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Neil Diamond: The Man, the Music, the Marriage

PARADE Modified: June 4, 2012 at 1:15 pm •  Published: June 3, 2012
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Neil Diamond is chuckling—and, what’s more surprising, it’s at himself. On this April morning in Los Angeles, the Grammy winner, who’s gearing up for a 29-city tour starting June 1, is recalling the moment when the sound went out during one of his concerts. “It was probably about 30 years ago,” he says, “but it’s still memorable.” To keep his fans entertained, Diamond resorted to radical measures. “I started opening my shirt, praying the sound would come on at any minute.” He pauses dramatically. “It didn’t. I continued opening my shirt. I had nothing else to do but … unbuckle my pants.” Here’s where the chuckle comes in. “My shirt was sewn to my undergarment so it wouldn’t pull out. I knew it would be a pretty funny sight.”


Hearing Neil Diamond laugh is a reminder that there have long been two ­Diamonds. The first is the solemn, angst-ridden balladeer who broods mightily in song (“I Am … I Said”) and whose somber visage has stared out from album covers for more than 40 years. Contrast that with Diamond’s onstage persona and public image: the feel-good showman whose loyal following flocks to his crowd-pleasing concerts, rises the moment his band starts up “America,” and shouts “So good, so good!” on cue during “Sweet Caroline.”

See Neil Live! Enter for the chance to win a special VIP ticket package for two to see Neil Diamond in concert at the legendary Greek Theatre in Los Angeles

But finally, at 71, the offstage Diamond is closer to the onstage one—he is, in a word, happy. During a long talk at the nondescript two-story building in Beverly Hills that’s been his headquarters since 1976, the singer proudly shares the news that in five days, he’ll be getting married for the third time, to his co-manager, Katie McNeil. “I think I’m probably the luckiest man on the face of the earth,” he says. He’s writing a batch of new songs for what he expects to be a “fun” album. “I don’t feel I have to write deep and meaningful songs; they can be light and meaningless,” he says. “It has to do with the place I am in my life, a really good place.”

Of course, Diamond is not without his idiosyncrasies. The desk in his office, for example, is draped in what looks like a bed sheet. “I cover it up,” he says matter-of-factly, “so that nobody can move any papers.” When lint from an old souvenir, a British bobby’s helmet, sprinkles onto the floor, he stoops down to pick up every last bit of it. And as he settles into a seat at the table in his office kitchen (next to a refrigerator decorated with a bumper sticker that reads I'D RATHER BE AT A NEIL DIAMOND CONCERT), he admits he wasn’t initially thrilled with audience participation. “It was very upsetting,” he says. “I thought, ‘I’m supposed to be the singer. You listen and dance and don’t sing.’ I didn’t understand that it was part of their enthusiasm. But after a while, I welcomed it.” Diamond has mellowed for several reasons. Despite his success, starting with “Cherry, Cherry” back in 1966 and extending to the No. 1 debut for his album Home Before Dark in 2008, he hasn’t had a wealth of music-biz respect. That began changing in 2005, when he released 12 Songs, the first of two albums with hip producer Rick Rubin. In 2009, Diamond was honored at a music industry benefit, his songs performed by an unusually eclectic lineup that included Adele, Tim McGraw, Coldplay, the Jonas Brothers, and Josh Groban.

“I saw the list of people who’d signed on and some of them were surprising, but then I thought, ‘Damn right,’ ” says Groban, who was first attracted to Diamond’s “cool, gravelly voice” as a kid. “He’s an extraordinary song craftsman, and he’s never been afraid to tap into a more sentimental or romantic approach. In the very cynical world we’re in now, it’s nice to see someone who isn’t afraid to say, ‘This is how I feel, and I’m going to sing it at the top of my lungs.’ ”

The accolades continued last year, when ­Diamond was finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame after being eligible for 20 years. “It’s more fun to get it when you’re alive than when you’re dead,” he says, deadpan. Last December he was feted at the Kennedy Center Honors along with Meryl Streep, Yo-Yo Ma, and others; he brings out a photo from that event, autographed to him by the Obamas. The president, he says, asked him how old he was when he had his first big single (he was 25). Looking back, Diamond says, “I seriously never thought my career would take me into my 70s. I’m very happy to be here at this point.”

From Solitary Man to Newly Married Man: See Photos of Neil Diamond Through the Years

The other reason for his lighter mood is the blonde who pops into the kitchen before darting back out. A former MTV intern who went on to work for bands like Guns N’ Roses, McNeil, 42, has been Diamond’s co-manager for four years. She was first attracted to working for him because of his stature in the music business— it was, she says, “a huge feather in my cap.” But after a year, they began secretly dating.

McNeil was hesitant at first. “Part of me said, ‘Don’t get involved; he’s a client,’ ” she recalls. “There are a lot of complications for a lot of reasons. But our chemistry grew into something that couldn’t be denied.” McNeil’s parents played Diamond’s music when she was growing up (her own favorite songs of his are “Holly Holy” and “Morningside”), and it was her mother who first sensed the extent of her feelings toward him. “I’d be on the phone with her saying, ‘He’s really wonderful—if only he were 30 years younger,’ then, ‘If only he were 20 years younger,’ and the next would be, ‘If only he were 10 years younger. …’ Finally it was, ‘Forget it—I’m going for it!’ My mom knew before I did that I was in love.”

Diamond, who has been divorced since 1995, admits to some regrets about his first two marriages. “I had every possible chance to do it right,” he says. “Both are spectacular women. I felt if I couldn’t make something wonderful and lifelong happen with them, then maybe I wasn’t capable of it. But I’m throwing myself back in because I like being married. I don’t want to end this whole fabulous journey alone. I want someone by my side who I love and who loves me. I’ve finally found somebody who’s up to the task of being my wife, because I’m very …”—he pauses—“… high maintenance.”

In what way? “Well, when I need my wife or when I need companion­ship or someone to talk to, I need it, like, now,” he says unblinkingly. “So my wife will have to give up whatever she’s doing at that moment to tend to my needs. And in the same way, I would tend to hers. That’s not such an easy thing to do.” (When informed of this comment, McNeil laughs, briefly taken aback, and says, “He told you that? Well, he requires … attention.”)

The announcement that Diamond would be marrying a woman three decades his junior fueled snippy online comments and a gag on Stephen Colbert’s show (“She’ll be a woman … soon”). It all seemed rather silly given that the woman in question was in her 40s. For his part, Diamond says, “I definitely don’t feel like I’m 71. I feel like I did when I was ­between 30 and 40. The body ages. The mind doesn’t.” (“That’s about right,” ­McNeil adds. “When we’re together, I feel like we’re the same age.”)

Still, Diamond admits to “a few more creaks and groans” in his joints, and he knows that prepping for a long tour requires extra work. He ­began a health regimen in earnest 20 years ago, when he gave up smoking cold turkey. What he calls his version of nicotine gum is ­displayed on the walls in the lobby of his building: nearly life-size murals of him and his band members, drawn by Diamond himself. “It took me six months,” he says, looking around the walls. “It got me through. You have to be driven to give up an addiction, and you can do things you never knew you could do.” After he quit smoking, he found he could sing an extra three or four numbers a night onstage.

His voice has always needed TLC as well: “I used to go to my kids’ soccer games and I was the only parent who wasn’t screaming, because I’d have to do a show that night,” he recalls. “It was hard. Moms and dads get more emotional at those soccer and Little League games than at a professional game. [I had to] just watch.” To preserve his vocal cords these days, he avoids loud restaurants. As for his wedding day, “It should be interesting to see how I’ll protect my voice,” he says, “because I’ve got to talk to all those people.”

Diamond puts himself through a grueling tour schedule partly out of responsibility. “I support over 100 families that go with me,” he says of his band and crew. “So I feel a sense of obligation.” But it’s also a respite from his regular job: writing songs by himself for long stretches in the recording studio on the first floor of his building. (During one recent composing bout, he moved a bed into the studio and worked from 6 a.m. until seven or eight at night, “writing from the mattress sometimes.”) Concerts also allow Diamond’s inner ham to emerge; he insists that his stage jut out into the audience so he can be closer to his fans, even as promoters grumble because the design cuts into the number of seats they can sell.

"Sweet Caroline," "America," "Hello Again": Vote for Your Favorite Neil Diamond Song

There’s a reason so many people return to his shows year after year: They’re a blast, as close to a guaranteed good time as one gets in show business these days. You’ll hear hit after hit, maybe even a few examples of Diamond’s headstrong experimentation over the years (on tour in 2005, he did a mini set of his songs from the 1973 Jonathan Livingston Seagull soundtrack). The shows also have a deep emotional under­current, since his longtime fans may see something of themselves in a guy who grew up with rock ’n’ roll and now qualifies for Social Security, is twice divorced, and has four grown children and seven grandchildren. “I never thought of that,” Diamond muses. “We’ve lived life together in the same little part of the 20th and 21st centuries. Maybe there’s an identification that works.”

Once his tour wraps up in late summer, Diamond and McNeil will embark on what Diamond calls “the greatest honeymoon ever.” Standing up, he digs out a few crumpled pieces of paper from the front pocket of his jeans and hands over a yellow Post-it note. Scrawled on top are the words “Tour d’Amore,” followed by a list of places he and ­McNeil will be visiting over a six-month period: New York, Israel, a section of Italy that’s home to his mother’s side of the family, even Bora Bora (“People keep telling me I’m going to love it”).

“I want to show Katie I can be the most awesome husband she could have chosen,” he says. With that, he beams like a kid who’s finished his homework early. The smile doesn’t last long—hey, it’s still Neil Diamond—but for a split second, the guy who once nailed himself as a “Solitary Man” takes a breather.

More on Parade.com:

See Neil Live! Enter for the chance to win a special VIP ticket package for two to see Neil Diamond in concert at the legendary Greek Theatre in Los Angeles

From Solitary Man to Newly Married Man: See Photos of Neil Diamond Through the Years

"Sweet Caroline," "America," "Hello Again": Vote for Your Favorite Neil Diamond Song





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