Neil Diamond, Polishing His Songcraft

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 5, 2005

For his hot August night at MCI Center Wednesday, Neil Diamond will dip into a songbook whose copyrights go back to 1966 and includes such pop standards as "Cracklin' Rosie," "Sweet Caroline," "Love on the Rocks, "Song Sung Blue," "I Am, I Said," "Cherry Cherry," "Holly Holy," "Kentucky Woman" and "You Don't Bring Me Flowers," his duet with old Erasmus High School choir mate Barbra Streisand.

Diamondheads could be getting a first listen to "Oh Mary," "Delirious Love" or "Hell Yeah" from an as-yet untitled Diamond album to be released in November, his first with producer Rick Rubin. Yes, the Rick Rubin best known for producing hip-hop, metal and alternative acts, including the Beastie Boys, Run-DMC, Slayer, System of a Down and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

But in the '90s, Rubin also produced Johnny Cash's "American Recordings," a quartet of albums that revived Cash critically and reintroduced him to a younger, rock-oriented audience. The third of those albums, 2000's "Solitary Man," featured the then 68-year-old country icon covering an early Diamond song whose title has often been used to describe its author.

"Of course I liked what Johnny did with 'Solitary Man,' " Diamond said recently from his Los Angeles home. "There were a number of other cuts I thought were extraordinary, thrilling and powerful. It wasn't only 'Solitary Man' I got caught up in, so when you get a chance to work with someone like [Rubin], you don't turn a blind eye to it.

"I'm not sure if I had expectations," says the 64-year-old Diamond of the unlikely partnership. "I had a lot of hopes ."

The album's not quite finished, but portions of a few tracks are played over the phone. They hint at the spare, acoustic approach emphasizing song over performance that worked so well with Cash. While the piano-driven "Delirious Love" is as propulsive and anthemic as its title suggests, "Oh Mary" is a love song anchored in simple acoustic guitar, "Hell Yeah" a reflective ballad in which Diamond looks back on his life and career and decides that despite "this crazy life around me / It confuses and confounds me," it's all been worth it: "Hell yeah," indeed.

According to Diamond, "Rick had a very clear vision of what he wanted this album to be. He was looking for a soulful performance with me playing guitar and singing, which I haven't done since [1966's] 'Cherry Cherry' and [1967's] 'Kentucky Woman' -- on record, anyway. He was looking to make a minimalist record, and he wanted good songs.

"All of which I agreed to, with the exception of playing on the songs while singing," Diamond says. "We butted heads as far as that one was concerned -- I complained about it every day. Fortunately, Rick stuck to his guns because the result is really some kind of magical recording."

The Diamond-Rubin connection may seem odd, but the two, both Brooklyn born and bred, even have common collegiate history: Both are New York University dropouts. Diamond, a pre-med student on a fencing scholarship, dropped out in 1960, six months and 10 credits before he would have received his degree. He didn't tell his mother until 1995, when he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts. He'd quit to work as a $50-dollar-a-week contract songwriter with assorted New York publishing companies, though without much success. Then in 1966, he rented a small storage room above the Birdland jazz club for $35 a month, installed a pay phone on a small desk next to a cheap piano, and went to work for himself.

Soon, Diamond was selling songs, including "Sunday and Me," a Top 20 hit for Jay & the Americans, and "I'm a Believer" and "A Little Bit Me, a Little Bit You," No. 1 and No. 2 hits, respectively, for the Monkees. Diamond, who'd learned to play guitar after receiving one for his 14th birthday, eventually overcame his shyness to emerge as a recording artist and performer in his own right: "Cherry Cherry" would be the first of many hits; 1970's "Cracklin' Rosie" was his first No. 1.

Rubin, who'd studied to be a lawyer before becoming a producer and co-founder of the Def Jam label, first reached out to Diamond after the "Solitary Man" album with Cash, but it wasn't until 2003 that the two men began talking.

"I'd heard of Rick for a number of years," Diamond says. "He's kind of a pioneer in the music business, and he's produced so many different types of music and artists that you can't help but know about him. And you wonder, 'What the heck is this guy going to do next?' without realizing that you were what he was going to do next! I found out quickly I was comfortable with him and liked what his ideas were. It was a no-brainer: Let's give it a try and have fun . . . and tell me where to stand."

Before Diamond and Rubin went into the studio, there was a lot of talk. The producer isn't attached to any particular sound or method, and Rubin is known to spend a long time in preproduction and song-prepping before he's ready to start recording. Diamond himself spent 14 months "locked up in my studio, writing, working from dawn till dark, six or seven days a week, trying to plumb the depths of my ability, my soul, my life and hopefully come out of it with songs that shed new light on things.

"It was a difficult time, but the actual creation of the record in the studio was the most eye-opening thing for me of the whole process," Diamond says. "I don't really hear a record when I'm writing, I'm basically just writing a song. But Rick had a particular point of view and a vision about what this album should be, what it should sound like, what I should sound like and what the songs should be presented as.

"I just kind of followed along. I wrote the songs, and it was up to Rick to make them come alive in the studio. He took some very strong stands on what the musicians would play [they include Mike Campbell from Tom Petty's Heartbreakers and Smokey Hormel from Beck's band, both of whom played on Rubin's Cash albums], and in particular what I would play [on guitar while singing]. I did not want to do it. It took me a number of dates to realize he was absolutely right and there was something coming off these records that I had not experienced for a number of decades in my music."

This will be the fourth collection of new material in 14 years (following 1991's "Lovescape," 1996's country-tinted "Tennessee Moon" and 2001's "Three Chord Opera"). Among the 120 million records sold worldwide as of May, including 50 million in the United States, have been Christmas collections and concert albums. (The 1972 "Hot August Night" album, recorded at Los Angeles' Greek Theatre, remains a classic and suggests why his last concert tour drew 2 million people.) His records also include numerous compilations and best-ofs and in the last decade, tributes to the Brill Building era of songwriting and film songs. Still, "Hell Yeah" aside, Diamond hasn't really looked back since 1996's self-selected career retrospective, "In My Lifetime."

"Honestly I don't think about it," he says. "I've been doing it for a long time, and I know what's important and what's relevant, and that's the songs and the records and the performances, and that's what I think about. I hardly ever go back and rethink my life or my songs. It's just that I have enough to do dealing with the present."

The present includes another toe dipped into the world of film. After his debut in 1980's ill-fated "The Jazz Singer" (unless you're counting a guest spot on a 1967 episode of "Mannix"), Diamond wisely decided to concentrate on music rather than pursuing an acting career. Two decades later, he felt confident enough to play himself in the comedy "Saving Silverman," about a trio of twenty-somethings (Jack Black, Steve Zahn and Jason Biggs) who have a Neil Diamond tribute act called Diamonds in the Rough. Diamond, who saw the film as a tribute to his fans and fans in general, ended up joining Diamonds in the Rough for a rousing finale of "Holly Holy," while also contributing "I Believe in Happy Endings," his first original movie composition since "Jazz Singer."

Though that cameo was warmly received (and compared to Tom Jones's hero turn in "Mars Attacks!"), Diamond said at the time that if he ever did another movie, it would be as "a singing serial killer." But in the upcoming "Lucky 13," he plays . . . Neil Diamond! Singing at a bar mitzvah. (The Scott Marshall-directed film is about a boy who uses his upcoming bar mitzvah to reconcile the strained relationship between his father and grandfather.) One professional Diamond impersonator has updated his Web site to advise that after the film's release, "Neil Diamond impersonators will be much in demand at bar mitzvahs."

"That's show business," laughs Diamond, who has inspired a whole subculture of impersonators: Only Elvis has more. There's obviously something about shiny shirts, sweeping stage gestures, gruff authoritative vocals and overall earnestness that make Diamond one of pop's enduring attractions and objects of imitation. Los Angeles' Super Diamond has been doing him since 1993 and every August re-creates the "Hot August Night" show. Lead singer Randy Cordeiro, an ex-computer engineer, is known to fans as Surreal Neil; once, the real Neil sat in with Super Diamond at the House of Blues, singing "I Am, I Said." Or should that have been "We Are, We Said?"

Says Diamond: "It is a little strange, I have to admit it, seeing someone up there trying to be you. A little weird but also fun. God bless them all, I hope they do great."

Diamond is quick to note that his appearance in "Lucky 13" is, again, just a cameo.

"I got a call from the director and read the script, and I thought it was a very fun thing to do," he explains. "It's not a serious marker in my career, but it had some wonderful actors and I thought I'll go in and do a day or two's work and sing at the end. That's all I did, that's all I want to do in film. I don't mind doing it once in a while, but I certainly don't want to take on acting as a profession. That 's not what I do."

NEIL DIAMOND -- Appearing Wednesday at MCI Center.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company