Neil Diamond, A Solitary Man
An Interview in Philly, A Concert with My Mother in Law, 1992
Before I was floored by two weeks of Covid in early July, we had my mother-in-law Esther and her nurse Shorna over for dinner most Sundays. Esther is having a difficult time, as her memory dims into dementia. A few weeks ago, she had a memory blast: Do you remember when you took me to see Neil Diamond and you wrote about me at the show?
I certainly did. It was a hot August night, 1992. Neil Diamond was coming to Long Island's Nassau Coliseum. I thought I'd get around the concert review by seeing the show first in Philadelphia, where I then interviewed Diamond the day after the show for a Sunday Newsday feature.
But Diamond was playing three nights in a row at the Coliseum, so it had to be reviewed. And there were no other volunteers. Rather than bringing my own Neil Diamond biases, I brought Esther. As the show went on, I took notes on her comments, and when it was over, I wrote a review of the concert through the Neil Diamond-infatuated eyes of my mother-in-law. It's not a trick one can repeat often, but having found the arrow in my quiver, and with my brother-in-law then in limo business providing transportation complete with the decanter of vodka in the backseat, it was painless.
And by the way, Esther was a fan, but she's not a fool. In my review, when Diamond sings the patriotic schmaltz, "America," with an immense American flag dropping behind him from the rafters, she says: "See what he does? He gets them all revved up."
For many critics, Neil Diamond is not painless. But if you worked for a real newspaper and your beat was "pop music," not just rock, or one kind of rock, either, you had to be prepared to deal with Neil Diamond, with as much fairness as possible, even if his shtick tends to stick in your craw. It's the same rule for Barry Manilow, or anyone else not to your personal taste: Is Neil Diamond being the best Neil Diamond he can be, or is he just phoning it in? In the interview that follows, it is a thought that also occurred to Neil Diamond every time he came off the stage.
I have considered an alternative history of rock & roll in which his singles "Solitary Man" and "Cherry Cherry" became the foundation for a career rich in ornery rebellion. Even if you don't like his songs, and there are some popular ones to dislike, they are the the work of a master craftsman. Think of the songs he wrote for others: The Monkees' best, including "I'm a Believer"; "Sunday and Me" (Jay & the Americans); "Kentucky Woman" (Deep Purple!), UB40's "Red, Red Wine"; and even "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon," which on a recent listening was much more complex a song than the Gary Puckett & the Union Gap pap I first thought it to be, and was recontextualized by Urge Overkill in the soundtrack of Pulp Fiction.
And don't ever...evuh! Knock Neil Diamond in Boston's Fenway Park, where it is a tradition to play Diamond's "Sweet Caroline" before the Red Sox come to bat in the bottom of the eighth inning. Five days after the Boston Marathon bombing traumatized the city, Diamond himself came to sing during a Red Sox game at Fenway on April 20, 2013, so let's get real: You cannot hate this song.
But Neil Diamond has thought about all of these things: his unpredictable, one-of-a-kind audience from all walks of life, his demanding performing style. He was 51 years old at the time, and beginning to feel the physical toll of performing, touring, living in hotels. (“I’m a belter,” he said. “Belters die young.”) This interview was done at noon in Philadelphia in his hotel the day after performing a two and a half hour show at the Spectrum. I don't recall if he was still in a bathrobe, but his hoarse voice had a still-in-the-bathrobe sound. He answered questions seriously, but often ended with a bit of the self-deprecating humor forged on his childhood Brooklyn roads.
WR: DO YOU HAVE A HARD TIME WINDING DOWN AFTER A SHOW LIKE LAST NIGHT?
ND: It's definitely an adjustment period. Sometimes it's two minutes, sometimes it's 10 minutes, sometimes it takes until 4 in the morning. I'm not exactly sure why it changes all the time. You either feel you did a good and worthy show, or you don't. You might feel your audience gave you more than your due, and that's the worst feeling of all. You're exhausted, depleted, you're putting out so much physically, emotionally, intellectually, just the focus is so intense. If I read a sign in the audience, I lose my place in the show, I forget the words. What was I saying?
WR: YOU WERE TALKING ABOUT WHAT YOU GET EMOTIONALLY FROM PERFORMING.
ND: It's good. When it's good, it's good, but it's hard to savor it for too long. Because you're on to the next line, which has to be good as well. Whatever moments you get as a performer are very quick. There's a feeling of well-being if you're in shape to do the show, but usually, my attitude is, this is my work, and my effort, and at this point in my life I have to survive it, not give any song more or less than it's due, and do it well.
WR DO YOU HAVE ANY QUALMS ABOUT THE AMERICAN FLAG-DROP CONSIDERING THAT PATRIOTISM IS THE LAST REFUGE OF SCOUNDRELS?
ND: What's the song about? It's not the end of the show and "I Am...I Said." This song is about America. What am I going to do? It's either that or the Statue of Liberty that I had built by the 'Spinal Tap' people, you know, the 18-inch statue comes down from the ceiling, with fireworks.
YOU'VE TALKED ABOUT WANTING TO MAKE AN IMPRESSION, GOOD OR BAD, NO MATTER WHAT.
Yeah. Especially at the beginning of my career. I think you had to figure out who you were, or who you wanted to be on stage. Then you had to figure out how to make an impression with that. In the beginning, when I didn't know so well who I was, I would do anything to make an impression on stage. Write a song specifically for that audience, for that night. I remember doing that once. But you don't want it to be like television, where as soon as you are out, it's on the the next program. People come to see a concert they remember later.
I WAS TALKING TO AN USHER AT THE SPECTRUM LAST NIGHT, AND HE SAID YOUR AUDIENCE IS NOT LIKE ANY HE'S SEEN: THEY MIGHT GO TO A HOCKEY GAME ONCE A YEAR, OR TAKE THEIR GRANDKIDS TO THE CIRCUS. MY MOTHER IN LAW ISN'T INTERESTED IN SEEING A CONCERT BY ANYONE ELSE BUT YOU.
ND: It's kind of amazing to me. I wish I could say it's all premeditated, planned to happen in advance by a team of brilliant scientists. I do know there is a connection I make during the show. I'm an entertainer, I'm supposed to leave people feeling good no matter what it takes. Even at the age of 51, if it takes me going out there singing for two and a half hours and feeling death knocking at the door, that's what I have to give. That's my end of the deal. And your mom's end of the deal is that she's uplifted.
WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR FAVORITE COVERS OF YOUR SONGS?
ND: Up until recently, it was the Frank Sinatra version of 'Sweet Caroline.' [That song would not become a Fenway Park theme until later in the 1990s]. Sinatra did it with a big band, a swing band. Then that UB40 recording of "Red Red Wine" came out, out of the blue, internationally, in the early 1980s. I liked that a lot, because it was an entirely original musical interpretation of the song, which was written as a kind of country ballad. So they took it and turned it around and it worked. I was pretty impressed with that.
[Diamond had probably not heard Bob Dylan's version of "Sweet Caroline," a charming and sincere run-through from a 1980 rehearsal released in 2021 on the Springtime in New York bootleg series box set.]
HOW DID YOU DEAL WITH BEING A KIND OF PARADIGM OF UNHIP?
ND: Well, there was a group of unhip people, and I was one of them. One thing that was very encouraging to me is when you're selling millions and millions of albums, and performing in large arenas filled to capacity, and more important, writing songs that you like and felt good about and felt had some worth, and meaning and depth. That sustained me for a long time, and it still does. The music is the fuel that keeps the engine running. I like to be thought of well, I like to be reflected in the press in a good, positive, way. But I've learned not to base my mental attitude on what newspapers had to say about me on a particular day. I can still have a good day, and a bad review. I've come a long way, baby.
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