LUNCHING WITH NEIL DIAMOND - AS YOU DO.
You're in Los Angeles just before Christmas in 1996. You've had breakfast with Iggy Pop and there's a few hours to kill before you're scheduled to chat with Jeff Buckley. What do you do? Go have lunch with Neil Diamond, that's what.
Neil Diamond's office and studio is situated in a faceless building around the corner from the Beverly Centre in Los Angeles, five minutes drive from Sunset Boulevard. There's no signs on the door to identify its owner. No huge image from Hot August Night in the window. All the blinds are permanently pulled. It's the sort of building you could walk past for twenty years without realising that it housed Diamond's multi-million dollar music business empire and the state-of-the-art recording studio where he's recorded countless albums.
Diamond himself apparently lives somewhere within walking distance so that he can wander into his studio day or night to tinker away on songs. The studio is never hired out to other groups or musicians which is the way Diamond likes it. He never knows when the inspiration to write another Solitary Man, Kentucky Woman, I'm A Believer or Red Red Wine is going to occur. In fact, although I'm never told, I gained the impression that Chateau Diamond may in fact be above the studio/office.
Inside the building it's a veritable hive of activity as publicists, assistants and technical maintenance staff go about their business of keeping the Diamond machine oiled whilst his two dogs meander from office to office. The walls are covered floor-to-ceiling with memorabilia. Gold records, platinum records, the cover of each of his (who's really counting) albums, presentations from Sony Music Australia after his last tour, photos of Diamond with an array of celebrities, baseball caps from places he's toured, and other momentos. They're in the kitchen, the bathroom's, everywhere.
Diamond survey's one of the rooms as he talks about the challenges he still finds in music. "There are definitely challenges, there's no question about it. - this is yesterday," he says as his eyes sweep around the room. "This stuff's nice and it's cheaper than wallpaper because I already have it, but there's still things I want to do."
It's mid afternoon on a hot Los Angeles day and Diamond's answering questions whilst munching on his lunch - some sort of concoction that looks like meatball and noodle soup. We've been talking about the Blue Mountains outside Sydney where during a break in the last tour Diamond and some of his buddies from the band and crew hired Harley Davidson motorbikes and took a trip up as far as Mt Victoria, stopping in at the Hydro Majestic Hotel in Medlow Bath.
"It's a very strange place," he says. "It reminded me of the hotel Stanley Kubrick used in The Shining, some ancient relic that had a lot of ghosts in it."
"I don't get to do many road trips but when we get a chance we like to go out and commune with nature and get away from the telephone and reinvestigate and revisit our macho-ness and all that silly stuff." Diamond likes his road trips and is obsessive about Harley Davidson bikes. In a back room of his office there's two of the beasts ("they're a beautiful machine"), aside from dozens of guitars,, one of which was a gift from his band and crew after a past tour.
"The logo on the side was designed by Willie G. Davidson who's the grandson of Harley Davidson and it's an extraordinarily beautiful bike," Diamond enthuses. "I'm afraid to take it out so I take a lot of pictures of it and when I do ride it and I don't take it into any rough terrain." Then, near the bikes, there's a Harley Davidson pinball machine. "You should try it because it's very unusual for a pinball machine because it vibrates like a motorcycle and does all kinds of fun things. It was actually made for Harley Davidson and they had them in their dealerships. I've known the Harley people for a number of years and I fernangled one out of them. You must try this one. This is different from any machine I've tried before. It does things that are different."
Diamond doesn't give many interviews these days. In fact as a precursor to the Australian tour he granted just three - one for 60 Minutes, another for a colour magazine and this one. He's a quietly spoken man. Friendly in a reserved sort of fashion, and not overly prone to merriment. As the creator of albums like the soundtrack to Jonathan Livingston Seagull and many other less than inspiring albums he's frequently held up to ridicule by the cool and elite rock intelligensia and seemingly suspicious of interview requests. The rigmarole surrounding this meeting was a protracted affair, his office requesting a collection of my past interviews and subjecting me to two grilings about my interest in Diamond and the tack I'd be taking in the interview. Even after passing these tests Diamond's publicist sat in on the entire interview. You know, just in case things got oughta hand.
Regardless of the ridicule the fact remains that Diamond's one of the most successful and popular figures in popular music history. Simple as that. His thirty year career has seen him sell almost one hundred million albums and notch up more than 60 American chart hits. His 1972 double concert set, Hot August Night, was a phenomena in this country, spending 224 weeks on the Australian charts Who could really hope for more?. During his 1976 national tour one of Diamond's concerts was televised to three million people and conducted in the presence of both Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and Abba.
And per capita Diamond is probably more popular in Australia than any other country in the world. His new album, the countrified Tennessee Moon, has already qualified for Platinum status here and a representative from Sony Music Australia suggests that the album sales are outstripping those in other countries.
Diamond seems genuinely enthusiastic about Tennessee Moon, which runs for almost 70 minutes and, for the first time in his career, sees him extensively collaborating with other writers, in this case some of Nashville's finest songsmiths.
"This album took a year to make and I got a lot of things off my chest," me says, now puffing on a post-lunch cigar. "I got a chance to work with the top writers in Nashville, and the top musicians. I worked hard as a writer again for the first time in years.
"Over the past few years I've done a Christmas album and a tribute to the Brill Building writers and another Christmas album, so for four years I didn't have to write anything, so I got in touch with my writing muse again and I liked it even though it was very intense."
With the exception of a re-working of his classic Kentucky Woman, Diamond had a different co-writer for each of Tennessee Moon's eighteen tracks, something that he found both unusual and invigorating.
"I've usually written my songs myself, especially earlier on, probably because no-one would have anything else to do with me - and when they did I didn't want to have anything to do with them. Then I started collaborating with people like Robbie Robertson on a song on Beautiful Noise and I enjoyed the process.
"It was a neat change, the human contact. There wasn't so much of the solitary profession so I enjoyed working with these people in Nashville. I thought they were top, creative, brilliant people. Some of them are geniuses . . . one or two are like Mozart. They were that good."
Tennessee Moon's opening and title track name drops the country great Hank Williams who Diamond says was a pivotal influence on him as a youngster.
"At the time I heard him I was learning how to play guitar and I was listening to the Everly Bothers and Chet Atkins, and Hank Williams was a well known songwriter and that was what I was aspiring to be at the time, when I was a teenager. For some reason I made a connection with him, and that's why the mention in the song. There was the tragedy of his life, the shortness of his life.
"Hank Williams was simple enough for me to play and understand and sing. I played a lot of other people's stuff as a kid - Woody Guthrie and all of The Weavers' stuff in the '50s when I started playing, and then eventually I got into Ritchie Valens and rock'n'roll and contemporary music."
Diamond was in the studio for all of the extensive sessions to record Tennessee Moon, explaining that the only time he hasn't been completely involved in a session was for his contribution to an album of duets with Frank Sinatra. He was asked if he wanted to contribute to the album, expressed his enthusiasm for doing so, and was told that he'd be sent the tape to add his vocals to those of Sinatra's.
Mention of Sinatra suggests that Diamond still has a slight hangup about being recognised as a musical giant. He's at pains to explain that he's known Sinatra for many years and that he was at his daughter Tina's wedding in Las Vegas. Later he makes a point of noting that he's also known Bob Dylan for a lengthy period. Both observations are subtly presented in such a way as to remind the listener that Diamond perceives himself as not just a successful artist - but one with artistic credibility as well.
It may also be just a media con job, but Diamond expresses a seemingly genuine concern about his enduring popularity. He first toured Australia in 1976 and didn't return for over a decade, apparently out of insecurity about attracting large audiences.
"I was afraid that I could never top that and live up to the expectations of that tour, but after the last visit when we did the shows and people accepted it we can come back now and be more relaxed about it."
Diamond should have no such fears. All eighteen shows in Australia have sold out and industry observers are suggesting that he'll play to more people in this country than the Rolling Stones did a year ago.
Having played with pretty much the same band for the past two decades, Diamond admits that he's always nervous before the start of a tour and hates the prospect until it gets underway. Given that neither he or his band and entourage are getting any younger he realises the need to make the traipsing around the globe as painless as possible. In every hotel there's a room set aside 24 hours a day for ping pong playing, and another permanently set up with a table for poker playing, one of Diamond's passions.
"The table's in the middle of the room and waits until after the show when somehow, magically people congregate around it and chips are purchased and a poker game starts," he smiles. "It's the longest running poker game in rock'n'roll - it's been going on for twenty years.
"On tour we've found ways to maintain our sanity and make it comfortable and liveable and still do the job and be enthusiastic about a show and not burn ourselves out."
Towards the end I suggest to Diamond that given his astonishing legacy of songs eventually he's bound to be the subject of one of those horrendous tribute albums where other artists pay tribute by covering well known songs. The idea doesn't seem to appeal to Diamond. Already there's an impressive start for such a project with Diamond's songs having been covered by the likes of the Monkees, Lulu, Deep purple, Bobby Womack, UB40, Chris Isaak and Urge Overkill
"After I'm dead hopefully," he says. "It's not my thing. It's too commercial, and who'd want to pay tribute to me? I don't know . . .I don't have that many friends in the business."
The audience over, Diamond leans forward, squeezes my knee in what I imagine is some sort of bonding gesture and bounds out of the room. Like meeting Mick Jagger many years ago I'm left with a feeling that one of the best known entertainers on the planet is an extremely private and ordinary man. He's an old-fashioned craftsman with intense fan loyalty.