Through this vintage interview, here’s a look back to his life and career in the ’70s.
Neil Diamond: “Songs are life in 80 words or less”
By Noel Coppage, Family Weekly – Rapid City Journal (South Dakota) February 29, 1976
Between the time of Neil Diamond’s first hit song, “Solitary Man,” and his music for the movie “Jonathan Livingston Seagull,” America’s airwaves grew accustomed to one Diamond hit after another — “Song Sung Blue,” “Cherry Cherry,” “Holly Holy,” “Sweet Caroline,” “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show,” “I Am …I Said“… the list goes on and on.
He wrote his first song when he was 16. At about the same time, he started singing in a mixed chorus at Brooklyn’s Erasmus High School, where his emerging baritone was complemented by another voice belonging to Barbra Streisand. (The two were introduced years later, and he co-wrote their hit duet “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers Anymore.”)
He attended New York University on a fencing scholarship and later endowed NYU with fencing scholarship funds. He was theoretically “killed” in a fencing exhibition the day before this conversation took place.
FAMILY WEEKLY: You didn’t major in music at NYU?
NEIL DIAMOND: No. I majored in biology, in a pre-med program. Songwriting is different from music, although I don’t deny now that it would be nice to have a little more background in music theory.
But when you’re writing songs, you’re dealing with all sorts of things. I was always interested in science, and pre-med was a respectable thing to do while I pursued my songwriting. By the time I was in my third year, I was interested only in fencing and writing songs.
FW: What was the attraction of fencing?
DIAMOND: It’s a terrific way to vent your aggressiveness, for one thing, and I needed that. It’s physical combat in a classical sense. and it’s beautiful to see and do. I’ve always thought of it as similar to ballet.
One of the things I’ve been wanting to do, in fact, is write some music for a fencing-ballet — the movements, music and staging would seem to go naturally together.
My movements onstage actually incorporate fencing moves. I’ve looked at photographs of myself during concerts and it sometimes looks as if I’m in a fencing move, with a guitar in my hands instead of a sword.
FW: Your 1972 concerts on Broadway seemed to anticipate some of today’s theatricality in the staging of popular music — you were appearing out of a pull of smoke and the setting was pretty elaborate for that time.
DIAMOND: Yeah, I guess I just think in terms of the stage. A lot of my songs lent themselves to it, to visual interpretation. The album I’m working on now is the kind of thing I might want to turn into a film.
FW: Could that — the glamour of Broadway, the glitter of uptown — could that be the other side of growing up in Brooklyn?
DIAMOND: Well, subconsciously, who knows? But as a kid, I never saw myself as a performer or star or anything. I went to one Broadway show in my life.
It was songwriting that I consciously wanted do — always songwriting. You got your jollies if you wrote one good line a day. I still identify myself as a songwriter.
FW: Do you view writing as a way of leaving your mark on the world, a way of achieving a kind of immortality?
DIAMOND: There may be some of that subconsciously, but the way I think about it is that I have three little kids [two daughters, Marjorie, 9, and Elyn, 7, by his first wife and his son Jesse, 5, by Marsha, his second wife], and I may be leaving something by which they can know who their father was.
I’m not sure Stephen Foster is any happier in his casket now that he’s “immortal.” He was poor and ragged when he died, you know.
FW: Your songs are deceptively simple. Most have just three chords. How do you go about designing a song?
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DIAMOND: When I first started, I worked with three chords in every bar, but I found that tied me down — I’m not a chord-change writer. I’m a songwriter.
For my new album, I’ve finally refined it down to a one-chord song in one case. I’d been wanting to do that: it gives me an ultimate sort of freedom…
The other things, though — rhythm, for example — are as complex in some of my songs as you’ll find in any jazz piece. That’s a basic connection to human beings — rhythm.
The lyrics aren’t simple, either. They’re extremely difficult, because I’m trying to say complicated things in as few words as possible.
“Song Sung Blue” took a lot of compressing and refining, and it has one of my favorite lyrics. It says something that’s true — about melancholy being part of the human spirit — and it’s concise.
“I Am… I Said” is a different kind of lyric, and it was agonizing and personal to write. I spent four months on that.
FW: A lot of people have commented on the gospel sound in your songs.
DIAMOND: Well, I loved singing in the chorus, and there was some connection for me between gospel and choral music. But I had one experience that had quite an influence on me.
I went up to a church in Harlem and sat in for the service to hear the singing. It was extraordinary, raw and powerful: it made my hair stand up.
FW: After those Broadway concerts. you temporarily retired from live performing to write a symphony. Did the job of writing the “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” score postpone that?
DIAMOND: I guess I satisfied the urge I had by writing that score. at least temporarily. It took a whole year of my life and was very involving. After doing it, I felt like now I’d like to do something simpler.
FW: I understand you did considerable delving into religious tracts while you were working on the “Seagull” score.
DIAMOND: That’s right. By chance, a Hare Krishna kid came knocking on my door about then, wanting to give me literature and such. I invited him in. We talked for a while, and I asked him to read the script and tell me what he thought of it, had him make notes on it.
I wound up working with him about six weeks — put him up in an apartment, rented him a car — until I reached the point where I had to work alone on it.
He wanted me to go off with him to India and sit in a cave. I said that sounded great and I’d love to, but now I had to write this thing. I gave him a plane ticket, and he went while I settled down to pull it all together.
FW: It doesn’t sound as if you miss performing as much as you would miss songwriting.
DIAMOND: Songwriting is what I do. Performing is the easiest part of what I do, and songwriting is the hardest. Songs are so all-encompassing: they’re the joys and sorrows and pacing of life.
Songwriting is the only real discipline I’ve had in my whole life — that’s why I hate it so much: I don’t like imposing that kind of discipline on myself, but it has to be. Songs are life in 80 words or less.