YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Rebirth of a solitary man

For years, producer Rick Rubin tried to chase Neil Diamond into a studio. Finally, he succeeded -- and so did Diamond. The result: '12 Songs.'

October 30, 2005|Robert Hilburn | Times Staff Writer

NEIL DIAMOND laughs when asked how it feels suddenly to be hip again -- thanks this time to an album he has just finished with cutting-edge record producer Rick Rubin, who has worked with such indisputably cool artists as the Beastie Boys, System of a Down and Johnny Cash.

"I'm a songwriter," Diamond says, sitting in a lounge at his office-studio complex in Los Angeles. "I'm not trying to be hip or nonhip. It's nice when a new generation starts paying attention, but there's nothing I can do about it. I'm not sure I even understand it.

"When Quentin Tarantino wanted one of my songs for 'Pulp Fiction,' I turned him down. I wasn't familiar with him, and I thought the scene was too brutal for the song. So what do I know?"

Fortunately, Diamond relented when his music publisher explained that Tarantino was a serious director, and the tender song, "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon," proved in the film to be eye-opening for '90s hipsters who had long thought of Diamond as the ultimate Las Vegas lounge act -- someone who sang lush, melodramatic songs, such as "You Don't Bring Me Flowers," in sequined shirts for the AARP crowd.

In truth, Diamond was singing old songs to (mostly) old fans nightly, but not in lounges. He was performing in 20,000-seat arenas, one of the biggest and most consistent draws ever in pop music. The singer-songwriter, however, had lost his touch on records and, without any new songs to embrace, the in-crowd quickly moved on.

Thanks to Rubin, things could be different this time. The new "12 Songs" is the most rewarding album the veteran New Yorker has released since "Beautiful Noise," the 1976 collection he made with another respected rock producer, the Band's Robbie Robertson.

"12 Songs," due in stores Nov. 8, doesn't match the consistent artistry of "Beautiful Noise," but its highlights recapture the intimacy and charm of Diamond's '60s and early '70s period, when he was turning out warm, spirited and catchy songs such as "Solitary Man," "Sweet Caroline" and "Song Sung Blue."

Even if singles from the album don't return Diamond to the Top 10, the best of the tunes, including the zesty "Delirious Love," should connect with his core audience in ways few of his songs have in two decades.

"Hell Yeah" is an uplifting, introspective number in the tradition of one of Diamond's signature hits, "I Am ... I Said." Live, it could become his equivalent of Frank Sinatra's "My Way," a song that tries to get past the sequined shirts and show-biz trimmings of his image.

"We" has the timeless, feel-good quality of a "Forever in Blue Jeans." Even Diamond would admit the key line is corny, but there's also something sweet and disarming about it -- you can picture couples holding each other tight as they sing along: "It's not about you, it's not about me, love is about we."

Despite his exuberance on stage, Diamond is somewhat shy and self-effacing. He avoids the music-business party circuit and rarely does interviews. Even if critics dismiss most of his recent CDs, he works just as hard on his songs as he ever did.

"All the sparkly shirts and the stage trappings -- that's just the performer, the public me," Diamond says on a recent day off from touring. He's wearing a plain, wrinkled shirt. "Songwriting is the hardest and most personal thing I do. When I'm writing, I'll go into the studio at 6 in the morning and stay until after dark, including weekends.

"It was the same with all the albums. Whether you're at a point in your career where everyone seems to be waiting for your next song or at a point where no one out there seems to be paying attention, you still have to give it everything you can."

The Rubin touch

NEIL DIAMOND and Rick Rubin?

It's as odd an all-star pop couple as Rick Rubin and Johnny Cash.

Lots of heads turned a decade ago when the bearded, Zen-like Rubin stepped away from his hard-rock and rap worlds to sit down to work with Cash, who, at age 62, had pretty much been written off by the country music industry.

Though Cash was hampered much of the time by deteriorating health, the pair made a series of acclaimed and warmly personal albums that not only introduced Cash to a new, young audience but won four Grammys in the process -- including one for his version of "Solitary Man." The partnership continued until Cash's death in 2003.

It's easy to think that Rubin turned to Diamond as his next "reclamation" projection, but Rubin, who has also worked with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Jay-Z, winces at the word.

"I'm not trying to follow Johnny at all," Rubin says, sitting in the living room of his Hollywood Hills house. "I grew up listening to Neil's music on the radio, songs like 'Cherry, Cherry,' 'Solitary Man' but also 'Sweet Caroline' and the others."

Rubin first tried to contact Diamond 10 or 12 years ago, and he couldn't get through. Diamond didn't know any more about Rubin at the time than he did about Tarantino. Things were different when Rubin came around again a few years ago.

Los Angeles Times Articles