When you need a story, it’s a really hard thing to invent one out of some hit songs and a few awards listed on a bio sheet. When you need a story, you need something with teeth. A stance. You need one liners. You need some controversy, something of substance, maybe even a social statement.
And so, I turned to Super Diamond. Who couldn’t write a story about Super Diamond? I mean, here’s this guy, Surreal Neil, a talented young musician in his own rite, packing huge halls with his high energy update on the guilty pleasures of Neil Diamond music. The guy is living out this classic dualistic sympatico with the music, the moves, the lore, with even the shirts of his doppelganger, the real Neil. That’s gotta get crazy, right? There could be Greek tragedy in this, right?
Well, the truth is, Surreal Neil is a smart, level headed, modern guy, who only recently decided to leave his career as a design engineer. He has a new CD out of his own original music. The band is called Universal Jack. And when it comes to talking about Neil Diamond, Surreal Neil has more of the college professor in him, than the fanatic. He is a social scientist, an engineer, and a musician. A singer and a performer. A student of pop culture. But Surreal Neil is not a Neil Diamond impersonator. And Super Diamond is not a cover band. Neil insists that they do their own show, and be themselves. And with those parameters, they have a great time.
“When I first started doing it, people wondered how I would do it looking like myself and not trying to act like I was Neil” recalls Surreal Neil. “That’s usually really cheesy. We never thought this (Super Diamond) would go this far, but now that plenty of tribute bands have opened for us, I see most of them acting like they are them (the real artist,) so if they look dorky or they look nothing like them, then it’s almost kind of a let down. But as long as I do it my own way, it reflects well on Neil Diamond. The whole time I’ve only had positive response from Neil’s fans.”
Surreal Neil pins Diamond down to four major eras, the 3-chord rock n’ roll songs of the 60’s, then the pop and acoustic rock of the seventies which gave way in the 80’s to what Surreal Neil characterizes as “the reverb-ey schmaltz stuff.”
As a musician in an original band in the late 80’s, Surreal Neil (then Randy Cordero) was still in denial about his acumen for the real Neil’s music, but as a social scientist, he noticed when Diamond songs crossed into reggae (UB40) and TV culture (the Monkees) and pop cinema (“Pulp Fiction”.) A Super Diamond set touches many areas of pop culture. Elements you might hear at a Chris Isaac concert, or a Gary Puckett and the Union Gap tour. A Monkees reunion. An Urge Overkill show. An anti-war rally. Because Diamond’s legend is linked to all these things.
Super Diamond adroitly updates the music and fashion, while the statements in the songs update themselves, and the whole show comes off as this luscious, energized, contemporary compendium of mass media culture.
“When I started, I didn’t really know anybody liked Neil Diamond music” says Surreal Neil. “Neil was uncool when I got to high school. But, sometimes you come back to things, like, when I went back to that Neil Diamond’s Greatest Hits album, I totally flashed back to my Aunt’s truck when I heard ‘Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon’ and I said to my friend ‘Listen to this! This song could be a hit today!’ and I stuck the headphones on his head. Then Urge Overkill beat me to it. Chris Isaac did ‘Solitary Man.'”
Neil Diamond’s “Greatest Hits” was an eight track tape Surreal Neil’s parents bought him. Little did they know! But Surreal Neil has an idea why Super Diamond is selling out weekends at huge venues like the House of Blues, and Portland’s Crystal Room, and the Fillmore in San Francisco.
“It’s always 80 or 90% people in their twenties or thirties. They got teased for liking Neil Diamond. Their parents played him. Then they see Super Diamond and then they bring their friends, and it’s like they won an argument. Neil is cool after all. How can their friends argue with that?”
“People might expect an old guy with a lounge act, but every time we play somebody says ‘Man, you guys fuckin’ rock!'” says Surreal Neil. “I always tell people I’ll never get tired of hearing that.
“The stuff I’ve always been into is over the top, so I like to beef everything up – super massive distortion on the guitars sometimes, where people are banging their heads” explains Neil. “And I don’t try to dress exactly like a current Neil Diamond, or a 70’s Neil Diamond. I have things made. A mix of current and 70’s clothes – because I just can’t find these things off the rack!”
“I feel good about it. I give it enough of an edge to give it what I want to see. When I would see Neil Diamond in Vegas, I would think ‘I’d like to see him be a little more energetic,’ and so that’s how I do it.
But the one question left unanswered is this: What if all this went to Surreal Neil’s head? What if Surreal Neil became the bitter Neil? took to bingeing onstage, making an ass of himself, getting real weird, would Real Neil shut him down? Could he? Could this Greek Tragedy angle come into play for this band from California?
“I don’t think he could stop us. I never really thought about it. But I don’t even hardly drink. It wouldn’t be me. We play halls that do original music. Opportunities come from that. So I’m not bitter.”
Neil Diamond genuinely approves of the Super Diamond phenomenon, stating as much on a San Francisco radio program. “Neil said that he should write me a thank you letter for ‘turning all the young people on’ to his music” says Surreal Neil. “He notices that there are so many more young people at his shows when they play in the Bay Area.”
But the most classic quote from the real Neil came when a friend of Cordiero’s gave Diamond a Super Diamond poster. Said the real Neil: “I’d love to see them, that’d be cool. It might be weird, but I’d love it.”
In fact, the connection between the real, and the Surreal grows tighter all the time. When Neil Diamond isn’t touring, some of his band members tour with Surreal Neil. The Super Diamond explosion comes from an honest vision, great musicianship, and a great performer. Although I am admittedly suspicious of the phenomena of tribute bands in general, I can tell you that Super Diamond really delivers something special, something that not even Neil Diamond is hip enough to pull off. Surreal Neil, and Super Diamond.