“Exhilaration,” Diamond says, “is the operable word this year.” (“Bah bah bah!”)
And when Neil Diamond speaks of falling in love, and speaks of exhilaration, he, of all people, can be trusted. No one in pop music has ever done emotion like he has, from the dark loneliness of “Solitary Man” to the spiritual yearning of “Holly Holy” to the existential rage of “I Am . . . I Said” to — yes — the sheer exhilaration of “Sweet Caroline.” (There’s your cue, folks: “Bah bah bah!”)
And now, 70 years into an extraordinary life and 45 years into a career as a hit-maker, Diamond is experiencing the kind of run that younger men can only dream of, with his love life in autumnal bloom — he is preparing to get married for the third time, this time to his 41-year-old manager, Katie McNeil — and his career in a period of critical reevaluation that amounts, in Diamond’s own description, to “validation.”
When Diamond receives the Kennedy Center Honors this week, in recognition of a lifetime of contributions to American culture, it will be the third time this year that he has been bestowed with this sort of cultural immortality, following his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March and his acceptance of the inaugural Billboard Icon Award in May.
“Fortunately . . . the people in the know are calling me positive things instead of the negative things,” Diamond says. He is outfitted in minimalist black: black sweater, black jeans, black slip-on shoes, black wristwatch. The plain black baseball cap and black leather jacket he wore into the room have been removed and placed on a table.
“I don’t see myself as an icon at all,” he says. “I see myself still as a struggling artist trying to create music. And that’s what I do every day. And it’s the same kind of struggle I’ve had since I began — feeling inadequate to the task, and sometimes achieving something that uplifts my own spirits and that goes on to uplift the spirits of others. It’s my labor.”
If you detect a dark undercurrent in Diamond’s words, a barely concealed questioning of his own self-worth, you would not be overreaching or incorrect. Even in the midst of this career-validating run of honors, he has maintained a distance from the sentiment involved. And something beyond mere modesty is at work here.