A platinum pop troubadour s rock roots reconsidered
March 11, 2011
By Mark Brown
Special to MSN Music
Finally. Neil Diamond makes it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
"I was totally shocked that Neil Diamond was not in the Hall of Fame," said fellow nominee Alice Cooper incredulously. "Neil Diamond? I said, He had to be in 20 years ago.' No, he just got nominated. Unbelievable. I would never have guessed that.... He was just a great songwriter."
And Cooper should be totally shocked. Diamond's first single alone, "Solitary Man," has been covered by everyone from the Sidewinders to Chris Isaak to Johnny Cash, whose version (backed by Tom Petty and some of the Heartbreakers) opened the recent Michael Douglas film of the same name.
Not enough? Do the songs "I'm a Believer" and "Sweet Caroline," the films "The Last Waltz" and "The Jazz Singer" or the albums "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" or "Hot August Night" mean anything to you? How about producers and collaborators ranging from Robbie Robertson to Barbra Streisand to Rick Rubin?
Diamond is remaining mum till the induction ceremony, but in interviews past he has reflected on his career, longevity and inspiration. Here are some highlights from personal interviews and a roundtable with reporters in recent years.
MSN: How did your career survive through such changing times?
Neil Diamond: I never would have predicted this. It seems that my whole career has been just stumbling from one place to another in search of new music and good music, and new people to work with, and new shows to do. I never expected that I'd be around this long. When I first started, if you had a career that lasted two or three records -- and I mean at that time it was singles -- if you had a career that lasted that long, well, that was unusual. You know, most people had one record -- a hit record and that was it. The next record would not do as well, and the next one would not do as well, and pretty soon they would disappear from the landscape.
On having his first No. 1 album in 2008:
Well, honestly, I never paid much attention to it. I am more focused on the quality of the album and not whether it makes it to No. 2 or 3 or 1. And frankly, it came as a surprise to me when I was told that this was my first No. 1. I thought I had one or two before this, so it's nice to have that little milestone. & It doesn't do any good to have a No. 1 record that stinks. I would much rather have a wonderful album.
What keeps you running out on the road?
It's a good antidote to the writing, because the writing is very, very introspective. And you're constantly digging, and it's a hard process, and it's an exclusive process because you're excluding contact with a lot of people and things that you would ordinarily be in contact with in your everyday life. I kind of sequester myself often and do the writing, and sometimes it's a year or a year and a half. And that's a long time to be out of contact with people.
On his special writing spot on his land in the Roaring Fork Valley near Aspen, Colo.:
I consider it a refuge away from the insanity of the world. I do a lot of writing up there & sitting on a mountain, looking at a river. I don't allow any disturbances. Occasionally I'll see a bighorn sheep come by or a herd of elk just sitting on my pasture. That's as much disturbance as I want. I've got a couple of serious microphones and some digital equipment, but I would not allow a studio up there. Just enough so I can put ideas down on tape.
On attracting new, younger fans:
I'm not making any conscious attempt to attract younger people & people just will hear something, they like it, they're attracted to it and they come. I'm not aware of going out of my way to find a younger audience. The audiences become younger just naturally. I see it. I like it.
On his inspiration:
I love music in general, and I'll try anything. And so I'm open to all kind of things. I don't have any plans to do anything else. It all springs from the songs. So if I happen to wake up one day and find that I am only writing reggae music, I will have to look in that direction and find musicians and a producer that really understood that kind of music.
On "Sweet Caroline" becoming a signature song:
It's a little amazing, because, again, if I had planned it out -- even though I don't know how you plan something like that out -- it's just one of those songs that everybody can sing and will sing at the drop of a hat. And it's (taken a) little life of its own. Even from the moment it was released and it's being recorded by so many various artists, everybody from Elvis to Frank Sinatra to Waylon Jennings. I even got a version of it from Bob Dylan, who recorded it during one of his rehearsals and for a tour that he was doing a number of years ago.
On his flashy stage outfits:
Rock 'n' roll has always been a lot of a circus to me, and I never hesitated to make the costumes reflect that.
What are his thoughts on retirement?
Maybe in 20 years from now (2008), but not right now. This is what I do & it's my official job. Somebody gave me this job when I was a kid, when I was a teenager. And I've been doing it seen then. And this is what I want to do. It involves me totally. It's a very exciting kind of work. It's not easy. It has got its drawbacks and you're criticized in public continuously, which is something that never really bothered me, but it's really one of the things that you have to deal with. & I think (Pavarotti) once said, "A life in music is a life well-lived." And I feel as though my life has been well-lived, thus far, and I want to do it as long as I possibly can.
On the mostly positive reviews his live shows receive:
I don't wanna hurt your feeling, but I don't read reviews. They weren't meant for me. If there's a good picture of me, I'll have a copy sent to my mother.
It's not my problem, honestly. I go out there and I'm working for the audience. I give them everything I possibly can give them and let the chips fall where they may. I've been at it for 30-odd years. I feel I'm still learning and developing as a performer and, interestingly enough, enjoying it more.... I don't listen to what reviewers say. They do their job and I respect that, but it's not gonna affect me one bit.
Mark Brown is a veteran music journalist who was pop critic for the Rocky Mountain News until its demise. He is also a contributor to MSN's Reverb blog.