Out of his own shadow
Neil Diamond tells Craig McLean how he finally achieved that most elusive thing – credibility
Last month brought a landmark in the storied career of Neil Diamond. His umpteenth album, 12 Songs, a beautiful collection of quiet, reflective, almost “unplugged” Diamond compositions, entered the charts at number five. It was his highest-ever first-week position in the UK. He might have sold 120 million albums but, at last, the 65-year-old superstar was a proper chart sensation.
Unplugged: on his new album, Neil Diamond was encouraged to return to his roots
“Yeah,” chuckles a black-clad, deep-voiced Diamond when we meet, “it’s taken me 40 years to finally figure it out.”
It is a song from the beginnings of Diamond’s career that has brought him here today: specifically, to London for a round of television and radio appearances and, generally, to the epicentre of huge commercial and (belatedly) critical interest in his work. 12 Songs was produced by Rick Rubin, the studio genius who rescued and rehabilitated Johnny Cash in the last decade of his life, crafting the American Recordings series of stripped-down albums. One of the songs Rubin encouraged Cash to cover was Diamond’s Solitary Man.
Reminded of the songwriting talents of an artist who had spent the intervening years in a world of showbiz and sequinned shirts, Rubin began making overtures to the Diamond camp. Would he like to make an album together?
“I had no idea who Rick was when he first started to send out signals,” admits Diamond. “I kinda checked up on him, but I was doing other things and I let it lapse. Then, a couple of years ago, I started getting word from people I knew and respected to call Rick. After a while, I finally did call and we hit it off very well. So the process of making a record began.”
It is a process Diamond knows intimately, although it has been a long time since he made an album as naked and free of “adornments” as 12 Songs.
Forty years ago next month, a young singer-songwriter from Brooklyn released his first chart-bound single. He had already served time in the Brill Building, the New York songwriting factory where Burt Bacharach, Carole King and Neil Sedaka had cut their teeth. He had written songs to order for easy-listening crooners. Cliff Richard had recorded one of his songs as a B-side. Clown Town, the first single put out under Diamond’s own name, hadn’t troubled the charts.
Then, in May 1966, he released Solitary Man. It reached number 55. Not exactly a smash, but enough to encourage the then 25-year-old. He had dropped out of his pre-medicine studies four years previously and had been plugging away at songwriting ever since. Now, at last, some progress. Maybe he could make a career out of music after all.
“It was all very exciting,” recalls Diamond. “The future lay ahead and it was boundless. Anything could happen. I wanted anything but to go back to a normal kind of life. Songwriting is not the kind of thing you do if you wanna earn a living. You gotta sell a lot of records if you wanna pay your rent. But those early songs opened the door for me. As impractical as it was to wanna be a songwriter, I still wanted it. I’d got the bug.”
Six months later, Diamond had his first million-seller. I’m a Believer, written to order for the just-launched Monkees, went to number one in America.
In the ensuing four decades, Diamond became one of the most iconic performers in the world. His hit singles are an alternative soundtrack to the 1970s and early ’80s: Sweet Caroline, Song Sung Blue, I Am? I Said, Cracklin’ Rosie, Kentucky Woman, America. Forget punk, New Wave, New Romantic – these songs are the real sound of the suburbs.
Yes, Diamond wore loud, sparkly shirts. His dark looks and chocolatey voice made him a sex symbol to mothers all over the land. His frequent glitzy tours made him an international concert phenomenon. Last year, his US tour grossed $71 million, making Diamond the third most lucrative live act, behind U2 and the Eagles.
But he never enjoyed that most elusive and nebulous of currencies: credibility. To borrow the title of the radio show, album series and London club night that celebrates the less cool corners of our collective musical past, Neil Diamond’s songs are the ultimate guilty pleasure.
In 2006, it is, then, cheering for those of us who have stood by The Diamond through thick (when his Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon reached a new generation via Urge Overkill’s version) and thin (when his 1980 movie vehicle The Jazz Singer was savaged by critics, even as the soundtrack album racked up more millions of sales) to note that he is, at last, receiving long-delayed kudos.
Rubin has to take much of the credit. He is the heavily bearded, spiritually inclined guru – Diamond says he is “like a Buddha” – who has produced the new Dixie Chicks and Red Hot Chili Peppers albums, and is currently in Diamond’s Los Angeles studio masterminding Justin Timberlake’s follow-up to his smash-hit debut. While he is helping those artists to evolve and broaden their range, he encouraged Diamond to return to his roots.
Holed up in his cabin on his ranch in the Colorado Rockies and in his LA studio, Diamond slogged away for a year with his acoustic guitar, pencil and notepad. The results are songs that resound with frailty, doubt and bare-boned candour.
On 12 Songs, Neil Diamond is gloriously reborn – as if he has escaped the long shadow of his stellar career. And, in doing so, he has made an album true to his innermost self. “I’m a down-to-earth person,” says this quietly spoken, still-trim gent. “I don’t like to put on airs. I’m kind of a? what’s the word? I tend to be a blue person. It’s part of my nature. And it’s been that way since I was a kid. Whatever I do to eliminate that has not worked. So it’s part of really what I am.”
So Rick Rubin has gone from the Man in Black to the Man in Blue? “I’ve always been the Man in Blue, yeah,” smiles Diamond. “Maybe that’s what he liked about my songs. I’ll have to ask him.”