For years Neil Diamond shrugged off a numbness in his right leg. Then in February 1979 he fell onstage at San Francisco's Cow Palace and couldn't get up. Less than two days later he underwent 14 hours of delicate surgery to remove a nonmalignant tumor located dangerously close to his spine.
"I knew there was a good chance I would spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair," says Diamond, 41. "I am lucky to have survived. As it was, I had to learn to walk again."
Given his reputation for determination, it's not surprising that Neil not only is walking, but was high-stepping before mostly sell-out crowds during his recent concert sweep. "I feel stronger than ever," he explains, "and it was time to see my fans and for them to see me." By year's end Neil plans to appear in at least 20 American cities, plus others in Europe and Asia.
On tour or off, Diamond remains an enormously popular international star. His record sales are approaching 50 million LPs worldwide, including 1.5 million copies of his latest, On the Way to the Sky. His commercial reputation is not unblemished, however. The 1980 remake of The Jazz Singer, which marked his Hollywood debut, cost $15 million but grossed a disappointing $14 million in the U.S. (foreign sales and videocassettes took it far past breakeven, however). The sound track did sell four million copies, and while his performance hardly dazzled critics (one reviewer critized him for "looking glum and seldom making eye contact with anyone"), Diamond earned a reported $3.5 million for starring and scoring. He says now, "We made the film for fans, not critics."
A decade ago he scored the feathery flop Jonathan Livingston Seagull and ended up in a lawsuit with author Richard Bach against producer-director Hall Bartlett over plot and sound track changes. "After Jonathan," says Neil, "I vowed never to get involved in a movie again unless I had complete control." He tested for the leads in Lenny and Taxi Driver, but lost the roles to Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro. "I jumped at the chance to do The Jazz Singer because it had been one of my favorites growing up," says Neil, who kept a portrait of Al Jolson, star of the 1927 original, in his dressing room.
Still pursuing his movie career, Diamond hopes to appear in an all-dramatic role next year in the story of a devoted public school teacher, Death at an Early Age, or a thriller, The Unknown Man. "I learned I can act, work comfortably on a collaborative effort and get a great deal of satisfaction," he says. He'll host his own CBS-TV musical special later this year.
Music is still the nucleus of his life. "When I'm not writing, I'm dying," Diamond says, with the melodramatic flair that imbues his songs. (Personally, he says he was thrilled by the marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana: "I'm a hopeless romantic and they are such perfect romantic symbols.")
Diamond works out of a West Hollywood bungalow elegantly furnished with a tortoiseshell desk-and-chair set, Indian rugs and plush cream-colored couches. His private office is a Neil Diamond memorial, with pictures of himself everywhere, walls aglitter with gold and platinum records, and the top of a grand piano stacked with awards, including his Seagull sound track Grammy. He oversees his own career even down to concert-booking minutiae, nourished by a steady flow of coffee and Camels. He says his voice is not affected by his two-pack-a-day smoking habit. "I lose a few notes at the top, but since I'm the writer, I just don't write notes I can't reach."
Diamond says his home life is vital to his stability. "My wife keeps me alive," he says of Marcia, 38, his wife of 13 years. "When you are a star, you get used to being taken care of. I remember one time Marcia had left to go somewhere and I wanted to eat but didn't know what to do in the kitchen. I was helpless, so I stayed hungry until she returned." Neil, Marcia and their sons, Jesse, 11, and Micah, 4, live in a seven-room Malibu beach house. (His two daughters from a previous marriage, Marjorie, 16, and Elyn, 14, live with their remarried mother in New Jersey and visit during holidays.) "The best thing I can do for my kids is give them a normal life, be supportive, and let them find their own way," he says.
The plan is reminiscent of his own upbringing. Born to a dry-goods merchant in Brooklyn, Neil won 250 in a contest at 3, lip-synching the words to The Marriage of Figaro. "I was a lonely, withdrawn kid," he recalls. He took up singing as a teenager, in part to meet girls. His big break came when the Monkees made his I'm a Believer a 10-million seller, and he splashed on his own in 1966 with Cherry, Cherry. Tom Catalano, who produced many of Neil's early records, observes, "He went from a nervous, uncertain novice to the exacting, self-disciplined performer you see today."
As suggested by his song Solitary Man, Neil values privacy. His personal security has included, at times, a force of 15 guards. "My private detective bill is phenomenal," he admits. "There are a lot of crazies out there."
Security consciousness, however, doesn't stop him from driving his 1974 Porsche to visit his only brother, Harvey, or his parents, who live part of the year in L.A. "Neil is not a recluse, but he is private," reports former employee Jerry Paonessa. Adds Catalano, "He's not known as a big party-er, but he does socialize with the top echelon like Sinatra and Streisand." Neil explains, "I chose writing as a profession because it's something you do alone. Even now when I'm in a group of people, I feel alone."
He has approximately 20 full-time employees; his road entourage is about 50. He's known as a benevolent, if exacting, boss. "When he says something's going to happen, it does," says one member of his band. Then, too, some things don't happen. One former Diamond trouper notes, "I kept asking where all of the drugs were, and the only thing I could come up with was a shot of vitamin B-12."
Diamond has detractors. Seagull producer Bartlett snips, "He's too slick now, and it's not as much from his heart as it used to be." Bartlett adds, however, "Neil is extraordinarily talented. Often his arrogance is just a cover for the lonely and insecure person underneath."
While other critics suggest Diamond should paint white lines on his records to warn of middle-of-the-road content, his fans are undaunted. Jazz Singer screenwriter Stephen Foreman, who has attended several Diamond concerts, observes, "When you see a crowd of paunchy, middle-aged auto executives in Detroit get up and start dancing in the aisles, you realize something pretty unusual is going on."
Neil accepts his place in the music pantheon. "After years of working with a psychiatrist," he says, "I have finally forgiven myself for not being Beethoven."
'He likes composing 'because it's something you do alone'