American Idol

Forget the spangly shirts, sideburns and over-the-top Vegas lounge routines, Neil Diamond has stripped himself down to the sum of his parts. It’s an equation that seems to be working. His new album, 12 Songs, is garnering critical acclaim from all corners of the music industry. Brian Boyd talks to a legend who’s learning to do without the reverb

VAN Halen, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Steve Miller Band, and even cartoon beardies ZZ Top have all been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame. No place, though, for the self-described “big-nosed Jewish kid from Brooklyn”. The book of evidence is mighty impressive: from his early days in the Brill Building hit factory writing for The Monkees, to writing some of the most enduring musical anthems of the last 40 years, Neil Diamond is indisputably a genius songwriter.

Leave aside the spangly shirt and the giant audience karaoke sessions for a moment and consider his oft-underestimated versatility. Who else has had their songs covered by both Deep Purple (Kentucky Woman) and Frank Sinatra (Sweet Caroline)? Both Urge Overkill (Girl You’ll Be A Woman Soon) and UB40 (Red Red Wine) scored their biggest-ever hits from two of his throwaway songs and Johnny Cash not only covered him but named one of his albums after the song – Solitary Man. Add in 120 million albums sold and his status as one of popular music’s most successful touring acts ever.

It makes a mockery of the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame, or, as one far from gruntled Neil Diamond fan on the web notes: “It shows up the decrepit tone-deaf wankers who make like assholes and crap all over the history of the art they profess to honour. These brain-dead, drool-drunk idiots overlook the seminal performers while praising inconsequential one-hit wonders.”

So Neil, what’s the deal with the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame? Are you not sleeping with the right industry people or something? “That could be it,” he says in his spookily familiar, resonant baritone voice. Even in speaking mode, it’s a marvellously full-toned and sonorous instrument. If ever he gave up the day job, he’d clean up working on phone sexlines.

“I’ve got my own reasons why I have never been inducted,” he explains. “I’ve never played the political game with them – and some acts do. Maybe they just consider me to be a balladeer. Maybe my life and lifestyle aren’t rock’n’roll enough. It could also be that I don’t feel the need to write lyrics that are ‘intellectually acceptable’. But, you know, with me it’s not about the intellect, it’s about the emotion. I’m very primal – very heartfelt, very emotional, very reflective, very melancholic. It’s the ‘I Am . . . I Said’ side of me. And I don’t deny it.”

Maybe it’s none of the above. Maybe it’s got something to do with his entry in the Rolling Stone History Of Rock’n’Roll book, in which he’s dismissed as a singer “who has sold millions of records to a market hungry for maudlin middle-of-the-road pop rock”. And maybe that can be connected to the fact that the founder of Rolling Stone, Jan Wenner, is also on the committee that decides who gets inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame.

In truth, he’s not bothered that acts such as ZZ Top and the Steve Miller Band got the nod ahead of him, or even that his old Brill Building friends Gerry Goffin and Carole King are there ahead of him. After all, it confers on him a weird sort of outsider status and he hasn’t felt like an outsider in the music world since he showed up to appear in The Band’s 1976 farewell concert, The Last Waltz, and was treated as if he was Val Doonican showing up at Woodstock.

“I’m just out of the loop as far as some critics are concerned,” he says. “They say I’ve never been ‘experimental’. I’ve had all that elitist stuff thrown at me. But I can honestly say that everything I’ve ever done has been pure expression from the deepest part of me. I think that is what people are responding to. Not how the critics view me.”

It’s just sometimes he doesn’t do himself any favours. “It’s true,” he acknowledges. “When Quentin Tarantino wanted one of my songs for Pulp Fiction I turned him down. I wasn’t familiar with him and I thought all the drugs, all the shooting in this film, I don’t want a part of it. But my music publisher called me and explained who Tarantino was and what he was trying to do with the film. I actually thought it was some sort of exploitation movie. And in the end, I thought they communicated what the director wanted in that particular scene very well.”

Producer du jour Rick Rubin almost slipped him by too. Rubin had been chasing Diamond for the last 10 years (he’s a major fan) but could never get past the singer’s management team. “I get a lot of messages from producers saying they want to work with me,” he says (which is what happens when you’ve sold 120 million albums). “When this new name was floated, I dismissed it. Like Tarantino, I had never heard of him. But then I kept hearing his name again and again from trusted music business friends and I was aware Johnny Cash covered Solitary Man on one of the Rubin albums, so I thought I’d meet him just to see what he was like.”

The two had more in common than they thought. Both were native New Yorkers (they had attended the same college, but at different times) and both had moved to Los Angeles for work reasons. The singer was impressed that at the first few meetings, Rubin would play all his old records and tell Diamond what he liked and what he didn’t like so much about each individual track.

“In a way, it was quite brave of him to do it in front of me – but when it came to stuff he didn’t like that much, he was quite diplomatic,” says Diamond. “He was more: ‘why did you go that way here?’, ‘why did you change that?’ about the songs.”

A big modus operandi for Rubin is that the artist plays the instrument and sings at the same time in the studio. Not to put too fine a point on it, this freaked Diamond out. What Rubin was trying to do was strip the “big performance” aspect out of Diamond’s music. He figured, quite astutely, that if Diamond had to concentrate on playing the guitar while singing, he wouldn’t be emoting too much on the vocals.

“I hadn’t played guitar on my records since the mid-1960s and Cherry Cherry and we had these amazing session guitarists in the studio,” says Diamond. “Every single day in the studio we had an argument about playing and singing at the same time. He wouldn’t budge on this, though. And this wasn’t a debate we had – it was a confrontation. After a while, I did notice there was something different about my singing when I played guitar. It let me connect with the song in a more personal way.”

The resultant album, 12 Songs, is a career high-water mark for Diamond. It’s as if he burnt all his spangly shirts, stopped being Mr Vegas in his vocal approach and has returned to the Brill Building – a place where he used to pick out chords on his acoustic and was at the mercy of demanding music publishers looking for hits for their clients.

A stark and simple work, 12 Songs recasts Diamond as a pensive troubadour. The biggest surprise, though, is how much the man who has been described as the “anti-Leonard Cohen” sometimes sounds a bit Cohenesque – especially on the hymnal grandeur of the opening track, Oh Mary.

It would be simplistic to view 12 Songs as Rick Rubin merely reprising his work with Johnny Cash. While Rubin may have won most of the studio battles, he couldn’t deprive Diamond of his crescendos. “You spotted that? Yes we had a few rows about them,” said Diamond. “I think you can pare stuff down too much. I like to amp it up, I have to have those emotional peaks and troughs in the songs. He had to accept that, whether he liked it or not. Rick Rubin wasn’t going to get my crescendos off me!”

You would have thought that on the back of an album such as this, Diamond would re-invent things further by touring in theatres, rather than his usual enormodomes – but there’s a reluctance there.

“I’ve always had this weird yin/yang thing going on. When I write thesongs, it’s an introverted experience, but when I perform I turn into this spangly shirt, big-stage production extrovert. I don’t think I can do it halfway by playing theatres. I’ll see. I might do one really small show somewhere and see how it goes. But as you know, I am a Landsdowne Road sort of performer.”

What’s it like being hip all of a sudden? “I don’t know what to do, how to react,” he says. “I never knew, 30 or 40 years ago, that these songs would still have an impact, that they would still be played and sung along to. All this stuff about where I fit in – pop, rock, folk or country – it doesn’t mean anything. The music will have the last word. The dogs may bark but the caravan rolls on”.

12 Songs is on Colombia Records

Produced by Rick Rubin…

The above four words are probably the most record-company friendly ones you can utter these days. Get Rubin on board, and budgets suddenly increase while costly promotional campaigns are planned. Arguably, not since the days of Phil Spector has the producer had such a pre-eminent status in the recorded music world.

Originally from a heavy metal/rap background – he produced Walk This Way for Run DMC/Aerosmith – Rubin has gone on to work with The Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He’s still best known, though, for his work with Johnny Cash on the four “American” albums.

Rubin is renowned for his stripped-down approach. So much so that some albums he has worked on carry the credit “Reduced By Rick Rubin” instead of “Produced By”. He’s not a fan of string sections or backup vocals and he intensely dislikes the use of reverb – which many singers use to fill out their voices. The resultant unadorned sound worked critical and commercial wonders for Johnny Cash and continues to do so now for Neil Diamond.

Expect his name to be everywhere over the next few months: Rubin has just finished producing the new Metallica album and has also completed work on new albums by The Dixie Chicks and Justin Timberlake. His one main ambition left is to work with Leonard Cohen.

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