Song Sung Blue

Making music has allowed Randy Cordero to quit his job, travel the world, and buy a nice car. If only it were his music that Randy Cordero was making.
BY TOMMY CRAGGS
tommy.craggs@sfweekly.com


It's late, and the sequined shirt has just been peeled off, and in the corner of the dressing room on the upper level of Bimbo's, one of the best Neil Diamond simulacra in the world is musing on, well, the shame of it all. "There is some," acknowledges Surreal Neil, aka Randy Cordero, aka Randy Cordero, a stocky, understated 39-year-old with short dark hair and sideburns that frame his head like quotation marks (it's the voice, not the look, that earns the "Surreal"). He's talking about San Francisco's inexplicably crowded tribute-band scene, in which Cordero's 12-year-old group, Super Diamond, is a sort of wealthy uncle. "I have some shame," he goes on, "just for what it's turned into. It's turned into a monster. It's almost embarrassing. ... When we started, we were the only band in SF doing all somebody's music, the only band with a confetti cannon, the only band with a fog machine. Now we're just one of many. We used to be something unique."

This comes as a surprise, although a few days later, unsurprisingly, Cordero will backtrack a bit and blame this wistfulness on his being "hyped up after a show." Still, Surreal Neil, sitting here after another sold-out performance, seems to have a few doubts. Shame? One hardly expects shame, especially with a touch of self-loathing, from a guy making a living off the Neil Diamond songbook, that happy reserve of the most exuberant American schmaltz ever sighed into a microphone; even less from a frontman for a band that sits snug in a virtually impenetrable postmodern bunker: enough irony to draw the cool kids, enough rock to move the Sigma Chis, enough class to accommodate the corporate VPs between the ice sculptures, and more than enough Neil to swoon the housewives. Good times never seemed so good, and yet ...
"My heart bleeds for the original-music scene," says Cordero, who has an "original" band of his own, Tijuana Strip Club. "I'm into original music, I'm a fan of original music. I just don't have an interest in cover bands, really. This band, we started it as a fun little gimmicky thing that we didn't think would turn into what it did. It's a little sad that cover bands are doing so well, and original bands aren't. That's not anything against cover bands. I just think it's the easy way out for a lot of musicians."

So what do you do when you're Cordero and Super Diamond -- when the easy way out nets you just south of $1 million a year?
Super Diamond is six guys in sequins and funny haircuts providing, with a wink or two (but no more), what they like to call "The Alternative Neil Diamond Experience." On a recent Friday evening, said experience includes a Zeppelin riff dropped into "Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show" and a nod to Black Sabbath in "Holly Holy"; a clean pair of panties not so much tossed as handed up to the stage (sometime between "Song Sung Blue" and "Kentucky Woman"), then hung flaglike on the mike stand, then just as quickly reappropriated by the crowd; a directive from Cordero: "Whatever you do, don't let anyone tell you Neil Diamond doesn't rock!"; and the following question, posed down on the floor by one listing frat boy to another, apropos (apparently) of the music: "What are you laughing at, motherfucker? What are you laughing at?"

Tonight on the dance floor, under the flashing disco ball, there is much twirling of phantom lassoes and casting of imaginary fishing lines, and as the night wears on the swaying becomes more and more uneven. (Cordero later describes the band's San Francisco audiences as more of a "Marina crowd," one that bears little resemblance to the pre-Internet boom SOMA-types who'd frequent the band's early performances.) As Surreal Neil, Cordero nails the original's husky baritone, with all its famous melodrama. Throughout, he affects a sort of languid, post-coital stage manner that seems strangely apt, though one doesn't imagine Neil Diamond as post-coital (or coital, for that matter).

It's a great show, with all the required moves for a Neil Diamond tribute: a singalong "Song Sung Blue," an anthemic "America," a "Sweet Caroline" crooned to a roomful of waving Miller Lites. Listening to Super Diamond, you almost forget the painful earnestness and drippy, self-serious style of the real thing. Of course, that's partly the point: It's pastiche, but not quite parody, which seems to be the nature of much modern Neil Diamond fandom, or at least it has been ever since the day Diamond watched E.T. and decided to write "Heartlight" -- affectionate irony, let's call it. What are you laughing at, motherfucker?

"There are some people who think it's going to be real cheesy or lounge-y, and they come for the campy quality," says Cordero (who started going by Cordero for professional purposes after about the millionth transposition of the "i," on CNN no less). "We have plenty of campiness in the show -- if they come for that, they're gonna get some campiness. But we don't make fun or anything. We certainly have fun with the songs, changing them up. I think that's part of the reason we've done so well. We've taken it and really turned it upside down. We're not doing a straight-on tribute. From what I've seen, most straight-on tributes are boring. We make Neil's songs a lot more heavy, add a lot of alternative rock twists to it, or a lot of heavy rock twists -- a little Black Sabbath or AC/DC, stuff like that."

Today, I'm sitting with Cordero in the basement of the bright, three-story loft he shares with his fiancee, Kris. He lives on the fringe of San Francisco, at the intersection of Potrero Hill and Dogpatch, an odd neighborhood that the city refers to as the Central Waterfront District. The room is paneled in a pleasant blond wood, with guitars mounted evenly along one wall the way a doctor might hang his diplomas. It's a long way here from acoustic night at a Tempe, Ariz., club, where 15 years ago, Cordero's explaining, Surreal Neil was born.

"Everyone's seen guys on acoustic guitars," he says, "and they all do the same songs: 'Me and You and a Dog Named Boo,' 'American Pie,' or whatever. So I just thought, 'Neil Diamond -- I grew up with him, I can do his voice.'" Cordero was an engineer at the time and just beginning to rediscover Diamond, a boyhood favorite whose greatest-hits eight-track had long ago been shoved to the back of the drawer. At the Tempe club, which favored punk and alternative bands, he'd run through some of his own material, then throw in a little Diamond.

"I thought people would probably boo me," he says. "That's kind of why I did it -- 'They probably won't like this, but I'm gonna do it because Neil Diamond's got some great tunes. People are programmed to think they hate him, but deep down they'll know it's a good song.' But it was the total opposite. People loved it. It'd just bring the house down." (Imagine that: There once was a day when doing a Neil Diamond song was a punk rock gesture -- a fat middle finger to the audience. Today, the same thing in a similar crowd would just be another of music's many arch circle jerks.)

Soon he was working parties as an ersatz Diamond, and after moving to San Francisco, Cordero, who grew up in Humboldt County, managed to find enough like-minded people to form a band in 1993. "Retro was kind of big, disco was having a big comeback," he says, not to mention irony was becoming the predominant cultural mode. Early on, Super Diamond drew a more artsy crowd -- "A pierced, tattooed crowd," Cordero says -- and the band's audience shifted over the '90s as San Francisco evolved. Artist types gave way to dot-commers ("It got really obnoxious there for a while. They had a lot of money, and there was a lot of drunkenness and a lot of butt-grabbing in the crowd") who begat today's Marina-heavy crowd.

Whatever its makeup, the band's audience was always game. "The panties started right away," Cordero says, acknowledging that perhaps the women were thinking of another graying singer in tight pants. Super Diamond's bass player would throw the panties into the fog machine's box. "After a while," Cordero recalls, "it started getting really full with undergarments. I don't know what he did with them."
The venues got bigger -- Paradise Lounge, Slim's, Bimbo's, House of Blues -- and the musicians' success began to build on itself; they started touring nationally. Eventually, the late Vince Charles, Neil Diamond's longtime percussionist, caught wind of the group and would sit in anytime Diamond wasn't touring. Soon, a meeting with the man himself was arranged, and one night, before a Super Diamond show at the House of Blues in Hollywood, Cordero finally shook Diamond's hand.

"Thank you for doing what you're doing," Diamond said.
"Thank you for not suing us," Cordero replied.

Diamond watched the show from a private table on the balcony, where he was seated next to Cordero's then-girlfriend. From time to time he'd tap her on the shoulder and say, "I love that" or "That's great." For the encore, he made his way down to the stage and joined the band for "I Am ... I Said," which he had to howl through the audience's shrieks. "At the end of the reprise," Cordero says with a laugh, "Erik [the band's guitarist] does the Journey 'Who's Crying Now' solo, and it's hilarious, 'cause Neil's singing the song and he has no idea we're adding a little bit of Journey on top of it." Cordero looked at Erik and mouthed, "No," and the solo cut off. "I was thinking, 'No, Erik, not when Neil's onstage.' Now I'm thinking, 'Why did I tell him to stop?'"

It was a kind of nexus. "Afterward, it was like, 'Well, there's nothing we can look forward to now,'" Cordero says. "When you do a tribute show and they come out to sing with you, that's the ultimate."
Today, the band typically commands anywhere from $8,000 to $12,000 per gig, sometimes up to $20,000, corporate shows being the most lucrative (Microsoft once booked Super Diamond alongside Cheap Trick); by 1998, Super Diamond was making enough money that Cordero could afford to quit his full-time job, as a mechanical engineer. "We make great money and a great living and I do better than I did as an engineer," he says. He's making his way to the car now, padding through his building's garage. "But it was an accident," he says as climbs into a big black Honda CR-V. "It was just, like, 'Wow.'" What are you laughing at, motherfucker?

To do Neil properly, you have to pinch the throat and reach down deep into the lungs, thereby producing the famous rasp that manages to be simultaneously nasal and resonant. You have to nail the vibrato, too -- the rolling hills of his eeeeeeee's -- and hit all the funny enunciations and line readings. "Like on 'Hello Again,'" says Cordero, drawing up. "I couulllllddddn't sleeeep at ahhhll," and then, haltingly, almost spoken, "tonight. I know it's laate. But it couldn't waaiit. Hellooooo." Some of the high notes, he adds, he can't even approach without the adrenalin of a live performance.

Cordero says he's always been a good mimic, and he plucks a guitar from the wall to demonstrate. In quick succession, he runs from a credible Jim Morrison ("Love me two times, babe") to a solid Johnny Cash ("I hear that train a-comin' ...") to a spot-on Neil Young ("Hey hey, my my"). But it was only recently, while working on Tijuana Strip Club's album, that he discovered his own voice. "It's a lower voice," he says, comparing his range to Cash's and Leonard Cohen's, whereas Diamond's is a bit higher. In fact, as far as his "original" work is concerned, Cordero goes so far as to omit Diamond entirely from his list of influences. "I'm not into copying anybody," he says, a funny thing for a professional impressionist to say. "It bugs me when I see bands completely -- from voice to music to lyric content -- completely ripping off their idols."

His true passion, indeed, is his own music -- he passes out Tijuana Strip Club CDs at Super Diamond shows -- and he's determined to help resurrect the city's dead original-music scene. Maybe he'll host an original-music night at the Kilowatt. "It's hard for original bands to get a full house," Cordero says. "Right now there are no trends. The music scene is dead for original bands, and it just sucks. ... I wanna do something for 'em again. I just think it's a little sad there are so many cover bands."

It's a nice sentiment, but I think he's underselling the value of truly good cover bands. You can laugh, but at their best they serve as a kind of breathing music criticism. A good pastiche like Super Diamond, one that points to the original but makes something entirely different, is worth a hundred shitty Cars rip-offs. Next week, Cordero will find himself at another House of Blues or an Irving Plaza, and it'll be the usual: winking sequins and blinking disco balls. It'll all be reflected light, sure, but it'll be light just the same.

sfweekly.com | originally published: March 16, 2005