“I AM,” he said. OK, no he didn’t. But I doubt Neil Diamond will mind me making stuff up.
Five minutes into our interview, and the pop music legend has given me carte blanche: “Write whatever you want.”
Oh, Mr Diamond. What a beautiful noise.
He was the soundtrack to my 1970s childhood. The day Elvis Presley died, my father said: “The King is dead. Oh well. Let’s play some Neil Diamond.” At age six, I was convinced Sweet Caroline was about my mother (even though her name is Carolyn).
“That’s nice,” says Diamond, and he sounds sincere. Actually, he confirms, the song’s title was inspired by a magazine cover of Caroline Kennedy in equestrian gear (those riding boots they’ll get you every time). The sentiment, however, was “most likely” about himself and his wife of the time: hands, touching hands, etc etc.
Diamond’s lyrics have always been more catchy than clever. In 2006, a New Yorker Magazine writer summed up his songs: “The best ones sound like the pleas of a love-struck man from another place perhaps a small Eastern European city who has an unusual gift for melody, but who grew up not speaking English. `I am,’ I said, to no one there, and no one heard at all, not even the chair’ is a typically opaque lyric.”
He grew up in Brooklyn. We knew that from his songs. And now we can see it for real, in the DVD release of Hot August Night NYC. There’s last year’s concert, direct from Madison Square, with Diamond in black pants, black shirt and even blacker eyebrows belting out 25 career-spanning hits. But there’s also the bonus feature Welcome Home Neil Diamond on the subway to Brooklyn and back to the apartment where he took his first guitar lessons.
“I did come back once or twice over the years, but I never went back up to the apartment I lived in… It just felt wonderful.
“It brought me back immediately to being a child, coming of age really, in that tiny little apartment.”
There’s a scene where he sits on the train reading the newspaper, while two young women sleep and look bored. They were plants, right?
“No,” says Diamond. “They were just people in the subway with other, more important things on their mind. They had to get home and they wanted to make supper, or meet their boyfriends somewhere. I know about travelling on subways. I did it going to and from university for years.”
Diamond attended New York University on a fencing scholarship. He wanted to be a biologist.
“I saw myself working in a laboratory and coming up with new cures for all kinds of ailments. Even in that little apartment I had a little cage of white rats, a microscope. I was a budding scientist.”
Ad Feedback Hundreds of interviews have tracked Diamond’s musical trajectory. He sang in a high school choir with Barbra Streisand. He got a varsity job writing songs for $50 a week. He penned I’m a Believer and planned to release it himself, but it was The Monkees who took it to the billboard charts (“I had no regrets”). Solitary Man was his first hit. And, in the intervening years much has been written about the sense of “aloneness” in Diamond’s lyrics.
“I don’t think it’s something you can get cured of,” he tells the Sunday Star-Times. “Maybe temporarily… but I do need to be around people. There’s something in my genetic make-up that has aloneness to it, and I don’t particularly like the aloneness, but that’s just the way it is, I guess. It comes out in the music.”
He’s just finished a slice of toasted banana bread and a cup of tea plain, “with a little artificial sweetener”. Today, the man with the gravelly voice and more than 125 million record sales has been to his granddaughter’s birthday and given her the doll’s cradle his daughter advised he buy. His grandkids, he says, “keep my heart warm”.
At 68, Diamond claims “I am basically the same person I was when I was 16. I’m a quiet person, basically a good person. I love people and I love music”.
Diamond baulks at comparisons to revivalist musicians touring three-decade-old repertoires to nostalgic audiences.
“I want to feel as though I’m earning my place here. I don’t want to feel like I did something 30 years ago and that’s all I can do. I want to still feel like I can make a contribution.”
FOR DIAMOND, everything and nothing has changed. “The passions and insecurities and aspirations that you feel going through life, the things that move you and shape you, these are things I still write about. Maybe I’m a little more sophisticated in the way I write about them, but the subject matter is pretty much the same.”
Audiences, presumably, agree. Despite a lifetime of hit singles, Diamond’s 2008 Home Before Dark (sample lyric: home before dark, before the night comes calling, sun going down and I can hear you calling, I followed my star, just to be where you are, but I couldn’t get far… in the dark) was his first American chart-topping album.
He says he’s still regaining his sea-legs from touring that album. “I want to write for a little bit and then I’m going to sit down and talk with some people and talk with some people and see exactly what I’m going to do. If I do tour, I will almost certainly come back to New Zealand. I have an amazing audience down there. What’s the point of doing this, if I don’t perform to my audience? That’s the whole point of it for me.”
It’s not about ego, says Diamond. “I can assure you! But I think it takes a little bit of nerve to get up and think you can entertain people, a large group of people, and keep them seated. That’s the first step to realising you’re being successful nobody leaves.”
Old newspaper clippings like to relate the story of Diamond’s first live performance, where he allegedly fell over. Apocryphal? He laughs. “It’s true. I tripped on a wire, some kind of cable. I landed right on my face. Honestly, it wasn’t that terrible… I just got up and started singing my song and it was a good lesson for me. You fall on your face, just get up and keep singing.”
Neil Diamond, Hot August Night: NYC, Live from Madison Square Garden, DVD and double CD, Sony Music, released tomorrow.