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The Importance of Being Neil Diamond

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Diamond is at Bill Whitten's Workroom 27, planning his show and getting I fitted for the four outfits he'll wear in Las Vegas. In contrast to the gaudy, schizo, cowboy/Indian costumes Whitten designed in '72, these are simple, single-color tops. "For the Seagull segment, I'd like to be in all white. For the Brother Love segment, I'd like to be dressed in all black."

Diamond works his way into a pair of flared leather pants and begins to spar with his fitter, Steve Loomis, who wants them to stop just half an inch from the floor. Diamond wants them an inch shorter than that.

"I hate those bell-bottom things," he says.

"But you don't want to look like a little boy who's outgrown his pants," says Loomis. "The front has to touch your shoe."

"Who says?"

"The Bible."

"I'll settle for three-quarters of an inch."

Out of the studio, he says he's avoided wearing leather onstage and that he doesn't much care for the glittery belt. "But sometimes you have to in big places, to be seen." But he doesn't mind costumes. "You can be a gladiator or a warrior up there – whatever gets you off." Diamond, who constantly flashes back to the old days in New York, adds: "I used to shop in Greenwich Village . . . "

At the beginning, ten years ago, when he worked at his manager's nightclub, the Bitter End, he was so insecure and nervous that the manager, Fred Weintraub, ordered him not to talk between songs. Diamond wore all black. "It was a protective thing," he says now. He can chart, year by year, his progress: "1966: black. '67: black. '68: black. '69: dark brown . . . dark red . . . dark blue . . . lighter blue." Finally, in late '70, in Corvallis, Oregon, white. "It was a breakthrough. Somehow it was symbolic of opening up, of letting defenses down."

For a man so meticulous about everything he touches, Diamond can be relatively loose onstage. His humor is offhanded, nervous and are-you-with-me humble. On opening night, he stalked around the stage remarking on how everything done that night would be a first, finishing with: "If you stick gum under your seat, that'll be the first gum. . . ." He introduced the audience to a device attached to his microphone that sprayed ionized water into his mouth as he sang to provide him with a moisturized air stream and help him fend off the dread "Las Vegas Throat." "It's gonna do horrible things to my hair," said Diamond, "but screw it . . . "

But most of the two-hour show is standard Neil Diamond – most of the hits, done in an alternately smooth and cracklin' voice. He doesn't tease like a Tom Jones; there are no martial-arts moves like Presley's. But he laps up the attention of the younger girls in the audience, hugging and kissing and posing for photos. And he sways with a defined beat that's more physical support for his music than any attempt to turn anyone on.

The feeling is down-to-earth. And yet he can be lofty, and pretentious, sermonizing unconvincingly on "Brother Love" or zigging from the despair of "I Am . . . I Said" into the birdbrained optimism of Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

To which Diamond responds: "When I get onstage, it's a theatrical experience. It doesn't relate to real life. It's real life magnified 10,000 times. There are many parts you play onstage. Only one of them is the real you."

Offstage, in wine-colored shirt (I didn't ask what year), smoke-gray suit and tinted glasses, he sits for a CBS-TV interview and says he doesn't want to be a celebrity who gets "swept away by it all; it's not real," but that celebrity "is part of my skin; I love it."

At lunch at Le Restaurant, across from his office, he asks to switch seats with me, so that he is facing away from the entranceway. "This way I'm less observable," he says.

"If I had my druthers, I'd be an anonymous star," he continues. "Somebody that was able to do his work, have it accepted by the public and still be able to maintain his own private feelings and live as reasonably normal a life as one could expect in this situation. I've tried to do that. I've avoided getting too hot; I've avoided over exposure, staying away from television for a long time has been part of it. I may be coming out of that now, I'm getting older and I'm able to deal with it a little better."

During his sabbatical, Diamond went through therapy. He's uncertain what kind of therapy it was – "My guess would be Freudian, but we never discussed his techniques." All he knows is that in 1972 he felt he didn't know how to talk with people – with the press – about his work. And that it was Lenny Bruce who got him open to psychoanalysis.

"I went out to do a test for the Lenny Bruce film. I had met Tom O'Horgan [director of Jesus Christ Superstar and Hair] a couple of times. I spent a number of weeks studying this script. Bruce's language and thoughts were so violent. It was almost an intellectual form of vomiting. He was just saying all those things I had been holding in, that anybody holds in, 'fuck' and 'shit' . . . and 'death' and 'kill' and all of those things that he was getting out, I found that they were coming out with me. It was all the anger that was pent up in me. Suddenly here I was, speaking words that I had never spoken before. These violent monologues of his, and the way he acted. And I went into therapy almost immediately after that. Because there were things coming out of me that I couldn't deal with. It was frightening because I had never been willing to admit this part of my personality."

Diamond, who'd studied acting for a short time in New York, got the part. The film, however, got stalled and wound up on Broadway. By that time, Diamond had turned to Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

The Bruce experience inspired not only almost four years in therapy, but also the song "I Am . . . I Said," easily (or uneasily) Diamond's most open-wrench paean to loneliness.

He was depressed at the screen test, he said, thinking he'd done miserably. "During a lunch break, I was in my dressing room with my guitar. It just came out.

I am, I said to no one there And no one heard at all, not even the chair
—"I am . . . I said"2

Since therapy, Diamond feels he's worked out a balance between self-confidence, which he's always had, and self-esteem, which he's never had and which accounted for all the nervousness, the inability to talk. "I was unable to go out and be social. Going to parties is just something I've been able to develop over the last few years."

Offstage and away from the press Diamond does loosen up, I am assured. "He can be so outgoing," says Rick Frio, a vice-president at MCA Records. "He's the best kind of artist for your family. He'll invite your mother backstage; he'll do numbers for you that are incredible. He's a very generous man. I don't want to blow his mystique, but he's a great guy."

Well, the mystique's been blown. Neil Diamond, when he's not fencing with life, is just a nice Jewish mensch.

The beneficiaries of Diamond's generosity are generally charities, drug rehab organizations like Phoenix House and personal projects, like a children's camp he hopes to help build in the Santa Monica Mountains next year, mostly with $400,000 he's donated ($200,000 from Las Vegas and other engagements this year). He shies away from politics, he says. "I'm not a group joiner, never have been."

Although he shies away from politics he has been connected with the Kennedy family for some time. In 1972, on the eve of retirement, he and the concert promoters turned over $18,000 from his opening night on Broadway – at the Winter Garden – to the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial and the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, an urban renewal project started by RFK in 1967. A couple of weeks later, he entertained at a McGovern-Shriver fundraiser at the Shriver estate in Maryland. One high point occurred on the platform stage where Diamond and his band were playing. Ethel Kennedy walked up to him and poured a glass of beer over his head. "Apparently he loved it," one report said, and quoted an observer as saying: "It was recognition from the Kennedys."

"I liked the Kennedys," says Diamond, "because of their family-mindedness, because they're close-knit, because they had a sense of responsibility, an obligation toward other people." But that, he adds, was about the extent of their friendship. "I'm not sure whether you ever really know that you're friends with the Kennedy family."

Young child with dreams
Dream every dream on your own
When children play
Seems like you end up alone
Papa said he'd love to be with you – if he had
the time . . .
So you turn to the only friend you can find
There in your mind
. . .

—"Shilo"3

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