« Back to all news
Barry Egan talks to Neil Diamond ahead of his Aviva showHE danced with Lady Diana -- at the princess's insistence -- at a White House ball in 1985 when Ronnie and Nancy were residents. Neil Diamond isn't as sprightly today as he walks to his limo -- but in his black jean jacket, baseball cap and faded black jeans, he doesn't look his 70 years, not by a long shot. He has good genes. His mother Rose is 93 and hounds him about taking her to his shows.
"I had to break it to her very gently that she could not come to the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame in New York recently because she was sick," says her superstar son. "So, she got over that. Then I did this Las Vegas thing and she said she wanted to see the show and she also wanted to gamble. She is indomitable, this woman."
Rose lives in LA. So, to get her to Las Vegas was, he says, "doable". But she got bronchitis before she and Neil could go. "The doctor said he couldn't let her go," says Neil. "So I told her when I get back from this tour, we'll both go to Vegas and we'll party. And we will do it. She worries me, but I am flying her down to Vegas when I get back."
I wouldn't be surprised if it is Neil that Rose worries about more. He is a sweet, sensitive soul. He doesn't seem entirely at odds with the man he sang of on his 1966 classic Solitary Man. Lest we forget, Neil sings as much about the search for meaning in life as he does about romance. Listen to Love on the Rocks again.
In an interview with the Sunday Telegraph, the "Byronically smouldering hunk, carpeted in heroic chest hair", as Jan Moir described him in 2002, admitted to having visited psychiatrists since 1971. "I am difficult," he said. "I am very sensitive, and can be hurt and disturbed by things around me. It is hard for me to shake things off, and writing songs is my great saviour. One song is worth a thousand hours of therapy as far as I am concerned."
Born on January 24, 1941, to a Jewish family in Brooklyn, he was a melancholic child. It has remained with him all his life. "It is part of my genetic make-up," he tells me. "There is that side of me I see as melancholic. It shows in the songs.
"There is also another side, which I think is the dominant side, which is very expressive and very outward-leaning and joyful and excited. All the things that melancholia is not. There's part of both in me."
I ask him if he gets a sense of being alone when he comes off stage from playing to a huge stadium of people. "You definitely get a sense of aloneness," he says. "It's like whiplash. You go from performing in front of thousands of people, and the adulation involved in that, and the music, and there is a whole experience to being alone in your dressing room and it brings you back to reality."
So, you are sitting backstage pondering death and posing to yourself these existential questions in your head? "I am. That's the time to do it. 'What is this? I was just out there; the world adored me.'"
And they still adore Neil Diamond, but who is Neil Diamond? "Well, of course," he says, laughing. "That goes on all the time. I have finally come to terms with that and, you know, accepted myself, but it took years. You have to go through a lot of levels of understanding -- and I did.
"First, I had to understand who I was on stage as a performer. Who is this human being really inside that's projecting? Because that's what you want to project. You want to project who you are; not a song. Get a cover band to do a song, but get a real passionate person to represent and interpret that song and make it move an audience -- to do that, an artist must have an understanding of who he is."
He pauses. "I have to know myself and I have spent my life trying to know myself. It's in the Bible, isn't it?"
But isn't there a danger of going too far with analysis of the self? You might open up a Pandora's box. "Yeah, you can go down there and find things that you hate and open up doors that you don't want to open. I'm basically a positive person."
Does your mother ever say to you, 'Analysis is paralysis -- just live your life, son?'
Neil replies: "At this point in her life, she is more about living her life and enjoying herself. The advice I got from my parents was always, 'Work hard and be a good person.' Not live life and enjoy yourself. Enjoyment was not part of the package. I had to learn how to do that myself. My mother is about enjoying herself and one of those ways is through my success."
He tells me this over breakfast in the Four Seasons in Dublin, before politely asking me if I want to go with him in the limo to take a look at the nearby Aviva Stadium, where he is playing on June 25.
Before we get to the car, some fans ask him to sign albums and pictures in the lobby of the hotel. He is the perfect gentleman. Then he always was. In 1969, his marriage to first wife Jaye Posner (they had two children, Marjorie and Elyn) having ended, Neil wed Marcia Murphey, a marriage which lasted a quarter of a century, and produced two more children (Jesse and Micah) and one of the most famous and amicable divorce settlements of all time, when in 1996 Neil handed Marcia a cheque for close to $100m. He and Marcia, without lawyers, sorted things out over the phone; splitting Diamond's fortune down the middle.
In 1996, he met and fell in love with an Australian beauty some years his junior, Rachel Farley, from whom he has since broken up. Without wishing to be too Freudian (even though Neil went to a Freudian therapist for years), I wonder was Neil attracted to women in later life that reminded him of his "strong" mother. "I guess I was. Although as a kid growing up, I would have much preferred that my mom be a mother.
"She worked and, you know, my brother and I cleaned the house. It was all about working. Everybody in the family had to work because you have to eat, you had to feed everybody. I never got an allowance. If I wanted to go and get an ice-cream sundae, I had to have the money in my pocket from my work to get it. I worked all the time."
The hard work has paid off. He is unimaginably wealthy. He has homes in New York and Los Angeles, and a super-ranch in Colorado -- and hires, so the story goes, private jets to take his dogs on holiday. That kind of wealth.
You suspect no amount of money is going to take that melancholia off his shoulders. Still, you get the impression, as I did, having spent two hours with him, that Neil Diamond is in a much brighter place now and that he probably meant it when he told People magazine: "After years of working with a psychiatrist, I have finally forgiven myself for not being Beethoven."
The man who has sold close to 200 million records opens the door to the car for me. He is such a cool and unassuming presence (the gauche, blindingly beady and sequin-adorned shirts are conspicuous by their absence today) that I forget for a moment just what this guy has achieved in his career.
He has written some of the world's most-famous and most-enduring songs. Cracklin' Rosie, Sweet Caroline (composed as a homage to Caroline Kennedy after seeing her on the cover of Life magazine), I Am ... I Said, Song Sung Blue, Hello Again, Kentucky Woman. Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra covered his songs. He duetted with Barbra Streisand on 1978's You Don't Bring Me Flowers. He wrote I'm a Believer for The Monkees.
He is beautiful talker. When you ask Neil where the sense of romance came from in the music that has held the world in thrall for decade after decade, he answers, as he often does, with a story: "I studied guitar for a year when I was 16. Then one day, I was in the school auditorium doing some homework when this guy at the front was playing the piano -- he was playing classical music. And it was gorgeous. I am very affected by music. I always have been and I still am. I fell in love with what he was doing. I went home that day and I quit my guitar lessons, and took piano lessons and studied piano, and it was all classical music.
"So, if there is romanticism in my music, it comes from that year of pretty intense study of the classics. I don't write a lot with the piano, but I do love that romantic, sweeping, emotional thing that rock 'n'roll people hate."
But the rock'n'roll crowd loves him more than he thinks. His sexy Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon, re-interpreted by Urge Overkill, formed the ironic backdrop for Uma Thurman's notorious drug OD scene in Tarantino's Pulp Fiction movie. He was hip again in the Noughties with raw, stripped-back albums produced by Rick Rubin -- 12 Songs (2005) and Home Before Dark (2008). "The best work he has done in 30 years," said Newsweek of 12 Songs. He headlined Glastonbury Festival in 2008 and, said the Observer, was the undeniable hit of the weekend.
Can you remember the first time you actually breathed into your lungs and sang? "I was four. I sang along with Mozart's Marriage of Figaro at a contest. It was a lot more interesting in some ways," Neil says in comparison to the tunes of that era that a four-year-old boy could have sung along to instead. "That was 1945. I was in a family contest we had and I won. I got a quarter for it.
"Manhattan was another world back then," he continues, like a lyric from one of his songs. "I never went into Manhattan until I was 16 or 17. Manhattan was unnecessary growing up because everything you needed you had in your Brooklyn neighbourhood. You had your family and your friends and your school."
Growing up, Neil didn't experience any anti-Semitism. "Not in Brooklyn, no," he says. "But there are a lot of Jewish people in Brooklyn. Generally, I hadn't experienced very much anti- Semitism, because I'm from New York. When I started travelling with my records, I didn't experience very much. I guess people didn't speak about it much in front of me. I did hear things. My kids are affected by it. They told me, 'Dad, some guy said I had Jew hair.' Things come up. They leave a mark."
It didn't leave a mark on you? "Not really. Not about Judaism. Though," he adds, smiling, "I was chased home from school every day by the Irish kids."
What did they chase you home for? "Because they could." We both laugh. He adds with a chuckle that he might make reference to those Irish boys of his youth at the much-anticipated show at the Aviva on June 25.
His father Akeeba, who died in 1985, ran and owned a series of dry goods stores in the New York City borough. Neil and his little brother Harvey, and his Jewish immigrant mum and dad, lived in a tiny apartment above a butcher's shop in Flatbush, Brooklyn. He shared a bedroom with Harvey. "It was about the size of a closet," he says.
"The music in that apartment was the sound of the mouse traps snapping all night," he adds. "There were dead mice all over the place."
There was, however, lots of music in the Brooklyn apartment other than the primal din of pesky mice getting their necks broken in the night. Neil tells me he remembers as a young child hearing his parents' "dance to records, mostly Latin American. They were ballroom dancers.
"My folks would get home from a hard day's work, have dinner and go dancing in the living room. They'd put on a record and pull the rug back and dance. That was their entertainment.
"They didn't have any money, but they loved dancing," he says slowly. "They made do." Asked what they passed on to him, Diamond says he "inherited my mom's dramatic sense. She was a dramatic, strong woman, devoted and passionate about what she does. From my father, a much lighter attitude toward the world. He was an amateur performer. He lip synced records -- everything from Russian operatic records to the pop records of the day".
Having a father who lip-syncs to Russian opera sounds incredible, I say. "Oh, it was incredible. My mom got him dressed up in some kind of regalia and he'd lip sync. And he was good. He had all the expressions. He did it in local community centres and around the area."
Do you think of your father like this when you are playing live to 60 and 70,000 people? "I do," he smiles, "because some of the things I do on stage I saw my dad doing. Little things," he says in that reflective, sometimes dark, way of his. "I have those memories." As he sings himself on Brooklyn Roads: "Two floors above the butcher/ First door on the right/ Life filled to the brim."
And that's precisely what Neil Diamond, now in his eighth decade, has given the world: songs with life filled to the brim.
Neil Diamond plays the Aviva Stadium on June 25, with special guest Mary Byrne
- Barry Egan