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Interview:
Good times still feel good for Neil Diamond
 

By GARY GRAFF
for Journal Register Newspapers

» See more SOUND CHECK

These are good times for Neil Diamond.

And to paraphrase one of his biggest hits, good times have never looked so good.

Currently on tour, Diamond is still shining from what he calls "a year of acceptance for me" in 2011. It started with his March 2011 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, flying to the ceremony nearly all day from Australia for a gleefully delirious acceptance speech and performance that saw him walking through the crowd and getting industry friends to sing the chorus of the 1969 single and sports stadium anthem "Sweet Caroline."

Diamond also earned a Grammy Award nomination for the liner notes he penned for a compilation of early recordings called "The Bang Years" and put together another retrospective, "The Very Best of Neil Diamond -- The Original Studio Recordings." He sang at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in his native New York, then finished the year in December in Washington, D.C. seated alongside U.S. President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama as he received a Kennedy Center Honor, where Smokey Robinson and Lionel Richie serenaded Diamond with his own songs and Caroline Kennedy even taking part in "Sweet Caroline," which she inspired.

"These honorariums and pats on the back and acceptances are always nice -- and then they're beside the point, really," says Diamond, 71. "That was never the point of my work. The point is that I was able to work and do the work that I wanted to do. That's, to me, where the real prize lay.

"I was always hopeful that I could find a place for myself in music and spend my life doing that. That was my first goal, and I've been able to achieve that."

Diamond's achievements, of course, put him at the upper, iconic echelon of all music-makers. Born in Brooklyn, he attended New York University on a fencing scholarship (his team won the 1960 NCAA men's national championship) and a pre-med curriculum. But he also loved music and was already singing and songwriting alongside his studies. When a music publishing company offered him $50 a week to write songs, he left his medical ambitions in the rear view mirror.

Smart move. Diamond started as a songwriter for others, but hits such as "Solitary Man" and "Cherry, Cherry" helped him launch his own career in the mid-60s. Since then he's sold more than 115 million records worldwide and notched 13 Top 10 singles, including the chart-toppers "Cracklin' Rosie," "Song Sung Blue" and "You Don't Bring Me Flowers" with Barbra Streisand. The Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee won a Grammy Award for his soundtrack to "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" and was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for his starring role in the 1980 remake of "The Jazz Singer" -- and won the first-ever Razzie Award for Worst Actor.

Diamond has also inspired a wealth of tribute bands, including Real Diamond, Nine Inch Neils and Super Diamond, the latter of which Diamond has performed with.

"People ask me about my career, and it's almost too big to really get my head around and explain in some succinct fashion," says the thrice-married father of four, who married manager Katie McNeil in April. "There's been a lot of music. There have been ups and downs. I've seen a lot of trends come and go and I've just done what I wanted to do -- which is why I think I've endured."

Compiling "The Very Best of Neil Diamond," a 23-track set that brings together hits from his tenures with various labels, gave Diamond a chance to reflect on the songs that got him to this vaunted point. "I love the album because it's really the original recordings -- it's like revisiting old friends because these songs and recordings have been through so many permutations through the years," Diamond explains. "It's nice to have them all in one place and just to sit back and enjoy that. It took some doing to accomplish, but the label (Columbia) did it, and it's a nice little package that lets you get back to the real heart of what I've been doing."

Diamond feels that the songs on the album, which span 46 years, are "all of one piece," but he recognizes "some growth" in the material over time.

"I started out very simply with the songs and the recordings," he says, "and things got more and more sophisticated and sometimes complicated." But he adds that his most recent releases -- 2005's "12 Songs" and 2008's "Home Before Dark," both comparatively Spartan sets produced by Grammy Award-winner Rick Rubin -- "seem to come back to the simple essence again, the very basic heart of the song itself.

"You're always looking for something new and fresh to write about and to present on the records," Diamond explains. "So I don't know if it's natural to start simply and get very sophisticated and then bring it back down to its essence again. I just know it feels natural to me."

In keeping with that, Diamond describes the latest songs he's been writing as "very, very basic. There's no bells and whistles. It's very straightforward, and I like that." He notes that "the songs are coming like they always do. They're good songs, and I think people will be able to take them to their hearts immediately -- or reject them, immediately. There won't be any equivocation at all with these."

As to whether he plans to work with Rubin again, Diamond will only say, "maybe. We're going to meet and talk about it. I loved working with him on the last two albums, and I think he would do a heck of a job with these songs. So we'll see what he thinks about it, and we'll decide then."

"Then," however, will come after Sept. 1, when Diamond wraps up his touring schedule for 2011. He says there's no room to juggle both live work and preparing a new album; "When we go out it takes up all our time and all our energy," says the man who's routinely a top-draw and a fixture on the annual lists of most successful tours. "We take it very seriously and approach it like we would an album, really."

That's certainly the case with this year's show, even if there's no new material to promote. "We're going to do all the hits," Diamond promises. "We'll have some surprises, too. We've been working on some visual things that I haven't tried before, some video. I haven't made much use of video screens before other than to get close-ups in the show, so I think this time we're going to use it as a palette...to heighten the experience.

"I just want to leave it all out on stage. I want to leave everybody happy."

Still, Diamond adds, "just doing the songs great is enough of a challenge," as is assembling a repertoire from his substantial body of work. " "If anything I have too many (songs) to include every single one of them, so we mix it up. The challenge is to always keep the songs fresh and alive and have their own heartbeat and their own core and sense of energy."

Diamond says that with each tour "I learn something new about these songs -- what they mean, how they can be presented to reflect what they mean. I find new facets to the songs that for some reason I haven't come across before. You can do a song for 30, 40 years and suddenly it downs on you what the song is really about. You're constantly unfolding little mysteries."

A recent case in point, Diamond says, is "I'm a Believer," which he performed for decades faithfully to the way he wrote it during the mid-60s and the way the Monkees recorded it. But after treating it as "a very gentle, reflective ballad" on his 2010 covers album "Dreams," Diamond says "it opened the song up completely. It opened my eyes about exploring that direction with some of the other songs as well and maybe trying them like that now and then in the show.

"That's what keeps it exciting -- the songs are alive and breathing and very much vibrating on stage with us."

But, Diamond promises, he'll never entirely abandon the songs as his fans love them -- especially not after spending a year being saluted for that.

"It is nice," he notes. "All of that is just the cherry on top of the hot fudge sundae, of course. But, you know, everybody wants the cherry, and I'm glad I got mine."



Neil Diamond performs at 8 p.m. Tuesday, July 3, at the DTE Energy Music Theatre, Sashabaw Road east of I-75, Independence Township. Tickets are $127.50 and $85 pavilion, $29.50 lawn. Call 248-377-0100 or visit www.palacenet.com.

Web Site: www.palacenet.com

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff

 



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