Neil Diamond: I've waited 70 years for happiness
He is one of the world's most successful singers. Yet the little devil in his head tells him he's a fraud. Neil Diamond, who plays Belfast next year, opens up to Barry Egan about his inner torments and how the love of his wife saved him
I've just arrived at a 5-star hotel in London. An obviously wealthy young woman, no older than 21, approaches the concierge and says loudly that she wants a car to take her to Harrods. "To go shopping," she says.
Neil Diamond - whom I've an appointment to see - grew up in vaguely impoverished circumstances above a shop (not Harrods, a butcher's shop) in Flatbush, Brooklyn, where he would be woken up in the night to the sound of the mousetraps going off. I tell him the story of the rich young girl in the lobby of the hotel he is staying in. I ask does he ever look back on his past and how far he has come in life.
The answer that Neil Diamond gives practically takes up our entire interview; the memories it throws up are Proustian in their rich details. ...
"I do think about things like that," he begins. "Mostly when I'm visiting that old neighbourhood again. I paid a visit recently and I performed at the high school. It brought everything back. It was like a wave of recollections." The 73-year-old says he was 16 years old again, and his pimples were back. Neil walked the streets. The buildings were the same. And, he continues, his old stamping ground still has the same working class people - "except they're black, and not Jewish or Italian or Irish".
"I know every crack in the street," he says. "Literally, I walked into a store on the corner where I had been a delivery boy in a pharmacy and they had the same floor. And I had swept that floor, daily.
"I look back on those times," he says of his youth, "I had no idea what my life would be. I didn't pay any attention to what I would study in school, what profession I would take up. I had just started to take guitar lessons. I was nothing. I was nobody. I was so dumb, it didn't concern me."
The 'dumb' kid who has sold 160 million records worldwide (Sweet Caroline, Cracklin' Rosie, You Don't Bring Me Flowers, the latter a duet with Barbra Streisand) says he has gone back to Flatbush a few times "but never in-depth, never examining, looking out of my window, two floors above the butcher's store - it's now a lady's beauty salon".
Neil, born on January 24, 1941, says that when he went back to his roots recently he finally got to "look out of that window".
The memories flooded back and unsettled him. "I never thought about it very much in the past, but then I realised that there must have been a reason why I never once invited any of my friends to my home."
Was it shame?
"I think I was probably a little embarrassed by my circumstances," he says. "Many of them from school lived on the rich side of the tracks. I do know that never in the six years that I lived in that little apartment did I ask a friend to come over and watch TV with me."
Neil Diamond married Katie McNeil, who is in her early 40s, on April 21, 2012, in Los Angeles. They got engaged on September 7, 2011.
A few months before that, in June, I met Neil for lunch in Dublin. Katie was there and I realised there was something of a spark between him and the blonde who was the executive producer of a 2009 documentary film about him.
That spark is all over Neil's new album, Melody Road. Not least the song Something Blue. ('I came with a little bit of sorrow/Was maybe a bit too sad/But one day rolled into tomorrow/And you gave me the best you had ...')
That has to be Katie, I say. "It is her," Neil says. "You can't avoid it. Yeah. She has informed the album but me too. There is no question about it. I am a happy man," he laughs, "and it is about time. I have waited 70 years to become a happy man. I am very fortunate that I have reached this point in my life and I am around to enjoy it."
I ask him about the line "I opened my eyes and a little bit of darkness came through."
Was there a lot of darkness before Katie? "I would say with the exclusion of my work, because work has always been a bright thing in my life. I consider myself so fortunate to be able to find a little niche for myself in this world. But my life with Katie and our marriage has brought me a kind of satisfaction that I don't think I've ever experienced in my life," he says.
"I'm almost a little bit afraid of it, because you can't capture it and hold it in your hand and put it in a safe at night. It is very ethereal. It is that butterfly of love that you can't catch but you are amazed by it and you can't take your attention off of it. But it is wonderful and I feel so lucky to have it and I want it for as long as I live now."
Neil says he is naturally an "up" kind of person, "but my life has been very pressured and filled with great stress. It seems like I've been on a journey and have been looking for something, which I could not define, and yet hoping to find that thing in particular. I believe I have found it at this point," he says.
"But I wasn't sure in the past what that was ... some kind of a thing that could put you at ease with your self. I'm not sure I have ever been at ease with my self until just in the last few years."
The last time we spoke Neil said he had spent his whole life trying to accept himself. Today as I am his jumped-up de-facto psychologist, I suggest that he seems finally, courtesy of Katie, to have found that inner peace.
"It feels like that. It does feel like I've finally come to accept myself for better or for worse and, coincidentally at the same time, I have someone to share that time with."
In 1971, Lenny Bruce opened his friend Neil up to psychoanalysis. He starting going to a shrink. He subsequently wrote one of his most famous songs I Am ... I Said - what Rolling Stone magazine called Diamond's "open-wrench paean to loneliness" - as a direct result of those sessions. Other classics like Solitary Man suggest a man searching, unsuccessfully, for his place in the world. About a decade ago, he said he has "finally forgiven myself for not being Beethoven".
The context for that remark, when I ask him about it, is revealing: "I think that I have always kind of felt that I have been unworthy of whatever it was that I received, whether it was four beautiful children," Neil says referring to his two children, Marjorie and Elyn with his first wife Jaye and his two other children Jesse and Micah with his second wife Marcia, "then having a career that you could write about in a storybook. But through it all I think I have felt that I didn't really deserve any of it."
I ask Neil Diamond - as I often do throughout our 45 minute tete a tete - why.
"Maybe it is the days of sitting in that apartment with the mousetraps going off. That was what I felt I was worth. And anything above and beyond that, I don't believe I deserved any of that. I believed I deserved the mousetraps above the butcher's store."
Is that why his songs and lyrics connect with so many millions of people - because of the profound vulnerability of the man who writes them?
"Well, you know, when you get onstage and perform for an audience you are really at their mercy," he says, "and I think I discovered if I was going to be at an audience's mercy at least it would be me, the real person inside who they would be merciful towards.
"I've followed that as a performer and also throughout my life. People could have the star but they would also have to take the human being as well. I am a kid who grew up surrounded by mousetraps. I don't want to hide that past.
"I don't want to hide those circumstances any more. I did when I was a kid, and that's why no one was invited up to our place, but I realised that the only chance I had onstage was to be brutally honest and hope that the audience would accept that person, flawed."
Asked what he thinks his flaws are, Neil Diamond says without smiling: "They are all over the place, like everybody else. I can't do everything. I can't love everyone. I'm limited by being less than perfect."
I ask him has he ever met someone who is perfect. "My wife is perfect." There is a Pinter-like pause. "But I don't sense it for everybody else. I have the same imperfections as everybody has."
I say this to the man who has sold 130 million records in his career: could you not tell the destructive inner voice - the inner devil - to clear off?
"Yeah, you know, you are so right, because that other voice in the head, he only makes trouble for me. He never says: 'Accept. Be grateful. Be happy. You're lucky. You're a fortunate man. Let it rest at that.' The voice never says that. The voice always says: 'You're a fake. You're a charlatan. You're untalented. You're incomplete as a person'."
Why does he listen to that voice?
"It's there. It lives. It's inside. But I feel I have have finally reached that point where I can stop and turn that voice off because I have another voice.
"And it is her voice," Neil Diamond says of Katie.
Neil Diamond's new album Melody Road is out now on Universal Records. He plays the Odyssey Arena in Belfast on June 30 and the 3Arena in Dublin on July 3