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The $30-Million Paradox : Why does Neil Diamond remain red-hot at the box office even though his album sales are cold?

June 25, 1989|ROBERT HILBURN

The last time Jenny Putnam was at an arena, it was to drop off her teen-age daughter to see Bon Jovi--or was it Def Leppard? She says she has trouble these days keeping all the new bands straight.

Putnam recalls shaking her head after the concert when she saw that her daughter had spent almost $50 on T-shirts and other souvenirs.

So, the 43-year-old mother of three had to laugh now as she stood in the lobby of Cincinnati's Riverfront Coliseum arena, clutching nearly $75 worth of Neil Diamond souvenirs.

"Well, they're not all mine," she giggled. "One of the T-shirts and one of the programs is for my neighbor. She was coming with me, but she is in the hospital. That's the only thing that would keep her away."

So Putnam--who paid a scalper $50 each for the two $20 tickets--brought along her mother. They had been at the 17,000-seat Coliseum nearly an hour, waiting outside with hundreds of other early arrivals for the doors to open. Now that the pair was inside, there was another wait.

The plane carrying Diamond and the band from Norfolk, Va., had been delayed three hours because of weather problems--and the musicians still needed to do a sound check before the show.

Putnam--standing with several dozen other fans, mostly women and mostly around the same age--considered this delay a stroke of good luck because an usher told them that they could watch some of the sound check through the curtains.

"YOWEEEE," shrieked a woman near Putnam as Diamond, barely visible from this distance, walked on stage with the band.

At the end of the song, the fans grouped near the curtain broke into applause. Blushing when she saw a reporter noticing her, Putnam giggled again and said, "Well, we're all just teeny-boppers' at heart. . . . I just love his songs."

Diamond, 48, has had a long, spectacular run of pop hits--a career that has evolved from the teen focus of such 1966 singles as "Cherry, Cherry" and then to the broader emphasis of such circa 1970 tunes as "Sweet Caroline" and then, more recently, to the easy-listening emphasis of "You Don't Bring Me Flowers" and "Heartlight."

But Diamond's record sales have slipped badly in the years since "Heartlight" in 1982. Some industry observers feel the sales drop is a matter of demographics: The 30 and (way) above crowd that buys tickets to his shows no longer actively buys records. Other insiders also say Diamond's songs simply aren't as commercially appealing as they once were.

The most embarrassing moment, commercially, for Diamond occurred in 1984 when the singer had to sue his record company, Columbia, to release his "Primitive" album. Columbia reportedly had argued that the songs were simply not commercial enough.

The album was finally released, but it--like Diamond's subsequent two LPs--failed to crack the national Top 10. A trade publication recently hinted Diamond might even be dropped by Columbia, but label executives have strongly denied it. Besides, Diamond hasn't gone stone cold. His last album, "The Best Years of Our Lives," has passed the 500,000 mark.

None of this, however, has dampened Diamond's impact at the box office. In fact, Diamond, who opens a record 10-day engagement Wednesday at the Forum in Inglewood, is hotter than ever. The only other artist to sell out an indoor arena for 10 nights during a single U.S. tour is Bruce Springsteen, who did it at the Meadowlands complex in New Jersey in 1981.

And Diamond--who sold out seven Forum shows in 1983--isn't just selling tickets in Los Angeles. Every stop so far on a 34-city tour that began in December has been sold out. By the time this leg of his 1989 tour ends July 31 in Washington, he'll have completed 85 sold-out shows. That's nearly 1.5 million tickets--or about $30 million in box office receipts.

Tour crew members have become so accustomed to seeing fans show up at three or four concerts in a row--often in different cities--that they have begun to borrow a page from the Grateful Dead and referring to the fans as their "Diamond-heads."

All this underscores the mystery of Diamond: How can someone with such a shaky track record at the stores can have such a mystique with live audiences?

"The songs."

That's the answer most often given by three dozen Diamond fans in Cincinnati and at a second show in St. Louis when asked about the veteran singer-songwriter's extraordinary live appeal.

Charisma, enthusiasm, hard worker and sexy were also mentioned, but songs was far and away the most frequent response about Diamond. Some admirers in Cincinnati and St. Louis described such songs as "Cracklin' Rosie" as "fun." Others called the lyrics as "real," citing "You Don't Bring Me Flowers" and "Love on the Rocks." A few said the songs provided "comfort" during rough times.

"I like the fact that you can understand the words and sing along with the melodies," said a woman from Mt. Washington, Ohio.

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