STORY WRITTEN BY BRIAN BINGAMAN
@brianbingaman on Twitter
Playing concerts in 10 different countries in the same year is not for lightweights.
After celebrating his 74th birthday in January, Neil Diamond’s goal is to play at least 74 shows during a tour that begins with a sold out night Feb. 27 in Allentown (a second show was added March 1), and includes a Philadelphia date on March 15. The enduring entertainer and songwriter took some questions during a media conference call about the tour, his new album “Melody Road,” and even offered a surprisingly emotional reflection on the 1969 hit (and contemporary sporting event anthem) “Sweet Caroline.” Here’s some of that conversation. For a review of “Melody Road” click here.
Why new music now?
That’s what I do. I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing. It’s built into my genetic code at this point. When I finish an album, within a matter of weeks I start writing again; I can’t help myself.
What you think of the finished product (“Melody Road”)?
I like it a lot. I think it’s one of my best albums and it just hits the spot for me. I wanted to show my stuff for my new label, of course, but basically it’s the result of just the work that I do and I think it came out very, very good. One of my best ever, I think.
Talk a little bit about how you’re approaching the tour and the repertoire. Is this a new album tour? Is it going to be a retrospective tour?
We’re going to do a bunch of songs from the “Melody Road” album because they work, and they work in a live situation, I believe. We won’t know that until we actually do that, but the band is sounding fabulous and I’m in good voice, and I feel strong so I think these are going to work very, very well.
There’s always a lot of songs in a show that people know. I can’t leave them out, and so the shows get bigger and bigger. This show will probably have more songs in it than any show I’ve ever done because I don’t want to take out “I Am … I Said” or “Sweet Caroline” or “Holly Holy” … and there are 15 or 20 like those. It’s going to be a big show in every way.
Touring now versus 45 years ago — wildly different?
Well I carry 100 people with me now. I used to go out with just a guitar, and then it grew from there to a three-piece … band, and then a larger band and a road manager and lighting directors and catering and traveling. For me, it’s not a lot different because it’s all about the show for me. The audiences have been there, thank God, and they’ve been with me and that is something that trumps anything, any other consideration. I could be carrying 100 people or just going out by myself.
I need to have the audience with me and in my corner for the show. That’s the only thing that’s unknowable, although I count on it. I never expect it, but in the secret part of my mind I count on it. I want the audience there with me and I know if they are, they’re going to get everything that I can give.
You’re going to be presenting songs, maybe, that some of the fans aren’t as familiar with. Do you anticipate, maybe, still feeling a little nervous, wanting to make sure that people like a song when you’re getting ready to perform it?
I’m not nervous, but I’m not complacent either. We’ve been rehearsing and we think that preparation is very important so that we don’t have to think about thinking. I want to be able to express the music without the middle man of intellectual thought coming into the process.
I have three songs from the new album that I want to do and I’m anxious to share them. I feel very good about those. There are some of the newer songs that I want to do from the last couple of albums, the Rick Rubin albums. I’m anxious to do those. And of course, the songs that everybody knows I want to be fresh. For some reason, it’s always like the first time I do it, it’s a different audience, I’m a different person. I really just want to concentrate on the songs, all the songs, and do them as well as possible and have the audience involved in that performance.
I’m wondering if you have any thoughts about all the Neil Diamond tribute bands that exist all over the country today, and if you’ve ever actually gone to see any of them play.
I kind of have mixed feelings about it. I like live music and I want to foster that. I tend to be in the corner of anybody who’s out there making live music because that’s what I do. If they want to use my music, that’s great.
I’ve seen one or two, and it’s fun, but I’d much rather have people, if they like the songs, interpret them in a way that’s unique to themselves and to their own talent than to try to copy something that I’ve done in the past. That’s a general piece of advice that I give to people anyway … find out your own capabilities and interpret it that way. That’s my main criticism. I wish they would, if they like the songs, find their way of doing it and do it that way.
As far as those bands, generally, great. Thank you very much. I’m flattered. But for your own good, you should be doing your own thing.
Are you going to be including songs from the “The Jazz Singer?”
Well, yes. I’d rather not say which ones … just because I don’t want to give away surprises.
It’s 35 years this year — big anniversary for an album. Wondering about your 2015 perspective on the album, the film and if, because of that anniversary, you’ll treat the album a little differently in the concert.
I wasn’t even aware there was an anniversary involved. But now that you mention it, yes, maybe I should think about that a little bit. There are a few songs from “The Jazz Singer” that I will do, and must do. After almost 50 years (in show business), you have to be selective because I can’t be out there just throwing songs out at people. I want to be selective and I think I’ve chosen songs that I love most and that are, I think, most important in “The Jazz Singer” era. They’ve stuck and I think they’re going to continue to stick. They still tell the stories that I want to tell and I don’t see any big changes in that.
But thank you for reminding me that it’s 35 years. It’s hard to conceive because it seems like just yesterday I was talking to Laurence Olivier on the set (of the movie “The Jazz Singer”) and trying to pick up as many tips as I could and trying to understand the character and trying to learn from him. Those moments are fresh in my mind. It just tells you that life moves quickly and there are songs to be written.
I always have that thing that hurries me up, and it says don’t wait around and don’t waste time because it’s fleeting; and if you have any songs that are still inside yourself, you better get to work. That whole concept has become part of me as I get to be older. It’s a more insistent whisper in my ear. Go to work, do your work, do not dawdle, do not waste time, write your songs, do them as well as you possibly can and don’t waste any more time. That’s one of the things that motivates me now; the time is limited and I’m touring now because I’m in good voice. I don’t know if I’m going to be in good voice in five years from now.
I’m just taking advantage of every moment that I have to make music. I think that’s my purpose here, to make music and to share my music with people. I’m on a mission to do that.
This is the first album of new material that you’ve done since “Home Before Dark,” which was very stripped down and acoustic, whereas “melody road” is more of a production. Was that a conscious decision to go from acoustic back to more (full-bodied)?
Yes, I think it was a conscious decision. I wanted to fill out the record. I wanted to use other instruments. I thought that Rick (Rubin) did a wonderful job, and the band that I worked with on the two albums I did with him did a wonderful job. I wanted to hear electric guitars, I wanted to hear horns and electric instruments, again, to do them in my own way, but to bring them back into my records.
You’ve produced yourself, you’ve worked with Robbie Robertson, you’ve worked with Rick Rubin, and now Don Was. What do you look for in a producer?
What do I look for in a producer is, first of all, it’s got to be somebody that you like and respect because you’re, like, married to a person. You’re living with that person daily, and sometimes it’s for a year and longer. Robbie Robertson and I spent a year and a half, every single day, working on “Beautiful Noise” (in 1975-76).
I want the best producers because I want to make my records the best, the best that I can make them.
It was Don Was’s turn; I worked with him 20, 25 years ago for just a couple of recordings and I liked him. I had him in the back of my mind that, someday, I’m going to work with Don again because he had all those qualities that I want in a producer and to end up with in an album.
Once I find a producer, and it works on a respect level, I can relax and just be an artist in the studio and just be a writer in the studio. I don’t have to be worrying about the record and what these instruments are going to sound like and what the producer’s doing. I let them go off and take control of the record.
I want them to be brutally honest because I entrusted myself to them already. I signed the marriage contract with my heart, as well as with my pen. That’s when you know when you’ve picked the right person, when you trust them completely and you don’t have to second guess them. You don’t have to worry if they have other things on their agenda that you don’t know about.
It’s a tremendous, tremendous job to produce an album. Every single note is your responsibility and the record is your responsibility.
Going from Columbia Records to Capitol Records, did you want more freedom for your work? Was it getting too restrictive at Capitol? Did you just feel it was time for a break? What did Capitol bring to the table that, perhaps, was no longer valid at Columbia for you?
I was with Columbia Records for 42 years. When you’re with a label that long, you have to begin to wonder what’s going on outside of that world … what kind of input are you missing, even though you don’t feel it. I never did feel constrained in anyway at Columbia Records, either creatively or personally.
I was with a lot of regimes at Columbia. There were 10 presidents of that label in the time that I was there, and some I got along with better than others. I was always proud to be on Columbia. It was kind of like a little dream of mine.
At some point, I felt that I owed it to myself just to make a change — even if it was only for the sake of change — just to see what I was missing, and Capitol was a natural for me. I’d worked with Steve Barnett when he was president of Columbia and I knew I could work with him. I knew he was putting together a good, enthusiastic team at Capitol and I knew they had their own outlook and perspective on my work and where they could take it. I made that jump into the unknown, and it was very scary because I got all the love that I needed at Columbia. I just was hoping to find something that something different, something new, something fresh, something that would keep me motivated, even if it was fear. Fear is a great motivation and I was afraid, but I made the change anyway.
I haven’t regretted it. I still love Columbia Records; they were great to me, but I’m happy to be with a new team. They have a perspective that’s new. They have an enthusiasm.
You mentioned “Sweet Caroline” a while ago. The song’s audience sing-along ritual has been around for a long time, but it wasn’t always there. Do you remember where that came from?
First of all, it grew from the song itself. The song itself has some very, very, I don’t know if you’d call it attractive or seductive things in it, and despite its simplicity, it’s the kind of thing that’s almost undeniable. Also, I believe there was something very mystical about that song.
It came out of a necessity of the moment. It came out at a point in my career when I desperately needed to have a song become a big pop hit. I had changed labels and, in making that change, I wasn’t able to continue that string of huge hits that I had when I was with my first label, on Bang (Records). There was … a year and a half or two years when it was a little scary because I thought my career was over, then up popped “Sweet Caroline.”
I was down recording in Memphis. It was the night before our final session there, and I needed something wonderful, and it came to me. It just fell into my lap, this little, simple song. I thought it was wonderful then when I wrote it down. I got into the studio and we laid down a track in American Recording in Memphis, and I still thought it was wonderful. The producer, Tom Catalano, took the track off to New York and had some horns put on it, and they’re memorable.
I was back, my career was back, and I had only to follow it. And following it came “Holly Holy” … and “Cracklin’ Rosie” and “Song Sung Blue” and a bunch of the new generation of hits. I owe it to that song. I think that song was handed to me by some being or — I don’t want to sound a little screwy — but some spiritual thing came and said, ‘Do this and make this chord change here, even though you’ve never, ever played that chord before, and you don’t even know what that chord is called’ … and that’s the chord change on the section with the “hands touching hands.”’ It was an A6 chord. It’s stuck in my consciousness and it changed my professional life.
You have to love a song like that and then to present it to an audience, and they liked it a lot. And each time I came through that town, they liked it more, and before you know it, they were singing it. I never asked them to sing it, they did it all by themselves, and they were adding their own melody lines and their own counter lines. It took on its own life and it changed my life.
Nowadays, it’s like a whole thing and everybody knows it and everybody knows the parts. That’s a collaboration between me and my audience and I love it for that reason.
It’s become a good luck song for a lot of people, and I know it was a good luck song for me; I kind of knew it from the beginning. There you go, I didn’t plan it; that’s just the way it unfolded and I was there to nurture it because it took a little piece of my heart and gave me courage when I first wrote it. That’s one of the most important songs I’ve ever written.
It’s not an artsy-fartsy song; it’s a very simple, direct, straight ahead kind of song. It’s been sung by Presidents of the United States, it’s sung in China at cricket games, it’s the unofficial closing song of Oktoberfest in Germany, and guess what, I had nothing to do with any of that. Just people picked up on it and they wanted to do it and they did it their way. That’s it. Period. Exclamation point. Thank you very much, God, I’ll see you later.