Neil Diamond, Rod Laver Arena, Melbourne, 27 October, 2015
Neil Diamond is one of my guilty pleasures. The man’s music utterly seduced me as a naïve teenager. I found his voice beguiling and his lyrics profound. I heard a lonely ache in his voice that resonated with my growing dissatisfaction with my place in the world. I was a nascent solitary man, and I liked the fiercely independent, non-conformist streak in Neil Diamond songs like ‘The Boat that I Row’ and ‘Thank the Lord for the Night time’ (‘day time turns me off and I don’t mean maybe, nine to five ain’t taking me where I’m bound’). I also liked the wistful and nostalgic songs like ‘Brooklyn Road’ and ‘The Grass Won’t Pay No Mind’. Here was a sensitive, poetic, soul, I thought. I put a large poster of Neil Diamond on my bedroom wall. He was my first man-crush, my first pop idol. I guess he was a role model of sorts, although I didn’t really know the man behind the music. Of course, this obsession didn’t last. Along came punk, and it was pretty much game over as far as my public relationship with the man was concerned.
Ok, Neil wasn’t as radical as the Sex Pistols, but, fuck it, I couldn’t fully exorcise Neil’s tunes from my consciousness. A bit later, I went to university and became enamored with cultural studies — a ‘right-on’ academic subject that took popular culture seriously, and saw the consumption of music as a site of political resistance. I read the Adorno, and immediately felt like a capitalist dupe for investing so much energy in the products of the Brill Building song factory. In any case by the time I’d left school I’d discovered a plethora of much cooler artists, and became aware that Neil Diamond, the Jewish Elvis, was seen as something of a joke by serious music cognoscenti who dismissed the man as a Las Vegas hack, a sequined lounge lizard, a purveyor of sentimental pap. True, Neil’s post Hot August Night work never really appealed to me. He stopped playing his strummy acoustic guitar, and embraced overblown orchestrations, and big ballads, which he probably saw as musical progress. But, damn, those early recordings were catchy, and despite publicly renouncing the man many times for his sins against good taste, I never really lost my passion for Neil Diamond’s music of the 60’s and early 70’s.
So, after many, many years of keeping quiet about my love for Neil Diamond’s music, I decided to come out, or at least go to a Neil Diamond concert. My 16-year-old self would have been thrilled to be in such close proximity to his hero. I secured a seat close to the stage, and waited for the now 74-year-old star to make his appearance. I arrived about 15 minutes before the scheduled start, which was enough time for the solitary man sitting next to me to strike up a conversation. This bloke was big, lantern-jawed, friendly and a tad arrogant. Turns out, he was some kind of captain of industry, full head of grey hair, carrying a few too many extra pounds, and extraordinarily chatty. I was in no mood to talk, but I decided to overcome my natural inclination towards shyness and be polite. My new found friend remarked on the crowd, observing that they all looked quite old, he himself was in his late 50s, and his observation was right on the money. Neil’s demographic is pretty old, and, let me tell you, they are not the coolest looking bunch on the planet. This was nothing like say, a Nick Cave concert. Now Mr. Cave is not as old as Neil Diamond, but he’s no spring chicken, yet his crowd tends to be a bit more diverse than Neil’s. The prince of darkness attracts young people as well as my middle-aged cohorts. You see a lot of people dressed in black at Nick Cave concerts, and you don’t see too many people with grey hair (possibly because Cave fans are prone to following their master’s lead, and dying their aging locks). Anyway, Cave’s followers exude cool. Neil’s people, conversely, are just so middle-of-the-road. Now, this should not have been a revelation to me given the man’s reputation as an easy-listening balladeer, but I felt out of place amongst my fellow Diamond enthusiasts. Surely, I couldn’t be as old and uncool as these people, could I? Things go worse as the time ticked past 8.00pm. Neil was late, and my companion was just warming up, regaling me with questions about my occupation, marital status and even asking me whether my son went to a private school. This guy was seriously rich, and was not at all embarrassed about talking up his wealth, and expressing amazement on how people earning less that $200 000 could live a decent life. Oh, boy. Middle-fucking Australia!
Thankfully, Neil appeared. He was 20 minutes late, but I was thrilled to hear the band start up, and drown out the guy next to me. Neil started with one of my favourite songs: ‘I’m a Believer’. I was and I am still a huge fan of the Monkees. I remember feeling my love of Neil Diamond’s music was vindicated when I discovered that he wrote a handful of hits for the so-called pre-fab four (another critically reviled band that I happen to love). And the hits just kept coming. Classic after classic, some of the bigger, more up-beat numbers like Cherry Cherry, got the crowd up on their fee. Now one of the annoying things about concerts is that the people on the floor in the good seats usually remain standing throughout the performance. Even when fellow audience members shout them down, the fuckers remain on their feel oblivious to the fact that they are blocking the view of large numbers of people who have paid big bucks to see their idol (see my Bob Dylan concert post). Neil’s loyal band of enthusiasts could only intermittently summon the energy to stand up and shake their aging booties, so folks in the cheaper seats had an unobstructed view of the performance.
The minutes ticked by, and hits kept coming. Diamond is nothing if not a crowd pleaser, so his set, predictably, consisted of his biggest hits with a few tokenistic numbers drawn from his most recent album. Even the bombastic, America, with its garish use of the stars and stripes transcended simple-minded jingoism by coming across as homage to the migrants that built ‘the home of the brave’. I got the sense that Neil Diamond genuinely loves his audience by the way he purposefully addressed each section of the crowd, including those with obscured views of the stage. Age has not diminished his joie de vivre, nor has it significantly compromised his engaging baritone voice. There was something triumphant and uplifting about Diamond’s performance, and despite my feelings of unease about belonging to his legion of middle-class fans, I couldn’t help but feel grateful for finally witnessing a Diamond concert, and allowing myself to revel in one of my first musical obsessions. If I close my eyes I can almost hear the timbre of my old mono cassette player as it filled my childhood bedroom with music produced on a hot august night more than forty years ago. Thank you, Neil Diamond, may I never again take your name in vain, or feel embarrassed for finding myself in your beautiful noise.