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Mrs. Rose Diamond, a small, sprightly, smiley 92-year-old, asks if I’d like some corn on the cob. Her son, sitting next to her, wonders if I’m enjoying my hotdogs. Outside, the bottom of the garden is being pounded by the Malibu surf.
This is an average Sunday afternoon at Neil Diamond’s weekend retreat in one of California’s loveliest neighbourhoods. Once you’re past the imposing steel gate, the open-plan house isn’t especially big or extravagant, but the frontage is spectacular. His beloved mother visits every Sunday, having moved from the East Coast to be near her son (his father died in 1985).
Even if I hadn’t grown up on his music — courtesy of my mother’s boundless enthusiasm for Red, Red Wine, Cracklin’ Rosie, Sweet Caroline, I Am I Said, Song Sung Blue, Hello Again — this would be quite a thrill. This man has sold 128 million albums, making him the third-biggest recording artist of all time. Forgive the momentary abandonment of cool dispassion, but Neil Diamond is serving me lunch.
“The last time I did an interview in my home it was with Rolling Stone and it was in 1976,” he reflects as the smell of cooking drifts from the kitchen. “It turned out to be a disaster. My wife at the time was gonna cook up some steaks for us all, but my dog got on the table and stole all the steaks,” he grins as his spaniel, a rescue dog named Poker, scampers around his shins. “I had to go out for Kentucky Fried Chicken. Let’s hope this one works out better.”
Diamond has such a quiet, sober and unassuming manner that it’s sometimes easy to forget his achievements. He was the writer of the biggest-selling song in the United States in 1966 (the Monkees’ cover of I’m A Believer). He is half-responsible, alongside old high school contemporary Barbra Streisand, for one of the greatest duets of all time (1978’s You Don’t Bring Me Flowers).
In 1980, he was the highest-paid debut actor ever ($3.5 million for The Jazz Singer). He was almost cast, before Robert De Niro, as Travis Bickle. “I knew this producer, and we were having dinner and he said, ‘You know, I think you might be the right guy for this picture I’m doing. It’s called Taxi Driver.’ I guess he saw me as strong, silent and crazy.”
He was the dance partner of choice for Diana, Princess of Wales (at a Reagan-era White House ball in 1985). More recently, he was the undisputed hit of Glastonbury 2008 (festival organizer Michael Eavis in the run-up said: “Normally he charges around 750,000 pounds. I can’t tell you what we’re paying him, but it’s very little money. He just wants to be here, bless him”). And he was recently the closing star of this year’s BBC Electric Proms concerts.
In his late 60s, Diamond enjoyed a career rebirth via two beautiful, startlingly stripped-back albums he made with Rick Rubin, 12 Songs (2005) and Home Before Dark (2008). The producer had worked similar magic with Johnny Cash at the twilight of his career. And even as he approaches his 70th birthday in January, Diamond is already thinking about his next album, a set of songs written with different collaborators.
Diamond is the rare artist covered by Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and Puck, star of hit television show Glee (all have performed Sweet Caroline). This week he, in a way, returned the favour, by releasing his own album of cover versions. Dreams, Diamond’s 32nd studio album, features his caramel-baritone take on, among others, the Beatles’ Yesterday and Blackbird, Bill Withers’ Ain’t No Sunshine, Elton John’s Love Song and Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah.
“As opposed to a writing album, this is a singing album. The main thing was that I had to feel like I could sing it and do it differently than the commonly known version,” Diamond explains of the reasons behind his song choices.
“I didn’t want to be copying or covering that same record. I wanted to have my own take on it. And I think we did pretty good, just because I’m different and I saw those songs a little differently.”
In 1961, Neil Diamond was a Jewish kid from Brooklyn at a crossroads. At his shopkeeper parents’ urging, he was studying medicine at New York University. He was a keen amateur fencer, too, but his heart lay with music.
Diamond had already had some success with the first song he wrote, Hear Them Bells. He wrote it in an attempt to impress a girl from his neighbourhood. “As primitive and cliched as the song was, she was evidently moved because we started dating and we went steady and then we got engaged and then we got married and then we had children. Then unfortunately we got divorced five or six years later. I should have realized then the potential power of songs,” he chuckles, “and been a little more wary.”
Diamond opted to drop out of his studies and began to make a living as a writer on New York’s Tin Pan Alley, the behind-the-scenes engine room of popular song, while hoovering up as much music as he could. He had learned to play guitar by listening to folk group the Weavers.
The exciting new form of rock ‘n’ roll had pricked up his ears. Meanwhile, a song performed by the Everly Brothers — one of their LPs was the first record he bought — had been all over the radio.
“I loved Let It Be Me,” Diamond says of Don and Phil’s 1960 hit. “I was a huge Everly Brothers fan. The harmonies were just spectacular. And that was a particularly beautiful, very melodic song.”
He discovered that the song was originally a French composition, written by Gilbert Becaud. He and the Frenchman would go on to write a handful of songs together, including Love on the Rocks and September Morn, both from the soundtrack of The Jazz Singer.
Fifty years on, Neil Diamond sings Let It Be Me on Dreams. As well as the covers of other artists’ songs, there’s a reclaimed, reimagined version of his own I’m A Believer. Five years after he swapped medicine for music, that song, covered by the Monkees, sold a million copies in 48 hours.
“It’s my own take on it,” says Diamond of his new, slowed-down, warm and stately version of one of his canonical songs. “After all these years, this is how I do it now. This is the way I feel it now.”
Diamond is a symbol of American culture and he was the most profitable touring act of the ’90s, earning $182 million. Today, this tall, lean figure talks in a calm, methodical manner. But as he demonstrated at Glastonbury, stick “the Jewish Elvis” on a stage and there are few showmen who can touch him.
On Dreams, Diamond covers Midnight Train to Georgia, a 1973 hit for Gladys Knight and the Pips. The lyric is about a musician who moves to Los Angeles to follow his dreams, but things don’t work out. Diamond made the same move in 1969, but was an instant success. He had a home, complete with mirrored ceilings, in Laurel Canyon, then the heart of the L.A. rock scene.
“I never went out,” says the man whose first hit under his own name, Solitary Man, remains something of a signature song. “I stayed home and I wrote my songs. And I went on the road. I didn’t hang out with anybody. I know Joni Mitchell was there and a couple of guys from Crosby, Stills and Nash. There was a whole group of writers, talented people, who were in Laurel Canyon.”
They were also, famously, wrapped in the boozy, narcotic excesses of that period. Why not Diamond?
“I was a father,” he shrugs. He has two daughters with his first wife and two sons with his second. “And I saw myself as a father. And a father doesn’t go out and party every night, and get involved in drugs. I’ve always been afraid of drugs. So that just never was my thing. I was all about the music, the performances and my kids. I didn’t want to know about anything else.”
He took four years off to be with his family — “my first marriage broke up … and I just didn’t want it to happen again. I’d been out touring for over six years straight. I decided to concentrate on giving my family the time they deserved” — yet Diamond remained one of the best-paid performers of the ’70s.
He broke box-office records all over the U.S. and in 1972 signed a hugely profitable contract with Columbia. Last year, he renewed that deal with a new five-year contract — as he tweeted at the time, that’ll make 43 years with the same label.
Nonetheless, he remained a man — and an artist — apart on the L.A. scene. Even now, his Twitter account shows that, while he has 165,412 followers, Diamond “follows” precisely no one. On Dreams he sings Gilbert O’Sullivan’s 1972 hit Alone Again (Naturally) and the Eagles’ 1973 smash Desperado. The lyrics of both seem to fit his nature.
Even his legendary collaboration with Barbra Streisand came about by accident rather than by design.
“Barbra and I met very casually,” he remembers of his and Streisand’s hookup on the immortal You Don’t Bring Me Flowers. Diamond had written a 60-second song as the theme tune to a sitcom called All That Glitters. “The roles of men and women were reversed: The men stayed home and took care of the babies, the women went off to work. When I was told about it by the producer, I proposed doing a torch song, for a man. And they’re usually sung by a woman: You hurt me and you didn’t do this and you broke my heart. So that’s why a man is singing, ‘You don’t bring me flowers.’
“But they turned the song down and the series didn’t make it anyways.”
But Diamond liked the song enough to expand it and record it for one of his own albums. Streisand heard it, loved it and recorded her own version. An enterprising radio DJ in Kentucky heard both versions and edited them together. Suitably impressed, Diamond and Streisand decided to go into the studio and record a “proper duet.”
Despite his success and his name (it’s his real name; mercifully he decided to forget an early idea to adopt the stage name Ice Cherry), not to mention his extravagant ’70s shirts, Neil Diamond has never been one for glitz. He has always been Mr. Mellow, Mr. Low-Key, Mr. Agreeable. In the early ’90s, when he and his second wife split after almost 30 years’ marriage, they sorted things out themselves over the phone, splitting his fortune down the middle. It was the second-most expensive celebrity divorce ever, according to Forbes magazine.
“She earned every penny,” Diamond says. She had helped him keep “my sanity intact because she’s saner than I am. None of my career would have been the same without her.”
He’s currently single, his relationship with Rachel Farley (an Australian 30 years his junior whom he met while on tour Down Under in 1995) having ended two years ago. Is Diamond content being alone again, naturally or otherwise?
“Well, I don’t know if I’m content,” says this grandfather of six with typical reflective candour. “I like having a woman. I like having someone to come home to, to make all of the hard work feel worth it. And that someone is sharing it with me, the joy and the downs of it, the hard part of it.
“So, right now, I’m content, but I don’t think I’ll be content for too long. I need someone with me. And I want someone.” So, the singles columns? He laughs at the suggestion.
“Well, you know, I find that these things just tend to happen. It’s like writing a great song. You can’t plan to write a great song. It just happens to you. It drops in your lap. It’s the same thing with a woman.”
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