"I am," he said, "just coming back to myself."

Neil Diamond settles into a soft chair meant to transform the Capital Centre locker room into a star's dressing room. Somebody still brings him flowers, but what Diamond is looking for are the inevitable cigarettes that keep his aching baritone on an edge of rawness.

It's midnight, and though the sweat has left his brow, Diamond only half relaxes. Darkly handsome, he speaks in the calm, measured tones of a man who has seldom chosen to talk without the accompaniment of instruments. Of course, in that arena, he's been most eloquent, selling 60 million albums and several generations worth of memories with songs like "Song Sung Blue" and "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother" and "I Am, I Said."

Diamond has made two successful television specials as well as a movie ("The Jazz Singer") that grossed $45 million despite unanimous pans. He's toured to capacity audiences, though too infrequently for die-hard fans: in Australia, promoters received sacks full of letters with blank checks following rumors of a Down Under tour; in Sacramento, a 2,400-seat theater received 300,000 ticket requests for a single show; he was the first pop star to headline on Broadway since Al Jolson. Yesterday he was hit by the Internal Revenue Service with a bill for $81,422 in back income taxes; papers filed with the court showed that Diamond and his wife Marcia had a joint income from personal services totaling more than $19 million for the years 1975-78. And yet Diamond has been an offstage ghost, not much different from the shy boy who polished shoes on Brooklyn street corners at age 10 and whose life was so normal that one record company invented a more stylish past for him. But on stage, he's confident, assured, close-to-cocky at times. Will the real Neil Diamond please speak up?

"They're both the real me," Diamond says slowly, half confession, half recognition. "When I'm on stage, I do feel confident. That's my audience out there, that's my music, I should know how to perform it. To come and sing for 2 1/2 hours and to have an audience like that, I couldn't ask for anything more. It's everything I've ever wanted . . . probably more."

"But it's more difficult to live your own private life -- to be a husband, a father, or a friend -- than to be a performer. Here [Diamond points vaguely to the arena beyond the dressing room walls] the ground rules are set: I'm here to do one thing, the audience is there to accept whatever it is that I'm doing and it's pretty straightforward. Real life is not quite that simple.

"I have never really gone public, except under very special circumstances . . . and I pick the time and place. I've kept myself very much protected. It's not very easy to go out with my 4-year-old and somebody asks for an autograph and I have to explain why they want me to sign my name. I try to keep all of my creative strength and preserve it for those moments of writing and recording. You can't be a star 24 hours a day. You can be a star for two hours, and that's fine."

For a while, it looked as though the 41-year-old Diamond might not even be that. His first half-dozen years in the music business, as an often-fired staff writer for a string of New York publishing firms, might have discouraged other young men, but the son of a dry-goods merchant seemed oblivious to the inertia of his career. He'd caught the bug at a Pete Seeger concert at summer camp and armed with the idea that it was ordinary people who wrote songs, Diamond started in with the rhymes and poems that scanned musically.

As a New York University pre-med student (on a fencing scholarship), Diamond began his chaotic relationship with publishers, dropping out of school for a $50-a-week contract from which he was soon released. For seven years, the songs he came up with "were not very good. I don't know why because I thought I was trying as hard as I could. But I never did take it seriously until I got married for the first time and my wife told me that we had a baby on the way. Then I had to take it seriously; it was either that or starve or get a real job somewhere and I didn't want to do that. I can almost measure the date, that's when my songs started to catch on."

Diamond's gothic themes and lofty melodies were a bit anachronistic in the age of rock 'n' roll; it was pop craftsmanship much closer to the Tin Pan Alley tradition, though the songwriter hung out with the Brill Building crew -- Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Cynthia Weil, Barry Mann, Ellie Greenwich. "I'm a very optimistic person," he explains. "I like happy endings. I want my songs to have a sense of hope in them. I can't see writing negative music; that's not what it's about to me."

In 1965, Diamond rented a storage-closet-passing-as-office at 1650 Broadway, above the fabled Birdland club, and "wrote ferociously." He wasn't singing yet, except on hundreds of demos because "it seemed like it was too hard to be accepted as a performer, that was more than I could have hoped for." He wrote a minor hit ("Sunday and Me") for Jay and the Americans which gave him credibility and "my first real recording contract." Diamond then recorded a single for the tiny Shell label. "It was owned by dentists, but they were the only ones who signed me; I was thrilled. Their motto was 'Our Records Are a Gas.' But there was no reaction to it, so I went back to writing."

Diamond got a second chance in 1964 with Columbia Records, but his "Clown Town" single was a bust and Columbia quickly dropped him. Which made it that much sweeter in 1973 when he re-signed with Columbia for $5 million, the largest advance paid any artist at that time. "That's not why," Diamond insists, a crinkly smile edging from his mouth. "But I can say there's a certain amount of poetic justice."

After strike two, it was back to writing. "Given the choice at that point, if I'd been told that so-and-so wanted to record this song, I would have let them. Unfortunately, there wasn't any so-and-so around, so I was it." Instead of strike three, Diamond finally came up with a hit, "Solitary Man," which he heard aired for the first time on the car radio coming home from his daughter's birth. It was followed within the year by "Cherry, Cherry" and "Kentucky Woman." From then until 1972, Diamond was radio's best friend, his gothic ballads and optimistic sing-alongs almost inescapable. And then, at the top of his form, he quit, took a 40-month sabbatical.

"Don't forget, I'd been writing from the time I was 16 and that was the main focus of my life to that point. I never did get to know who this guy was or whether I even like him. It was a chance to get to know myself, and my family, to write, to explore different kinds of music without the distraction of having to tour. I know that I came back with a great deal of confidence, I wasn't as insecure about myself as a person. They were four of the best years of my life."

That was the period when Diamond did the soundtrack for Richard Bach's "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" (the record outgrossed the movie $12 million to $2 million) and also did his first collaboration, with the Band's Robbie Robertson, who produced the 1977 "Beautiful Noise" album. The collaboration opened up new avenues. "I thought 'maybe this is a part of my coming out of myself,' " Diamond says. "Maybe I didn't have to lock myself into a room and do it all by myself; maybe I wasn't that 'solitary man' anymore, maybe it was time for me to meet and interact with people." Since then, he's worked with Al and Marilyn Bergman ("You Don't Bring Me Flowers") and Gilbert Becaud, among others; his new album, due out in early October, features extensive collaborations with Burt Bacharach and Carol Bayer Sager.

And of course, there was "The Jazz Singer," the muffed film debut that would have been a follow-up, except for another "seagull" story. Back inthe early '70s, Diamond screen-tested for -- and won -- the screen role of Lenny Bruce. "But [Eric Segal's] 'Love Story' had just come out and Columbia Pictures decided that audiences were going to romantic comedy and didn't want filth and insanity and drugs -- all the things involved in Lenny's life." The picture was dropped, went to Broadway with Cliff Gorman and eventually resurfaced as a film with Dustin Hoffman in the title role. Which may have been a blessing for Diamond, who admits his fans "probably wouldn't have liked it very much. Lenny was such a tragic kind of man."

Although "The Jazz Singer" made money (but was still outgrossed by the soundtrack, which sold 10 million copies), Diamond insists he has "no particular aspiration to do more films. If I never do one again, it's just fine with me."

Diamond sits up in the locker room chair, staring straight ahead. "It's much more difficult for me to deal with real life than being that guy on stage. He's just a fantasy that I had and you can't live that fantasy 24 hours a day. So I just lived it and now I'm here and I'm tired and my throat hurts."