This Diamond keeps on shining

This Diamond keeps on shining
September 4, 2004

Neil Diamond has a love affair with Australia, in more ways than
one, writes Dino Scatena.

Neil Diamond has a love affair with Australia, in more ways than one, writes Dino Scatena.

The “recreation room” in Neil Diamond’s Los Angeles headquarters is dedicated to Australiana. On one side is a highway sign peppered with shotgun pellet blasts. It warns of kangaroos for the next two kilometres.

The opposite wall is dominated by a ridiculously oversized bright-blue boomerang, covered in fake Aboriginal symbols, a joke award from his Australian record company. There’s also a wall-to-wall mosaic of plaques, multi-platinum awards, tour posters and mementoes of Diamond’s numerous visits Down Under dating back to 1976. There is also memorabilia from New Zealand. The room is a shrine to his seemingly eternal popularity on both sides of the Tasman.

Nearly 30 years on, Diamond retains fond memories of that first tour, which featured a three-night stand during Moomba at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl. A week later, his concert in Sydney – which was attended by 38,000 people, including the recently deposed prime minister Gough Whitlam, and visiting VIPs such as Abba and Henry “The Fonz” Winkler – was broadcast live across the country.

It was an era-defining event, drawing an estimated 3 million viewers. It felt as if the nation stopped as one, that warm autumn night, to singalong with the charismatic Diamond and his famous songs sung blue.

“It was very exciting for me,” Diamond recalls.

“I was coming off a four-year sabbatical and I was starting my comeback in Australia, and it was like, ‘Wow, these people really like me.’ The reception was amazing. It was just the right thing for my soul to see that people would welcome me back.

“People did not take off four years in those days. If you took off four years, you were retired, you were over.”

Today, at 63, Diamond is as far away from retirement as ever. “I feel terrific,” he says. “I feel as good as I did when I first started out. I have the same energy, I have the same love for it. There’s not a lot of accommodations I have to make to my age. I’m singing well, I feel that I can bring the songs off. I guess you just do it and keep doing it until you drop.”

Diamond looks good for his age, too. He’s thinned out on top, carrying a couple of kilograms more than he should around the rim, but otherwise time – and life, for the most part – has been good to him. Indeed, these past eight years, he keeps repeating, have been the best of his life. And he puts that down solely to another piece of Australia. He brought her home with him to LA: his Brisbane-born partner, Rachel Farley.

“I met Rae when I was in Australia in ’96,” Diamond says of the partner almost half his age. “She’s a Brissie girl. Fell in love with her. I owe an eternal debt to Brisbane. We’ve been together for eight years and I love her like crazy. She’s the beginning and the end of my day and she makes it possible for me to come here and work every day and pour myself into the music.

“She makes me very happy and I’m a very lucky guy. What can I say? She was in charge of my merchandising on my tour in ’96 and I didn’t like her at all when I first met her. I thought she was really pushy. But I got to know her over a period of time and I fell in love with her. It’s not the kind of thing you can stop yourself from doing. It happened, and I’m still in love with her.

“So my personal life is very tranquil and very peaceful and it’s probably the reason I’ve been able to work so well over the past eight years or so. Because my personal life has been through some turmoil. I was divorced about 10 years ago so it was very, very shaky for a couple of years, really, until I met Rae. She’s really helped me keep it on track and keep it very stable.”

That divorce in 1994 from his wife of 25 years, Marcia Murphey, cost Diamond half of everything. Not that it was particularly messy. “She deserves half my fortune,” he was quoted as saying at the time. “I wish her all the happiness $150 million can bring.”

It was Diamond’s first divorce, however, in 1969 – to his wife of six years, Jay Posner – that changed his life. It was a major reality check, coming on the crest, as it did, of international superstardom.

Subsequently, at the peak of his career – with his landmark 1972 live Hot August Night album dominating record sales around the world, going on to spend three years in the Australian top 10 – Diamond stepped off the road for the first time since starting out as a solo artist in 1966. With a new baby due to his new wife Marcia, Diamond took his career-threatening sabbatical. “I had to save my life and I had to save my marriage, my children,” he says.

Diamond’s shows in Australia next March will be his first full concerts anywhere in more than two years. This latest sabbatical was interrupted by a brief public appearance in June when he joined old friend Barbra Streisand on stage in Los Angeles at a fund-raiser for presidential candidate John Kerry. The pair reprised their 1978 hit, You Don’t Bring Me Flowers.

Diamond has an extraordinary work ethic. Every day for the past nine months, he’s been in his office-cum-studio – the recreation room – from 6.30am , working at least eight hours a day on his latest batch of songs.

“I’ve been doing this since I was 16 years old,” he says, smiling. “Haven’t I said it all by this point? The reality is that I haven’t because I’ve got a bunch of brand-new songs that I really like. So I guess there’s more to say.

“I don’t know if I relax much. I’m not very good at relaxing. I’m very good at enjoying myself. I love writing. It’s something that absorbs me. It’s a very solitary process, but it’s good. It’s exciting. It’s a process that’s full of eurekas, lots of discoveries about yourself, about the music, lyrics. It’s very invigorating. And it’s difficult.”

Ever since his days as an apprentice pop composer in New York’s famous Brill Building, many acts have covered Diamond songs, from Elvis Presley (Sweet Caroline), Frank Sinatra (Song Sung Blue), Deep Purple (Kentucky Woman), Johnny Cash (Solitary Man) and, not to forget, The Monkees (I’m a Believer). Throughout the decades, many have enjoyed major worldwide hits, such as UB40’s take on Red, Red Wine and Urge Overkill with Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon, which had a central role in the film Pulp Fiction.

For the time being, Diamond will keep on doing what he’s always done. He will record his new songs for an album that he wants out late next year. And whenever he feels like stepping back on the road again, he can do so knowing he remains one of the most successful touring acts in the world. His last US tour in 2002 was the country’s fifth-highest grossing show that year, turning over $US52 million ($A74 million). More than a million Australians have seen him perform since 1976.

“I’ve been lucky. I’ve escaped most of the terrible potholes that I’ve seen other people falling into along the way.”

Neil Diamond plays at the Rod Laver Arena next March. Tickets go on sale on Tuesday.

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