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Songs Sung Blue . . . Diamond Reminisces

March 08, 1992|ROBERT HILBURN | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic.

Q uick quiz. Who holds these records for the longest concert engagements at the 18,000-seat Forum?

(a) Ten nights in 1989 .

(b) Eight nights in 1992, beginning Wednesday.

(c) Seven nights in 1983 .

The answer: Neil Diamond.

"It's a tribute to the songs," Diamond said when asked recently about his continuing concert popularity.

In some ways, however, the more realistic answer is that his continued drawing power is a tribute to the old songs, since Diamond's records no longer ignite the charts the way they did in the late '60 through early '80s--when the New York native registered three dozen Top 40 hits, from the celebration of "Cherry, Cherry" to the salute of "America."

Given his steady ability to sell out so many shows at the Forum, you'd think Diamond, 51, would be tempted to step up to the 55,000-seat Dodger Stadium on some return to Los Angeles--especially on some hot August night in a tip of the hat to the title of his hugely successful 1972 album recorded at the Greek Theatre.

"No, no," he says firmly, as if startled by the question. "A stadium is too big. It would push me farther from the fans, and I want to get closer. I'd be more interested in the Troubadour," he says, referring to the West Hollywood club where he recorded an earlier live album. ". . . The whole idea of the new show is to get closer. That's why for the first time we are working in the round, and I love it because it brings everybody 50% closer. It makes you feel like the audience is in your lap."

Though Diamond will sing songs from his latest album, "Lovescape," most certainly the heart of the two-hour Forum shows--Wednesday through March 16 and March 22-23--will rest in the body of hits.

Unlike some artists who seem to resent singing the old favorites, Diamond seems as comfortable with the songs as his audience does. While reluctant to come up with a list of his 10 favorite or best songs, he agreed to react to my list, which is in chronological order.

'Solitary Man'

A No. 55 single in 1966.

That's my all-time favorite record and song (of mine) because it was my first chart record. It didn't get near the top of the charts, but it was enough to turn me from an unknown songwriter pounding the streets for eight years to a guy who has a record on the charts. I wasn't trying to write anything about myself necessarily at the time. I thought it was just a nice idea to write a song about a solitary guy. It wasn't until years later, when I went into Freudian analysis, that I understood that it was always me.

'Brooklyn Roads'

No. 58 in 1968.

Now that was consciously autobiographical. I wanted to try and capture what it was like growing up in Brooklyn--for myself, just to have that feeling for a moment. I never thought the song would be any kind of a hit, but--and it's always hard for people to understand this--the last thing I'm thinking about when writing a song is that it'll be a hit or not. I'm just trying to let the emotion speak for itself.

'Sweet Caroline'

No. 4 in 1969.

I wrote it in Memphis (Tenn.) in the hotel room on the day before a recording session. I had written "Holly Holy" and "Brother Love's Travelling Salvation Show," but we needed one more song. It's probably my most universal song. People sing along with it everywhere. In Ireland, I didn't have to sing at all. It just hit the right chord. No way to explain it. That's one of the mysteries of songwriting.

'I Am . . . I Said'

No. 4 in 1971.

That's also one of my favorites because I had to work with it so long. I had the idea while doing a screen test for a picture they were going to do about Lenny Bruce's life. I had done a couple of scenes in the morning, and during a lunch break, I felt really down and depressed. I had my guitar in the dressing room, and I wrote the melody and the title that day. But I spent the next four months trying to finish it. It was by far the most difficult song I have ever written--and probably the best song I have ever written.

'Song Sung Blue'

No. 1 in 1972.

That was a very simple song, a very light, easygoing thing that I never thought of as a single. I remember Russ Regan, who was the head of Uni Records, came into the studio and I played him "Play Me," which I thought was going to be the single from the album. But when I played "Song Sung Blue," he said, "Neil, that's the one," and he was right. It was my first No. 1 record. Even though I didn't realize it at the time, I feel now that I probably said more in less words than in any other song I've ever written, and I like it a lot for that reason. That's one of the fascinating things about songwriting . . . how you can write a song like "Sweet Caroline" and "Song Sung Blue" so fast and then have to struggle so long on "I Am . . . I Said." You never know where a song is going to come from. You can just be sitting there and suddenly the most extraordinary thing pops out. That's what every songwriter waits for.

'I've Been This Way Before'

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