Neil Diamond: in the rough – Interview
Carole Bayer Sager
When I first met Neil Diamond, in 1979, I was thrilled. I had always been in awe of his work. Though our paths never crossed while we were struggling songwriters in New York City in the ’60s, I do remember feeling as if he were living with me one summer when everyone in the house in which I was staying was blasting his hits. The first two songs Neil and I collaborated on were “That Kind” and “On the Way to the Sky.” Both were wonderful experiences for me. Our third collaboration was “Heartlight,” written along with my now ex-husband, Burt Bacharach, in 1982, and with that song, we hit gold. Since that time, my friendship with Neil has continued to grow. So, though I am slightly biased, it was with a real sense of anticipation that I agreed to interview him.
CAROLE BAYER SAGER: Your first hit, “Solitary Man,” was in 1966, but you made your first songwriting demo in 1958. When you were starting out in the late ’50s, was your ambition to be a songwriter or a singer, or both?
NEIL DIAMOND: It was to be a songwriter. I wrote these songs, and it was only natural that I’d go in and sing them myself. But I never gave that a second thought, because I’ve been singing since I was eight years old.
CBS: Did anyone else in your family sing?
ND: My dad was an amateur performer. He dressed up in these weird costumes and did lip-synching to Russian opera records. He did it for charities, for his friends, and just for fun. His father did the same thing. I come from a short line of hams, you know–kosher hams.
CBS: How did it compare, hearing the Monkees version of your song “I’m a Believer” versus hearing “Solitary Man,” your first hit, which came out around the same time?
ND: Hearing the Monkees sing my song was as big a thrill because they were the hottest group in the country. “I’m a Believer” went to number one, and I was in songwriter heaven.
CBS: Let’s talk about your latest album, Up on the Roof: Songs from the Brill Building [Columbia]. The songs you cover on the album were written around the time you were beginning your career. Were the writers of those songs a big influence on you?
ND: Those writers were what I aspired to be. I aspired to write songs as well as Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil.
CBS: Thanks for putting “A Groovy Kind of Love” [written by Bayer Sager and Toni Wine] on there. It was my first hit. You must have done that as a love gesture. You did a gorgeous job.
ND: Thank you. I tried it as a love gesture, but it stayed on the album because the song held up.
CBS: There’s a singer named Phranc who does an act where she dresses up like you and performs your songs. Have you heard of her?
ND: “Hot August Phranc.” I can’t wait to see her.
CBS: You would go and see her?
ND: If I could sneak in. It’s a little weird–that kind of thing can make you self-conscious.
CBS: She’d probably be nervous if you were in the audience because she’s idolizing you.
ND: Well, people who do that kind of act are making a living from it; if they weren’t, they’d move on to someone else.
CBS: Of the artists today, is there anyone who impresses you? Do you like Whitney Houston?
ND: I think she’s got the best chops in the business, and she’s gorgeous on top of it, so how can you not like her? But, if I had my druthers, I’d rather hear Tracy Chapman sing “Fast Car.” I cried when I heard that song. That was the last time I cried to a piece of music.
CBS: Have you heard Chris Isaak’s version of “Solitary Man”?
ND: Yes. I loved it. It’s almost as good as mine.
CBS: And what did you think of UB40’s cover of your song “Red Red Wine”?
ND: I thought it was terrific. I never conceived that song to fit into that happy reggae kind of thing. It was always a crying-in-your-beer country song. And these guys, they’re crying in their beer, but they’re having a party while they’re doing it.
CBS: Let’s talk about movies for a second. Your one foray into acting produced three hit songs.
ND: And one flop movie.
CBS: You can’t have everything. Would you grant the rights to do a movie of your life?
ND: Absolutely not.
CBS: We won’t even ask you, then, who you’d have portray you.
ND: Clint Eastwood, and he can’t sing.
CBS: If you could go back over your life and change one thing, what would it be?
ND: [pauses] I might not have gotten divorced so fast the first time. I gave up on my first marriage without knowing what I was giving up. Not that for a moment I would change what the last twenty-five years have brought for me, because I’m married to the right woman now.
CBS: My last question is a silly one. What would you have for your last meal?
ND: I’d probably have a meatloaf sandwich, on white bread, with lettuce, and maybe some potato salad on the side, and a Dr. Brown’s soda.
CBS: Meat and potatoes.
ND: Yeah, I’m a meat-and-potatoes kinda guy.
COPYRIGHT 1994 Brant Publications, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group