Critics know him as one of the most reflective and sombre artists in the business, a singer-songwriter with no lightness and very little sense of irony. But he’s been packing out stadiums since the early 1970s, and his first tour to South Africa in April 2011 will be amongst the biggest the country has yet seen. What’s Neil Diamond’s story? By KEVIN BLOOM.
The full weight of Neil Diamond’s seriousness was never more on display than it was in the 1980 remake of the Al Jolson classic, The Jazz Singer. The film, which originally had Jolson in black-face, and which in its 1927 incarnation heralded the ascendance of “talkies” and the decline of the silent era, is essentially concerned with the conflict between conservative Jewish heritage and assimilation into secular American life. Diamond played Jess Robin against Laurence Olivier’s Cantor Rabinovitch – the orthodox father to the son who changes his name and pursues a career in mainstream music – and although he was nominated for a Golden Globe for the performance, he was also the first-ever recipient of the Worst Actor Razzie Award. This last detail may have had as much to do with the fact that he was cast opposite one of the finest actors of the twentieth century as it had to do with his intense earnestness – gravity doesn’t tend to translate as well on the screen as it does in sad songs.
Still, in a 2006 review of Diamond’s album “12 Songs,” the New Yorker music critic Sasha Frere-Jones had this to say about the singer-songwriter’s solemnity: “Diamond, who grew up in Brooklyn, began writing songs and making records in the late nineteen-fifties, while attending New York University on a fencing scholarship. His first musical collaborator, Jack Packer, has described Diamond’s performance style as ‘uptight, to say the least. Somber. I realised that performing per se was not his forte whatsoever.’ Diamond’s voice is handsome and sturdy, but he sings like a man who, though he experiences emotions intensely, must work too hard to express them; his words emerge with excessive force. There are very few settings on his voice machine: he can do less Neil or more Neil. If he sings about regret, he will not slip in a shiver of delight. If he pleads with a woman who has left him, there won’t be a hint of relief in his voice. But what Diamond cannot do as a singer he makes up for as a songwriter.”
Watch: I'm a believer, 2008.
The album that Frere-Jones was critiquing was produced by the legendary Rick Rubin, who at the time was also working with Johnny Cash, and the New Yorker piece called it, as a consequence, “almost great”. Diamond, noted Frere-Jones, was encouraged by Rubin to play the guitar himself, a technique that would stop him laying it on too thick – “12 Songs” is thus known as the most spare album in the artist’s canon, with all the tracks acoustic and drums on only one.
It’s highly unlikely that when Diamond arrives in South Africa in April 2011, for his first tour of the country, he’ll be performing many of the songs from that album. What South Africans can expect – and what they’re booking tickets for in the hundreds of thousands – are the anthems: “I’m a Believer,” “Sweet Caroline,” “Cracklin’ Rosie,” “Song Sung Blue,” “Forever in Blue Jeans,” “Beautiful Noise”. There’ll also be the classic track from The Jazz Singer, “Love on the Rocks,” and maybe some of the early hit singles, like “Solitary Man” and “Cherry, Cherry”. All of these songs are on the two-volume album “The Greatest Hits: 1966 – 1992,” which no doubts sits in CD collections in homes across the land, and if Diamond doesn’t have “Hello Again” or “America” on his playlist, you can bet that fans will be calling for them from the cheap seats. Equally certain, the new FIFA World Cup stadiums at which the concerts are to be held – Soccer City in Johannesburg on 2 April, 5 April at the Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban, 8 April at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth, and ending on 11 April at the Green Point Stadium – will be reverberating with massive off-key sing-alongs.
Watch: Love on the rocks, 2008.
Of course, a large percentage of the audience in the four local stadiums will be in their fifties or older. My mother, whose birthday is on the date of the concert in Johannesburg, was devastated when she found out on Friday that the only seats still available for the Soccer City performance are in the nosebleed section – she’s been a devoted fan of Diamond since the ‘70s, and this would’ve been the perfect present to herself. But as Frere-Jones noted, “When I asked friends and acquaintances for their impressions of Diamond, even those in their sixties began their recollections with the statement ‘My parents listened to Neil Diamond.’” While the quote was added in the context of his status as a staple of easy-listening radio, it can just as applicably be viewed as a testament to his remarkable endurance.
In a musical career spanning nearly five decades, Diamond has sold more than 128 million albums. His Billboard chart successes as an Adult Contemporary artist are the third highest of all time, behind Barbara Streisand and Elton John. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1984, and in 2000 received the Sammy Cahn Lifetime Achievement Award. Also known as “The Jewish Elvis,” his Rick Rubin-produced album “Home Before Dark” topped the charts in May 2008 with almost 150,000 sales in a week – according to Rolling Stone magazine, his guest mentorship that year on American Idol may have had something to do with it, as may have his appearance on the Urge Overkill cover in Pulp Fiction.
Booking for the South African concerts opened on 9 October. Within four days there were only 1500 seats left for the Cape Town leg, and tickets have been selling just as fast in the other venues. Diamond, in all his seriousness, still draws some of the biggest crowds on Earth; it’s been this way since the ‘70s, when he started ordering custom-made $5,000 sequin-adorned shirts, so that people in the giant stadiums could see him without the aid of binoculars. DM
Photo: Honoree Neil Diamond performs a medley of his songs at the 2009 MusiCares Person of the Year gala in Los Angeles February 6, 2009. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni.