Neil Diamond Unplugged and Unsequined.

By John Leland

Article from the New York Times (

Published: May 22,2005

IN the recording studio where Neil Diamond works, one hallway is lined with 37 of his gold and platinum records, opposite a wall of his album covers: four decades of American mainstream pop, facing off with four decades of American male hair.

Last week, Mr. Diamond huddled in this studio with the producer Rick Rubin, best known for his work with hip-hop and alternative rock acts. Mr. Diamond, 64, wore a tan jacket, baseball hat and loafers; Mr. Rubin, 42, wore a giant white T-shirt, sandals and the long hair and beard of a Biblical prophet or a ZZ Top extra.

Even by the corporate-merger models of the contemporary music business, Mr. Diamond and Mr. Rubin make an unlikely couple. Mr. Diamond's glossy, not-quite-rock productions have sold 120 million copies and emboldened men the world over to wear spangled apparel. Mr. Rubin, who spent Mr. Diamond's heyday attending heavy metal concerts on Long Island, had a recent hit with Jay-Z's "99 Problems," which uses language not found in any Neil Diamond song.

Yet here they were, finishing an album, as yet untitled, for release this summer. They were working on a song called "What's It Gonna Be," on which Mr. Diamond plays acoustic guitar, something he has not done on a record for decades. The song was spare and unpolished, and the two were discussing whether it needed a second guitar to steady the rhythm. "I just want to make sure we don't lose the loneliness of it," Mr. Rubin said.

"So you're saying we can leave my guitar in," Mr. Diamond said, describing his playing with a pejorative best omitted here.

"I love your guitar," Mr. Rubin said, repeating the same adjective. "The only person who won't like it is you. People will hear it and say, 'That must be him playing. I never heard that before.' "

Mr. Diamond took in this assessment. Two years into their collaboration, they have had this conversation dozens of times, with Mr. Rubin usually having the last word. They would keep what Mr. Diamond now called his sloppy guitar. On the recording, the voice sounded lonesome and intimate: "What's it gonna be when the morning scares you," the lyric goes. Mr. Diamond shuffled nervously; Mr. Rubin bobbed his head. On to the next song.

Mr. Diamond, who began his career as a songwriter in New York in the early 1960's, has something of a split profile in the music world. His albums, which have included forays into country, African music, Christmas songs and even the "Kol Nidre" prayer, still reach gold status, and his last concert tour, in 2000 and 2001, drew nearly two million people, according to Pollstar magazine, which covers the concert industry. "I line the hallways of more arenas than Wilt Chamberlain," he said, referring to the ubiquity of his concert posters, and to the loyalty of his fans.

In recent years he has also developed a second, winking audience, which embraces him in loving caricature, through the high-concept cover band Super Diamond or the soundtracks to movies like "Saving Silverman" and "Pulp Fiction." Mr. Diamond, too, has played off this image: in a coming movie called "Lucky 13," he plays himself singing at a bar mitzvah at Dodger Stadium. "I've always wanted to play a bar mitzvah, so this is it," he said.

Mr. Rubin, who started the hip-hop label Def Jam in his college dorm room, and who had his first successes with the Beastie Boys, L. L. Cool J and Run-D.M.C., doesn't fall into either of these camps. He's neither a fan of Mr. Diamond's recent music nor a cultivator of Diamond kitsch. "I've just always been a fan of his early records," he said. As a child and adolescent, Mr. Rubin said, "I always listened to CBS-FM in New York, and he was always on."

Their collaboration, he said, was his idea. About 10 years ago, Mr. Rubin was working on a remarkable cycle of Johnny Cash recordings: stark, minimal versions of old country songs, as well as rock songs originally recorded by Nine Inch Nails, Depeche Mode and others - and Mr. Diamond's "Solitary Man." Mr. Rubin let mutual acquaintances know that he was interested in working directly with Mr. Diamond. But nothing came of those overtures.

Then a few years ago, he began the pursuit again. Mr. Diamond didn't get it at first. "It was kind of weird," he said. "I knew he cut a few artists, I knew he was very highly regarded, kind of a mysterious figure, kind of standoffish as far as what people saw. And that was all I knew.

"I didn't really pay any attention for the first couple of calls. I was busy doing my own thing. But they kept coming, and a few people that I liked and respected called me and said, 'You should meet with this guy, he has no agenda, he just likes your stuff, and it's worth a meeting.' "

In fact, the two men have much in common. Both are transplanted New Yorkers, dropouts from New York University. Both have played with the ethnic and racial makeup of American music, Mr. Diamond as the star of the 1980 "Jazz Singer" remake, Mr. Rubin as producer of the Beastie Boys. Mr. Diamond grew up wanting to be a doctor; Mr. Rubin, a lawyer. When they eventually met in 2003, in Mr. Rubin's house in the Hollywood Hills, Mr. Diamond was impressed by the living room. "It's only got a Steinway piano and a huge Buddha that goes up to the ceiling and out about half the wall," he said. "And a rug in the middle of the floor, and that's it. I've been thorough a few of these, uh, transcendental situations before, and I understood where he's coming from, what can I say?"

Mr. Diamond said that they never talked about being New Yorkers in Los Angeles. "If anything, Rick is further out than L.A.," Mr. Diamond said. "He's into the Far East or something. His head is - it's not here. I can assure you it's not in L.A. He's evolved. He's gone - whew - somewhere else, and it's wonderful. I'd love some of it to rub off on me."

Instead, they talked about music, Mr. Rubin said. Mr. Diamond played Mr. Rubin some old recordings by Jerry Lee Lewis and the Beatles. Mr. Rubin played old records by Mr. Diamond, including some Mr. Diamond had not heard in decades. They continued to meet for months, listening to music and discussing why they liked it, before getting down to work in January.

"We listened back to what made those old records great," Mr. Rubin said. "He got to hear things in a new way. With an artist that tours as much as Neil does, the songs kind of take on a new life, much different from the records. I wanted to go back to the feel of a singer-songwriter, not a performer."

Mr. Rubin said he saw nothing odd about his working with Neil Diamond. "There's always been a balance," he said. "When I was producing hip-hop records people told me I couldn't make heavy metal records. I always liked doing different types of music." He added: "I don't think of them as Rick Rubin albums. I think of it as a really great Neil Diamond album or a really great Johnny Cash album. It's really from a fan's point of view. These are people that I love, and trying to get them to be what I imagine they could be. This is the album I want to hear."

In the studio, it was a day for guitar players, and Mr. Diamond and Mr. Rubin were joined by Mike Campbell, who plays in Tom Petty's band, and Smokey Hormel, who has played with Tom Waits and Beck. Mr. Campbell and Mr. Hormel played on Mr. Rubin's recordings with Cash.

To prepare for this album, Mr. Campbell listened to a lot of Mr. Diamond's early songs, and was surprised to discover that many didn't have drums, just hand-claps. "He told us that was because they couldn't afford a drummer," Mr. Campbell said. "When you think about rock 'n' roll, Neil was there when it started, when it was just becoming rock 'n' roll. There's very few cats who have been around that long."

As they worked, the music's spare feel echoed that of the Johnny Cash albums, though Mr. Diamond sounds more pensive than existentially haunted.

The four men had an easy rapport in the studio. When Mr. Campbell told a story about Son House, he took care to explain to Mr. Diamond that Son House was an old blues musician. All had road stories to share.

"You guys must have been terrors," Mr. Hormel said.

"We sowed some oats," Mr. Diamond said. "But when you get to be my age, you stop sowing oats and start hitting the pancakes."

Mr. Diamond was nearly done with his part of the album. In a few days, he would head off for a concert tour in Europe, leaving Mr. Rubin to finish the work as he saw fit. Mr. Diamond said he had come to trust Mr. Rubin, even though the sparseness of the music still made him self-conscious. "Basically it's going to be his record from this point on," Mr. Diamond said. "It's his baby. But you know what Ronald Reagan said: 'Trust, but verify.' "

"I hope you're still into it," Mr. Campbell said to Mr. Diamond, speaking of the sound. "It's brave."

Mr. Diamond said, "It could be the beginning - or the end."

He thanked Mr. Hormel for giving him CD's by Beck and Mr. Waits. There was some good stuff on them, he said. He did not draw distinctions between their music and his own.

"It all comes from the same source," he said, "whether it's rock 'n' roll or country or folk. I'm not afraid of these rock 'n' roll guys. I was there at the beginning. I'll be there at the end."


Features | News | Tourdates | Concert Reviews | Links

Tribute Artists | Message Board | Live Chat