I am … He said
September 4, 2004
Neil Diamond just can’t get enough out of life, and Australia just can’t get enough of him. Dino Scatena meets the legend.
The recreation room of Neil Diamond’s Los Angeles headquarters is dedicated exclusively to Australasian paraphernalia. To one side, there’s a real-life highway sign, replete with shotgun pellet blasts, warning of kangaroos for the next two kilometres.
The rest is a wall-to-wall mosaic of plaques, multi-platinum awards, tour posters and the like, mementoes of Diamond’s numerous visits down under dating from 1976 and testament to his seemingly eternal popularity.
All these years on, Diamond retains the clearest memories of that first visit, especially the last show of the tour at the old Sydney Sports Ground before 38,000 people. In the front sat fans such as recently deposed prime minister Gough Whitlam and his wife, Margaret, as well as visiting VIPs, including members of Abba and Henry “The Fonz” Winkler.
On that warm autumn night, an estimated three million more Australians had great seats, too, courtesy of Kerry Packer’s commercial-free national live television broadcast.
“I was coming off a four-year sabbatical and I was starting my comeback in Australia,” Diamond recalls. “And it was like, ‘Wow, these people really like me.’ It was just the right thing for my soul to see that people would welcome me back. People did not take off four years in those days. If you took off four years, you were retired, you were over.”
At 63, Diamond is as far from retirement as ever. “I feel terrific,” he says, taking the occasional puff of a Cuban cigar. “I feel as good as I did when I first started out. I’m singing well, I feel that I can bring the songs off. I guess you just do it and keep doing it until you drop.”
Diamond looks good for his age, too. He’s thinned on top and carries a couple of kilos more than he should around the rim, but otherwise time – and life, for the most part – has been good. Indeed, these past eight years, he says, have been the best of his life. And he puts that down to another piece of Australia he took home with him: Brisbane-born Rachel Farley.
“I met Rae when I was in Australia in ’96,” Diamond says of Farley, who is almost half his age. “She’s a Brissie girl. She makes me very happy.
“So my personal life is very tranquil and it’s probably the reason I’ve been able to work so well over the past eight years or so. Because my personal life has been through some turmoil.
“I was divorced about 10 years ago so it was very, very shaky for a couple of years, really, until I met Rae. She’s really helped me keep it on track and keep it very stable.”
That divorce, in 1994, from wife of 25 years Marcia Murphey, cost Diamond half of everything. Not that it was particularly messy. “She deserves half my fortune,” he was quoted as saying at the time. “I wish her all the happiness $150 million can bring.”
Diamond’s first divorce, in 1969 to his wife of six years, Jaye Posner, was a major reality check, coming on the crest, as it did, of international superstardom. Subsequently, at the peak of his career – with his landmark live Hot August Night album in 1972 dominating world record sales – Diamond stepped off the road. With a new baby due to his new wife, Marcia, Diamond took his career-threatening sabbatical. “I had to save my life and I had to save my marriage, my children,” he says.
Diamond has run things at his own pace since. His shows in Australia in March will be his first full concerts in more than two years. It will be the start of a new world tour that will undoubtedly rank him as one of the most successful touring acts in the world. More than a million Australians have seen Diamond in concert since that first tour, nearly 200,000 of them on his last visit in 1999.
Still, for all his personal success as a live performer and recording artist (with an estimated 115 million albums sold), it’s Diamond’s work as a songwriter that will outlive us all. Since his days as a composer in New York’s famous Brill Building, numerous acts have covered Diamond songs, including Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Deep Purple, Johnny Cash and the Monkees. During the decades, many have enjoyed major hits, such as UB40’s take on Red, Red Wine and Urge Overkill with Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon.
Off the road this time, Diamond has kept himself busy with his writing. Every day for the past nine months he’s been here in this office-cum-studio, 6.30am starts, working at least eight hours a day on his latest batch of compositions.
“I’ve been doing this since I was 16 years old,” he says. “Haven’t I said it all by this point? The reality is that I haven’t because I’ve got a bunch of brand new songs that I really like.
I love writing. It’s a process that’s full of discoveries about yourself. It’s very invigorating.”
Diamond intends to record his newest compositions for an album to be released late next year.