Neil Diamond Talks 50th Anniversary Tour, New Christmas LP

Singer-songwriter also recalls performing at the Last Waltz, how "Sweet Caroline" changed his life

Neil Diamond opens up about his new Christmas album, his upcoming North American tour and his memories of the Last Waltz. Credit: Andreas Terlaak

It's been a weird couple of days for Neil Diamond. Two nights before speaking with Rolling Stone, he teamed up with Jimmy Fallon to take on Natalie Portman and J.J. Abrams in a game of Password, but got completely crushed in a clip already viewed more than a million times. (Diamond didn't help his team much when Fallon's hints of "mamba" and "guacamole" elicited a response of "salad" and not the correct answer of "salsa.") Then the following night he performed a medley of Christmas songs from his new LP Acoustic Christmas in pelting rain during Rockefeller Center's Christmas Tree lighting ceremony. "It was a little pandemonious and slippery," he says. "I had fun once I got onstage and stopped worrying about falling off the stage."

Right now, Diamond is warm, dry and ready to eat some lunch in the lobby restaurant of a luxury hotel on the Upper East Side. It's the sort of place that offers a three-course prix-fixe menu for $48, but Diamond can't find a single thing he wants and asks for the bar menu, ultimately just telling his wife/manager Katie McNeil, seated a nearby table, to just pick something she thinks he'll like. She goes with chicken noodle soup and a Caesar salad, but once it comes he notices the salad has anchovies, which he meticulously picks out one-by-one and places on a side plate during our interview. 

There's a lot to talk about. Not only is Acoustic Christmas the fourth Christmas album for a singer known as the "Jewish Elvis," but the 75-year-old just announced dates for a massive 50th anniversary tour in 2017. Diamond spoke with RS about what fans can expect from the tour, what compels him to spend so much time on the road at this point in his life, and his memories of performing at the Last Waltz, which took place just over 40 years ago.

Why did you decide to do another Christmas album?
It wasn't planned. About a year and a half ago, we finished an album and we were just sitting around the studio. I had just written a song called "Christmas Prayers" and I thought, "We have some time here, I have some of the best musicians in the world." It looked like a very relaxed kind of a situation. The guys were hanging out on the couches and strumming their instruments. It was all acoustic. So I asked the band if they'd try this song and we did and it really came out nice. We just kept going from there. We waited until this year to release it. It's a nice album, very quiet. It doesn't beat people over the head. People seem to be taking to it.

Did Christmas play any part in your childhood?
No. Never. We never had a Christmas tree or anything. But when I was in the high school chorus we had Christmas concerts and we did that for a couple of years. I knew the Christmas songs pretty good, and I love them. It started me on my Christmas-music kick.

I've always felt it was no coincidence that so many of the great Christmas songs were written by Jews, going back to Irving Berlin, Phil Spector and Ellie Greenwich.
I think it's got to do with the fact that we're denied Christmas music. We have to get it out of our systems. If you ever get a chance to do it without peer pressure you can really do it, and I've done it with a vengeance. This is my fourth Christmas album and there's no stopping in sight. Next time I get a chance, I'll do it again. It'll be different every time, different songs with different approaches.

You just announced a tour. What made you want to go back on the road?
This is my usual schedule. Every two or three years I go out there. But the reaction to this one has been a little different. We've put 50 cities on sale so far and the response has been way high. It's been very heartening to me. I've been doing this 50 years and to have an audience that's out there and anxious and enthusiastic is exciting.

Could you have imagined 50 years ago you'd still be doing this at age 75?
[Laughs] No. Careers didn't last that long. As a matter of fact, when I started having hit records you think your career might be one or two or three records. And that's it. You were finished when one bombed. That's all the chance you got. Next!

At the time, rock & roll was just a decade old.
The rules were still being made. Nobody thought the Rolling Stones would still be singing "Satisfaction" 50 years later.

Yeah. In 1965 nobody was listening to music from 1915.
Why do you think that changed?

I just think music became a much more important part of the culture. It became political and people defined themselves by the kind of music they liked. It stopped being this ephemeral thing.
I think that's right.

And you were born at the exact right time. So many of the big names, Dylan, Brian Wilson, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger and you were all born in this narrow period of time in the early 1940s.
I was very lucky. I was an accident. Before [my generation] it was unusual to have a singer writing his own material unless you were maybe a folksinger.

Right. And even those guys never made any money.
They were not part of the commercial mainstream.

I want to get back to the tour. How do you make a set list? It's got to be tough because you have so many songs to draw from.
Well, theoretically it should be easy, but you gotta start somewhere, and usually my set list starts at the top. I find the opening song and if it gets me excited to do that song, the rest of the show writes itself. There's ups and downs, valleys, left turns, quiet moments and bombastic moments. You just keep adding songs and work from the song before it. Eventually you get to a point after two hours where you think, "OK, let's wrap it."

How much thought have you given to the specifics at this point?
I have been thinking about it, but until I get into the studio with my band it's just on paper. I have to hear it and feel it. It's starting the movement of this big, big circus train.

You have so many big hits they can fill up the entire two hours. Is it a challenge to find room for lesser-known ones?
They have to work real good to get into that club. But we find a way to get them in.

I love that you played "If You Know What I Mean" on the last tour. That's such a great one.
That one goes in and out. I'm thinking of doing a few songs I didn't write, but were mostly popularized and recorded in the early 1970s, songs like "If You Go Away," "Chelsea Morning" and a few others. When Joni Mitchell got sick a couple of years ago we started to put in one or two of her songs.

Might you do some sort of Leonard Cohen tribute?
I love "Suzanne" and I've done it since the early 1960s. We might put that in once in a while. Yeah, there's plenty of room for songs. We'll have the well-known ones, the big hits.

I was looking at your set-list stats online. There's 13 songs you've done over 1,000 times. "Sweet Caroline" is approaching 1,500.
And I'm still forgetting the lyrics!

I imagine you never get sick of it.
No. First of all, it changes pretty much every time. The form changes, the dynamics change. Sometimes you don't even plan for it to change, but it just changes.

When you're doing that one, you can just feel the euphoria of every single person in the arena.
Well, that song was a gift. It was really a gift, and it changed my career. I was going through a cold spell. I was with a new label and it plucked me out and saved me. It put me right back to Number One, and we followed it up with "Cracklin' Rosie," "Holy Holy" and "Brother Love."

I think my favorite is "I Am, I Said." 
That one was totally unlike "Sweet Caroline." It took months and months of work. It didn't happen by itself. It had to be thought through and worked out. It was a very difficult birth.

The story is true you wrote it while auditioning for the Lenny Bruce movie?
Yeah. It was a very intense moment for me. I think it had to come out of that. It was a screen test and I felt I had to prove myself as a writer. I really dug in for that song. It eventually happened, but it took months and months. But I loved it from the beginning. I loved it from the first couple of lines, from the chorus that I wrote in my dressing-room trailer when I was doing this screen test.

It was probably a good thing you didn't get the part because it gave you that song.
Oh, it's terrific that I didn't get the part because acting wasn't my thing. But if they offer you the chance to try out, alright, film a few feet on film. Tom O'Horgan, who was directing this little audition, came out with this assistant, a guy named Harvey Milk, and he left Harvey and I alone at the Chateau Marmont to work on the lines and loosen me up as an actor. I remember Harvey had me hopping on one foot while reciting the lines. He was making up techniques as he went along. He was not a theatrical or a drama teacher. He was helping his friend out. And the day that we did it, I think it was Columbia Pictures' sound stages. I come in and there's like four or five other guys trying out for that part. I didn't know about this. It's better that they didn't tell me because it's just another thing to distract you and worry about. And one guy they took out of a mental institution to make this because he thought he was Lenny Bruce.

That would have been an interesting casting choice! 
As far as I was concerned, he was Lenny Bruce there. Anyway, I did three scenes. We start the first one, and I look over my shoulder and there's a middle-aged woman there alongside the director and she's giving him directions. And I realize that it was Lenny Bruce's mom. I thought, "Oh, my God. I gotta imitate her son in front of her and try and satisfy her, too." It was wild. I mean, it was wild.

Do you still feel the emotion of that moment when you sing that song now?
Not of that moment. I didn't even think it related to the Lenny Bruce thing. It was just an emotional outpouring, really. It became apparent that I was looking for something in the song, but not for a month or two. It was a very explosive and very intense moment. It was the big bang theory of songwriting. You hold back emotion long enough and eventually something is gonna give. And that song gave. I just happened to bring my guitar to the screen test. I don't know why. It was like a security blanket. I remember pretty much all of that and all of the feelings that came out at that moment and that time, the work with Tom O'Horgan and Harvey and the moment of getting in front of the judge for the first scene, the rehearsals, Sally Marr [Bruce's mom] being there and the other contestants, none of whom got the part, nor did I. Eventually, it was Dustin Hoffman. He did pretty good.

Switching gears here, you obviously have no real financial incentive to tour by now. A lot of people in your position would rather just sit by a beach all day with a drink in their hand. What drives you to go do this huge tour?
Well, I'm one of those people who would rather sit on the beach and do nothing, but I can't. For some reason, I'm driven to get out and do my work and performing is one of the things that I do. It's probably, at this point, as important as songwriting to me. I don't know why, but it is. It gives me a chance to vent a certain aspect of my psyche. There's absolutely no reason to do this tour or any of the tours that I've done for the past 20 or 30 years. But it is exciting. And I think the excitement is one of the things that I'm seeking out.

Are you addicted to it? What part of it?
To all of it. The good parts and the bad parts. I'm addicted to the packing and the unpacking. I'm addicted to the doing of the shows, but that's obvious.

There's never a night where you're lying in the bed of some hotel thinking to yourself, "God, I'd rather be home right now. …"?
Oh, I think that every day. But, when you get to the venue, it's like a transformation slowly takes shape over the next three or four hours and you become acclimated to the place and the stage and you get nervous and you get excited and you get all the things that you have to get to prepare yourself for the moment that you walk out. And the moment that you walk out, it's a high. It's a delirious high because you're stepping a little bit into the unknown, even though you've done this before. You never know what's gonna happen. It's never the same. You're carried along on the wings of adrenaline, endorphins.

We just hit the 40th anniversary of the Last Waltz.
I didn't realize that. I just bumped into Robbie [Robertson] last week in L.A. We chatted for a while. He's going out and talking about his book, which I liked very much.

Do you have good memories of that concert?
It was fun. It was like going to Madame Tussauds Wax Museum, except real people: Bob Dylan to Bill Graham. I think you don't see Bill Graham once in the movie, but he was a constant presence everywhere, onstage and off. Martin Scorsese too.

Do you recall first being invited?
Yeah, Robbie invited me. I was a little uncertain because it was Thanksgiving. I was planning on being with my family at Thanksgiving, but I rented a plane and flew up there. There was no rehearsal.

Really?
I don't remember rehearsing, certainly not in San Francisco. The Band did an amazing job.

What are your memories of singing "I Shall Be Released" with the ensemble at the end?
That was fun, but I wanted to go home. My family was eating turkey and I wanted to get home.

Did you make it home in time for any of the meal?
No. I didn't get home until midnight. At that moment, nobody knew I was gonna be at the Last Waltz. I was just showing up for Robbie. I think there was a party afterward, but I never stayed for it.

I love the moment where you and Neil Young are sharing a microphone. It was the two Neils, together at last.
Was Joni Mitchell with us?

Yeah, she was. Was that the first time you ever met Neil Young?
Yeah, it was the first time. He came over and said, "Hi, I'm Neil Sedaka."

Really? He did that?
Yeah. I mean, he was kidding around.

Was that the last time you spoke to Neil Young?
Probably. It was a one-time meeting. I mean, we're all in the same business, but I didn't hang out with any of those people other than Robbie. I did know the Band a little because they used to record at Shangri-La in Malibu. I also knew Bill Graham because he promoted my dates and I knew Marty Scorsese a little because Robbie had introduced me.

The people there that night represented all the figures rock critics of the era adored. They treated you very differently, even though you were just as popular. Did that bother you?
Well, I've thought about it occasionally over the years, but not enough so that it would get in my way or stop me from writing my stuff. And, by the way, I was a fan of most of those people. So I never had any hard feelings about it. My concert reviews were always pretty good. I was doing great. My career was building. I never let the critics bother me.

I want to wrap on the tour. Personally, I'd love to hear you do "Dry Your Eyes" again. You haven't done it once since the Last Waltz.
That's right. I'm gonna sing it on this tour.

Really?
Yeah. I have to. It's been relegated to the attic. I think it's due to come out after 40 years. I want to create a list of songs that I haven't done before. "If You Go Away" is as definite candidate. "Suzanne" is a definite candidate. I have a list, but I want to keep some of them surprises. There will be a bunch of additions to the set list. Hopefully they'll be accepted by people. If they are, we'll keep doing them.

Neil Diamond will embark on his 50 Year Anniversary World Tour in 2017, which includes 39 concerts in North American arenas.