The Shrine Auditorium, Los Angeles, February 27 1980 — to the complete surprise and amazement of the crowd assembled for the Grammy awards, Barbra Streisand enters stage left and blows a kiss to Neil Diamond, entering stage right.
What follows is three minutes of unrivalled Jewish ecstasy: as kids, they were in the choir at the same Brooklyn school. Now, long-established as two of the world’s biggest stars, they are singing Diamond’s You Don’t Bring Me Flowers. They are fabulous. They move towards each other and as the song ends they hold hands, she strokes Diamond’s cheek and they kiss. Hard not to shed a tear.
On June 29 2008, Neil Diamond played to 100,000 people at the Glastonbury festival. He was 67-years-old, many of the crowd were probably young enough to be his grandchildren, but here they were, smiling, swaying, waving their arms and singing along to Sweet Caroline, a song nobody could resist, one of the greatest singalongs ever written.
If we had never seen Diamond, if he had confined himself to composing songs for others, he would have been a person of consequence. It is more than half a century since he wrote I’m A Believer for The Monkees. He has won virtually every honour a songwriter can win. Those songs will not disappear but it is as a performer that we will remember him most vividly. If you never went to a Neil Diamond concert you missed something and, sadly, there is nothing now that you can do about it. As was announced this week, his Parkinson’s disease means he will never perform live again.
Four decades ago, he said: “I have a love-hate relationship with songwriting. I love it because it’s so satisfying…when it works. I hate it because it forces you to dig inside yourself. It is without question the most difficult thing I do. Performing, on the other hand, is the most joyful and happiest thing I do. The bigger the audience the more anticipation, the more excitement.”
Did that still remain true, a million gigs and umpteen Las Vegas seasons later? He certainly made you feel it did. I remember a concert in Birmingham ten years ago. It began with him at the back of the stage, picked out by a spotlight, singing the words, “been away too long”.
Dressed in black and playing a black guitar, he looked lithe and handsome enough. As a young man, he was extremely good looking — swoon-worthy — and, as is the way, lots of former young swooners were swooning still. There were many grown-up women in a state of high excitement, ready to be charmed, caressed and impressed.
For them, this was not a one-night stand, it was a lifelong relationship. Some of the women, though far from all, were with their husbands who had come because he was “a class act”.
He delighted them with Cracklin’ Rose, Songs Sung Blue and Forever In Blue Jeans, stirred them with Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show and harrowed them with I Am I Said, as angst-ridden a song as you can get: “I got an emptiness inside/And I’ve tried/ But it won’t let go”.
He has been unbeatable at writing upbeat songs with an irresistible hook and singing them in a pretty irresistible way. But he was never a stranger to angst or schmaltz.
Some of his songs are intense to an almost ludicrous degree. He has never tried to be “cool” or, if he did, he never succeeded. No, he was never cool but, better than that, he was warm.
At one time he was labelled “the Jewish Elvis”. Whatever that was supposed to mean, it never quite happened. He wasn’t Elvis but he was certainly Jewish. Elvis sang How Great Thou Art and Crying In The Chapel, Diamond in the film The Jazz Singer gave the only rendition of Kol Nidre you’ll find on a million-selling album.
You may say that 77-years-old is in any case a reasonable age to retire from performing but that was not how he felt. Until he received his dreadful diagnosis, he was scheduled to tour Australia and New Zealand next month. So it’s a sad day. A Neil Diamond concert was a simchah, but we can no longer say “oif simchahs”. Instead we wish him long life.