The American PR briefly surveys the space between the chair and the coffee table, then she shakes her head. “He’ll need to stretch his legs out,” she frets. Then she pulls it back a little. That’s much better. Neil Diamond’s legs now have at least a foot of clearance. Happy that the suite is ready, she calls up for him. Within a minute, he walks straight past the chair and installs himself beside the window for a sunny morning view of the yachts on Chelsea Harbour. Asked to autograph a CD for an actor friend, he stalls on the phrase “continued success”: “Is it one ‘c’?” he enquires, “Now, ‘failure’ – I learned that one a long time ago.”
We are in the process of updating our mental files on Neil Diamond. In our minds, he’s suspended in a flared, sequined jumpsuit belting out Sweet Caroline, Cherry Cherry and Forever In Blue Jeans to stadia of cosy couples. In spite or perhaps because of his popularity, respect and cool have always been hard to come by. Asked by Robbie Robertson to appear in The Band’s star-studded 1976 farewell concert The Last Waltz, he stuck out like a surfer at a convent among the likes of Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Van Morrison. Having completed his turn, Diamond was infamously said to have bounded off stage and defied a waiting and astonished Dylan to “follow that!” The apocryphal story says a lot about how the singer has always been perceived by rock fans. While his peers spent the late 1960s urging us to turn on, tune in and drop out, Diamond’s 1968 album Velvet Gloves And Spit saw him attacking the countercultural mores of the age with The Pot Smoker’s Song. By the mid-80s, it seemed wholly unsurprising to hear that Diamond was accepting invitations to sing for the Reagans at The White House.
But age is a great leveller – and, as the acclaimed Rick Rubin-produced new album 12 Songs attests, 65 suits Neil Diamond well. Strummed requiems to his dissolved second marriage sit alongside paeans to his current girlfriend of ten years. Others – Hell Yeah, Man Of God – depict an artist baldly confronting his own mortality. Congratulate him and he’s swift to deflect the credit. It was Rubin who suggested the two get together and, to use Diamond’s words, “analyse why my records changed.” Would it have ever occurred to Diamond to do the same? “I don’t know,” he says. “As a recording artist, it’s very insidious what happens to you. You’re allowed more money from the record company, so instead of two string parts you might have forty. Instead of one trumpet, you have a whole brass section. It’s very easy to slip into that, and you go along with it without even thinking or listening back to the early records.”
Rubin, however, had not stopped listening to the classic run of singles Diamond cut for New York’s Bang label. Gathering material for the last of Johnny Cash’s American albums, he set aside Diamond’s brooding 1965 single Solitary Man as the title track – a compliment that practically swung the deal. “The way it works with Rick is that you get together and play lots and lots of records – then you discuss why they work. I wanted to play lots of rock’n’roll – because that was what I had grown up with. And Rick? Rick wanted to play my records, because that’s what he had grown up listening to. The biggest observation for me was that I liked what I heard.”
The experience might have prompted Diamond to re-evaluate what he was doing, were it not for the fact that he was already doing so. Much of 2003 was spent unwinding after a fifteen month tour that began just days after the collapse of the World Trade Centre. In the liner notes to 12 Songs, he writes, “Rolling into cities filled with shocked and heartbroken people and coaxing scared CNN viewers away from their TV’s…suddenly became a really important thing for us to do.” No doubt it helped that, with America, he had one song which justified the lofty mission statement. How did it feel to sing about “freedom’s light burning warm” in a song about his grandparents’ migration to Brooklyn?
“Well, it was all in the reactions,” he says, “which were among the most powerful I’ve ever seen. It felt like some kind of force that could lift people up a little bit or remove them from the horrible pall that had been hanging over everyone. But I can’t deny that wasn’t also emotionally exhausting to go through that night after night. It took a lot out of me.” When the tour finished, Diamond decamped to his cabin in the Rocky Mountains with no immediate plans to return. “I just wanted to get my brain back and find out what it was like to sleep in the same bed. Chopping wood to get a fire going. A simple, physical existence.” Before long though, he was taking notes, circling chords above key phrases. As a series of blizzards swirled around his cabin, the bare bones of 12 Songs began to take shape. By the time Rubin made the call, the singer had no shortage of music to play him.
Diamond says it took him a long time to realize that he thrives in retreat. “After four years of Freudian analysis I realized I had written Solitary Man about myself,” he smiles as though recounting a puzzle he was the last person to deduce. And yet the clues are littered throughout his career. He dropped out of medical school in order to break into songwriting. Of all the aspiring popsmiths checking into legendary songwriting hothouse The Brill Building – Mann & Weil, Greenwich & Barry; Bacharach & David; Goffin & King – Diamond was the only one who preferred to work alone. “It was a lot of fun,” he insists, “There really was not much pressure, except for finding money to eat, and I worked out a way to do that for less than 30 cents a day. Lunch was the meal I would always have. I would go to the Woolworths store because you could get a hoagy for 20 cents and a Coke for five cents – which left you enough money to buy a piece of candy for two cents. So that’s what I did every day for maybe a couple of years.”
It’s ironic that – both then and now – it should take austerity and solitude to bring out the best in one of America’s hugest grossing entertainers. And yet it’s not altogether surprising. Away from the stage, Diamond seems uncomfortable being the centre of attention. He’s self-deprecating too, claiming to prefer UB40’s blithe annihilation of Red Red Wine over his achingly plaintive original. Asked if he enjoyed his sole acting foray in The Jazz Singer, he exclaims, “Me, a novice, alongside Olivier, the greatest actor of his generation? It couldn’t end soon enough as far as I was concerned.” The reputation for arrogance might, in fact, stem from an inability to refrain from awkward utterances. He says he’s still mortified by the episode in 1968 when he played The Winter Gardens in New York and told the audience, “Tonight I’m Neil Diamond and I intend to own you” – “although,” he adds, “when I saw their faces, I just about rescued it by adding, ‘Hey, maybe I’ll settle for a long-term lease.’”
And the much-rumoured exchange with Dylan during The Last Waltz? Did Diamond really tell him to “follow that”? “What do you think?” comes the response, “I remember standing on the side of the stage and all these great artists were hanging out, watching the whole show. I was talking to Bobby Dylan. While he was tuning up his guitar to go on stage, I told him he’d better be careful because that was my audience out there. What did he do? He looked at me a little quizzically and carried on. But of course, you only needed to look at the lineup to realize that it wasn’t my audience out there.” Things change however. Should The Band ever get around to assembling The Last Waltz II, he might find that it is now.