As Neil Diamond retires from touring due to Parkinson's, Neil McCormick looks back at his 50 year career
As the legendary 'Sweet Caroline' hit-maker retires from touring due to Parkinson's, Neil McCormick looks back on his 50-year career
Rock and roll wasn't supposed to take retirement. Live fast, die young was part of the unspoken ethos of post-Presley pop culture, where idols were expected to either burn out quickly or bask in a state of perpetual youth. But Neil Diamond was always one of the more mature figures to emerge from the musical explosion of the 60s.
His particular blend of melodious songwriting with lyrical depth and showbiz glitter straddled the old world of theatrical show tunes and the boundary-pushing ethos of rock. To this, he added the inner-depth offered by the new breed of sensitive singer-songwriters. From the first time he rose to public attention, singing the brooding 'Solitary Man' in 1966, Diamond carried himself with a quality of grown-up grit amidst the glamour.
It's sad to hear that Diamond is retiring due to ill health, having been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. Yet there is something appropriate about the dignified way he has made this announcement and stepped back from the limelight. So much pop music operates in a state of fantasy and denial. Part of the appeal of Diamond is he always seemed to occupy the same world as his audience. He has been such an extraordinary star for so long, it is reassuring to see him face the problems of old age with such fortitude.
Diamond turns 77 tomorrow, and has been writing songs since he was a teenager, dropping out of New York University (where he was studying medicine) at the end of his junior year in 1958 to take a job on Tin Pan Alley for $50 a week. It took nearly a decade to rise to solo stardom, which perhaps accounts for why his head was never turned by it. But since those modest beginnings, he has sold over 125 million albums and created some of the most enduring songs of our times, from The Monkees' 'I'm A Believer' to such solo classics as 'Cracklin' Rosie', 'Sweet Caroline', 'I Am… I Said', 'Holly Holy', 'Red Red Wine', 'Love On The Rocks' and 'Forever In Blue Jeans'. His last album of original material, 2014's Melody Road, was top five in both the US and UK charts.
Those of us who saw him last year on his 50th Anniversary Tour inevitably speculated on how long he could keep it going. Grey-haired and grey-bearded, he was a little creaky and stiff-hipped as he moved around the stage.
But while he may no longer have exhibited the vigorous physicality of his 70s glory days, he remained a commanding figure. "It doesn't feel like 50 years," he ruefully admitted on stage. "But the great thing is, I can still sing, and you can still sing along with me." Well, no more, apparently. He will be at the Grammy Awards on Sunday to accept a much deserved Lifetime Achievement Award, but has cancelled future tour dates, and that may be the last we see of him.
The first time I met Neil Diamond, in 2008, I was struck by his seriousness. His handsome features were already weathered by age, with deep furrows in his skin, earlobes stretched and eyebrows tinted grey. He wore caps offstage and toupees onstage to disguise encroaching baldness. But it was his brooding gravity that took me by surprise, since there is so much lightness and energy in his work. And he made it clear that he really did consider songwriting to be work. "It's ditch digging, and unfortunately the ditch I am digging is inside of me."
On another occasion, in 2014, I asked if he enjoyed the process, and was taken aback by the sharpness of his response. "No, I hate it. I hate it. But alright, nobody told me it was gonna be easy. And so what? I'm a ditch digger when I'm writing songs. My back hurts? Who cares? I gotta get that ditch dug deep and strong and it's gotta serve its purpose. There are no shortcuts. There are only long cuts. That's what it is. But I've been doing it a long time now. I can't find another way to make a living."
Diamond has been married three times, most recently to his manager, Katie McNeill, whom he wed in April 2012. At 47, she's almost three decades younger than Diamond and they have an easy going, light-hearted rapport that is pleasant to be around, his spirits always visibly lifted when she entered the room. But he recognised in himself a streak of innate melancholy, which, he said, music could release him from, particularly in performance.
"On stage I am able to be the biggest fool you've ever met. Are you willing to be a fool and sing with me? You who don't sing? You are? Come on, let's be fools together. And that's what makes for great, sharing experiences."
It can be hard for any entertainer to give performing up, because it is so fulfilling to the ego and the spirit. But it seems that time has come now.
As a fan, I hope (as his website promises) that he's not quite ready to stop writing and recording, as challenging as he clearly finds it. Because these great lyrical voices of popular song that arose in the 60s have, in many ways, acted as beacons for their audience, continuing to produce new, mature and interesting work across the decades, venturing into frontiers of age that few suspected rock 'n' roll would ever light up.
But whatever happens, we can hope Diamond gets to enjoy his retirement, because he has earned it. "Though I spend most of my time working, it's not the most important thing in my life," he told me the first time I met him. "In my mind, I can drop it, walk away and be perfectly satisfied. At some point I will have to take that step. I will have to eventually find out what real life is about."