Questionnaire: Neil Diamond
By Cam Lindsay
December 08, 2005
What are you up to?
I have this new album, 12 Songs and that’s it, that’s full-time. We do a leg of an American tour in December and we’re making plans for shows next year right now (including Canada).
What are your current fixations?
I’m fixated on two weeks in Hawaii on the beach. I don’t have any plans on going, I’m just fixated.
Why do you live where you do?
You can be kind of anonymous in Los Angeles; nobody makes a big deal about you if you’re at a hot dog stand or watching your kid play soccer. It’s a more normal life here if you’re a public person.
Name something you consider a mind-altering work of art:
For me it was the Disney movie Pinocchio because I first saw it when I was a little boy and this was the story of a puppet who wanted to be a little boy. It gave me some sense of appreciation of being alive and real and not having to go through what Pinocchio had to go through to be a real live boy.
What has been your most memorable or inspirational gig and why?
The one that I did at Madison Square Garden in New York about two weeks after 9/11. It was definitely mind-altering in the sense that the audience was so relieved to just get out of their homes and away from the constant barrage of newscasts, that they were able to put that — if only for a couple of hours — aside and enjoy themselves again. I think it was a revelation to them and to me as a performer.
What have been your career highs and lows?
My career high was the release of “Solitary Man” because it was my first chart record and it took me all the way from being a songwriter knocking around on the streets, trying to get my songs heard, to a new level of being an artist and moved me into a new category and it was definitely the high point of my career. Honestly, I can’t think of a low. Nothing on the low end compares to the high end of seeing your name on the national charts for the first time.
What’s the meanest thing ever said to you before, during or after a gig?
Well, there was a review once that said I beat a strategic retreat from the stage. It was my very first newspaper review and they were absolutely right.
What should everyone shut up about?
I think everybody should shut up about themselves and start thinking about somebody else for a change. It’s a very self-centred kind of world out there and I think it’s the detriment to everybody. We have to open up and accept that we are not the only people in this world and we are certainly not the most important people in this world other than to our families and friends. I think it’s time for us to shut up and put our money where our mouths are and learn to be good citizens and human beings and stop whining.
What traits do you most like and most dislike about yourself?
I like my willpower to the extent of following through and seeing something that I want to do and being able to achieve it. I think that’s one of the best things about me. And one of the worst things about me is my willpower — seeing something I want to do and trying to achieve it.
What advice should you have taken, but did not?
Probably stop smoking. I stopped eventually, but I think it was darn good advice that was given to me back in college. I enjoyed it and I figured I would live a long time smoking, but I did stop about 15 years ago.
What would make you kick someone out of your band and/or bed, and have you?
It would be the same answer for both, which is being lied to.
What do you think of when you think of Canada?
I think of being 12 years old again and sending postcards out to all of the Canadian tourist boards in the different provinces asking if they would please forward me information on the attractions that their provinces had to offer. And I always felt for a two-penny postcard I would get enormous envelopes of brochures and information. So I think as a kid I liked the idea of getting mail, but on the way to that I learned a lot about Canada. I was kind of an expert at the age of 12. I do feel a closeness to the country because I’ve grown up with it, sending to the tourist boards, and I have a bunch of friends up there and played a lot of gigs in a lot of cities. My favourite thing about Canada is that you go into a hospital when you’re sick and they’ll charge you two bucks. Here in the States they’ll let you sit in the waiting room until you come up with something worse or die.
What is your vital daily ritual?
I wake up and have a cup of copy and read the New York Times every day that I possibly can.
What are your feelings on piracy, internet or otherwise?
It’s stealing. The sad thing about it is that so many people who have devoted their lives to music are without jobs and work because of the availability of music. So nobody gets paid — the engineers, the musicians, the arrangers and copyists, and not to mention the songwriters and artists. If it continues it will decimate the recording business and people like Enrico Caruso, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra and the Beatles, who were developed on the old system of being paid for records sold and survived by that format, those people will not be coming along. They wouldn’t have existed if downloading was around at the time.
What was your most memorable day job?
I used to make knishes at Shatzskins Knish Store on the boardwalk in Coney Island. I enjoyed eating the knishes. I did it for a summer and it was kind of fun but I was in the back mixing the batter so it was not a people-intensive kind of job but it did pay for some books in college.
How do you spoil yourself?
Occasionally I will rent a jet plane to go somewhere. Maybe a couple times a year. Any time I feel like spoiling myself really.
If I wasn’t playing music I would be…
I always dreamed of being a research biologist in the hope of studying that and opening up new avenues of medicine. This was always my fascination, so I went to school and studied pre-med but was stopped in my tracks by organic chemistry. Besides, I had something that I loved doing more than schoolwork and that was writing songs. I ended up spending a lot of my time in the classroom writing songs and not listening to the lecturer.
What do you fear most?
What has been your strangest celebrity encounter?
My strangest celebrity encounter was the last time I saw myself naked in the mirror.
Who would be your ideal dinner guest, living or dead, and what would you serve them?
Irving Berlin and I wouldn’t serve him anything at all until he told me every secret he had about writing songs. He was the greatest songwriter of the 20th century so I couldn’t go too far wrong.
What does your mom wish you were doing instead?
There’s nothing she would wish I was doing instead of music. She’s very proud of me and she loves the music I make. She does all of the things a mother would do including feeling pride in her son and she wouldn’t change it for anything.
In hindsight, no one should have been surprised to hear that Neil Diamond was working on a new album produced by Rick Rubin, who’s worked with the likes of Slayer, Run-DMC, Shakira and, of course, Johnny Cash. Why should everyone’s mom’s favourite soft-rocker be any different? “Yes, a lot of attention has been focused on the album because of Rick’s involvement with me — the two of us together make an interesting couple, I guess,” admits Diamond.
The fruitful collaboration on 12 Songs turns out to be not just the singer-songwriter’s most relevant work in decades, but quite an accomplishment for the producer as well. Rubin brings the “Jewish Elvis” alive — not unlike the Cash rebirth he steered in the ‘90s, but with more chest hair-revealing glittery shirts than all-black cowboy attire. “There are no frills; no bells and whistles,” Diamond says of the songs (not the outfits). “Everything is necessary and beautiful, hopefully. It’s probably my best album ever and I’m just thrilled to be able to come up with one like it at this point in my career.”
Stripped-down Neil Diamond is a hell of a ways off course from the singer’s usual big-budget, orchestral production. This is Neil raw and rare, armed only with a guitar and that powerfully husky voice. “I hadn’t played the guitar on my recordings for quite a long time, I did on my early records, ‘Cherry Cherry’ and ‘Kentucky Woman.’ Rick wanted very much for me to play guitar on all of these cuts and I did. It was a little strange at the beginning, I wasn’t exactly ready for it, but I fell into line pretty quickly and enjoyed the vocal performances that were coming out of the combination.”