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The Importance of Being Neil Diamond

The frog who would be king

September 23, 1976
neil diamond cover
Neil Diamond on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Annie Leibovitz

They had a tip: Cocaine in Holmby Hills, just outside Beverly Hills. They had a description of a white male in his early 40s, graying. It didn't sound exactly like that guy on all those album covers or, at that moment, on a huge billboard high above Sunset Strip. But they had a search warrant, and the name on it was Neil Diamond.

And so, on June 30th at 10:30 p.m., a force of 50 men, a joint effort of the sheriff and police departments, arrived at the house in Holmby Hills. A helicopter hovered overhead, ready with searchlights, while the head of the detail telephoned the house from the gate.

Neil Diamond was home, preparing to leave the next day for Las Vegas and one of the most important engagements in his ten years as a performer. After refusing offers from almost every major hotel for years, he'd agreed to open up the brand-new, $10 million Aladdin Theatre for the Performing Arts.

Diamond picked up the phone. He was momentarily stunned.

"This is the police," the inspector – the other cops called him "Psycho" – said. "We have reason to believe there's a burglar on your premises, and we'd like to come up and check it." "Psycho" had sent a plainclothes man onto the grounds. Diamond looked out a window and, sure enough, there was a man in the darkness, walking around with a flashlight. Diamond buzzed the gate open.

In seconds, the police and the sheriffs surrounded the house. One of them handed Diamond the warrant. But he was in street clothes, and Diamond was suspicious. They could be robbers. He asked for identification. Then he saw some uniformed officers. "I don't know what you're looking for," Diamond told them, "but you're not going to find it." But the police quietly, meticulously went through all ten rooms of the house, including the one where Neil and Marcia Diamond's five-year-old son, Jesse, was sleeping. For three hours they went over the house and grounds, but they-came up with no cocaine, although they did find marijuana. Less than an ounce of it.

Finally, "Psycho" turned to Diamond and, forcing a laugh, said, "Well, I guess you're right," and he led the troops out.

Neil Diamond shook his head and thought again – for the first time in three hours – about Las Vegas. He wondered if maybe it was someone in Nevada – and not some judge in Santa Monica or low-life informer in Hollywood – who was trying to shake him up.

After all, the Aladdin – through Diamond – was set to disrupt Las Vegas's showroom way of life. First of all, the Aladdin is an actual theater, and not a showroom. Tickets are sold by box offices, and all the seats are good ones. Not only would Diamond be drawing thousands – all five shows, at 7500 seats apiece, had already sold out, at $20 and $30 a ticket – but if all went well at the Aladdin, other stars might well turn away from the other hotels, with their 1500-seat banquet rooms and their 50-minute shows. It had to be Vegas.

Diamond is sitting on the patio outside his summer house in Malibu Colony. Marcia, Jesse and his parents, Rose and Kieve Diamond, are inside. Las Vegas is behind them now, but Neil is still trying to figure out the hows and whys of the raid. He lights up the first in a chain of cigarettes and speaks in a calm, measured and slightly distant manner.

"At first I thought someone was trying to prevent me from playing Las Vegas," he says.

"But the reaction from Las Vegas was, 'Great to have you here. It's gonna bring in a lot of people.' There were 35,000 who came to see the show. The Aladdin Hotel could hold 1200 at its peak. All the other hotels really benefited." He pops a grape into his mouth and chews slowly. "I can't figure it out."

His attorneys, however, tried. "But unfortunately you can't even get the name of the informer." Diamond was obviously new to the world of drug busts.

There is a track on a 1970 Neil Diamond album called "The Pot Smoker's Song." It begins, "Pot, pot, gimme some pot, forget what you are, you can be what you're not, high, high, I wanna get high, never give it up if you give it a try." And between the bouncy choruses are spoken testimonials from kids connecting grass to speed, acid, suicide and worse.

Today, Diamond says "The Pot Smoker's Song" was "essentially misdirected"; that he learned the real villain is heroin after "The Pot Smoker's Song" came out. He started smoking dope – "mostly out of boredom," usually on long road trips.

"Fortunately, when I went through this stage," he adds, "I was old enough to discern between marijuana and heroin." Diamond is 35.

We stood to go back into the house, which he has leased until February. He and Marcia are looking to buy another house out here in Malibu, he says. Just yesterday they put the Holmby Hills place up for sale because Marcia was still "freaked out" by the raid. "I mean, at this point, she just doesn't want to go back to the house."

The raid, he says, "was very surreal." He didn't have to tell me that. When I first heard the news, secondhand, my first thought was that it had to be some other Neil. I mean, Neil Diamond? Drugs?

Surreal.

My name is Neil. I weep. I cry. I care . . .
—At the Winter Garden, on Broadway, November 1972

I need, I want, I care, I weep, I ache, I am, I said, I am . . .
—At the Greek Theater, Los Angeles, 1972

The Aladdin paid Neil Diamond $650,000 for five shows and, in the program, added a gratuity, calling him "the world's greatest performer." The hotel named a suite after him and threw a lavish party for him after opening night – in a banquet room coincidentally called the Diamond Room. Out in the casino a young couple from Westminster, California, and a retired couple from Chicago sat around a blackjack table playing dreadful "21" and talking about how they looked forward to seeing Diamond the next night. In town all week, they'd planned their vacations around Diamond's engagement.

Diamond should be on top of the world. He is a star there, after all. That line from "I Am . . . I Said" about the frog who dreamed of becoming a king and then became one – that's Diamond, all right. But he is a restless man – insecure, moody and serious . . . and driven . . . .

Diamond is sitting on the floor of his bedroom, his back against a chest of drawers, talking about his parents. He is happy to have enabled his father to close up his dry-goods shop five years ago, after 25 years in the business. "He's just been hanging out and grooving ever since, traveling. I really envy him. I wish I had that basic nature to relax and go with it. I'm much more emotionally reflective of my mother, who's more intense. I'm motivated, I'm pushed, I'm driven in a sense."

To do what?

"God knows!" Then, a second later: "I'm motivated to find myself. I'm an imperfect emotional being, trying to figure out some way to give some kind of substance and meaning to my life. I do it in a very silly way. I write these little songs and go and sing them in a recording studio and, later, in front of a lot of people. It seems like an odd way to gain an inner sense of acceptance of the self. But it's what I do. It seems like a lot of people are getting good things from it. It's really the only justification I've found yet for my life. That and my children."

You know Neil Diamond. If not, you can at least hum him. "Cherry Cherry," "I'm a Believer," "Solitary Man," "Kentucky Woman," "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon," "I Thank the Lord for the Night Time," "Sweet Caroline," "Holly Holy," "Shilo," "Cracklin' Rosie," "Play Me," "Song Sung Blue" and, of course, "I Am . . . I Said."

"He's written some songs over the years that were extraordinary to me," says the Band's Robbie Robertson, who produced Diamond's latest album, Beautiful Noise. "There's certain ones that ring on. The things I could relate to were the rock & roll things – 'Solitary Man,' 'Cracklin' Rosie' – fantastic, good-feeling things."

Sales figures and gold-record counts do not tell the whole Neil Diamond story. Just consider these items:

  • After the first batch of hummables on a small label, Diamond made a $50,000-per-album, five-album deal with MCA's Uni Records in 1967. Later that year, when the Steve Miller Blues Band and Quicksilver Messenger Service got a similar deal from Capitol Records, the rock press got all crazy. Few had noticed Neil's deal.
  • In 1971, 18 months before his MCA contract was up, Diamond declared himself ready for renegotiations and got offers of $4 million – $400,000 per album for ten albums – from Warner Bros, and Columbia Records. He took Columbia, which has recouped its entire advance with his first two albums, and Beautiful Noise is just out.
  • Diamond threw a scare into Columbia in 1972, just before joining them, by announcing a "sabbatical" from concert work for a year or two. He actually stretched his leave out to 40 months. During this period he further scared Columbia with the word that his first album for them would be a soundtrack of a movie about a bird, Jonathan Livingston Seagull. (The soundtrack outgrossed the film, $12 million to $2 million, according to one report. Columbia relaxed.)
  • Returning to the stage early this year, Diamond de-cided to hit Australia and New Zealand for the first time, and literally sold out both countries. When Australian radio leaked the word that a tour was being planned, "blank checks," according to the tour promoter, "were mailed to houses it was assumed he would play, requesting seats and letting the house fill in the amount." Boffo.

They laughed when Clive Davis, then president of Columbia, made that $4 million bet on Diamond's endurance. No one's laughing anymore. Some of them are even humming.

And yet, Diamond is not content. He is the consummate searcher. He would've been perfect in Stardust, the story of a star still groping for the meaning of life.

There is a story that is told – usually by Diamond, in fact – that during his sabbatical, while working on the musical narrative for Seagull, a Hare Krishnite showed up at his door with incense and literature. Diamond invited him in, talked with him, then showed him his work in progress. The young man ended up meeting with Diamond every day for six weeks. Diamond put him up in an apartment, rented him a car. And when the youth asked him to join him in India so they could sit in a cave, Diamond said he'd love to – except he had to finish this Seagull thing. But he gave the man air fare to India.

Diamond has always been a sponge, soaking up, then letting drop here and there the admixture of sounds of Brooklyn and Manhattan, the music of his high school choruses and the fervor of a Harlem church he went to once. On his sabbatical, he says, he read 200 books – "it was like the college education I didn't have" – and he studied music theory so he'd be able to write symphonies.

In his office, there are books about Australia and New Zealand. One of Diamond's staff talked about why he's so popular there. It is basically a pop country, conservative in many ways, yet forward looking. "Neil appeals to not rock people," the employee said. "He's a strong attraction to aspiring people. They're your average, mobile, upward-bound people. Australia conforms to that model." Imagine: 13 million people swaying to the gentle beat, chanting: "I need, I want, I care, I weep, I ache . . . "

You are the sun
I am the moon
You are the words
I am the tune
Play me
. . .
—"play me"1

While many of Diamond's songs deal directly with loneliness, love and the healing power of music, many others are elliptical, if you know what I mean. Listeners sail along on the sweet caramel melodies, the majestic, swelling arrangements, the dramatic tempo changes, the gospel/Broadway/baritone deliveries of "Holly Holy" and "Soolaimon" and "Play Me" – while not quite getting their points.

Jeff Barry, songwriter and producer of Diamond's first large handful of hits, says: "His songs haven't changed, really; they just get harder to understand."

Diamond doesn't think any of his songs need to be explained. Or even understood. "Holly Holy," he says, "is not the kind of thing you're supposed to think about. It's the kind of a piece where one line, or one word, sets off a little zinger, gives you a twinge. And that's all it is. 'Play Me,' I've had people say, 'Jesus, there's a couple of lines I wish you'd change.' It's crazy. Let one line reach. Let it not add up to anything and touch you. And let's you not understand it. There are no rules, you see. That's the beautiful thing about it. And the best things I've done are the things that people don't really understand."

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