Listen to this article
In the mind’s eye Neil Diamond is wearing a sequin shirt unbuttoned to reveal a handsome swathe of chest hair as he belts out “Sweet Caroline” to his screaming fans, among the most ardent in pop – one of the reasons the New York-born singer-songwriter has a remarkable 128m record sales to his name.
That total is about to go up. Diamond has a new album coming out, Melody Road, his first original material in six years. In London to promote it, he sits in a chair in a luxury hotel suite, holding a cup of herbal tea with both hands, concentrating intently on his new album’s title track, which I am playing to him on my tablet. He has grey hair, a neatly trimmed beard and wears sober black clothes. The mind’s eye can be wrong.
The singer’s rich voice spills from the tablet’s tinny speakers. “Melody from the heart, melody from the start, telling me that things will be okay,” it goes. Diamond insists on listening to the whole song. “Don’t worry, I won’t make you do that for all of them,” he says, before returning to silent contemplation of the track. It has all the markers of a classic Diamond composition: a simple tune given sophisticated musical expression, that warm velvety voice at once schmaltzy and genuinely emotive.
“For me it all starts with the melody,” he says when the song finishes. “I think there’s a certain part of the mind that deals with emotions and melody is part of it. After doing this for over half a century I just think it’s very important to open up the mind to the emotional foundation of the song. Let it come. Do not try to shape it, then stand back to listen to what it is, see if it still moves, if it’s still interesting.”
Now 73, he speaks deliberately, the Brooklyn accent of his younger self no longer evident. “The way he talks, the words he uses, the clothes he wears all spell New York,” wrote an early interviewer, back in 1966 when he had his first hit with “Solitary Man”. Pictures from the time show an intense-looking young man in dark beatnik clothes and bouffant hair – the latter hinting at the taste for showmanship that would flourish in the 1970s when he earned his nickname “the Jewish Elvis”.
Melody Road is suffused with nostalgia for his origins. Brooklyn is romanticised in “Seongah and Jimmy” while Diamond’s struggles to establish himself as a songwriter in the 1960s are the subject of “First Time”, complete with a pulsating organ motif quoting “I’m a Believer”, the Diamond-penned song that became a huge hit for the Monkees in 1967. The singer launched the album with a show at his old high school last month, Erasmus Hall in Flatbush, where future collaborator Barbra Streisand was a contemporary.
“That was fantastic,” he says. “To be in the same assembly hall where they had all the detentions when you were punished for doing something wrong. So,” he laughs, “here I am, coming back as a hero of sorts . . . ”
He was born in 1941 to second-generation Russian-Polish immigrants. His father was a shopkeeper who moved the family’s home about from store to store. Diamond remembers growing up in an apartment above a butcher’s shop with mouse traps going off, sharing a cramped bedroom with a brother.
“One of the most positive things about my upbringing was that my parents left me alone,” he says. “Whatever I did was my life to live, from the time that I was a youngster. The last real instruction I got from my parents was a protective impulse to keep me away from the gangs in Brooklyn. And they did that by conscripting me into working in their shop. I had to come home from school and go to the shop and work until it closed, which limited the amount of exposure I had to bad elements in the street. It probably saved me.”
Diamond – his real name: he almost chose the stage name Eice Cherry – was determined to become a songwriter. His parents would have preferred a more stable career choice – he went to college on a fencing scholarship to study medicine – but they didn’t stand in his way. A long songwriting apprenticeship followed, including a failed stint at New York’s tunesmith factory the Brill Building, home to innumerable pop hits, though none penned by Diamond, who was hired (and then fired) by the great songwriting duo Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.
“I spent about eight years knocking on doors and playing my songs, almost to universal rejection,” he says. “I didn’t think it was unusual because I didn’t expect acceptance. That was the odd thing to me. Not the rejection but the acceptance. It was something I had no experience with and it took a while to really know what my job was and how I could do it well.”
Although married three times, most recently to his manager Katie McNeil in 2012, Diamond has always projected an image of himself as a loner, the solitary man.
“I would have liked to have had mentors,” he says of his days as a writer for hire, a time that brought him in contact with the likes of Carole King, Gerry Goffin and Ellie Greenwich. “But I was a solitary person, I wasn’t a very social person or a very understanding person as to how I could develop mentors. People were into their own lives and their own worlds, which I completely understood. There was not a lot of time for them to be picking up the stray dogs and teaching them useful things.”
He found his voice as a solo singer. It taught him to tap into his feelings as a songwriter, the part of the mind where melody and emotion reside. “Solitary Man” was the first in a sequence of Diamond songs that have since entered pop’s canon. Others include “Cherry Cherry”, “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon”, “Kentucky Woman” and “I Am . . . I Said” – the latter song written in 1971, when he started seeing a therapist. At the time he described the song, about suffering a sense of being lost, as “psychoanalytic” and “autobiographical”.
“There were certain insights that I had into my life and myself that I wanted to – that I didn’t plan to – but they wanted to, those insights wanted to come out and be expressed in that piece of music. So it was a very self-analysing piece of work. But it did establish a benchmark for the craft part of it – forget about the creative part. It forced me to write within a very circumscribed form.”
In the 1970s he rose to be one of pop’s great entertainers. With success came glitz and a reputation for good-natured cheesiness. But recently he has been reappraised, as when super-producer Rick Rubin did a Johnny Cash with him on the 2005 album 12 Songs, casting him as a timeless American voice. The schmaltz is still there, but it has come to be seen as inextricable from the brooding alienation. The two are linked in a highly singular and theatrical fashion.
“You can be surrounded by joviality and celebration and still be very much alone,” he says, in what sounds like the lament of a singer, isolated on stage, entertaining strangers.
“You know, interestingly enough, I’ve never felt that. I’ve always felt quite the opposite. I’ve always felt warm and loved on stage. Physically I may be separated from the audience by a certain amount of feet but I never felt that it was a cold unfeeling place. I’ve always felt great affection and celebration and joy on stage, that’s one of the reasons I can do it. It’s a place of solace for me.”
‘Melody Road’ is out on October 20 in the UK and October 21 in the US
Photographs: Howard Sooley, Getty Images