Saturday June 2, 2001
The king of karaoke classics appears to be hot again with a new legion of fans, KIM HONEY writes. But as your grandmother can attest, he never really went away.
It’s rarely hip to be square, particularly for a pop star. In Neil Diamond’s case, the upbeat songs, the Seventies bouffant and the squeaky-clean image combine to produce an entertainer a grandmother could love. That’s a big enough turnoff for any self-respecting rock fan.
Now, after writing karaoke classics for more than 30 years, the man who penned an antidrug tune called The Pot Smokers Song in 1968 is being discovered by a new generation. Retro is cool, and apparently that extends to the man who wrote Forever in Blue Jeans, Crunchy Granola Suite and Hello Again.
Go to a ball game and listen to the crowd follow the bouncing ball as they sing along to Sweet Caroline, the centrepiece of Labatt’s new Out of the Blue ad campaign.
At the theatre, you can hear Eddie Murphy, the voice of Shrek’s sidekick, sing I’m a Believer, the 1966 hit Diamond wrote for the Monkees. In Saving Silverman, the main characters play in a Neil Diamond tribute band. The movie’s finale, filmed at Vancouver’s Pacific Coliseum last July, features a cameo by Diamond. The credits roll to I Believe in Happy Endings, a song from his new, as-yet-unnamed album, scheduled to be in stores July 24.
Look at Jane Campion’s flick, Holy Smoke, and listen to Diamond sing Holly Holy. Then there’s Lost and Found, a forgettable 1999 movie starring David Spade, in which the former Saturday Night Live star lip-synchs to Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show at a party. Sweet Caroline inspired a sing-along at a bar in 1996’s Beautiful Girls.
Even Ally McBeal got into the act in an episode last year in which a 50-something lawyer she was dating confessed he didn’t like disco — he was a closet Neil Diamond fan.
Denise Abbadessa knows the young fans are out there. A member of Friends of Neil Diamond, the Los Angeles-based official fan club, she sees their posts on various message boards devoted to Neil Diamond, such as “I am . . . I said” (disc.server.com/Indices/53877.html).
“If you see questions like, ‘What colour are his eyes? How tall is he?,’ then you know these are younger fans that have chimed in,” said the 48-year-old L.A. native. “They’ll tell you they’re 20. We have one kid on there who is 15.” (For the record, she said Diamond’s eyes are “hazel brown” and he’s about six feet tall.)
Diamond himself has said the reason he did Saving Silverman was because the script reminded him of his fans, how devoted they have been over the years, and how they passed their love of his music on to their children.
“I decided to take the chance of being embarrassed for a few scenes and be part of the film’s can’t-lose, slam-dunk ending,” he told The Los Angeles Times in February. “I’m glad I did. Saving Silverman was more than a role. It was a chance for my music to be exposed again.”
Even if he had been asked just to write the theme song for the film, he probably would have done it for the same reason.
“Nowadays, it’s hard for a guy like me to get played on Top 40 radio, so however I can get it out, whether it’s in films, or by tribute bands that travel the country, or even the Internet — whatever. It’s important that it gets out.”
And word is spreading, in no small part because of the work of San Francisco tribute band Super Diamond. While other musicians impersonate Diamond, this seven-piece band interprets Diamond’s songs, giving them an alt-rock edge that is popular with the club crowd. They routinely sell out the House of Blues, from Los Angeles to Chicago, and other venues such as Urban Plaza in New York, playing to crowds of 1,000 to 1,500 people.
“I’ve witnessed it. These kids are in there,” said Abbadessa, merchandising manager for Super Diamond. “These kids are singing Neil’s stuff word for word. Now it’s kids who are 20. They can barely get in the door with [identification].”
Some Torontonians got a chance to witness the magic at the Reverb on May 16, when Labatt hired Super Diamond to play for some beer drinkers, including 20 fans who hold an annual Neil Diamond party in Mississauga, Ont., every Jan. 24 on the artist’s birthday.
When Labatt’s marketing department was batting around ideas for the Out of the Blue campaign, they were looking for a song that represented an anthem for sing-alongs. They considered Smoke on the Water and a few others, but when they struck on Diamond’s Sweet Caroline, they agreed it was the epitome of a campfire song.
“For the last 8,000 years, people have wanted to be happy and have fun and that’s what so many of Neil Diamond’s songs make you feel,” said Mike Robitaille, Labatt’s director of marketing. “They’re happy songs, by and large. Certainly his most famous tunes are very fun songs.”
There may be renewed interest in old music and Super Diamond may be reeling the young ones in, but the tribute band’s front man, Randy Cordero, has a simpler explanation for the phenomenon. The songs have so much melody, such beautiful lyrics, that they’re jewels, he believes.
There are, of course, the karaoke favourites, said Cordero, otherwise known as Surreal Neil. Concertgoers are constantly telling him that America is their favourite song, but Surreal Neil scoffs at that.
“He’s got the songs that are anthems, he’s got the songs that are kind of in-between — sing-alongs like Sweet Caroline and Cracklin’ Rosie and stuff like that — but then he’s got the really deep, beautiful love songs like Play Me and A Modern Day Version of Love that a lot of people don’t know about. The
hard-core fans do.”
For a performer who hasn’t had a big radio hit since 1982 when Heartlight climbed to No. 5 on the adult contemporary chart, Diamond sure packs them in. Every time he releases a new album and hits the road for a tour, he takes in more money at the box office than most other stars.
Amusement Business, a trade magazine, named him the fifth top-grossing artist of the nineties: In 1996, on tour to promote the album Tennessee Moon, he earned more than any other tour that year with the exception of Kiss ($50-million U.S.). Garth Brooks, while on his 1999 tour to promote The Movie Album, earned $31.3-million, putting him eighth on the list.
The singer has never really cared about keeping up with the times. Even his look — the big, sweeping sideburns, blousy shirt and the tight pants — is decidedly uncool.
That doesn’t mean his music is any less important, said Howard Kramer, associate curator at Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.
Still, Kramer admitted Diamond has been a victim of “visual stereotyping,” where some dismissed his music because his clothes and his hair were stuck in the 1970s.
“Neil Diamond is no less a great artist because he may have worn a red shirt with a wide collar unbuttoned to the middle of his chest. His work stands on its own,” Kramer said.
Diamond’s real talent, according to Kramer, is as a songwriter. “Just go back and look at the songs this guy wrote. It’ll blow your mind.”
When asked why Bob Dylan got all the press this year when he turned 60 and Diamond got none, Kramer called Dylan a god whereas Diamond was merely a mortal, albeit “better than most others when it comes to songwriting.”
Dylan also has a mystique about him, one that is perpetuated by the artist himself (he rarely gives interviews) and by his fans.
“Bob Dylan has an entirely different vibe about him. People look at him as kind of a shaman.”
Fans of Diamond’s have long despaired over the fact that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame foundation has never nominated their god for inclusion in its hallowed halls. Diamond has never made the cut.
Kramer is very cautious when asked whether Diamond — who signed an autograph for Super Diamond that says “Keep on Rockin’ ” — is a rocker.
“I guess it all depends on what your definition is. Is Neil Diamond a pure rock ‘n’ roller? I think he comes from a tradition of rock ‘n’ roll. I think he went off and created his own thing,” he said. “What Neil Diamond became is less rock ‘n’ roll and more about pop standard and songwriting craft than it was about Chuck Berry or Little Richard.”
Surreal Neil thinks Diamond just isn’t hip enough for some people in the music industry because he’s so clean living.
“It’s funny that we live in a world where people who are nice and people who aren’t into drugs are not cool, and they’re not put on a pedestal like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison.”
Diamond is so nice that he has been known to stop and talk to fans who are staking out his hotel. Even Surreal Neil was impressed with the real Neil when Diamond showed up last December at the House of Blues in L.A. to catch a show.
“When I met him, I couldn’t believe how normal he was,” Cordero said. Compared with whom?
He pauses, then relates a story about the time legendary rock producer Phil Spector showed up for a gig and came backstage to chat.
“Man, that’s somebody you can’t have a normal conversation with,” Cordero said. “That guy came to our room afterwards. He wanted to party and we had to finally kick him out at 4 a.m.”
By that time, we presume, Neil Diamond would be deep in a drug-free REM sleep. Beautiful noise It’s virtually impossible not to like Neil Diamond. The very things that, in the hands of another singer-songwriter, would be crippling flaws are, with Diamond, the very foundation of the pleasures we find in his work. Herewith a highly subjective, decidedly volatile list of Neil’s nuggets and nimnos.