Neil Diamond talks Tubs, Bono, Monkees... and inflatable dolls with Nick Kelly
As he prepares to play the Aviva Stadium today, Neil Diamond talks Tubs, Bono, Monkees... and inflatable dolls with Nick Kelly
Is there a performer so beloved of the Irish as Neil Diamond? When the suave Brooklyn crooner takes the stage of Dublin's Aviva Stadium this evening, it will be just the latest tryst in a life-long love affair that proves that, where Ireland is concerned, this Diamond is forever.
Just as a later generation took to David Gray, Irish music fans were seduced by his deep, declamatory voice; his timeless songs full of yearning, heartbreak and hope; his famously charismatic stage presence; and not forgetting those sparkly sequined shirts.
The likes of 'Sweet Caroline', 'Cracklin' Rosie' and 'Forever In Blue Jeans' have soundtracked numberless nights out through the years, from Carrick-on-Shannon to Termonfeckin. And when the Irish football team qualified for USA '94, it was Neil's anthem 'Coming To America' with which RTÉ chose to bookend their TV coverage.
And when he serenaded the Late Late Show audience earlier this month, he had them eating out of his hands.
"I had a wonderful time on The Late Late Show," says Diamond, speaking to the Irish Independent during a rare day off on his European tour. "Ryan (Tubridy) was absolutely terrific. He couldn't have been nicer. He came by to say hello and introduce himself before the show and we chatted.
"He put me at ease and I felt I was ready to go out and face Ireland and have a good time while doing it. One of the great experiences of my musical life is having the audience sing the song to me."
Having turned 70 earlier this year, Diamond would have been forgiven for putting his feet up and enjoying a well-earned break from touring the world's arenas and amphitheatres. But the proverbial pipe and slippers have been put in cold storage -- he's promoting a live album and DVD recorded at New York's Madison Square Garden on his last jaunt. Any excuse to play Dublin again . . .
"Other than my own home town, Ireland is probably my favourite place to play," he says. "It's always the highlight of my European tour. The audience is excited to hear music and feel good participating in music. And they've been loyal and generous to me to a fault. I intend to put on the best show that I possibly can.
"And I love Irish women, too!"
This time around, Diamond won't be singing from a revolving stage, as he did when he played 'in the round' at The Point in 1999.
"It was an amazing stage," he says. "I've donated it to a university in California that specialises in the arts and there it will live for young students who come up in the future to study. It's an amazing technological feat and it was a great experience to perform from that stage."
Diamond's last two studio albums, 12 Songs and Home Before Dark, saw him collaborate with uber-producer Rick Rubin, the man credited with bringing the Indian Summer of Johnny Cash's late career into bloom.
"I met Rick a year before we actually started working together on our first album," says Diamond. "We had a great relationship. I think he's the nicest man -- very talented. It was great to prove to myself that I could bring it off as a writer. Because I took on some interesting, complicated stories with these songs. It seems like people are responding to them, which is the bottom line."
Just as with The Man In Black, Rubin stripped away all the bells and whistles, and took Diamond back to basics: one man and his guitar.
"Of course, I'm an acoustic guitar player so I tend to base almost all of the songs on acoustic-guitar sound and rhythm, so it's natural for the acoustic guitar to be the central point of those records."
I wonder if the process reminded him of his early years in the Brill Building -- the name of the offices in New York where the movers 'n' shakers of the music industry on the East Coast were based in the 1950s and 60s, the so-called Tin Pan Alley.
It was said that songwriters would work 9-5 there as if it were any other business.
"The Brill Building? It was both creative and it was very business-like," he says. "You went in from office to office and knocked on doors of the music publishers and the record companies, and you were asking them to listen to your songs and either publish them or find people who were willing to record them.
"It was a fantastic agglomeration of people; of funny, strange, creative people who could not make it in anything else other than trying to get into the music business because they could sing a tune, and trying to make something of that. So there was some desperation involved in that era that I spent on Tin Pan Alley."
You really were writing for your supper . . .
"Exactly. The writers had no control in what happened to the songs afterwards.
"I'd make a demo of the song and I made dozens and dozens and dozens of demos in my formative years in which I sang because I couldn't afford to hire demo singers.
"My manager Katie McNeill is trying to persuade me to release those early demos because she loves the songs and the simplicity of it all -- so I'm thinking about it."
Until then, fans of his early work can content themselves with a new compilation, Neil Diamond: The Bang Years 1966-68, which was released by Sony in May. One of the songs on that collection is his original version of 'I'm A Believer', which to this day evokes the Swinging Sixties as much as any song ever did -- but which of course was made famous by The Monkees.
"I thought The Monkees did a very good job of it but that was the furthest thing from my mind," says Diamond. "All I was thinking was 'Oh My God, I got a Monkees record and it's not bad and, guess what, they're gonna have a hit with it!'
"And they did! It was the biggest hit of the year in the United States -- and The Beatles were in full flight at that time, so 'I'm A Believer' for some reason stuck. It made The Monkees' career, short as that was."
This has been a particularly auspicious year for Diamond -- in March he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in New York by Paul Simon in a lavish ceremony in the Grand Ballroom at the Waldorf Hotel, and just a few weeks ago he received industry bible Billboard magazine's Icon award for his life's work. Alas, his memory of the former is a little hazy.
'I did make a speech when I was introduced but I take no responsibility for it because I'd been on an airplane for approximately 25 hours flying to New York from Melbourne," he says. "It was nine time zones later. I was beyond jet-lagged. I don't know what I said; I hope I didn't insult anyone.
"As for the Billboard awards, I got a nice icon award I guess just for being around for so long!" he laughs.
Meet anyone at the bash?
"Bono and the guys were on the show earlier than I was and they had to make a mad dash somewhere, but Bono wrote a very nice note which he gave to the TV people to give to me. He just said that he's a big fan and we'll bump into each other the next time. It's been an interesting year."
Diamond's evergreen love song 'Sweet Caroline' is almost like an unofficial national anthem in Ireland, I tell him, without which no wedding dance is complete. So is it true that it's actually about JFK's daughter Caroline?
"It's not true at all," says Diamond. "Caroline Kennedy's name did occur to me when I was writing the song, and it was my final choice among a number of other names, but that's as close as Caroline Kennedy got to the story. But I'm glad she likes the song. I've been asked to sing it at her birthday a few times."
So it could easily have been Sweet Caitriona?
"The title of the song was inspired by Caroline Kennedy's name, but the story that the song told was the story of my wife at the time. It was our story. But Caroline's name stuck and I put it where it felt right."
Finally, I tell him that I came across at least two Neil Diamond tribute acts in Majorca last summer -- they even had the sparkly shirts down to a tee. How does he feel knowing there's guys making a living impersonating him?
"I've seen these people before in different forums and I think it's good fun.
"As long as they don't go to bed at night with a Neil Diamond inflatable doll, I'm OK with it."
Neil Diamond plays the Aviva Stadium, Dublin, this evening with Mary Byrne as special guest. Tickets are still available.