Pop Culture

After 40 years, Neil Diamond is still shining

In 1996, I attended a Neil Diamond concert at the Fleet Center in Boston. I was going through my teenage hippie phase at the time, so perhaps I thought Neil was cool because my favorite jam band, Phish, did an awesome cover of “Cracklin’ Rosie.” Whatever my inspiration, I knew attending this particular show was somewhat ironic. I was making a statement and bucking convention.

I don’t remember what Neil wore, but I'm pretty sure it wasn’t sequins. I sort of remember older fans getting miffed when we stood up to dance. What I recall most clearly is how happy Neil Diamond made me. He sang songs I didn’t even realize I knew. Yet I found myself mouthing the words: “You are the sun, I am the moon. You are the words, I am the tune — play me.”

Could it be that I was indoctrinated by a Neil Diamond subculture without knowing it? It certainly didn’t come from my parents, who claim every Neil song sounds the same (how wrong they are!). I didn’t own one Neil Diamond album. Yet he so permeated pop culture that my self-conscious and cool-obsessed teenage brain could not help but love him.

Now Neil Diamond is all sorts of hip. “Sweet Caroline” serves as a quasi-anthem for the Boston Red Sox and is beloved by frat boys everywhere. (They like to shout “So good! So good! So good!”) Diamond was the focus of the bawdy 2001 movie “Saving Silverman.” Diamond will appear on TODAY on May 2, performing songs from his new album, “Home Before Dark,” which is due out four days later. It is Diamond’s second album to be produced by perhaps the coolest guy in the music industry — Rick Rubin. Diamond also appeared on “American Idol” on April 29, as a mentor to the remaining five contestants.

Spreading the good word of Neil A few years before my own Neil Diamond awakening, Randy Cordeiro decided to shake up the San Francisco alternative music scene. He started mixing in punked-up versions of Neil songs with his own material. He thought the audience would be angry, as music from the 1990s tended to be brooding and depressing. He was wrong. They loved it.

Today, Cordeiro, 42, is cashing in on America’s latent love for Neil. He’s the front man for the extremely popular Neil Diamond cover band Super Diamond.

“We’ve been traveling the country and spreading the good word of Neil for 15 years now,” Cordeiro said in a phone interview. He and the rest of Super Diamond were just about to go on stage at a House of Blues in San Diego — one of their 110 shows per year.

“When we first started it, we never thought it would be a national thing,” Cordeiro, who is also known as Surreal Neil, said. “We thought it would be a little San Francisco band. Now this is how we're making our living. It was a pleasant surprise to find out there was a market for it.”

Tom Sadge of Pittston, Pa., has also turned his love of Neil into a career. He first heard the song “Solitary Man” in 1968 and has been hooked ever since. For the past 11 years, he has worked full time as a Neil Diamond impersonator, performing all over the world in the trademark sequined suit.

“Everywhere I go, people compliment the music,” Sadge, 51, said. “They love it.”

Kathy Willens / AP
**FILE** Singer Neil Diamond performs, Aug. 18, 2005, at Madison Square Garden in New York. Diamond held onto the secret for decades, but he has finally revealed that President Kennedy's daughter was the inspiration for his smash hit "Sweet Caroline." (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

But generally speaking, Sadge says Diamond has been severely overlooked. Perhaps the rest of the world is jealous, he said. Or maybe it's easy to forget about a guy who isn't making headlines with scandals.

“He’s not Britney Spears,” Sadge said. “At this point, he should have been in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame a long time ago. I think some people are disrespectful to him.”

But they shouldn’t be, Sadge says, because Neil Diamond’s music pops up everywhere. The 1960s group The Monkees covered his song “I’m a Believer,” making it a huge hit. Irish rock band The Pogues perform a gritty rendition of “Cracklin’ Rosie.” The ‘80s reggae group UB40 did a version of “Red, Red Wine,” and even Elvis covered “Sweet Caroline.”

Unlike Sadge, who likes to take Neil literally, Cordeiro and his bandmates grew up listening to heavy metal bands like Black Sabbath. They usually put their own heavier spin on classic tunes like “Sweet Caroline,” but the essence of Neil always perseveres, which means having a good time. That, Cordeiro says, is why Diamond connects with all generations; he doesn’t take himself too seriously.That's evident in "Saving Silverman." Seven years ago, the raunchy buddy flick played constantly in VCRs and DVD players throughout America’s colleges. Jack Black, Jason Biggs and Steve Zahn play three hapless losers who perform in a Neil cover band called Diamond in the Rough. The implication is that if these three zeros like Neil, then he’s really, really uncool.Black, Biggs and Zahn wear sequined shirts and ridiculous, Diamond-inspired wigs. In one of the film’s funniest moments, they are waiting outside a concert for Neil’s autograph. Black can’t take it anymore. He breaks through the barriers, grabs on to Diamond and says, “I want to party with you! I want to party with you!” He’s taken away by security. Later Neil forgets about the restraining order and saves the day through the power of his ballad, “Hello.”

‘Neil Diamond is a BadAss’ Old Dominion student Greg Fulton was one of the many teenagers who met Neil for the first time through “Saving Silverman.” Since then, he too has been proselytizing. Fulton founded a group on the networking site Facebook.com called “Neil Diamond is a BadAss,” which he describes as “a dedication to the man, the myth, the legend.” Asked why he loves Neil Diamond so much, Fulton, 22, answers, “I mean he’s the greatest American songwriter, hands down.

“I’m trying to think how you really describe Neil,” Fulton continued. “If I’m ever in a bad mood and I need to be brought up, the only music that will pick me up is Neil Diamond. If I’m driving back from a bad test, I put on ‘Cherry, Cherry’ or ‘Kentucky Woman’.”

He paused. Suddenly it came to him: “Neil Diamond is the American Dream Musician. It’s just him,” Fulton said. “He loves it. It’s nothing that he forces out, because a lot of music is conceptual and up for interpretation. But with Neil Diamond, it’s so natural.”

Maybe Fulton is on to something there. Neil Diamond songs are simple. They are about love and friendship; freedom and sorrow. Maybe it’s the purity of message that has allowed him to last for so long. We all love Neil. It’s just a question of admitting it.

I got in touch with my old friend Casey Ristano, who went with me to that Neil Diamond show 12 years ago. I asked her what motivated us to go. She wasn’t sure, but recalled feeling a sense of pride that we had come home to Neil.

“I [re]member thinking that he was so cool!!!” she wrote me. “And WE were so cool for going.”