Diamond’s music earns him Kennedy Center honors

NEW YORK — Neil Diamond, somewhat disconcertingly, speaks the same way he sings. The same baritone voice. The same rich timbre. The same melancholy inflection. The cadence with which he once sang, “Where it began/ I can’t begin to knowin’/ But then I know it’s growin’ strong” is the same one with which he now says, “Falling in love is such a wonderful feeling to experience at this point in my life.” Such is the effect that, were he to bust out in song (“good times never seemed so good!”), you would not be the least bit surprised, but would do the only acceptable thing — which, of course, would be to answer: “so good! so good! so good!”

Alas, it never happens. But that voice, so familiar and warm as it fills the empty spaces of a salon in a Midtown Manhattan hotel, sounds as though it should be drenched in strings, his declarations punctuated by a majestic, descending horn figure (“Bah bah bah!”).

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“Exhilaration,” Diamond says, “is the operable word this year.” (“Bah bah bah!”)

And when Neil Diamond speaks of falling in love, and speaks of exhilaration, he, of all people, can be trusted. No one in pop music has ever done emotion like he has, from the dark loneliness of “Solitary Man” to the spiritual yearning of “Holly Holy” to the existential rage of “I am … I Said” to — yes — the sheer exhilaration of “Sweet Caroline.” (There’s your cue, folks: “Bah bah bah!”)

And now, 70 years into an extraordinary life and 45 years into a career as a hit-maker, Diamond is experiencing the kind of run that younger men can only dream of, with his love life in autumnal bloom — he is preparing to get married for the third time, this time to his 41-year-old manager, Katie McNeil — and his career in a period of critical re-evaluation that amounts, in Diamond’s own description, to “validation.”

When Diamond receives the Kennedy Center Honors this week, in recognition of a lifetime of contributions to American culture, it will be the third time this year that he has been bestowed with this sort of cultural immortality, following his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March and his acceptance of the inaugural Billboard Icon Award in may.

“Fortunately … the people in the know are calling me positive things instead of the negative things,” Diamond says.

“I don’t see myself as an icon at all,” he says. “I see myself still as a struggling artist trying to create music. and that’s what I do every day. and it’s the same kind of struggle I’ve had since I began — feeling inadequate to the task, and sometimes achieving something that uplifts my own spirits and that goes on to uplift the spirits of others. It’s my labor.”

It’s true that for much of his career, Diamond was considered (at least) one step behind the times. as a Brooklyn kid who dropped out of his pre-med studies at New York University to write songs, he was crafting hits for the Monkees (“I’m a Believer,” among others) at a time when they were being mocked as saccharine pretenders to the Beatles’ throne.

He arrived as a solo artist in the late ‘60s, at a time when record companies were infatuated with British bands. as rock music grew heavier in the ‘70s, Diamond’s became softer, and even his epic live shows were easily mocked — the “Jewish Elvis,” he was dubbed — for his emotive earnestness and his wardrobe of gaudy, sequined shirts.

“From the first guitar riff of this profit-taking double live showcase,” the influential critic Robert Christgau wrote of “Hot August Night,” Diamond’s landmark 1972 live album, “it’s obvious that the man is some sort of genius rock entertainer, but for the most part the great entertainer is striving for bad art and not even achieving it.”

“I’ve been kind of battling that throughout my career,” Diamond says now. “and I think it probably reinforced my feelings about — focus on the work, and not on all the chatter going on around the business and the media.”

For decades, Diamond contented himself with selling gazillions of records, filling arenas worldwide (he was the highest-grossing live act in pop music as recently as the 1990s) and owning the adult-contemporary charts (37 top-10 singles since 1969, according to Billboard).

He became, in effect, the nation’s guilty pleasure, his commercial success attesting to the universal appeal of his songwriting and the energy of his live shows, even if it was becoming increasingly unhip to acknowledge liking him.

One of Diamond’s chief defenses against those who would mock him has been a well-honed ability to laugh at himself. When will Ferrell took to parodying him on “Saturday Night Live” in 2002, Diamond showed up in a cameo alongside Ferrell in the season finale. He once surprised one of the several “Neil Diamond tribute” acts, the L.a.-based Super Diamond, by sitting in on “I am … I Said” — then joking, “I guess it should have been ‘we are … we Said.’”

“But anyone who has ever known the wretched task of trying to craft a perfect three-minute pop song could understand the genius of Diamond, who has done that as well as anyone in the past half a century. and one of those people who understood was acclaimed producer Rick Rubin, who made some of the best records ever released by the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Beastie Boys, among others, and who, in the 1990s and 2000s, produced the critically lauded “American Recordings” series for Johnny Cash, which revived Cash’s career.

“I love so many of his songs, and always felt he stood alone as an artist,” Rubin said of Diamond in an e-mail interview. “He has always done what he wanted and followed his inner voice, so he never fit easily into any genres or categories.”

Perhaps the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee would have come around to him eventually anyway. But it certainly appears that Rubin’s interest in Diamond set in motion a critical re-evaluation of his oeuvre that resulted in this year’s series of honors, and a certain (dare we say it?) hipness that had always eluded him.

Diamond was once asked to dance by Princess Diana. His songs have been covered by Elvis and Sinatra. He has sung duets with Streisand. He has known love and loss. He has sold 120 million records. But until these past few years, he had not known what it felt like to be embraced both by the folks who buy the CDs and tickets and the “powers that be,” as he calls them.

Such acceptance, Diamond says, “wasn’t important to me until I got it — I finally got it, and I enjoyed it.”

Diamond’s music earns him Kennedy Center honors


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