Countless people who have watched The Last Waltz over the past three decades have had the same question: What the hell was Neil Diamond doing there? That’s no knock on The Diamond. He just didn’t often share a stage with the likes of Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Van Morrison and Muddy Waters. It wasn’t his scene or his typical audience.
Turns out that Levon Helm was the first one to voice these concerns. “When I heard that Neil Diamond was going to play I asked, ‘What the hell does Neil Diamond have to do with us?'” Helm wrote in his memoir This Wheel’s on Fire. “Robbie [Robertson] called me up and said, ‘Well, Neil is like Tin Pan Alley. That Fifties Brill Building scene, songwriters like Doc Pomus.'” Levon wasn’t convinced. “Why don’t we just get Doc Pomus?'”
The main reason Diamond got the invite was that Robbie Robertson had produced his new album Beautiful Noise and he wanted Neil to perform “Dry Your Eyes,” a song they wrote together about America healing itself after the horrible assassinations that rocked the Sixties. Diamond took the stage right after Joni Mitchell’s three-song set and, truth be told, absolutely killed. It was a stellar performance, and probably the first time many in the audience had seen him live.
According to a longstanding urban legend, when he walked offstage he saw Bob Dylan and said “Top that!” to which Dylan supposedly replied, “By doing what? Falling asleep?”
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In 2010 we asked Diamond what really happened. “Actually, it was before we both went on,” he said. “He was tuning his guitar and I came over to him and I said, ‘You know, Bob, those are really my people out there.’ He kind of looked at me quizzically. I said it as a joke, but I think it spurred him a little bit and he gave a hell of a performance . . . It was a good night and an exciting night. I was glad to be a part of it.”
Unlike most of the performers at the Last Waltz, Diamond only performed a single song. He did come out for the farewell jam on “I Shall Be Released,” which gave the world a unique glimpse of Neil Diamond and Neil Young harmonizing on the same microphone. At one point during the long day Young walked up to Diamond backstage and said, “Nice to meet you. I’m Neil Sedaka.”
It’s unlikely that Young remembers much of the encounter. Two days earlier he’d performed two shows with Crazy Horse in Boston in a single night, before flying cross country for the Last Waltz. Along the way he did so much cocaine there was a chunk in one of his nostrils that Scorsese and his team had to remove from the finished movie one frame at a time. You can tell during his performance of “Helpless” that he’s a little out of it.
It remains the only time in Diamond’s entire career that he performed “Dry Your Eyes,” and the last time he played with most everyone involved with this concert.