Neil Before Me
He's one of the biggest draws in pop-music history. But Neil Diamond, leader of the world's perkiest revival show, still gets no respect.
By Andrew Weiner
JANUARY 31, 2000: WORCESTER -- Rick is sitting in Row F at tonight's Neil Diamond concert. Rick is a CPA who admires Neil Diamond because he sings about "themes you can relate to: love lost, love found, feelings of aloneness, and imaginary friends."
Mike's here with his family. Mike, 30, listens to Tool, Bush, and Hole when he's not listening to Neil Diamond. He calls Diamond "a rebel in blue jeans."
I'm a reporter. My only connection to Neil Diamond up until now is the year I spent driving a car that had only AM radio. But now I'm about to spend an evening at the Worcester Centrum in a sold-out arena with some of the most loyal fans in America. Or, as Neil Diamond prefers to call them, his "friends."
And that's just the live show. In the thirty-some years since he first charted with "Solitary Man," Diamond has moved more than 110 million units -- about one for every 2.5 Americans. During one stretch of his career, eight consecutive LPs went gold. Neil's songs have been covered by artists as diverse as Billy Ray Cyrus, Harry Belafonte, Deep Purple, and Frank Sinatra. He wrote the Monkees' "I'm a Believer"; UB40 would later make a hit of "Red Red Wine," and Urge Overkill's reworking of "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon" earned Neil some hipster cred when it appeared on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack.
Nonetheless, critical adulation has been sparing, to say the least. To this day, a Neil Diamond concert is treated by music writers as a welcome chance to tee off. The New York Times' Stephen Holden once called Diamond "a shameless, swashbuckling ham who struts about in a frenzy of self-aggrandizement." His image in the eyes of most people is that of a rather sweaty man in an unbuttoned sequined shirt, parading himself around in Sansabelt splendor.
All of this couldn't matter less to the millions of people around the world who continue to adore Neil Diamond, including the nearly 15,000 fans who joined me one December night in Worcester. Those numbers are astonishing, and they add interest to the deeper question: just what exactly is going on with Neil Diamond, anyway?
The Centrum radiated an aura of excitement. People were eagerly mingling, humming Neil's songs, trading stories. Even the white-limo set was getting into it. The crowd noise crept from an ambient hush to a buzzing, expectant roar as showtime approached. Surveying the arena, I tried to fit the crowd into a demographic. What TV shows did these people watch? What type of products did they buy? I came up empty, and though maybe this just means I'd be a lousy marketing exec, it also suggests that there is no average Neil Diamond fan. The Centrum employees I spoke to seemed to agree. Patty, an usher, put it this way: "His shows aren't like the monster trucks or the Backstreet Boys -- all kinds of people come."
There are bands -- Korn, say -- that appeal to a very self-selecting audience. Skate kids go to shows to be around other skate kids and away from everybody else. Diamond Nation is entirely the opposite: it appears to stretch across national, ideological, and subcultural borders. At one end of the fan spectrum is Tom Smith, a Canadian photographer who counts Diamond's music as one of the chief inspirations behind his own "hopeful world odyssey" -- a trip around the globe by moped. At the other end is a cell of revolutionaries in Chile who, I was told on good authority, listen to Neil while discussing party policy.
Diamond's fans, unlike Phish- and Deadheads, don't collect bootlegs or compare set lists, since performances are largely the same from night to night. Which isn't to say that Diamond Nation lacks dedication. Seated in my row were an exotic dancer, stage name Diamond, and a woman who'd named her daughter Shilo, after Neil's imaginary-friend song. Rick, the CPA, told me how, at his first show, he had a "conversion experience" when the house lights dropped.
As the band ascended the stage, the crowd noise built to genuine rock-concert proportions. The stage layout made it clear that this was going to be something different: in the center of the floor stood a platform two levels high, whose slow circular motion was eerily reminiscent of a rotating restaurant. The show boasted one other unusual feature: double musicians. Two keyboardists kicked things off with a peppy synth vamp right out of the Genesis songbook. Two drummers laid down a 4/4 rock groove, while two guitarists got people up and clapping.
Mesmerized by this mysterious, almost sinister repetition, I practically didn't notice when Diamond trotted on-stage and seized the mike. The first thing he did was pump his fists and exhort the crowd to "get loose." It's hardly an exaggeration to say that Diamond is a consummate showman; what he might lack in vigor he more than makes up for with enthusiasm and a certain rakish brio. Scarcely a minute went by without a grin. His band exhibited a degree of collective perkiness normally reserved for a Richard Simmons infomercial. Everyone on the stage, it seemed, would either have a good time or die trying.
You have to hand it to Neil -- he doesn't look or move like a man nearing 60. Yes, he wore sequins, on a pinstriped shirt that was flashy but plausible. His economical gestures resembled the restrained devil-may-care attitude of Sinatra in his later years. Though at times his presence verged on the bombastic, it never spilled over into arrogance. One recurring motif was a bemused hands-on-hips pose -- somewhere between Michelangelo's David and an NFL referee's offside sign -- that appeared to say, I just can't believe my great good luck.
Whether it's his charisma or his good showmanship, Diamond generates a kind of Mona Lisa effect: no matter where he is on the stage, his eyes seem to be watching you. Each time he'd point toward my section, a number of fans would scream, all independently convinced the gesture had been meant for them. Maybe I was swept up in all this adoration, but I swear I caught him pointing at me.
When I met Mike, the Tool fan, he was reminiscing about old times with his buddy Steve. Mike recalled how he'd always wake up to his mother's Neil Diamond records when he was young, and reflected: "[His music] definitely brings me back. . . . It just gets me talking about old times."
If Diamond seems like all things to all fans, that's partly because he's been a lot of things, or tried to be. His influences have ranged from Tin Pan Alley to gospel, from country to his experiences in psychotherapy. Long before Madonna made a career out of makeovers, Diamond was keeping himself relevant by periodically reinventing his stage persona.
Originally Diamond didn't even want to be a singer: his first love was fencing. Upon graduating from Brooklyn's Erasmus High, where he and Barbra Streisand were in the same glee club, Diamond accepted a fencing scholarship. He wrote songs in his spare time, and when the Zorro lifestyle didn't pan out, he began to shop them around. Industry honchos at the legendary Brill Building took note, and Neil soon completed the frog-to-king metamorphosis he would later document in his ballad "I Am . . . I Said."
Rob Garrett, a Las Vegas-based Neil Diamond impersonator known as "The King of Diamonds," describes the singer's evolution this way: "During the late '60s and early '70s he was this serious, dramatic troubadour, sort of like a poet with a guitar. In the late '70s and early '80s he become a more suave, exciting concert performer who was the epitome of 'cool.' In the mid to late '80s, as he was gaining 'legendary' status, he lightened up and started to appear more relaxed and confident on-stage, smiling and even joking around a bit with his audience."
Not every reinvention was successful. In the late 1970s, coming off a four-year sabbatical and some intensive therapy, Diamond made an attempt to overhaul his image. He enlisted Robbie Robertson to produce his album Beautiful Noise, and performed a song with the rest of the Band in the Martin Scorsese concert film The Last Waltz. This was not a success. As the Band's drummer Levon Helm would later recount in a memoir, the scene looked as if the group's accountant had been pushed onto the stage. Diamond also auditioned for the role of Lenny Bruce in Lenny and -- take a deep breath -- for the role of Travis Bickle in Scorsese's Taxi Driver. Neil finally did get his Hollywood break, starring as Al Jolson in the 1980 film The Jazz Singer, but it was something of a Pyrrhic victory. The soundtrack album sold more than four million copies, but the film tanked in theaters.
So Diamond decided to keep on keepin' on, and to stick to the role he knew best. Perhaps it's this persistence that's endeared him to tribute bands such as LA's Neilists and San Francisco's Super Diamond. It goes without saying that both groups maintain a certain distance from their subject, but their approach isn't purely ironic. It may be that Diamond's self-consciousness serves a pre-emptive purpose -- how can you really make fun of a guy who rides his Harley in a gang called the Mild Ones?
If going to a Neil Diamond show confers any kind of cachet, it's the hipness that comes with being proudly square. The things that really matter aren't your accessories, but your feelings. Rob Garrett helps put this side of Neil's attraction in perspective. When he performs as Diamond, he explains, he becomes "the non-controversial 'good guy' in the sparkly shirt who is everybody's friend. . . . I just know I enjoy singing the most when I can emote, and Neil is a major emoter."
This desire to have one's feelings validated by others is an essential part of Neil's appeal. Particularly during the more reflective songs, the Centrum came to resemble a super-size safe space, a biosphere from which all traces of threat had been pumped out.
This pas de deux mirrored a certain oscillation I noticed between isolation and community, solitude and belonging. In my notebook I charted songs containing the word "lonely" against songs with the word "friends," and ended up with a half-dozen of each. No one was psychobabbling about recognition or catharsis; people were just grooving. When I asked Rob Garrett how it feels to "be" Neil Diamond on-stage, he replied simply: "It feels damn good to be accepted."
Despite topnotch production values, a Neil Diamond show has very little in the way of special effects. There are no fireworks, fake blood, or upside-down drum solos. Only a little dry ice, and the arena-sized flags that unfurl during "America." That's when Neil, a more natural political animal than Al Gore could ever hope to be, stopped singing to deliver a stump speech about how difference doesn't really matter, since we're "God's children all."
If grade-school musicals are any indication, "America" has become the song most people associate with the European diaspora of the late 19th century. But this conversion of history into entertainment robs the event of any sense of complexity, urgency, or even reality. And though Diamond's "everyone's included" sermon sure sounded nice, the bit about "black and white together" rang a little hollow to my ears -- the only two black people I saw all evening were in the band.
This is the kind of thing that sets the critics off. Sitting in my section was Debby Rosenblatt, a jazz promoter from the Framingham area. Maybe she'd reluctantly accompanied a friend, but whatever her reason for being at the concert, she cut Diamond no slack: "Neil Diamond whips [his audience] into a crazy frenzy for this phony America. It's so shameful, it's pandering to the worst emotions. There are great resources in the American culture for the real thing, but he's not the real thing. He's faker than fake. His girdle epitomizes that -- as the evening wore on, the fact that he was trying to hide the fat in his belly was no longer hideable. He's a sham, he's a clown."
I can't vouch for the girdle, but I think Debby missed the point. Neil's act isn't about being real -- it's about being possible. He projects an authenticity that cuts through the show business. In a culture where products from soft drinks to light trucks are hawked as "the real thing," Diamond conveys the honest sense of never having wanted to be anything but himself -- a sequined, guitar-strumming American man.
This was what people had been waiting for. Tapping into a hidden reserve of energy, the audience outdid its previous efforts, matching Neil word for word as he sang, "We've got all night to set the world right." No one seemed to mind that the song, written on a Native American reservation, is about a drifter riding the night train. Performed live, it grew in meaning to describe exactly what Neil was asking us to do: forget our own troubles, come together, and remake the world. Escapist? More than likely. Utopian? Without a doubt -- this is the song that goes, "Find me a dream that don't ask any questions."
"Cracklin' Rosie" ground to an end, but the crowd didn't want to let it go -- and neither, it turned out, did Neil. He gladly gave the people what they wanted: another rendition of the chorus. And then another false ending. And then another chorus. During this sing-along, the Centrum rocked harder than it would all night. It occurred to me that perhaps what I was witnessing was the spectacle of a collective time machine being kick-started. Or maybe it was just the sound of a big broken record.
It could've been a glitch in the Matrix for all I knew; I was feeling mighty disoriented. Right about that time -- or maybe it was during "I'm a Believer" -- Rick tapped me on the shoulder to ask if I'd been "converted" yet. Neil wouldn't sing "Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show" until later, but I got the message loud and clear.
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