Neil Diamond celebrates his 78th birthday today (24th January 2019) and I first heard his gorgeous vocals aged four. It was instant love at first listen when my Dad brought home a double 33rpm album of Neil’s called “Diamonds”. A Google search has informed me this album was released in 1974 in the Netherlands, which fits in with my merchant seaman Dad bringing it back whilst on leave, and my feeling Diamond’s music has been virtually ever present in my life. Until I was an adult, this album was my only exposure to Neil’s music other than seeing his film The Jazz Singer on TV.
But what an album “Diamonds” is, from that first fun happy sounding song “Cracklin’ Rosie” to the last gut wrenching heartbreaker “Morningside”. Between these came every style of music genre, from the rock inspired “Cherry Cherry”, the storytelling ballad about “Mr Bojangles”, the country sounding “Kentucky Woman”, spiritual “Holly Holy” and the beautiful emotive love song “Play Me”. I may have been very young, but I recognised the lyrical genius of Neil Diamond immediately. His music, words and delivery evoked in me just about every emotion possible. I could be singing and dancing one minute, playing hard rock air guitar the next, listening attentively mesmerised by the poetic quality of his lyrics, and breaking my heart sobbing uncontrollably to finish. “Diamonds” was an emotional rollercoaster.
It wasn’t until I was at university and met the man who became my husband that I found another Neil devotee. Looking at Rob’s music collection I knew he had good taste when I spotted Abba, at a time when it wasn’t fashionable to admit being a fan of theirs. Spotting several Neil Diamond albums that were all new to me, I realised Rob was a keeper. Although we both loved Neil’s music, neither of us had seen him in concert. So we shared the experience together, going to our first show in 1999 followed by several more, until the final one in 2017 celebrating Neil’s 50th anniversary.
That first concert showcased “The Movie Album: As Time Goes By” and I was enthralled listening and seeing Neil perform. His rendition of “Unchained Melody” (a favourite of mine from The Righteous Brothers) was the best I’d ever heard sung, as it’s not always easy to make out the words. I told Neil the same thing in a note I wrote in my hotel the next morning, using the stationary in the room. I posted it to the venue and thought nothing more about it. A few months later I was surprised to receive a thank you card from Neil, which I have to this day.
For posterity my Neil Diamond Concert Portfolio details 7 concerts spanning 18 years:
First Ever Show: Wembley Arena London Tuesday March 9th 1999 at 8pm
- Earls Court London Saturday 27th July 2002 8pm
- Ipswich Football Stadium Thursday 26th May 2005 8pm
- NIA Birmingham Tuesday 10th June 2008 8pm (Home Before Dark tour)
- LG Arena (formerly NEC) Birmingham Tuesday 28th June 2011 8pm
- Genting Arena (formerly LG Arena) Birmingham Saturday 11th July 2015 8pm (no Rob)
- Manchester Arena (formerly MEN Arena) Sunday 1st October 2017 (50th Anniversary tour)
What I’ve always admired about Neil is that he performs his concerts solo without reliance on warm up acts. Diamond certainly has enough in his repertoire to perform several shows without repeating songs. It’s incredibly gruelling on the artist though, and I’ve been mindful these last few years that Neil and other singers I enjoy (Sydney Devine & Dolly Parton) are all on the wrong side of 70 now. Each of them give their all on stage, and I’ve increasingly thought “will this be the last concert”.
Watching Diamond’s 2017 show there were two or three fleeting moments when I thought Neil’s age maybe catching up with him. Strangely at the same moment an old work colleague’s name popped into my head for the first time in years. Her mother had Parkinson’s disease and she had been to a Billy Graham meeting in Glasgow, where I was singing in the choir. Within minutes of Graham coming to the stage, my colleague’s mum muttered “he has Parkinson’s same as me”. My colleague laughingly said “mum sees it everywhere now, the tell-tale signs, which she then described”. It wasn’t until many years later it was revealed Billy Graham had been diagnosed with the condition. Therefore Neil’s announcement of his retirement from touring, after a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease somehow didn’t shock me the way it should have. Remembering that wonderful final concert, and those odd feelings, I realised I’d had a weird kind of premonition. Every fan only wants Neil to be healthy and happy and his well-being is of paramount importance, so although the 50th anniversary tour ended prematurely his disappointed fans understood.
Neil Diamond’s anniversary show in Manchester was one of the first big events at the re-opened Arena following a terrorist attack. Neil performed five songs I’d never heard before, so huge is Diamond’s back catalogue of work. I had to turn to Google again, to discover the song titles and which album they came from. One song in particular, Neil dedicated to the memory of those killed in the MEN bombing after the Ariana Grande concert of May 22nd 2017. The song “Dry Your Eyes” from the 1976 “Beautiful Noise” album was very emotional to hear, the lyrics sounding as if they had been written especially for that night. When Neil announced that he would be making a donation to the victims’ fund (I think it was the evenings merchandise revenue), it seemed the entire audience rose to their feet and applauded for a long time. Then almost total silence in that vast arena as Neil sang that emotive song. It’s a part of the evening I’ll never forget.
Neil’s setlist for my final concert was: In My Lifetime-In My Lifetime compilation; Cherry, Cherry; You Got To Me; Solitary Man; Love on the Rocks; September Morn; Play Me; Song Sung Blue; Beautiful Noise; Jungletime-Beautiful Noise album; Dry Your Eyes- Beautiful Noise album; He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother; Forever In Blue Jeans; You Don’t Bring Me Flowers; Red Red Wine; I’m A Believer; Brooklyn Roads; Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon; Be; Lonely Looking Sky; Skybird; Jazz Time-September Morn album; Crunchy Granola Suite; Done Too Soon–Tap Root Manuscript album; Holly Holy; I Am…I Said. Encore: Sweet Caroline; Cracklin’ Rosie; Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show.
The show was a celebration of Neil’s musicality and lyricism, the songs at times distinctly spiritual or poetic in nature. I relate to his music because it touches me deep within and puts into words everyone’s need for expression. Neil’s voice is that soothing balm in times of strife, a source of advice and inspiration and that friend who vocalises your inner thoughts with complete understanding.
To the boy who walked on “Brooklyn Roads” with his imaginary friend “Shilo”, who grew to be a “Solitary Man” writing “Beautiful Noise” knowing to “Leave A Little Room For God”, my message is “I’m A Believer” and always will be full of “Delirious Love” “If You Know What I Mean”. Happy Birthday Neil Diamond you are a real gem of a guy, it’s been a delight knowing your music.