Why Neil Diamond’s forced exit from the stage hurts so much

Neil Diamond performs on his 50th Anniversary Tour at Sunrise's BB&T Center on Wednesday, April 26, 2017.
Neil Diamond performs on his 50th Anniversary Tour at Sunrise's BB&T Center on Wednesday, April 26, 2017. pfarrell@miamiherald.com

Neil Diamond’s announcement that he would have to retire from the concert stage because of Parkinson’s disease marks the end of one of the most storied careers in popular music.

Parkinson’s is a long-term, neurodegenerative disease that results in movement-related problems, such as impaired balance and coordination, slurred speech and difficulty walking.

No, Diamond, who turned 77 Wednesday, isn’t done with music.

On Monday, when he said he was following doctor’s orders to cancel the coming third leg of his 50th anniversary tour that was set to begin in Australia and New Zealand in March, he said he still would be active in other capacities.

“I plan to remain active in writing, recording and other projects for a long time to come,” Diamond said in a statement. “My thanks goes out to my loyal and devoted audiences around the world. You will always have my appreciation for your support and encouragement. This ride has been ‘so good, so good, so good’ thanks to you,” the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer added, in a nod to his hit 1969 hit and audience favorite, “Sweet Caroline.”

But new albums by old favorites aren’t the same thing. The market isn’t designed to support the release of new music — not even from one who has enjoyed a creative renaissance since the release of “Three Chord Opera” in 2001, followed by the critically hailed “12 Songs” in 2005. Albums just don’t sell anymore.

Diamond’s last studio album, “Melody Road,” was released in 2014. A nice effort but largely ignored by the public — and the star himself.

None of its songs was featured on Diamond’s 50th anniversary tour, which played Sunrise’s BB&T Center in 2017.

Instead, Diamond’s departure from the concert stage means a big financial loss to the concert industry. According to Billboard, Diamond, whose first hit single, “Solitary Man,” was released in 1966, ranked among the 20 highest grossing concert acts in the period of 1990-2014. His grosses in those years numbered more than $465 million from 643 shows before 8.9 million fans.

Diamond’s current 50th Anniversary Tour was similarly huge. According to Pollstar, the concert industry tracker, he was No. 24 worldwide in 2017. “Diamond’s retirement from touring would be a major blow to the business,” the trade said.

His “Melody Road” Tour in 2015 added another $35 million in North America and ranked No. 1 in June of that year over tours by the Foo Fighters, the Rolling Stones and U2 in the first half of that year.

ND Hot August Night LP
Neil Diamond’s live set, “Hot August Night,” from 1972. Universal/Capitol

Diamond’s luster on the road has been undimmed since the release of his landmark live set, “Hot August Night,” in 1972.

But aside from making promoters happy, Diamond’s departure from touring will be felt by fans.

He’s so good!

From the Miami Herald review of his 50th Anniversary Tour at the BB&T Center in April 2017:

From “Solitary Man,” which Diamond prefaced, “My first chart record in 1966,” to a rich three-song suite of intricately orchestrated music from his 1973 “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” soundtrack, Diamond reviewed his entire career with musical finesse in a near 30-song set that still managed to leave out someone’s favorite hits. … Diamond’s tour stop was vindication for a musician and singer-songwriter who is an entertainer but never at the expense of his musical craft. He is 76, but his rugged, Marlboro Man voice proved remarkably intact and almost a replica of its tone on records that date back 20, 30 years or more.

Neil Diamond BBT17 Diamond
Neil Diamond performs on his 50th Anniversary Tour at Sunrise's BB&T Center on Wednesday, April 26, 2017. PATRICK FARRELL pfarrell@miamiherald.com

He is, he said.

We love him live because he’s so human. Even when he has an off-night, as in a 1993 date at the defunct Miami Arena when former Miami Herald pop music critic and current columnist Leonard Pitts blasted Diamond for walking through “a cavalcade of oldies without much inspiration” and likened it to a Bible study class, we empathize.

Pitts ended his review with: “A person sitting next to me opined that it was like visiting your dad. You love him and all and you kind of enjoy yourself, but there's no surprise because you always know what's coming next. I can’t put it any better than that.”

Confession time. I was that person. I said that. Hey, it happens.

Hundreds of Herald readers responded in the old-fashioned way of pen on paper (no Internet, then) to get their reviews in. An amused Pitts had never had such a reaction to one of his reviews.

We ran a full page of them. Judy Zipper of Miami was representative of the bag full:

“This was a very special continuation of a surprise 55th birthday bash for my husband, Joe. Twenty of us attended the concert, ranging in age from our 20s to our 60s. Pitts wrote a horrible review.

What ‘Bible study’ has ever sounded like this, I don’t know. Maybe more like a revival! The audience was not warm nor involved? My group, plus most of the arena audience, remained on their feet singing, clapping, dancing in the aisles, goose- pimpling, lighting lighters, screaming, whistling . . . the entire performance. How many entertainers can perform and have an audience know all verses and words to every song?

I teach and this morning can't talk because of singing, and — I must confess, even at 40-plus years, feeling 20 last night —screaming! Sound problems don’t matter when everyone is singing.

Mr. Pitts, your review was the ‘pits!’ Neil, ignore him please. We, the 18,000-plus fans, beg you, ‘Come back again, only sooner! We love you!’”

As for me, I’ve loved Neil since I discovered him through “Song Sung Blue” on Miami’s WQAM on a tinny, mono Ford Pinto radio when I was 8 in 1972. And I’ve loved every show since that 1993 misfire, none more so than an October 2008 concert at the BB&T Center. My stepdad George had just passed. Mom was down. Diamond’s effervescent concert manner lifted us up.

Maybe it’s a spiritual thing. In an interview with Diamond before that concert we discussed the flavor of gospel that populated many of his tunes from “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show” to “Man of God.” Rolling Stone once called him, “The Jewish Elvis.” Another critic called him, “the rocking rabbi of ecumenical pop.”

Diamond told the Herald: “I think there has always been a spiritual influence on my work but I really never paid any attention to it or focused on it. It's not something I tried to bring out explicitly … I'm trying to let it all hang out and make the song as strong as it can be. I don't edit myself.”

Neil Diamond BBT17 pointsolo
Neil Diamond performs on his 50th Anniversary Tour at Sunrise's BB&T Center on Wednesday, April 26, 2017. PATRICK FARRELL pfarrell@miamiherald.com

Dreamers, one and all

From an advance in the Herald before his April show last year — “He’s on his 50th anniversary tour. How long can Neil Diamond go on?:

“Anti-immigration stories in the news got you down?

“Diamond’s rousing anthem “America” figures as the encore’s penultimate performance. He has performed “The Jazz Singer” standout live at least 1,166 times through April 23, ever since its first appearance on a Diamond concert setlist on Dec. 7, 1981, in Arizona. Stand up and sing along and make yourself heard: On the boats and on the planes/They’re coming to America...Got a dream to take them there/They’re coming to America/Got a dream they’ve come to share/They’re coming to America.”

Neil Diamond BBT17 guitar
Neil Diamond performs on his 50th Anniversary Tour at Sunrise's BB&T Center on Wednesday, April 26, 2017. PATRICK FARRELL pfarrell@miamiherald.com

Neil’s a family affair

Diamond’s music crosses the generations. Everyone, young and old, sings along to “Sweet Caroline.” His mother, Rose, lives in South Florida and, at 98, she was singing along at her son’s 50th anniversary.

His music also helped ease one South Florida fan through the cloud of Alzheimer’s. Eve Murphy was the first lady of Coral Gables when her husband was mayor in the mid-1960s and she loved Neil Diamond.

When she died in February 2017 at 87, her daughter Elizabeth Murphy recalled her mother’s love of the performer and how she used his music to ease her mother’s suffering.

On a Facebook comment, WLRN “Morning Edition” host Joe Johnson remembered a standout show from the long gone Hollywood Sportatorium in 1982. “Great memory of seeing him at the Hollywood Sportatorium in the ’80s, when his song ‘Heartlight’ came on, when he sang it thousands of lighters went up in the air … it was amazing.”

Hello, again?

As his former label mate Elton John, who announced his own retirement from the concert stage two days later, sang on “The End Will Come” in 1997: “The end will come like sudden rain/The end is never what it seems.”

There will be new music, Diamond promises. We hope that’s true. But we’ll never forget how good it felt to sing along to “Sweet Caroline” with 15,000 of our contemporaries in concert halls all over South Florida.

Diamond won’t forget it, either.

From the 2008 Herald article:

“The call-and-response routine, which certainly has its roots in houses of worship, still uplifts the star nearly 40 years after giving birth to this mythical, magical Caroline (later revealed to be named after Caroline Kennedy). Hearing his words coming back at him 15,000-strong nightly, however, took some getting used to.

“It was a little surprising at first,” Diamond said. “Forty years ago I didn’t understand it, but I love the fact the audience will sing along and have their own take on the songs and it becomes part of their lives. It's their song.”

Howard Cohen: 305-376-3619, @HowardCohen

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