The Frog Who Would Be King
The importance of being Neil Diamond
They had a tip: Cocaine in Holmby Hills, just outside Beverly Hills. They had a description of a white male in his early 40s, graying. It didn’t sound exactly like that guy on all those album covers or, at that moment, on a huge billboard high above Sunset Strip. But they had a search warrant, and the name on it was Neil Diamond.
And so, on June 30th at 10:30 p.m., a force of fifty men, a joint effort of the sheriff and police departments, arrived at the house in Holmby Hills. A helicopter hovered overhead, ready with searchlights, while the head of the detail telephoned the house from the gate.
Neil Diamond was home, preparing to leave the next day for Las Vegas and one of the most important engagements in his ten years as a performer. After refusing offers from almost every major hotel for years, he’d agreed to open up the brand-new, $10 million Aladdin Theatre for the Performing Arts.
Diamond picked up the phone. He was momentarily stunned.
“This is the police,” the inspector — the other cops called him “Psycho” — said. “We have reason to believe there’s a burglar on your premises, and we’d like to come up and check it.” “Psycho” had sent a plainclothes man onto the grounds. Diamond looked out a window and, sure enough, there was a man in the darkness, walking around with a flashlight. Diamond buzzed the gate open.
In seconds, the police and the sheriffs surrounded the house. One of them handed Diamond the warrant. But he was in street clothes, and Diamond was suspicious. They could be robbers. He asked for identification. Then he saw some uniformed officers. “I don’t know what you’re looking for,” Diamond told them, “but you’re not going to find it.” But the police quietly, meticulously went through all ten rooms of the house, including the one where Neil and Marcia Diamond’s five-year-old son, Jesse, was sleeping. For three hours they went over the house and grounds, but they came up with no cocaine, although they did find marijuana. Less than an ounce of it.
Finally, “Psycho” turned to Diamond and, forcing a laugh, said, “Well, I guess you’re right,” and he led the troops out.
Neil Diamond shook his head and thought again — for the first time in three hours — about Las Vegas. He wondered if maybe it was someone in Nevada — and not some judge in Santa Monica or low-life informer in Hollywood — who was trying to shake him up.
After all, the Aladdin — through Diamond — was set to disrupt Las Vegas’s showroom way of life. First of all, the Aladdin is an actual theater, and not a showroom. Tickets are sold by box offices, and all the seats are good ones. Not only would Diamond be drawing thousands — all five shows, at 7500 seats apiece, had already sold out, at $20 and $30 a ticket — but if all went well at the Aladdin, other stars might well turn away from the other hotels, with their 1500-seat banquet rooms and their 50-minute shows. It had to be Vegas.
Diamond is sitting on the patio outside his summer house in Malibu Colony. Marcia, Jesse and his parents, Rose and Kieve Diamond, are inside. Las Vegas is behind them now, but Neil is trying to figure out the hows and whys of the raid. He lights up the first in a chain of cigarettes and speaks in a calm, measured and slightly distant manner.
“At first I thought someone was trying to prevent me from playing Las Vegas,” he says. “But the reaction from Las Vegas was, ‘Great to have you here. It’s gonna bring in a lot of people.’ There were 35,000 who came to see the show. The Aladdin Hotel could hold 1200 at its peak. All the other hotels really benefited.” He pops a grape into his mouth and chews slowly. “I can’t figure it out.”
His attorneys, however, tried. “But unfortunately you can’t even get the name of the informer.” Diamond was obviously new to the world of drug busts.
There is a track on a 1970 Neil Diamond album called “The Pot Smoker’s Song.” It begins, “Pot, pot, gimme some pot, forget what you are, you can be what you’re not, high, high, I wanna get high, never give it up if you give it a try.” And between the bouncy choruses are spoken testimonials from kids connection grass to speed, acid, suicide and worse.
Today, Diamond says, “The Pot Smoker’s Song” was “essentially misdirected”; that he learned the real villain is heroin after “The Pot Smoker’s Song” came out. He started smoking dope — “mostly out of boredom,” usually on long road trips.
“Fortunately, when I went through this stage,” he adds, “I was old enough to discern between marijuana and heroin.” Diamond is thirty-five.
We stood to go back into the house, which he has leased until February. He and Marcia are looking to buy another house out here in Malibu, he says. Just yesterday they put the Holmby Hills place up for sale because Marcia was still “freaked out” by the raid. “I mean, at this point, she just doesn’t want to go back to the house.”
The raid, he says, “was very surreal.” He didn’t have to tell me that. When I first heard the news, secondhand, my first thought was that it had to be some other Neil. I mean, Neil Diamond? Drugs?
The Aladdin paid Neil Diamond $650,000 for five shows and, in the program, added a gratuity, calling him “the world’s greatest performer.” The hotel named a suite after him and threw a lavish party for him after opening night — in a banquet room coincidentally called the Diamond Room. Out in the casino a young couple from Westminster, California, and a retired couple from Chicago sat around a blackjack table playing dreadful “21” as talking about how they looked forward to seeing Diamond the next night. In town all week, they’d planned their vacations around Diamond’s engagement.
Diamond should be on top of the world. He is a star there, after all. That line from “I Am…I Said” about the frog who dreamed of becoming a king and then became one — that’s Diamond, all right. But he is a restless man — insecure, moody and serious . . . and driven . . .
Diamond is sitting on the floor of his bedroom, his back against a chest of drawers, talking about his parents. He is happy to have enabled his father to close up his dry-goods shop five years ago, after twenty- five years in the business. “He’s just been hanging out and grooving ever since, traveling. I really envy him. I wish I had that basic nature to relax and go with it. I’m much more emotionally reflective of my mother, who’s more intense. I’m motivated, I’m pushed, I’m driven in a sense.”
To do what?
“God knows!” Then, a second later: “I’m motivated to find myself. I’m an imperfect emotional being, trying to figure out some way to give some kind of substance and meaning to my life. I do it in a very silly way. I write these little songs and go and sing them in a recording studio, and, later, in front of a lot of people. It seems like an odd way to gain an inner sense of acceptance of the self. But it’s what I do. It seems like a lot of people are getting good things from it. It’s really the only justification I’ve found yet for my life. That and my children.”
You know Neil Diamond. If not, you can at least hum him. “Cherry Cherry,” “I’m a Believer,” “Solitary Man,” “Kentucky Woman,” “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon,” “I Thank the Lord for the Night Time,” “Sweet Caroline,” “Holly Holy,” “Shilo,” “Cracklin’ Rosie,” “Play Me,” “Song Sung Blue” and, of course, “I Am…I Said.”
“He’s written some songs over the years that were extraordinary to me,” says the Band’s Robbie Robertson, who produced Diamond’s latest album, Beautiful Noise. “There’s certain ones that ring on. The things I could relate to were the rock & roll things — ‘Solitary Man,’ ‘Cracklin Rosie’ — fantastic, good-feeling things.
Sales figures and gold-record counts do not tell the whole Neil Diamond story. Just consider these items: After the first batch of hummables on a small label, Diamond made a $50,000-per-album, five-album deal with MCA’s Uni Records in 1967. Later that year, when the Steve Miller Blues Band and Quicksilver Messenger Service got a similar deal from Capitol Records, the rock press got all crazy. Few had noticed Neil’s deal.
In 1971, eighteen months before his MCA contract was up, Diamond declared himself ready for renegotiations and got offers of $4 million — $400,000 per album for ten albums — from Warner Bros. and Columbia Records. He took Columbia, which has recouped its entire advance with his first two albums, and Beautiful Noise is just out.
D iamond threw a scare into Columbia in 1972, just before joining them, by announcing a “sabbatical” from concert work for a year or two. He actually stretched his leave out to forty months. During this period he further scared Columbia with the word that his first album for them would be a soundtrack of the movie about a bird, Jonathan Livingston Seagull. (The soundtrack out-grossed the film, $12 million to $2 million, according to one report. Columbia relaxed.)
Returning to the stage early this year, Diamond decided to his Australia and New Zealand for the first time, and literally sold out both countries. When Australian radio leaked the word that a tour was being planned, “blank checks,” according to the tour promoter, “were mailed to houses it was assumed he would play, requesting seats and letting the house fill in the amount.” Boffo.
They laughed when Clive Davis, then president of Columbia, made that $4 million bet on Diamond’s endurance. No one’s laughing anymore. Some of them are even humming.
And yet, Diamond is not content. He is the consummate searcher. He would’ve been perfect in Stardust, the story of a star still groping for the meaning of life.
There is a story that is told — usually by Diamond, in fact — that during his sabbatical, while working on the musical narrative for Seagull, a Hare Krishnite showed up at his door with incense and literature. Diamond invited him in, talked with him, then showed him his work in progress. The young man ended up meeting with Diamond every day for six weeks. Diamond put him up in an apartment, rented him a car. And when the youth asked to join him in India so they could sit in a cave, Diamond said he’d love to — except that he had to finish this Seagull thing. But he gave the man air fare to India.
Diamond has always been a sponge, soaking up, then letting drop here and there the admixture of sounds of Brooklyn and Manhattan, the music of his high school choruses and the fervor of a Harlem church he went to once. On his sabbatical, he says he read 200 books — “it was like the college education I didn’t have” — and he studied music theory so he’d be able to write symphonies.
In his office, there are books about Australia and New Zealand. One of Diamond’s staff talked about why he’s so popular there. It is basically a pop country, conservative in many ways, yet forward looking. “Neil appeals to not rock people,” the employee said. “He’s a strong attraction to aspiring people. They’re your average, mobile, upward-bound people. Australia conforms to that model.” Imagine: 13 million people swaying to the gentle beat, chanting: “I need, I want, I care, I weep, I ache . . .”
You are the sun
I am the moon
You are the words
I am the tune
Play me . . .
While many of Diamond’s songs directly deal with lonliness, love and the healing power of music, many others are elliptical, if you know what I mean. Listeners sail along the sweet caramel melodies, the majestic, swelling arrangements, the dramatic tempo changes, the gospel/Broadway/baritone deliveries of “Holly Holy” and “Soolaimon” and “Play Me” — while not quite getting their points.
Jeff Barry, songwriter and producer of Diamond’s first large handful of hits, says: “His songs haven’t changed really; they just get harder to understand.”
Diamond doesn’t think any of his songs need to be explained. Or even understood. “Holly Holy,” he says, “is not the kind of thing you’re supposed to think about. It’s the kind of piece where one line, or one word, sets off a little zinger, gives you a twinge. And that’s all it is. ‘Play Me,’ I’ve had people say, ‘Jesus, there’s a couple of lines I wish you’d change.’ It’s crazy. Let one line reach. Let it not add up to anything and touch you. And let’s you not understand it. There are no rules, you see. That’s the beautiful thing about it. And the best things I’ve done are the things that people really don’t understand.”
Diamond is at Bill Whitten’s Workroom 27, planning his show and getting fitted for the four outfits he’ll wear in Las Vegas. In contrast to the gaudy, schizo, cowboy/Indian costumes Whitten designed in ’72, these are simple, single-color tops. “For the Seagull segment, I’d like to be in all white. For the Brother Love segment, I’d like to be dressed in all black.”
Diamond works his way into a pair of flared leather pants and begins to spar with his fitter Steve Loomis, who wants them to stop just half an inch from the floor. Diamond wants them an inch shorter than that.
“I hate those bell-bottom things,” he says.
“But you don’t want to look like a little boy who’s outgrown his pants,” says Loomis. “The front has to touch your shoe.”
“I’ll settle for three- quarters of an inch.”
Out of the studio, he says he’s avoided wearing leather onstage and that he doesn’t much care for the glittery belt. “But sometimes you have to in big places, to be seen.” But he doesn’t mind costumes. “You can be a gladiator warrior up there — whatever gets you off.” Diamond, who constantly flashes back to the old days in New York, adds: “I used to shop in Greenwich Village . . .”
At the beginning, ten years ago, when he worked at his manager’s nightclub, the Bitter End, he was so insecure and nervous that the manager, Fred Weintraub, ordered him not to talk between songs. Diamond wore all black. “It was a protective thing,” he says now. He can chart, year by year, his progress: “1966: black. ’67: black. ’68: black. ’69: dark brown . . . dark red . . . dark blue . . . lighter blue.” Finally, in late ’70, in Corvallis, Oregon, white. “It was a breakthrough. Somehow it was symbolic of an opening up, of letting defenses down.”
For a man so meticulous about everything he touches, Diamond can be relatively loose onstage. His humor is offhanded, nervous and are-you-with-me humble. On opening night, he stalked around the stage remarking on how everything done that night would be a first, finishing with: “If you stick gum under your seat, that’ll be the first gum . . .” He introduced the audience to a device attached to his microphone that sprayed ionized water into his mouth as he sang to provide him with a moisturized air stream and help him feed off the dread “Las Vegas Throat.” “It’s gonna do horrible things to my hair,” said Diamond, “but screw it . . .”
But most of the two-hour show is standard Neil Diamond — most of the hits, done in an alternately smooth and cracklin’ voice. He doesn’t tease like a Tom Jones; there are no martial-arts moves like Presley’s. But he laps up the attention of the younger girls in the audience, hugging and kissing and posing for photos. And he sways with a defined beat that’s more physical support for his music than any attempt to turn anyone on.
The feeling is down-to-earth. And yet he can be lofty, and pretentious, sermonizing unconvincingly on “Brother Love” or zigging from the despair of “I Am…I Said” into the birdbrained optimism of Jonathan Livingston Seagull.
To which Diamond responds: “When I get onstage, it’s a theatrical experience. It doesn’t relate to real life. It’s real life magnified 10,000 times. There are many parts you play onstage. Only one of them is the real you.”
Offstage, in a wine-colored shirt (I didn’t ask what year), smoke-gray suit and tinted glasses, he sits for a CBS-TV interview and says he doesn’t want to be a celebrity who gets “swept away by it all; it’s not real,” but that celebrity “is part of my skin; I love it.”
At lunch at Le Restaurant, across from his office, he asks to switch seats with me, so that he is facing away from the entranceway. “This way I’m less observable,” he says.
“If I had my druthers, I’d be an anonymous star,” he continues. “Somebody that was able to do his work, have it accepted by the public and still be able to maintain his own private feelings and live as reasonably normal life as one could expect in this situation. I’ve tried to do that. I’ve avoided getting too hot; I’ve avoided overexposure, staying away from television for a long time has been part of it. I may be coming out of that now, I’m getting older and I’m able to deal with it a little better.”
During his sabbatical, Diamond went through therapy. He’s uncertain what kind of therapy it was — “My guess would be Freudian, but we never discussed his techniques.” All he knows is that in 1972, he felt he didn’t know how to talk with people — with the press — about his work. And that it was Lenny Bruce who got him open to psychoanalysis.
“I went out to do a test for the Lenny Bruce film. I had met Tom O’Horgan [director of Jesus Christ Superstar and Hair] a couple of times. I spent a number of weeks studying this script. Bruce’s language and thoughts were so violent. It was almost an intellectual form of vomiting. He was just saying all those things I had been holding in, that anybody holds in, ‘fuck’ and ‘shit’ . . . and ‘death’ and ‘kill’ and all of those things that he was getting out, I found that they were coming out with me. It was all the anger that was pent up in me. Suddenly here I was, speaking words that I had never spoken before. These violent monologues of his, and the way he acted. And I went into therapy almost immediately after that. Because there were things coming out of me that I couldn’t deal with. It was frightening because I had never been willing to admit this part of my personality.”
Diamond, who’d studied acting for a short time in New York, got the part. The film, however, got stalled and wound up on Broadway. By that time, Diamond had turned to Jonathan Livingston Seagull.
The Bruce experience inspired not only almost four years in therapy, but also the song “I Am…I Said,” easily (or uneasily) Diamond’s most open-wrench paean to loneliness.
He was depressed at the screen test, he said, thinking he’d done miserably. “During a lunch break, I was in my dressing room with my guitar. It just came out.”
Since therapy, Diamond feels he’s worked out a balance between self-confidence, which he’s always had, and self-esteem, which he’s never had and which accounted for all the nervousness, the inability to talk. “I was unable to go out and be social. Going to parties is just something I’ve been able to develop over the last few years.”
Offstage and away from the press Diamond does loosen up, I am assured. “He can be so outgoing,” says Rick Frio, a vice-president at MCA Records. “He’s the best kind of artist for your family. He’ll invite your mother backstage; he’ll do numbers for you that are incredible. He’s a very generous man. I don’t want to blow his mystique, but he’s a great guy.”
Well, the mystique’s been blown. Neil Diamond, when he’s not fencing with life, is just a nice Jewish mensch.
The beneficiaries of Diamond’s generosity are generally charities, drug rehab organizations like Phoenix House and personal projects, like a children’s camp he hopes to help build in the Santa Monica Mountains next year, mostly with $400,000 he’s donated ($200,000 from Las Vegas and other engagements this year). He shies away from politics, he says. “I’m not a group joiner, never have been.”
Although he shies away from politics he has been connected with the Kennedy family for some time. In 1972, on the eve of retirement, he and the concert promoters turned over $18,000 from his opening night on Broadway — at the Winter Garden — to the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial and the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, an urban renewal project started by RFK in 1967. A couple of weeks later, he entertained at a McGovern-Shriver fundraiser at the Shriver estate in Maryland. One high point occurred on the platform stage where Diamond and his band were playing. Ethel Kennedy walked up to him and poured a glass of beer over his head. “Apparently he loved it,” one report said, and quoted an observer as saying: “It was recognition from the Kennedys.”
“I like the Kennedys,” says Diamond, “because of their family-mindedness, because they’re close-knit, because they had a sense of responsibility, an obligation toward other people.” But that, he adds, was about the extent of their friendship. “I’m not sure whether you ever really know that you’re friends with the Kennedy family.”
“I was a solitary child.” To hear his songs and stories, you would think that Neil Diamond was born lonely. That, apparently, is not far from the truth.
Neil Diamond was born in Coney Island. His family moved to Cheyenne, Wyoming — where his soldier father was stationed — before he was four. In Cheyenne, and later, back in Brooklyn, he was in and out of nine schools before he was sixteen because his father operated dry-good stores, and was always chasing fortunes from one location to another. Diamond had few friends and says he turned to music and to an imaginary companion:
Shilo, when I was young
I used to call your name
When no one else would come
Shilo, you always came and we’d play . . .
He heard radio music when he worked in his dad’s shop; at home there were his folks’ Latin dance records; he idolized singing cowboy movie stars and, at Erasmus Hall and Lincoln High School, he was in the choral group. At sixteen, he went to a camp in upstate New York where Pete Seeger performed. “And some of the kids had actually written a song and they played it for him, and I kinda sat in the back and watched, and I became aware of the possibility of actually writing a song. And the next thing, I got a guitar when we got back to Brooklyn, started to take lessons and almost immediately began to write songs.”
Neil was attracted to songwriting because “it was something no one in my family had done. It was unusual. It wasn’t your everyday average kind of thing, and it was the first real interest I had shown in anything up until that point.” It was also a release for his frustrations. Diamond wrote constantly — basic love songs, influenced by the pop music of the day, Fats Domino, the Everly Borthers, the Drifters and the simple folk music of the Weavers.
“I began to get more and more into the lyrical part of it when I got into college,” he says. “I was bored by school, and writing lyrics in class was interesting. It resulted in abysmal failure in school. I mean, I just hung on by the barest thread.”
He had been admitted into New York University on a fencing scholarship as a premed major. “I probably would not ever gone to college if I hadn’t been offered a scholarship,” he says. “They were the only school that accepted me.” But with chord progressions spinning around his head, he found himself splitting his time at NYU between fencing and songwriting. Then, he says, “I began cutting classes and taking the train up to Tin Pan Alley, tried to get the songs heard.
“I never really chose songwriting. It just absorbed me and became more and more important in my life as the years passed. I suppose if I were able to earn a living through fencing, I might have chosen that, because that also had its way to vent the emotion side of me.”
He picked up the epee — in his senior year of high school — because “my father had gone to the same high school and I remember his yearbook. He had five extracurricular activities on his and I wanted five also, just to keep the tradition alive.”
In gravitating toward Tin Pan Alley, Diamond was unknowingly following another tradition, that of the Jewish-American pop-music craftsmen. Today, he acknowledges the relationship: “The Gershwin tradition, of the person who really began with a primitive musical education and somehow expanded on it.” He has previously said: “I don’t dream of being George Gershwin. I dream of being Beethoven and Tchaikovsky and Robert Frost. That’s how much I think I can do musically.”
He found Tin Pan Alley in the yellow pages, while looking up “music publishers” and got an offer from Sunbeam Music to write songs for $50 a week for sixteen weeks. “It seemed like an eternity,” says Diamond. Only ten units short of graduation, he quit NYU.
Sunbeam kicked him out of his cubicle after the sixteen weeks were up. By then he’d begun singing his own songs for demo (demonstration) purposes, and he got a one-record deal from Columbia Records. He promoted the single with his first public appearances, lip- synching the song at “hops and little fairs.” His first performance was in Pennsylvania. He wore a suit, had not yet worked a guitar into his act, “went out there, tripped over a wire and fell flat on my face. My first introduction to the stage.”
His record did a similar fall and Columbia Records bounced him back out on the streets. He was in and out of publishing houses for the next seven years. Diamond’s problem was simple: he couldn’t write for anyone else.
Unlike his peers — Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Neil Sedaka, Howard Greenfield, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill — Diamond never wrote a hit. “I had very few things that were recorded even. Which is probably why I had such a nomadic life as a writer. Part of it was they felt there were too many words. I’d spent a lot of time on lyrics, and they were looking for hooks and I didn’t really understand the nature of that.
“The only real success I had was in being able to sell the songs in the first place to the publishers and get the advance. It was purely matter of survival. I was able to sell one song a week or every two weeks and get my $100, which carries me another two weeks till the next song was sold.”
He reached a point where he allotted himself 35 cents a day for a meal; a 23-cent Hoagy — a submarine sandwich — a Coke, and a two-cent piece of candy from Woolworth’s. “I did that for a year,” he says.
The frustrations, he willingly admits, affect him to this day. “Listen,” he has said, “it’s very difficult to accept seven years of failing without it doing something to you. And what it did was close me up more as a person.”
After about the millionth firing from a staff writing job, Diamond went into business for himself, renting a storage room above Birdland on Broadway for $35 a month. “Put a piano in, put a pay phone in, put two chairs in and I stayed there for a year and wrote. And something new began to happen. I wasn’t under the gun, and suddenly interesting songs began to happen, songs that had things that none of the others did.” For one of his songs, he needed a demo singer and called on Ellie Greenwich. With partner Jeff Barry, Greenwich was one of the successes on Broadway, writing and/or producing for the Crystals, the Ronettes and the Shangri-Las, among many others. Greenwich and Barry eventually joined Diamond in a publishing firm and agreed to produce him. Suddenly, given the impetus of writing for himself, he came up with three hits in their first session: “Solitary Man,” “Cherry Cherry” and “I Got the Feeling (Oh No No).”
Jeff Barry took Diamond to Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records. Diamond, now equipped with a black Everly Brothers/Gibson guitar, ran through his tunes. Wexler says he made a deal “on the spot.” However, a producer who’d been working with Atlantic, Bert Berns, was just starting a record label — financed by Atlantic and called Bang Records — and when Berns phoned Wexler the next day to talk about acquisition of talent for Bang, Wexler “handed Neil to Burns.”
Bert Berns is one of the great untold stories of rock & roll. He died on the last day of 1967, at age 38, of a heart attack. He began in the early Sixties as a song plugger, and became a producer for Atlantic, working with Solomon Burke, Wilson Pickett and, most successfully, the Drifters. As a songwriter, he’d written Latin-influenced such as “Twist and Shout”; for the Drifters, his “Under the Boardwalk” and “Save the Last Dance for Me” inspired, among many younger songwriters, Neil Diamond. After the British assault of ’64, he was in England, producing Them (he wrote “Here Comes the Night”) and later signed Van Morrison onto Bang Records.
Diamond’s instant success at Bang was based on a way with melodies, a reliance on a go-go bounciness and simple love lyrics.
Diamond stayed with Berns for only two years. Berns, he says, had two sides: one the creative, supportive, paternalistic musical genius. The flip side was the hard-headed, chart-minded businessman. Diamond ran into trouble when he asked that “Shilo” be released as a single. “It was my first attempt at an autobiographical thing. It was not what he wanted. It was not ‘Cherry Cherry’ or ‘Kentucky Woman.’ And I had asked him over a period of time if he would release it as a single. ‘No, go in and do some more singles.’ It finally became desperate because I just felt that it was part of my development, and I told him I wouldn’t take any royalties for it, and please put it out. And he said, ‘If you give me another year on your contract I’ll put it out.’ And at that point we had been having very bad relations and I was just totally disgusted with it and I walked out. When I told him I wouldn’t record for him anymore, the heat began to really get intense. Bert started threatening me because I was his biggest artist and he wanted more of the same. At that time Fred Weintraub was managing me. About two weeks after our real big blow-up, somebody threw a bomb into the Bitter End, and we knew it was related to this whole thing.”
“It wasn’t a bomb,” says Weintraub, now a film producer. “It was just a stink bomb that destroyed the place so we couldn’t use it for a couple of days. And I got beaten up very badly. But it’s hard to pin things like that down. There’s no proof of anything.”
Diamond, meantime, borrowed a .38 from a friend and sent his wife and daughter out to Long Island for several weeks. “Things seemed to cool down,” he says, “and so I just left it at that.”
Mrs. Bert Berns — now Ilene Biscoe — is still at Bang Records, now located in Atlanta. “God, that’s absurd,” she says. “It sounds like a motion picture script.” Berns, she says, “wasn’t that kind of a guy.” But she was obviously pained. “Why does a beautiful man like Bert Berns have to have that kind of garbage thrown on his grave? . . . How does a dead man defend himself?”
J erry Wexler, now an independent producer, also expressed “shock” at Diamond’s claim. But, he says, Berns was “zealous and jealous about what he considered his equity. He could become very excited. Violence? I don’t know.”
In leaving Bang, Diamond was turning his back on symbols of his past: Brooklyn, Tin Pan Alley, the Top 40 treadmill . . . and his first wife.
They were too young, he says, sixteen or so when they went steady, twenty-one or so when they married, and parents a year later.
“It was almost as though our destiny was preordained. We were to be married, have children; the best we could hope for was a little house on Long Island. We’d live the lives our parents wanted us to live. I didn’t really begin to think about myself and my life until I began to travel and remove myself from that peer group. And I realized that that wasn’t what I wanted at all, and things began to deteriorate from that point. “I just decided to split and leave it all behind. In a sense it was running away.”
But he wasn’t alone. In New York, he had met an employee at a TV station he was visiting. “I’m not sure what it was that attracted me to Marcia,” he says solemnly. “Maybe it was the sadness in her eyes more than anything else. I saw this girl and she evidently understood great pain.” And that was before they’d exchanged a word.
Now, Diamond also seems impressed with Marcia’s Gentile, all-American credentials. “Her forbears came over on the Mayflower,” he says. “She’s the much more American side of me and she offers me that strength as well.”
Soon after arriving in L.A., Neil and Marcia married. In Los Angeles, Diamond signed with MCA’s Uni label for $250,000 after entertaining numerous offers. MCA, he says, gave him his wings and he responded with songs like “Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show,” “Brooklyn Roads” and “Sweet Caroline.” He grew musically, but outside of Marcia, had no social life. Rock, in 1968, dominated Los Angeles; it stood for all manner of social change and protests; rock stars were replacing movie stars as Hollywood royalty. And Neil Diamond stayed at home.
“I never could identify with that. I never did understand . . . this rebelliousness. First of all, I was not a teenager anymore. I was 26 or 27, I had already been married, had two children at that point.
” I knew that I was out of it. But I could never relate being serious about my work and hanging out with people. It didn’t relate to what I was trying to do, which was essentially to try and be Alan Jay Lerner or George Gershwin. ‘Hip’ was something frivolous people had time to be. I didn’t have time to be hip and with it and groovy. I was dealing with something that was much more important: with my life and trying to write songs that had substance. And hip is bullshit. It doesn’t cut deep. It cuts for today and tomorrow.”
Still, there was the Brother Love album, which had Diamond bearded on the cover, while inside there was an aimless “Salvation Game” that made use of the argot of the Aquarian Age.
“I suppose from a business point of view I could have tried to be hip,” says Diamond. “The growing of the beard, I suppose, from outward appearances, looked like I was getting hip or something. In reality, I was hiding from some private detectives my first wife had hired.”
Robbie Robertson is at the board at Kendun studios in Burbank, mixing “If You Know What I Mean,” the first single from Beautiful Noise, while Diamond sits on a couch behind him, writing a liner note. Slowly, Robertson, with two engineers, peels away a synthesized caliope sound, some of the higher- registered strings and, by Neil’s direction, some of the echo — “There’s an edge to it I don’t really like,” he tells Robertson. While Robbie rehuddles, Neil gets busy recopying his one- sentence liner note.
On a break, in an adjacent room, he reads it: “This album is a series of recollections, remembrances from a time in the early Sixties, when a young songwriter set out to make his way on the beautiful but noisy streets of New York City’s Tin Pan Alley.
“We really tried to cover a milieu that I spend quite a bit of time in, that Robbie passed through briefly on his way to New Orleans, and we’re familiar with a lot of the same characters, a lot of the same experiences, and when we first got together and started to think seriously about doing an album, we kinda groped around and one of the subjects that we covered was our shared experiences in New York. And Robbie thought it would make a fascinating story, that it hadn’t already been told.”
Robbie Robertson picks up the thread: “That period was — it was the beginning and the end,” he says. “It was the beginning of ‘hip,’ it was the beginning of the songwriter era, it was . . . all of a sudden, people started saying what was gonna be on their album covers. People’s hair got long. Kennedy got assassinated; there was the Vietnam War. It was such an incredible cultural, social revolution — like an inter-American revolution. It spurted across here and there and ignited these things, and it was worldwide. And the real capper in it is the death of Tin Pan Alley. It exploded with the rest of it.”
Neil Diamond and Robbie Robertson. Images, categories of “hip” and “straight” aside, it’s an odd coupling.
“We though it was an odd combination, too,” says Diamond. “Robbie being so rooted in his thing and me being in my area. But we thought the combination of the two would create a third thing that neither of us had experienced before.”
The two had met casually, a few years ago, when Robertson lived in Woodstock. Then they met up again when they discovered they were neighbors in Malibu. “And then it was time to go off and sit on the beach and talk about things. And after a while we began to think we could maybe set off a few sparks between us.”
Robertson shrugs off Diamond’s “commercial” aura. “The main thing, you know, was trying to understand whether the experiment would work musically. It seemed just weird enough that it was a worthwhile undertaking.”
Robertson, despite the prominence of his production credit on the cover, doesn’t intrude on Beautiful Noise. It’s still your basic, abundant/ambitious Neil Diamond.
Beautiful Noise may become a movie, says Diamond. Early on, he and Robertson were thinking of it as a possible Broadway musical. Now, they’ll pursue a film version. But, of course, Diamond’s still touring, and he has a TV special planned for later this year, and besides, he’s already talking about building this camp for kids . . .
See, Diamond is still dealing with the calluses on his psyche. The frog who became kind is trying to rewrite some of the past, or at least remember a sad song and make it better. He is in a beach house not just because Marcia was freaked by the raid, but also because it reminds him of Coney Island. He gave that money to the Beford-Stuyvesant project partly because, hey, Brooklyn was home. He has paid for his parents’ early retirement and wishes he hadn’t been so hard on his dad in “Shilo.” And, he’s building a camp because it was at a camp, after all, where Diamond first experienced fresh air and was inspired to write songs.
And, as he says, “Songwriting gives me the greatest joy, the greatest sense of accomplishment, the sense that my life does have some purpose, although I don’t fully understand it right now. It’s what I am.”
(RS 222, September 23, 1976)