Neil Diamond talks in a brooding Brooklyn baritone. It’s hard to tell when he’s done making his point, because his tone never wavers, his voice never drops at the end of a sentence, his pauses all sound pregnant.
However, throw him a curveball - or a straight line - and suddenly he lights up like the man of a thousand stage gestures who thrills crowds of 15,000 night after night, decade after decade.
Example: When he kicks off his 37-city North American tour Saturday in St. Paul, Minn., he will become the oldest male artist to headline a major arena tour. When he heard that, the dour Diamond became Johnny Carson.
“Well, I didn’t know that,” the startled 67-year-old said with a chuckle over the phone last weekend from his Los Angeles recording studio. “I do know that I’m the oldest recording artist in the history of Billboard charts to have a No. 1 album.”
He was not surprised when his “Home Before Dark” debuted at No. 1 in June, he said, because his new manager, Irving Azoff - who works with the Eagles, Christina Aguilera, Van Halen and Guns ‘N Roses - was determined to make that happen. (Think of Diamond’s appearance on “American Idol.”)
“I was satisfied with this album from the get-go,” the veteran said matter-of-factly. “Everything else was wonderful but it was beside the point, really.”
Spend a half hour on the phone with Diamond and he comes across like a solitary man whose glass is half empty, a neurotic New Yorker who’s forever in a blue mood, a guy who has sung so many blues songs that his life has become one.
So how happy is he right now?
“I’m always restless. When one thing is completed, I’m looking forward to the next thing. I need something to occupy my mind, my heart, my emotions and my life,” he said. “So I’m forming the next big challenge and that always makes me feel good.”
So how does he feel on a 10-point happy scale?
“With 1 being depressed and 10 being delirious, I’d say I’m about 8 or 8 ½. I’ve gotten to 10 a few times but it doesn’t last too long. You have a baby born or you finish an album or you hit No. 1. It lasts about a week.”
An 8? You’d never guess it from some of the songs on his splendid, stripped-down new album. The song “If I Don’t See You Again” sounds more fateful than hopeless. “Act Like a Man” calls the “songmaker” a “faker” and “worthless daydreamer.” The title song, “Home Before Dark,” could be about death.
“That may be true but I certainly wasn’t aware of that while I was writing it,” he said in his croaky, cadaverous voice. “I’m still interpreting some of these songs. With songwriting, a lot of it is stream-of-conscience and a lot of it is subconscious. Literally and intellectually understanding and explaining these things sometimes doesn’t come for a while after they’ve been written and released and you’ve listened to them for a while. There were some dark moments, and there were some light moments.”
Those light moments include some top-notch love songs - the gentle “Pretty Amazing Grace,” the peppy “Power of Two” and the unabashed “No Words.”
These deeply personal songs are more potent if you know the back story. Rae Farley, Diamond’s companion of 12 years, had severe back pain for a year. She finally had surgery and it made things worse. While the 35-year-old Aussie was convalescing, the twice-divorced Diamond was determined not to leave her side, but at the same time he was writing his new album.
“I felt quite alone in the creation of this album, maybe more alone than I’ve ever been,” said Diamond, who underwent back surgery himself in 1979 because of a benign tumor on his spinal column. “It was tough. I don’t want to do it this way again.”
Diamond recorded with Rick Rubin, who had produced his critically acclaimed “12 Songs” in 2005. The singer/songwriter thinks it was easier this time around with the Zen-like producer, who has worked with the Beastie Boys, Run D.M.C., Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Dixie Chicks and Johnny Cash, to name a few. They recorded with the same musicians as last time, including two of Tom Petty’s bandmates, as well as a new addition, Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines. There was no drummer on any of the tunes.
Nonetheless, Diamond is confident the new material will translate to an arena setting. He expects to do at least four selections from “Home Before Dark” and two from “12 Songs,” which was released in the middle of his last tour.
For the singer, probably the most challenging thing about the new tour is that Farley isn’t on the road with him for the first time in many years. (She is in charge of his tour merchandising.)
“The touring process is a little too strenuous for her to handle at this point,” Diamond said. “She’s doing better every day. That makes me feel good. She may come out for short periods of time.”
One of the most successful touring acts of the ‘00s as well of the previous three decades, Diamond will not consider a residency in Las Vegas like other 60-something icons, such as Bette Midler, Cher, Elton John and Barry Manilow.
“I feel it’s like one of my obligations as an artist to come to people’s hometowns and play my music for them,” he said.
Being onstage is one of his consistently happy times.
“It’s always, always a joyful time onstage because there are no distractions. It’s the most fun thing that I do,” he said in his droning monotone. “I wouldn’t say a 10 (on the happiness scale), but it’s always in the 9s. It’s up there.”
Is he aware of the nuances of what he’s doing? Like when he did ‘You Don’t Bring Me Flowers’ at one show in 2005, he gestured 33 times with his left hand to duet singer Linda Press before reaching out to hold hands with her.
“I’m trying to portray the song. I’m not conscious at all about my hand gestures, but now you made me conscious and I’m going to start counting,” he said in a rare playful moment.
“The shows are all filmed but I never watch what I do. It is what it is, and I give it my all. And I don’t think about it for a moment after that.”
Diamond had a grand time onstage last month at Glastonbury, England’s biggest and hippest music festival, which drew more than 170,000.
“It was everything it was cracked up to be,” he said. “I’ve never seen that many people in my life. When you hear ‘Sweet Caroline’ sung by an audience that size and it’s louder than the band and you are - I was knocked out by it.”
Does playing Glastonbury, working with Rubin and reaching No. 1 suggest that finally, after all these years, Mr. Schmaltz is hip?
“I don’t want to be hip. I was hip the minute I walked into a recording studio 50 years ago,” Diamond said. Then, with surprising inflection for emphasis, he declared: “Now I’m just cool.”
// Notes from the Road
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