It’s not unheard of for a performer to retain a substantial audience over a number of decades. It’s also a time-honored tradition for a veteran star to experience a renaissance thanks to a new generation of hipsters. For one person to experience both phenomena is a real rarity — but that’s been the story of Neil Diamond for the past decade, a tale that adds another chapter tonight when the singer-songwriter is honored tonight as MusiCares Person of the Year.
“Neil didn’t get a lot of respect for a while, but I think, more than anything else, he had to rediscover himself,” says David Wild, author of the recently-published career retrospective “He Is … He Said.” “He strikes me as very similar to Bob Dylan in that they really seemed like artists who lost their way, then had this sort of second coming.”
Diamond’s first coming was impressive enough. Schooled in the Brill Building lexicon of pop — which imbued him with the ability to pen tunes like “I’m a Believer,” a chart topper for the Monkees — he soon became acclaimed as a performer in his own right, with some going so far as to drape him with the mantle of “The Jewish Elvis.”
Unlike many of his pop peers, Diamond kept a tight rein on his output over the years, from bouncy ’70s ballads like “Song Sung Blue” to less universally acclaimed later compositions like “Heartlight” and “America.”
“For me, it still comes down to the basic format of what I do, which is the song form,” Diamond said in a 2007 interview, “150 words or less, break your heart, or break somebody else’s heart. And I do like the song form. I found I can say just about everything I want to say on a particular subject in that form.”
“To me,” he added, “success is a record beautifully realized, it’s a song that’s beautifully written, a performance that’s correct, in the sense that it suits the mood and the feel of the song itself. That is pretty successful.”
Diamond’s commercial success has never been in question. More than a dozen of his singles have notched top-10 status — a streak kicked off with 1966’s “Cherry, Cherry” — while his album efforts have been equally well-received. In fact, last year’s “Home Before Dark” hit No. 1, making the 67-year-old the oldest performer to achieve that status.
“At his core, he’s remained a remarkable singer-songwriter,” says Raul Malo of the Mavericks, one of the artists who’ll fete Diamond at the MusiCares performance, which, despite the current economic climate, is expected to surpass last year’s record $4.5 million fundraising effort. “Put aside the shirts and the power ballads, and the quality still wins out.”
The quality has won over a huge number of Diamond’s recent collaborators — including co-writers like Malo, Natalie Maines and Rick Rubin, who’s produced his past two releases. It’s also inspired a goodly number of critically anointed acts — like the recently reunited Urge Overkill, who’ll perform tonight at the L.A. Convention Center — to cover his compositions, a state of affairs Wild attributes to the timelessness of his work.
“I like to think of him as the original Bono,” says Wild. “I won’t say that he takes himself seriously, but he takes his music incredibly seriously. He’s utterly without irony, and while some people are kind of hard-pressed to deal with that, I think it’s the key to his appeal. People continue to go to Neil’s shows because they know he means what he’s doing.”
MusiCares, of course, doesn’t honor artists for their performing chops alone. The organization seeks out folks who’ve sought to make an impact outside their musical contributions, which Diamond has done via the Hands Up Project of Artists for Life and fund-raising efforts for victims of Hurricane Ike.