Neil Diamond in the rough
He is one of the world's most successful singers. Yet the little devil in his head tells him he's a fraud. Neil Diamond opens up to Barry Egan about his inner torments and how the love of his wife saved him.
I've just arrived at a 5-star hotel in London. An obviously wealthy young woman, no older than 21, approaches the concierge and says loudly that she wants a car to take her to Harrods.
"To go shopping," she says. Neil Diamond - whom I've an appointment to see - grew up in vaguely impoverished circumstances above a shop (not Harrods, a butcher's shop) in Flatbush, Brooklyn, where he would be woken up in the night to the sound of the mousetraps going off. I tell him the story of the rich young girl in the lobby of the hotel he is staying in. I ask does he ever look back on his past and how far he has come in life.
The answer that Neil Diamond gives practically takes up our entire interview; the memories it throws up are Proustian in their rich details. . .
"I do think about things like that," he begins. "Mostly when I'm visiting that old neighbourhood again. I paid a visit recently and I performed at the high school. It brought everything back. It was like a wave of recollections." The 73 year old says he was 16 years old again, and his pimples were back. Neil walked the streets. The buildings were the same. And, he continues, his old stamping ground still has the same working class people - "except they're black, and not Jewish or Italian or Irish."
"I know every crack in the street," he says. "Literally, I walked into a store on the corner where I had been a delivery boy in a pharmacy and they had the same floor. And I had swept that floor, daily.
"I look back on those times," he says of his youth, "I had no idea what my life would be. I didn't pay any attention to what I would study in school, what profession I would take up. I had just started to take guitar lessons. I was nothing. I was nobody. I was so dumb, it didn't concern me."
The 'dumb' kid who has sold 160 million records worldwide (Sweet Caroline, Cracklin' Rosie, You Don't Bring Me Flowers, the latter a duet with Barbra Streisand) says he has gone back to Flatbush a few times "but never in-depth, never examining, looking out of my window, two floors above the butcher's store - it's now a lady's beauty salon."
Neil, born on January 24, 1941, says that when he went back to his roots recently he finally got to "look out of that window".
The memories flooded back and unsettled him. "I never thought about it very much in the past, but then I realised that there must have been a reason why I never once invited any of my friends to my home."
Was it shame?
"I think I was probably a little embarrassed by my circumstances," he says. "Many of them from school lived on the rich side of the tracks. I do know that never in the six years that I lived in that little apartment did I ask a friend to come over and watch TV with me."
Embarrassment notwithstanding, had Neil's school friends visited him they would have been entertained by his father Akeeba lip-syncing to Russian opera. "That was one of his . . . I was going to say hobbies but he was an amateur performer. He wanted to be a performer." When his son starred in the 1980 movie The Jazz Singer, Akeeba asked him: 'Do you think I could do something in the movie?'
"I didn't realise how important it was to him," Neil says, "but I did go to the director and say, 'Can you put my dad in one of the scenes? He's a bar-tender? Or he's walking a dog?' The director said absolutely not. It's tough in Hollywood! But I think that was part of my dad's need to be a performer." Neil adds that when he himself was four he sang Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, adding that in terms of the singing he "probably picked it from him - not the desire to do it but the lack of fear in doing it. Because my dad did this all the time. 'So I can do it'," Neil Diamond says in the voice of him as a little boy. I say that I'm almost frightened to mention his mother Rose. The last time I met Neil three years ago she was 92 years of ago. Is she still around?
"She is! She is not going anywhere. Her secret is she decided that she doesn't want to go anywhere!" he laughs. "She likes her life and she is going to take care of it. Good luck and good fortune, I think, is the secret," Neil says of his mother's longevity, adding, "My dad passed away about 30 years ago. But he saw my success and I'm glad that he did see it. And my mom is still with me. I consider myself very lucky to have her."
I joke and ask him is the feeling replicated.
"Is she happy to have me?" he laughs. "I hope so. She has only got two sons! [Neil has a younger brother Harvey.] She was not happy when I told her I was going to have to come to Europe on a little promotion tour [for his new album Melody Road]. 'How long will you be gone?' 'I'll be gone three weeks, mom.' 'Three weeks!'"
Was she frightened that Neil wouldn't be able to feed himself? "No. She just didn't want me to leave town! Because she'd miss me or she was afraid she'd die and I wouldn't be around. The fact is, she will outlive most of my family, including myself. She'll go for another 40, 50 years."
In reality, Neil Diamond has a fine woman who could feed him in London if he so required it. He married Katie McNeil, who is in her early 40s, on April 21, 2012, in Los Angeles. They got engaged on September 7, 2011.
A few months before that, in June, I met Neil for lunch in Dublin in the Four Seasons. Katie was there and was very chatty but I assumed she was present in a PR capacity for the interview. It was only after the interview when we all went for a drive in the car - and Katie asked me about where were the best parts of Ireland to visit - that I realised there was something of a spark between him and the blonde who was the executive producer of a 2009 documentary film about him.
That spark is all over Neil's new album, Melody Road. Not least the song Something Blue. ('I came with a little bit of sorrow/Was maybe a bit too sad/But one day rolled into tomorrow/And you gave me the best you had. . .')
That has to be Katie, I say. "It is her," Neil says. "You can't avoid it. Yeah. She has informed the album but me too. There is no question about it. I am a happy man," he laughs, "and it is about time. I have waited 70 years to become a happy man. I am very fortunate that I have reached this point in my life and I am around to enjoy it."
I ask him about the line "I opened my eyes and a little bit of darkness came through."
Was there a lot of darkness before Katie? "I would say with the exclusion of my work , because work has always been a bright thing in my life. I consider myself so fortunate to be able to find a little niche for myself in this world. But my life with Katie and our marriage has brought me a kind of satisfaction that I don't think I've ever experienced in my life," he says.
"I'm almost a little bit afraid of it, because you can't capture it and hold it in your hand and put it in a safe at night. It is very ethereal. It is that butterfly of love that you can't catch but you are amazed by it and you can't take your attention off of it. But it is wonderful and I feel so lucky to have it and I want it for as long as I live now."
Neil says he is naturally an "up" kind of person, "but my life has been very pressured and filled with great stress. It seems like I've been on a journey and have been looking for something, which I could not define, and yet hoping to find that thing in particular. I believe I have found it at this point," he says.
"But I wasn't sure in the past what that was, what that element of life was . . . some kind of a thing that could put you at ease with your self. I'm not sure I have ever been at ease with my self until just in the last few years."
The last time we spoke Neil said he had spent his whole life trying to accept himself. Today as I am his jumped-up de-facto Irish psychologist, I suggest that he seems finally, courtesy of Katie, to have found that inner peace.
"It feels like that. It does feel like I've finally come to accept myself for better or for worse and, coincidentally at the same time, I have someone to share that time with."
In 1971, Lenny Bruce opened his friend Neil up to psychoanalysis. He starting going to a shrink. He subsequently wrote one of his most famous songs I Am . . . I Said - what Rolling Stone magazine called Diamond's "open-wrench paean to loneliness" - as a direct result of those sessions. Other classics like Solitary Man suggest a man searching, unsuccessfully, for his place in the world. About a decade ago, he said he has " finally forgiven myself for not being Beethoven."
The context for that remark, when I ask him about it, is revealing: "I think that I have always kind of felt that I have been unworthy of whatever it was that I received, whether it was four beautiful children," Neil says referring to his two children, Marjorie and Elyn with his first wife Jaye and his two other children Jesse and Micah with his second wife Marcia, "then having a career that you could write about in a storybook. But through it all I think I have felt that I didn't really deserve any of it."
Why not? It sounds like a Woody Allen skit. 'What more can we give this man? We have given him the sun and he still doesn't think he is worthy? Give him the moon!' I can't believe that I have just done an impromptu Woody Allen rabbi impersonation for Neil Diamond - The Jewish Elvis! He seems to like it, because it cracks him up laughing. Then he returns once more to the serious issue of his low self-esteem. "I don't know what the foundation of all that is but it is something that I've always found: a lack in myself. I knew earlier on that I was not perfect. I tried to be a good person. I tried to do the right thing. I tried to express my love. But I never did feel entitled to any of it, " he says.
I ask Neil Diamond - as I often do throughout our 45 minute tete a tete - why.
"Maybe it is the days of sitting in that apartment with the mousetraps going off. That was what I felt I was worth. And anything above and beyond that, I don't believe I deserved any of that. I believed I deserved the mousetraps above the butcher's store."
Is that why his songs and lyrics connect with so many millions of people - because of the profound vulnerability of the man who writes them?
"Well, you know, when you get onstage and perform for an audience you are really at their mercy," he says, "and I think I discovered somewhere along the way if I was going to be at an audience's mercy at least it would be me, the real person inside who they would be merciful towards. It wouldn't be some kind of fake image. It would be me - flaws and all. "
"I've followed that as a performer and also throughout my life. People could have the star but they would also have to take the human being as well. And please don't make me any more than I am, because I am a kid who grew up surrounded by mousetraps and was comfortable with it, to an extent, and I want to be able to be that person. I don't want to hide that past."
" I don't want to hide those circumstances any more. I did when I was a kid, and that's why no one was invited up to our place, but I realised that the only chance I had onstage was to be brutally honest and hope that the audience would accept that person, flawed."
Asked what he thinks his flaws are, Neil Diamond - a multi-millionaire with three homes and a private jet on which he flies his pets on holiday with him on occasion - says without smiling: "They are all over the place, like everybody else. I can't do everything. I can't be everything. I can't love everyone. I'm limited by being less than perfect."
I ask him has he ever met someone who is perfect. "My wife is perfect." There is a Pinter-like pause. "But I don't sense it for everybody else. I can only feel that in my self. I mean, I have the same imperfections as everybody has."
To giddy him along I tell Neil Diamond that he has a better body than me - and 26 years older than me at 73!
"Looks can be deceiving!" he laughs. "Inside I feel like I'm not living up to the job here. I'm not living up to be the person that I could be. This is an opportunity for me to make a difference in the world. Why am I not making a difference? I must be some kind of shoddy piece of goods here."
I say this to the man who has sold 130 million records in his career: could you not tell the destructive inner voice - the inner devil - to fuck off?
"Yeah, you know, you are so right, because that other voice in the head, he only makes trouble for me. He never says: 'Accept. Be grateful. Be happy. You're lucky. You're a fortunate man. Let it rest at that.' The voice never says that. The voice always says: 'You're a fake. You're a charlatan. You're untalented. You're incomplete as a person.'"
Why does he listen to that voice?
"It's there. It lives. It's inside. I don't have a choice."
Neil says he told his wife the other day about his guilt in life and that he thought it is part of the whole Jewish mentality. She replied that with a person of Catholic faith it is more than guilt because if you do the wrong thing you are damned to hell for eternity. "And that is a pretty strong punishment," he laughs "So to try and understand her mentality, and what's way in the back of her mind, because she went to Catholic school throughout her primary education, and she loved Catholicism."
"It is part of her," he says. "Just like Judaism is part of me. I don't necessarily observe the rules of Judaism. I don't believe in that stuff but I do feel very Jewish. But, yeah, compared to what she's got to deal with and the standards that she got to grow up under, I had it easy. So I have no complaints and I have no reason to have any complaints."
"At this point in my life," he adds, "I feel damn lucky to have made it this far and to the realisation that life is good and beautiful. I have to embrace it while I have it in my grasp and not question it . . . and stop listening to the other voice in my mind that says: 'I'm unworthy.' I have finally reached that point where I can stop and turn that voice off because I have another voice."
"And it is her voice," Neil Diamond says of Katie.
Neil Diamond's new album Melody Road is out now on Universal Records. He plays the Odyssey Arena in Belfast on June 30th and the 3Arena on July 3rd.