Clearly I had been listening to too much Dr. Drew as I played amateur shrink and turned my 2001 interview with Neil Diamond into a therapy session. He graciously played along, and maybe I even helped him achieve a breakthrough, or whatever the term is. Neil was promoting Three Chord Opera, a completely solo effort. He was grumpy that Sony was not releasing it simultaneously worldwide, although the reality is that a staggered release schedule can help promotion because it’s impossible to be everywhere at once. Neil had an office near Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. We chatted for over an hour in his studio while he puffed on a “cheapo” cigar.
In the years following this interview: Neil got a career makeover courtesy of producer Rick Rubin and hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in 2008; he finally got inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in 2011; and he got married, for a third time, to his manager (not the girlfriend mentioned in the interview) in 2012. Neil, you’re welcome.
The first question is the best way to start an interview, although I lavished a similar compliment on Yoko Ono a few years later and apparently offended her greatly.
(** UPDATE, AUGUST 2014. I have severely shortened the transcript that you see here online and will publish the full thing in the second volume of my memoir, due 2015.)
YOU LOOK SKINNIER THAN I’D THOUGHT YOU’D BE. DO YOU WORK OUT?
Not at all. Only when forced to.
“OPERA” CONNOTATES A MAJOR UNDERTAKING. DID YOU EXPEND MAJOR BLOOD, SWEAT AND TEARS MAKING THIS RECORD. DID YOU SPEND WEEKS TOILING OVER A CHORUS?
Months. It’s a year in the making. Yes, I was totally immersed in the writing. I certainly didn’t mean opera in the sense, I think I meant it in the sense that it was a dramatic undertaking in that way. It was operatic to me, maybe a working man’s opera, maybe a simple man’s opera. Each of the songs though reflect the drama of my own daily existence, and what I’ve gone through to some extent. In that way it is operatic. But “Three Chord” is kind of a little, light jibe at the whole undertaking, kind of represents a simple approach, although the songs are very complicated. It just felt right.
DOES “I HAVEN’T PLAYED THIS SONG IN YEARS” RANK AMONG YOUR DEEPEST DARKEST, BLEAKEST SONGS?
I’d say it would be right up there with some of the best things that I’ve written. But there have been a bunch of songs — some that I have hidden in albums because they were so personal and I tried to hide them somewhere way down the line (where) nobody would notice. But “I Haven’t Played This Song in Years” is one of the more painful songs, and I suppose I have come a ways because I don’t feel as though I have to hide them anymore. I put them right upfront. This is my pain and this is my joy, and this is my laughter, etcetera.
DO YOU STILL FEEL THAT PAIN?
NOT TO BE TOO LITERAL, BUT IS THERE A PARTICULAR SONG THAT YOU’RE REFERRING TO?
This song is not literal. This is the song that I haven’t played in years.
THAT LINE “I CAN SEE THE SMILING FACES BUT NOT ME AMONG THE CROWD” THAT’S LIKE “SOLITARY MAN” REDUX, RIGHT?
Yeah, that’s me.
THAT’S STILL YOUR FAVORITE SONG, “SOLITARY MAN”?
I think in a sense that it was my first chart record makes it one of my most memorable songs, to me anyway. It didn’t do extraordinarily well on the charts but it very effectively delineated my life. Before that I was a kid knocking around on the streets and trying to get into places and trying to gain some kind of acceptance. This song put me in a whole different place. It put me on the charts. It was memorable, and I think my favorite in those terms, not necessarily as a song, but in terms of what it meant to my life, I’d have to say it was my favorite.
GENERALLY YOU GO TO SOCIAL SITUATIONS AND YOU FIND EVERYONE LAUGHING EXCEPT FOR YOU?
Looking back on it, I’m a happy go-lucky, on the surface. What went on beneath the surface was a whole other story. But I wouldn’t say that — I was just one of the kids, just like everybody else.
BUT WITH REGARD TO THIS SONG, “I HAVEN’T PLAYED THIS SONG IN YEARS,” DOES IT REAFFIRM THAT YOU NATURALLY PREFER YOUR OWN COMPANY?
No, I don’t. I rue my own company. I don’t like to be alone. But I do feel alone very often, but I don’t like it.
ALONE IN A CROWD?
Alone in the crowd, alone apart from the crowd, alone in any situation you can be alone. It’s not pleasant for me.
IS THAT OUT OF FEAR THAT YOU’LL GET TOO INTROSPECTIVE, AND START TOO MUCH SELF-ANALYSIS THAT WILL OPEN UP A PANDORA’S BOX OF HIDDEN EMOTIONS AND FEARS AND REPRESSED ISSUES?
That’s an interesting point. I’ll have to talk to my shrink about that one.
DO YOU HAVE RECURRING DREAMS?
I haven’t had recurring dreams, but it’s possible.
ARE YOU ON MEDICATION?
No. Not really.
WHAT’S THE SONGWRITING PROCESS? ARE YOU DISCIPLINED IN THAT BRILL BUILDING SCHOOLING THAT YOU HAD? OR IS IT MORE LEISURELY?
Well I do know once I start the project, especially a project like this which there’s no fallback position — I know I have to write the whole thing myself I do know that it’s something that’s on my mind on a daily basis. I don’t go in and start at noon and finish at 4 and take a break and then continue on. So much of it depends upon the energy level and the excitement level about a particular thing. It was pretty much a daily process. The time I spent and when I devoted that time was pretty unpredictable. But it was a daily process. I was never very good at the Brill Building write—them—to—order, really, although it’s an interesting discipline and the Tennessee Moon album was written very much to that discipline. But I did have a fallback of working with someone else. So it just set the pressure really off me.
NOTE: Read the rest in the second volume of my gossipy rock ‘n’ roll bio, due in 2015 (or 2016). The first volume,Strange Days: The Adventures of a Grumpy Rock ‘n’ Roll Journalist in Los Angeles, is available here. For more info, go to strangedaysbook.com
Copyright © 2001, 2013 by Dean Goodman. PLEASE DO NOT CUT AND PASTE THE WHOLE THING