Hello Again

Sometime during the past 10 years, Neil Diamond went from being the leather-clad heartthrob your mother loved to a crooning favorite of the post-Nirvana generation.

Consider the massively successful reinterpretations of his songs in films such as "Pulp Fiction" (Urge Overkill's "Girl You'll be a Woman Soon") and "Shrek" (Smash Mouth's "I'm a Believer"). Decades after career highs like "Sweet Caroline" and the 1980 movie "The Jazz Singer," twentysomethings still make up half his concert audience (he just completed the longest tour of his life). Earlier this year, his album "Three Chord Opera" made Billboard's top 15. And most telling of all, he's been widely parodied by comic Will Ferrell, who's impersonated the brooding singer-songwriter not just on "Saturday Night Live" but also in a recent Gap ad.

Diamond's lasting impact is no accident. The 60-year-old began carving out his niche as a sensitive yet gravelly voiced entertainer in the mid-1960s, and his unique sound has kept him relevant in just about every era of post-Beatles pop. Now, 38 of his most familiar tracks--songs spanning from 1966 to the present (plus six previously unreleased live cuts)--are available on "The Essential Neil Diamond." He talked to NEWSWEEK's Lorraine Ali from his Los Angeles home about the two-CD set, his fears as a songwriter and why he watches "SNL" very "warily" these days.

NEWSWEEK: It's pretty impressive when you look at all the great songs on "Essential Neil." Are you at all amazed at what you've done?

Neil Diamond: Well, it took 35 years to do, so I'm not that impressed with it [laughs]. If I'd done it in four or five years, then it would be amazing. But I still love looking at the titles, because it does say I achieved something that's worthwhile. It is good to look at when I'm feeling down, because it says, "Keep on going. You've done so well." It's an upper.

How did you decide which songs to include on the discs?

These are my 38 most familiar songs and hits, then some that aren't quite as familiar. I decided to put those on the CD since starting [the current] tour. We dug out old numbers ["Captain Sunshine," "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother"] and played them on the tour, and we got this tremendous reaction. The audience started asking, "What albums were they from, where can we get them?" So we recorded them live on the tour and included them on "Essential." It's the quickest turnaround that I've ever had between recording and having an album released.

The tour put you on the road for three and a half months. I bet you're sick of hotel food.

Let's just say I've had enough grilled salmon to finance Alaska for the next three years.

What's the first thing you did when you got home?

I greeted all five of my dogs. I have to give out the attention very diplomatically, because if not, they get into fights over it. They're my biggest fans.

Was it all your other fans you had in mind when you embarked on this tour? It was, after all, the longest tour of your career.

Turning 60 is a big milestone. It says either, "Get on with it or get off! You don't have a lot of time so you better get down to the nitty-gritty and do what really makes you happy." I felt I broke through a real barrier by doing this tour and an entirely original album. They were both secret fears in the back of my mind that I had to confront as I reached 60. Now I know I will do this as long as I am physically capable.

Are you able to listen to your older songs, or is it embarrassing? Is it like looking at your gawky high-school yearbook picture?

I've done dumb things and written dumb things, but fortunately, none of them have been hits, so I don't have to go through the hand-wringing. They're buried in an album somewhere from 30 years ago.

The "Essential" collection runs in chronological order. Do you personally break your career down into eras?

Yes. I would say the early hits with Bang Records definitely fit into one category. "Cherry, Cherry," "Kentucky Woman," "Solitary Man." I remember it very clearly, because those songs were all out of sync with everything else in the mid-'60s. There was the British invasion, and the Beatles were at their peak. Nobody thought the world was ready for another solo guy to come out with a guitar a la Elvis. People didn't take much notice at the time. In fact, my manager didn't take much notice. When I left him, he said, "If only we had a few more hits." I wrote down nine titles, put them in front of him, and left.

And it's likely he's now working in a toll booth. What would you consider the next Neil era?

The MCA years. Those '70s hits were very experimental, exploratory. The Beatles had given all us writers license to do whatever our imaginations told us, and I took advantage of that. Songs like "Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show," "I Am ... I Said" and "Song Sung Blue" we're all different from each other, and also different from what was being played on the radio. Look at "Crunchy Granola Suite." That I spent weeks writing a song about breakfast cereal reminds me that there really was new feeling of freedom.

That sense of freedom seems to have crossed over into the records you did with Columbia. Would you consider that your next era?

Yes. I started with "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" which, pardon the pun, was me spreading my wings again. Then, "Beautiful Noise," which was a conceptual idea, and basic love songs like "You Don't Bring Me Flowers," "Blue Jean" and "September Morn." I was all over the map. Then came the fourth era, which was "The Jazz Singer." I had songs like "America," "Hello Again" and "Love on the Rocks." From there, I've tried all sorts of things--Christmas albums, an album of my favorite movie songs. Basically, I've hit a point where it's now about pure wish-fulfillment.

I'm guessing "wish fulfillment" is the category that this year's "Three Chord Opera" is filed under. It was your first album since 1974 written entirely by you.

I was very fearful, very hesitant. I put it off for years because it was such an enormous amount of work. The first couple of songs were very, very difficult, and then it got easier. I eventually got very enthusiastic about it. I began to love doing it again, and I think that's what I'll do for a while--write them by myself.

Did you always aspire to be a singer-songwriter?

I've been singing since I was 10, but I never thought I'd do it professionally. I loved all kinds of music and my parents were avid ballroom dancers, so there was always some kind of music around the house--tangos, fox trots. They even made me go to Arthur Murray for dance lessons. I joined choruses at school. At about 16, I took guitar lessons, then piano. I didn't take it seriously, though, until I started writing songs, and even then I didn't think it was something I'd do for the rest of my life. It was more a trick I could do: In college, I wrote poems for guys on NYU's fencing team. They would give them to girls they wanted to get as dates. I thought for sure I'd be a doctor, but a D in chemistry convinced me I better look elsewhere. It was either a professional fencer or songwriter, and since there wasn't much call for professional fencers....

When did you get your first break?

In my 20s. I brought my songs around to professionals in Tin Pan Ally and actually began selling them. It took eight years before I had success. I was singed to five different publishing companies as a staff writer and was ultimately fired by all five. But my grand dream was to make a living as a songwriter. All the rest of it was just gravy. I still judge my life based on how I'm doing as a songwriter. The recording career, the performing career--it's just gravy.

Let's talk about the Gap ad, where Will Ferrell impersonates the forever-in-blue-jeans Neil Diamond.

I love any use of comedy, even if I'm the butt the joke. One night I was watching "SNL," and they opened with a particularly brutal skit on Monica Lewinsky. It was scathing. I said, "There but for the grace of God go I," and what do you know, the next skit was Will Ferrell doing me. I watch "Saturday Night Live" very warily these days [laughs].

And how do you feel about a talking donkey and an ogre [from "Shrek"] popularizing "I'm a Believer" again?

That's one of the exciting things about writing. You never know what will happen to a song. I remember writing "Red, Red Wine" [in the early 1960s]. I was in my early 20s, working part-time in an haberdashery store. I'd sit behind the register with my guitar, writing. If someone had told me it would become an enormous reggae hit [by UB40], or hit, period, I would have laughed. I never thought I'd make it this far.