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The Importance of Being Neil Diamond

Page 4 of 4

In eaving Bang, Diamond was turning his back on symbols of his past: Brooklyn, Tin Pan Alley, the Top 40 treadmill . . . and his first wife.

They were too young, he says, 16 or so when they went steady, 21 or so when they married, and parents a year later.

"It was almost as though our destiny was preordained. We were to be married, have children; the best we could hope for was a little house on Long Island. We'd live the lives our parents wanted us to live. I didn't really begin to think about myself and my life until I began to travel and remove myself from that peer group. And I realized that that wasn't I what I wanted at all, and things began to deteriorate from that point.

"I just decided to split and leave it all behind. In a sense it was running away."

But he wasn't alone. In New York, he had met an employee at a TV station he was visiting. "I'm not sure what it was that attracted me to Marcia," he says solemnly. "Maybe it was the sadness in her eyes more than anything else. I saw this girl and she evidently understood great pain." And that was before they'd exchanged a word.

Now, Diamond also seems impressed with Marcia's Gentile, all-American credentials. "Her forebears came over on the Mayflower," he says, "She's the much more American side of me and she offers me that strength as well."

Soon after arriving in L.A., Neil and Marcia married. In Los Angeles, Diamond signed with MCA's Uni label for $250,000 after entertaining numerous offers. MCA, he says, gave him his wings and he responded with songs like "Brother Love's Travelling Salvation Show," "Brooklyn Roads" and "Sweet Caroline." He grew musically but, outside of Marcia, had no social life. Rock, in 1968, dominated Los Angeles; it stood for all manner of social change and protests; rock stars were replacing movie stars as Hollywood royalty. And Neil Diamond stayed at home.

"I never could identify with that. I never did understand . . . this rebelliousness. First of all, I was not a teenager anymore. I was 26 or 27, I had already been married, had two children at that point.

"I knew that I was out of it. But I could never relate being serious about my work and hanging out with people. It didn't relate to what I was trying to do, which was essentially to try and be Alan Jay Lerner or George Gershwin. 'Hip' was something frivolous people had time to be. I didn't have time to be hip and with it and groovy. I was dealing with something that was much more important: with my life and trying to write songs that had substance. And hip is bullshit. It doesn't cut deep. It cuts for today and tomorrow."

Still, there was the Brother Love album, which had Diamond bearded on the cover, while inside there was an aimless "Salvation Game" that made use of the argot of the Aquarian Age.

"I suppose from a business point of view I could have tried to be hip," says Diamond. "The growing of the beard, I suppose, from outward appearances, looked like I was getting hip or something. In reality, I was hiding from some private detectives my first wife had hired."

Dry your eyes and take your
song out
It's a newborn afternoon
And if you can't recall the singer
. . .
You can still recall the tune.

—"Dry Your Eyes"4

Robbie Robertson is at the board at Kendun studios in Burbank, mixing "If You Know What I Mean," the first single from Beautiful Noise, while Diamond sits on a couch behind him, writing a liner note. Slowly, Robertson, with two engineers, peels away a synthesized caliope sound, some of the higher-registered strings and, by Neil's direction, some of the echo – "There's an edge to it I don't really like," he tells Robertson. While Robbie rehuddles, Neil gets busy recopying his one-sentence liner note.

On a break, in an adjacent room, he reads it: "This album is a series of recollections, remembrances from a time in the early Sixties, when a young songwriter set out to make his way on the beautiful but noisy streets of New York City's Tin Pan Alley."

"We really tried to cover a milieu that I spent quite a bit of time in, that Robbie passed through briefly on his way to New Orleans, and we're familiar with a lot of the same characters, a lot of the same experiences, and when we first got together and started to think seriously about doing an album, we kinda groped around and one of the subjects that we covered was our shared experiences in New York. And Robbie thought it would make a fascinating story, that it hadn't really been told."

Robbie Robertson picks up the thread: "That period was – it was the beginning and the end," he says. "It was the beginning of 'hip,' it was the beginning of the songwriter era, it was . . . all of a sudden, people started saying what was gonna be on their album covers. People's hair got long. Kennedy got assassinated; there was the Vietnam War. It was such an incredible cultural, social revolution – like an inter-American revolution. It spurted across here and there and ignited these things, and it was worldwide. And the real capper in it is the death of Tin Pan Alley. It exploded with the rest of it."

Neil Diamond and Robbie Robertson. Images, categories of "hip" and "straight" aside, it's an odd coupling.

"We thought it was an odd combination, too," says Diamond. "Robbie being so rooted in his thing and me being in my area. But we thought the combination of the two would create a third thing that neither of us had experienced before."

The two had met casually, a few years ago, when Robertson lived in Woodstock. Then they met up again when they discovered they were neighbors in Malibu. "And then it was time to go off and sit on the beach and talk about things. And after a while we began to think we could maybe set off a few sparks between us."

Robertson shrugs off Diamond's "commercial" aura. "The main thing, you know, was trying to understand whether the experiment would work musically. It seemed just weird enough that it was a worthwhile undertaking."

Robertson, despite the prominence of his production credit on the cover, doesn't intrude on Beautiful Noise. It's still your basic, abundant/ambitious Neil Diamond.

Beautiful Noise may become a movie, says Diamond. Early on, he and Robertson were thinking of it as a possible Broadway musical. Now, they'll pursue a film version. But, of course, Diamond's still touring, and he has a TV special planned for later this year, and besides, he's already talking about building this camp for kids . . .

See, Diamond is still dealing with the calluses on his psyche. The frog who became a king is trying to rewrite some of the past, or at least remember a sad song and make it better. He is in a beach house not just because Marcia was freaked by the raid, but also because it reminds him of Coney Island. He gave that money to the Bedford-Stuyvesant project partly because, hey, Brooklyn was home. He has paid for his parents' early retirement and wishes he hadn't been so hard on his dad in "Shilo." And, he's building a camp because it was at a camp, after all, where Diamond first experienced fresh air and was inspired to write songs.

And, as he says, "Songwriting gives me the greatest joy, the greatest sense of accomplishment, the sense that my life does have some purpose, although I don't fully understand it right now. It's what I am." He said.

This story is from the September 23rd, 1976 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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