocking.
Gloria: My, how that stood you in good stead over the years.
Neil: It’s helped my career enormously. (laughs) But it got me to mix with people. It got me out of myself. I was a very quiet kid. And if you’re in a shop by yourself and a customer comes in, you have to open up and “How can I help you? What can I do for you? What do you need?” And I think it was very good for me in that regard. It was fun…helping out.
Gloria: Talking about your parents and those early days, there’s something I want to clear up today, because people always say, “His real name is Noah Kaminsky.” But it isn’t actually right.
Neil: No, actually, when I had “Solitary Man,” which was my first popular single out, I wasn’t sure I was going to go with Neil Diamond, because I’d been teased about it since I was a kid. Neil was a very unusual name in the States at that time when I was a kid. I got a lot of razzing from it. I was a little sensitive about it, I guess, so I thought I’d make up a couple of other names. One of them was Noah Kaminsky. I thought it was very biblical and very strong. The other one was more rock’n’roll–it was Eice Chary. They were two ridiculous names that had nothing to do with me, and I made them up over lunch one time. Finally, before the record was to be released, the president called me and said, “Well, what name are you going to use?” And I said I have to go with mine, because when you press the record, I’m going to have to show it to my Grandma, and she’s going to ask me why it’s not my name on it, so we’re going to have to go with mine and just hope for the best. I’m obviously thrilled that I didn’t go with another name, but that’s how it happened…so if you read that my name was Noah Kaminsky or was Eice Chary, it’s just not true.
Gloria: So it’s the real Neil Diamond.
Neil: Yes, it is. The real Neil Diamond. I was born with it and I’ll die with it.
Gloria: Well, now, here’s your Mom’s choice. This is the one that she likes best off the album and suggested you should do it. It’s a complicated song, isn’t it?
Neil: It’s a very complicated and it’s an exquisite song. It’s one of those songs where the lyric and the music create a third force. This is, I think, one of the most brilliant songs I’ve heard in the last twenty or thirty or forty years.
“Windmills of Your Mind” plays.
Gloria: Welcome back to the VIP Suite on this Valentine’s Day, and what a superb guest for this day like this. It is, of course, Neil Diamond. Explain to me as a songwriter how your own emotional state or your moods of the day actually affect your writing.
Neil: Well the moods of the day shouldn’t affect your writing, although, if you’re not enthusiastic or energetic to write, you’re usually better off not even trying because it requires a tremendous amount of focus and you have to open up yourself and your mind and your heart, and there are days that you just don’t want to do that. So on those days that you DO want to do that, you kind of do want to take advantage of it and just sit and write and spend that time, but it’s not really predictable. You can force it. You can say, “OK, let’s write, I feel miserable.” Maybe some part of that will become a truth in the song, but it does make the process harder if you’re feeling down yourself.
Gloria: Yes, I was just going to say how that might be the mood of the day, but how does your general emotional state affect what you write? I mean, some people say that the more pain they go through, the better songs they write, particularly when it comes to songs about love of feelings.
Neil: Well, uh, I don’t necessarily prescribe to the pain theory. I don’t like people to have to go through pain and it’s painful enough just to express yourself in a beautiful way and express yourself in a way that other people can identify with. There’s some pain in doing that in opening yourself up. But no, I don’t look for pain. I look to be in a good mood and feeling good when I’m writing.
Gloria: So can you isolate yourself? Can you say, “I’ve got to write this album so I’m going to write religiously everyday for the next ‘X’ number of weeks?” Can you be as academic as that?
Neil: You can be academic to a certain degree, but it still requires your heart and soul. That’s the engine that pushes this whole train. If that’s not there, you can be as academic as you want and you’re not going to come up with anything beautiful.
Gloria: Because for example, when you would have been a songwriter in your teens, and you would have been in the Brill Building or wherever you were doing it, it was like writing to order really, wasn’t it?
Neil: Well, I tried to write to order. There were artists that were coming up for recording sessions and this girl wanted an up-tempo, positive song, with a boy’s name in it, maybe. And it would be listed on the board. And there were some people who were very good at doing that…brilliant, as a matter of fact. But I honestly didn’t know enough about writing at that time to shape something to order, so I was an abject failure in that community for a lot of years, but it was all good for me. It was a good lesson.
Gloria: Even then though, when you were writing for other people, did you actually want to be the performer? Was your vision that you would be the one singing your songs, not anybody else?
Neil: Uh, not really, I was just trying to find one avenue that would lead me to a way to make a living. If it was to be just writing, that’s really what I had hoped that I could just write music and have other people record it. But over the years, I’ve made enough demos and actually been signed by a number of tiny little recording companies, and I sign basically to get my songs heard. It was the only way I could do it. So I wouldn’t say the performing part of it, the person up front was what I was looking for. But when it came, I accepted it and I embraced it. But it wasn’t what I thought was going to happen. I thought I’d end up a songwriter and, you know, nine to five, and just enjoy my life.
Gloria: So was it an accidental twist, then, that you started recording your own material? Or did somebody suggest that you should do it?
Neil: It wasn’t so accidental. I started in high school with my friend Jack Packer, and we did Everly Brothers imitations, and we got a recording contract. So, over the years, from the time I was in high school, I recorded a couple of places. Even Columbia Records released one single. But it’s not what I had in mind. You couldn’t make a living; you couldn’t pay your rent as a recording artist. I thought I had a better chance as a songwriter.
Gloria: You’ve paid quite a few rents mind you, haven’t you?
Neil: Yes, quite a few.
Gloria: I know the song from the album, and the choice this time is the Elvis one, “Can’t Help Falling In Love.”
Neil: Yes, I love this song so much. I think it was one of his most beautiful performances, and so simple and the song is so beautiful. And I really wanted some representation of both Elvis and Frank Sinatra on this album. And this is my choice for Elvis’ song…from Blue Hawaii.
“Can’t Help Falling In Love” plays.
Gloria: A tribute in this case to Elvis Presley, “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” and it is of course from our guest today, our very special guest, Neil Diamond, who is in concert in Dublin until Wednesday, by the way. Thinking about Elvis having originally sung that material, who, in turn has given you a great buzz when they have recorded your material?
Neil: Well, of course, Elvis did record a couple of my songs, so that’s always a little feather in your bonnet, and it makes you smile when you think about that. And Frank Sinatra recorded a couple of songs. Also Sweet Caroline in his style, big band. Of course doing “Flowers” with Barbra and having her on one of my songs was a great thrill.
Gloria: Yes, Barbra Streisand. Didn’t you sing in church with her or something?
Neil: We sang in high school together in the choir. It was a big choir–a hundred people. We were young. Barbra was about 15 or 16 in the two years that we sang together. We never met in high school. She sang with the altos and they rehearsed separately and then they put us all together. But, we came from the same neighborhood. You know it was Brooklyn, it was poor kids, it was a fun to dream and try and make it come true kind of place.
Gloria: So those are the records that you would pick out as being landmarks in terms of your material?
Neil: Oh, Yeah, I like those. I’m in a bit of bunch of cover records on my songs, which I’ve liked a lot. Chris Isaac did “Solitary Man,” and UB40 did a wonderful version of “Red, Red Wine. ” And the Monkees with “I’m A Believer.”
Gloria: So when your royalties come in–this is a bit of a tricky question–when your royalties all come in, have they all sort of listed your royalties that you’ve performed, and then all the royalties for everybody else?
Gloria: Hey, hey. That must be wonderful!
Neil: Well, I guess. I haven’t seen it for a long time. It doesn’t come to me. It gets paid out to everybody who works for me. But, I think that’s how it works…the song is listed and then what you earn. It could be 39 cents for the year, but if you have some hits, it can add up.
Gloria: Because yours is such a huge organization, do you ever feel sometimes that, just as you’ve demonstrated, that you don’t actually see the checks come in, that you’ve had to let go, that there are so many people running your life to a degree?
Neil: That’s partially true, and the other half of that is that it’s really a small organization. It’s a small business. When we’re on the road, it’s 70 or 80 people that have to move this massive show from one city to another, and do all kinds of jobs. But when we’re at home, it’s a dozen people. It’s more like a family than anything else…a small business.
Gloria: How do you escape from that public profile and the fame and everything that goes along with performers?
Neil: Well, when you’re doing it, when you’re traveling and when you’re out performing, you can’t really escape from it, and you know, you just have to assume that it’s there. That’s one reason I love coming to Dublin or London–they’re great walking cities. You can just walk out and get lost. But I’m not on the road all the time. I have a family. They’re very good for grounding me. My son’s birthday is tomorrow. Unfortunately, I won’t see him, but I will have talked to him. So there’s a time for being public and there’s a time for being private, and it’s worked out pretty well.
Gloria: So does your home really act as a great escape for you, in that it’s very private?
Neil: I try to keep it. It’s my last refuge, really. It’s the last place I can go to where I can escape from calls, and business, and whatever. And I’ve tried to protect it in that way, just to try to keep it as quiet as possible, you know, because everybody needs that. They need a time for themselves.
Gloria: How many dogs do you have these days?
Neil: How many dogs? I have four dogs.
Neil: Yeah. They’re lovely.
Gloria: You’ve added a few!
Neil: I have two Golden Retrievers, a Boxer, and a Labrador Retriever, and they’re great fun, and they’re all funny characters, and I love them.
Gloria: What do you call them?
Neil: Well, each of their names…a couple of the retrievers…the Goldens had to be named after my songs because the litter was named–each of the dogs in the litters was named after my songs.
Gloria: So it’s a fan who is the breeder?
Neil: That’s right. And, uh, she’s already had three litters, and they’re…the Goldens…are champions. Sol is Solitary Man, and Lady is Lady Oh, and my other two dogs are Rosie–not Cracklin’ Rosie–that was her name in the little pet shop, and I said that was a good sign, so we’re going to buy this little puppy, and my boxer is Buster. You know, like a Bust. When we got him, Buster Douglas had just beaten Mike Tyson, so my kids would have nothing of calling him Tyson. They wanted Buster. He was the champ.
Gloria: Good choice.
Neil: They’re a funny group. They travel with me. I take them to the office. I take them to the studio. You know, they’re great.
Gloria: Bring me up to speed with all the children as well. Particularly, your…it’s a grandson, isn’t it?
Neil: I have a grandson, yes.
Gloria: How old is he now?
Neil: He just turned four years old. He’s a beautiful boy. I just got him his first computer. And it’s amazing…these kids take to it like a fish to water. My kids are doing fine. They’re all healthy. I have four of them, two girls, two boys. My youngest boy is going on a collegiate program in the United States, where they travel around the world in a boat, and study and do things, so he’s off in a few days to do that.
Gloria: Do they come and see you a lot?
Neil: Oh yeah, I see them or talk to them almost every day…at least one of them.
Gloria: Do you still hate talking about your personal life?
Neil: Uhmm, the personal parts of it I do. I’m not …you know, I’m pretty open about my life, I mean, but there’s certain personal things that I don’t really care to talk about.
Gloria: I know your press officer tells me that I’m not allowed to ask you, and if you don’t want to answer this, you don’t have to, but I mean, I don’t want to know who it is, but is there somebody in your life romantically now?
Neil: Ah, I’m lucky enough to have a girlfriend. You know I haven’t had a girlfriend since I was seventeen years old, so it’s a new experience for me. But she’s a terrific girl, and I’m very happy.
Gloria: I only ask the question because I really want you to have somebody to give a Valentine’s present to today. That was really my worry, you see. I’m very pleased you’ve been able to do the program. Thank you so much for giving us a lot of your time today.
Neil: My pleasure.
Gloria: And we’re going to finish with one of your splendid love songs. I’m letting you make the choice.
Neil: Well, I pick September Morn because it is a positive love song. It’s the remembrance of a time past, and it’s very positive, and I like it.
Gloria: Neil Diamond, thank you very much. And enjoy the rest of your concerts here.
Neil: Thank you, Gloria.
“September Morn” plays.