Another sad lament
Neil Diamond is a bona-fide superstar who has written some of the world’s finest love songs. His new album has been hailed as a masterpiece and, at 64, he sells out venues the world over. Yet despite all this, he tells Rachel Cooke, he’s still can’t shed ‘that melancholia’
Sunday April 9, 2006
It is very exciting to be on the way to meet Neil Diamond and not even having to go to Chelsea Harbour, a horrible corner of London that is forever 1988, can dim my enthusiasm for it. Men can be – and often are – rather snooty about Diamond. They will concede that ‘Sweet Caroline’, especially as harmonised by Tim Hutton and Uma Thurman in Beautiful Girls, is a good song and, perhaps, a handful of others. But they are also troubled by his look: the rhinestones and sequins, the tight trousers with go-faster stripes, the impressively luxuriant chest hair.
Women, on the other hand, have always got the point of him. On stage, he does something to a woman. She might wander into the auditorium with a carefully ironic expression on her face, but she will wander out smiling and flustered and red of face. Diamond looks and sounds sexy. His stage presence, as his sell-out shows continue to prove, is a magnificently throbbing thing.
All this is very unfair. Put aside the stage suits and the breathless women in the front row and an altogether different kind of a creature emerges, especially lately. At the age of 64, Diamond is suddenly garnering the kind of critical acclaim more usually accorded to, say, Bob Dylan. His new album, 12 Songs, produced by Rick Rubin, the man responsible for the late flowering of Johnny Cash, is an extraordinary departure and, it is worth adding, a number one hit.
Diamond has always been an oddly grave kind of a singer, his songs as serious as algebra (and, sometimes, as tricky to grasp), but the strings and keyboards foaming around them like jasmine on an old wall tended to distract from this. Rubin, however, has pared the whole thing down, made him, for the first time in almost 40 years, play his own guitar and to hell with all that soapy orchestration. Thus, the songs’ solemnity is revealed – and their great beauty. ‘The best work he has done in 30 years,’ says Newsweek
So which Diamond will I get today? Sexy or sombre? Sequinned or unplugged? As it turns out, there is really only one Neil Diamond and this man has about him an endearing earnestness. He can be wry but, mostly, he is agonised. Sitting opposite him in this plastic hotel room, the last thing that you feel inclined to do is to fall at his feet in panting adoration (and if you did, he would doubtless die of embarrassment).
He is unshaven and looks tired. His black shirt hangs open to reveal a gentle paunch. The hair is a wire-wool grey rather than the raven thatch of old. On the table beside him are a box of Altoids – to aid the voice; he has laryngitis – and a bottle of eye drops, which he uses, rubbing his lids like an old bear. Only the voice hints at the man who can reduce a crowd to mush – it is deep as a mine shaft.
He tells me, quite quickly, as if to avoid disappointment, that the stage outfits are merely his uniform, his Superman costumes; they allow him to become someone else, just for a time.
‘I do everything but step in a phone booth to change,’ he says. ‘You put the costume on and it’s part of becoming the other person. I have to have the uniform, or I can’t fly.’ This release is why he likes performing. ‘It makes me feel less shy. Sometimes, I find such joy in it that it takes me to another place … not permanently, but for the two hours that I’m on stage, it takes me out of myself.’
And afterwards? ‘You have to come down. There’s only one second between the wild adulation of your audience and the moment when you’re entirely alone. It’s a lonely kind of a thing. They’re two entirely different situations. In one, you’re totally alone. In the other, you’re social and extrovert and everything you ever wanted to be.’
Diamond is like a successful but neurotic shopkeeper who hasn’t made a sale for a couple of hours; he knows business is booming, but that’s no reason not to worry. We talk about 12 Songs and the plaudits it has received. ‘It’s been … accepted,’ he says. ‘People are actually listening to it. So I’m happy.’ He doesn’t sound happy, in person or on the turntable. ‘That’s what I am. I’m one of those guys who can’t get rid of that melancholia.’
Where does it come from, this melancholia? ‘I don’t know. I was born that way. My parents were very extrovert. They loved dancing. I was the black sheep of the family, a quiet kid.’ Is his state of mind getting better as he gets older? ‘It’s pretty much the same. I’ve tried to deal with it, to get rid of it, but it’s part of me at this point. I’ve accepted what I am. I’m content, but there’s always a cloud that’s hovering over me that threatens rain at any moment. When good things happen, I don’t take them too seriously. I feel maybe they’ll be taken away. I feel good [about my career], but it hasn’t changed what I am as a person. You’re stuck with that old model. I don’t fight it.’
It seems to me, and I tell him so, that he is in a good position to prove that money cannot buy a man happiness. (To give you an idea of just how rich he is, when he divorced his second wife, Marcia Murphey, in 1995 after 25 years, he gave her half of everything he had earned in a settlement that was reputed to be worth around ?75m; they did their sums on the phone, no lawyers involved). Is this right?
‘Yes,’ he says. ‘I earn a good living. So what’s to complain about? But money makes no difference at all [to happiness]. You can only spend so much money. What are you going to do? Have two lunches? It doesn’t hurt to have money there in the bank, but it doesn’t change a person or, at least, not me. I’m not particularly extravagant. Every once in a while, if I’m travelling, I’ll rent an aeroplane. I like that a lot. But I find that I don’t need much. No amount of money is going to take this melancholia off my shoulders – or it would have done years ago.’
Diamond grew up in Coney Island, Brooklyn, the son of Jewish immigrants who ran a clothing store; on Saturdays, he would spend his time spooning housewives into complicated foundation garments. After attending the same school as Neil Sedaka and Barbra Streisand, he went to New York University on a fencing scholarship and began studying to become a doctor.
But he was also a keen guitarist, a skill picked up at camp in the Catskills and, in 1962, he dropped out of of college to become a $50 a week Brill Building songwriter at the offices of Leiber and Stoller. In 1967, he wrote the Monkees’ number one hit, ‘I’m A Believer’. He did not receive so much as an extra dime for this but, no matter; by now, he was cutting his own songs: ‘Solitary Man’, ‘Cherry, Cherry’ and ‘Kentucky Woman’. He has since sold more than 120 million albums. His last American tour was the biggest grossing of the year.
Good songs are about discipline, he says. You need that ‘spark’ to set the whole thing in motion, but after that, it’s about application. It took him 18 months to write 12 Songs. As befitting his years, some of them are elegiac. Others, like ‘Hell, yeah’, are semi-valedictory – a ‘victory lap’ in the manner of Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’, according to the New Yorker. But mostly, they’re about love. Diamond’s songs are always about love.
‘It’s the thing that’s so important to me,’ he says, disarmingly. ‘My life revolves around it. I’ve written other kinds of songs, but love songs are most natural to me. Love between a man and a woman plays such an important part in my life. I’m addicted to love.’ Does he fall easily? ‘No, but once I do, it’s a big deal. It’s nice to have a woman around who really cares for you, but the core of the romantic thing is that fear of loneliness. Not having someone special is what I want to avoid at all costs.’ We are, he acknowledges, back to ‘the little boy who’s blue’.
He has been married twice, first to his childhood sweetheart, Jaye, and then to Marcia. He has two grown-up children from each marriage and four grandchildren. Kids have been good for him; they have kept his feet on the ground, though you suspect he would have been the same without them.
‘You can’t be a big shot with kids,’ he says. ‘You have to go to McDonald’s. You can’t be too full of yourself. It’s a very substantial kind of a relationship because what you say and what you do is meaningful to them for the rest of their lives.’
He now lives between Los Angeles, New York and a ‘cabin’ in Colorado with his girlfriend of 10 years, an Australian called Rachel Farley who is 30 years his junior. He met her when she was organising the merchandise for one of his tours and found her ‘completely unendearing’. Then there was a ‘slow thaw’. Is she here now? ‘No. I begged her, but … ‘ He pretends to look needy and petulant.
How does he feel about the age gap? ‘I liked it. I thought I would be able to teach her. But she’s a brilliant woman and it turns out that she’s taught me. So that’s kind of disappointing. Anyhow, the years somehow don’t matter when you’re connected to a person. They fulfil your needs and you fulfil theirs. She’s a grown woman and that’s what’s important.’
The voice is growing croakier now and a PR person springs out of the next room and flashes five fingers at me. I look at the man opposite. His seriousness is delightful: the rippled brow, the slow cranking of his thoughts. He is the kind of person you can’t help but tease. I tell him that most men in his position would have spent their time hanging out with groupies and being wild rather than getting married and reading property ads (he loves a property ad).
‘Sounds good,’ he says, with the ghost of a smile. ‘I’ll have to try it some time.’ But then: ‘No, no. I much prefer the solitary life. It wouldn’t suit me.’ Of course not. We talk about younger stars, the idea that he might make, Tom Jones-style, an album of duets with a few hot young names. ‘But I don’t know that many people,’ he says, plaintively. ‘I only know about half a dozen. I don’t know where they get these people from.’ Truly, he is the Eeyore of slide guitar.
When I leave, neither flustered nor red of face, I take with me a signed album. ‘Thank you for the painless interview,’ it says. The word ‘painless’ has been underlined; somehow this only serves to make it mean precisely the opposite.