Neil Diamond is Forever


Everybody’s read one: a review deriding Neil Diamond as the “Frog King of Rock” or the cheesiest purveyor of pop on the planet. He is parodied on Saturday Night Live. The keepers of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame haven’t thought enough

of Neil to even put his name on the ballot, let alone induct him.

He’d get my vote. I’m a believer in Neil Diamond. The naysayers can say what they want. That’s okay. Neil fascinates me because A) he connects with his fans the way that my great rock heroes do with theirs and B) his life is the compelling story of a shy, quiet guy who overcame agonizing self-doubts and nagging insecurities to reign as the uncrowned king of pop for

how many decades now?

For me, the audience is where it begins. There is a magical bond—a sense of comfort and awe—between Neil and Diamondheads. He connects with his crowd and thrills and satisfies them with marathon concerts just like rock gods Bruce Springsteen, Prince, and Neil Young have done for decades with their faithful. Like Young’s Rusties, Boss believers, or even good ol’ Deadheads, Diamondheads will travel from city to city, night after night, wearing Neil T-shirts new or old,

carrying handmade signs and small cameras. So what if it’s the same set list that he played the night before? It’s NEIL! These fans will gush about his songs and charisma, his spirit and enthusiasm, his age-defying energy, and his derrière, if you know what I mean.

For more than thirty years, Neil, the enduring megastar, and I, the music critic in Middle America, have conversed about this connection. It’s rare to have this kind of ongoing, long-term dialogue, especially one in which the same topic is revisited. It’s even rarer for a pop figure to experience this kind of long-lived link with his audience that seems to grow stronger with every tour. Neil doesn’t fully understand it, but he’s not complaining.

In a 1986 chat, I pointed out that his adult audience behaves the way young people did when Elvis Presley was king or Bruce Springsteen was becoming the boss. I asked Neil, “Why do you cause this strange kind of fanaticism in adults?”

“I think they have good taste,” he said over the phone. “You’ll have to write ‘he laughed when he said that.’ He laughed . . . he said he laughed.”

Okay, he didn’t really laugh. He just said he laughed. He has a dry sense of humor. Very dry. And it seems even drier over the phone.

We’ve had seven phone conversations since 1976. Whether I praised or panned his previous concert or album, he dutifully called and was always willing to talk about whatever subject I brought up. We’ve discussed everything from his songwriting and his self-doubts to his smoking (he quit in the late 1980s and, as a result, was able to add six or seven more songs to his shows) and that posterior that women think is so good (“I’m still working on it; that’s why I have a trainer.”). We’ve even talked about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (I’m a voter).

He speaks in an unmistakable brooding Brooklyn baritone. It’s almost monotone, actually. In conversation, he’s not the animated Man of 1,000 Gestures that he is onstage; but on the phone with me, he’s always been unhurriedly thoughtful, with filler “uhs” and “ahs” punctuating the pauses. While he may answer questions with measured deliberateness, it sometimes

seems as if he’s not being forthcoming. He pauses as if he’s contemplating some major revelation and then utters something simple and profoundly innocuous, vague, or elliptical—a bit like some of his lyrics.

In all the interviews over the years, Neil has been strikingly polite (he once thanked me for working on Sunday) and unfailingly gracious, even if I asked a question that might have made him uncomfortable. For instance, in the summer of 2008, I said, “You will be the oldest solo male performer to do an arena tour of this magnitude. Did you realize that?”

“Well, I didn’t know that,” the then-sixty-seven-year-old responded with a feigned chuckle. “I do know that I’m the oldest recording artist in the history of Billboard charts to have a No. 1 album, which I kind of halfway love the idea. Of course, it’s nice to be No. 1 in anything, but I do like the idea. Oldest, youngest—it doesn’t matter. I feel great. I’m singing very well. That’s the main thing.”

Jon Bream, Minneapolis/St.Paul, February 2009


Excerpt From the Introduction