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.”
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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.