Back in the ever-ironic 1990s, hipsters suddenly turned on their heartlights for the once-disparaged Neil Diamond. Smarmy Chicago cocktail-rockers Urge Overkill crooned their Pulp Fiction-popularized cover of Diamond’s “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” wearing open-shirted white suits and gold medallion nestled in their chest hair. Heavy Metal Parking Lot underground filmmakers Jeff Krulik and John Heyn released their straight-to-bootleg-VHS sequel, Neil Diamond Parking Lot. Will Ferrell debuted his bizarre Diamond impersonation on SNL. And by 2001, Smash Mouth had recorded a remake of Diamond’s “I’m a Believer” for Shrek, and Diamond had played himself in the Jack Black screwball comedy Saving Silverman (he even jumped onstage with cult tribute band Super Diamond at that movie’s premiere party).
In another film from that era, What About Bob?, Bill Murray theorized, “There are two types of people in this world: those who like Neil Diamond, and those who don’t.” And it seemed like most of the world fell into the former category. However, while it was fantastic to see the man embraced by a younger generation, he was still seen as novelty act, a campy figure. It took longer for the real respect came along. But in the 2000s, Diamond played Glastonbury in the “Living Legend” slot. He recorded with Rick Rubin and Don Was. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (alongside Alice Cooper and Tom Waits), received a lifetime achievement award at the Kennedy Center Honors, and was named Person of the Year by MusiCares. And this Thursday, as the 76-year-old icon — currently on his 50th anniversary world tour — played Los Angeles’s Forum, there was no irony, no subtext, no nod or wink. Instead, pure earnestness prevailed.
Yes, there were many moments of Catskills/cruise ship kitsch during Diamond’s more than two-hour revue, like the Jonathan Livingston Seagull theme “Skybird” accompanied by screensaver-like seagull graphics (a moment so over-the-top, it may as well have been performed by the aforementioned Will Ferrell in Neil Diamond drag); a goofy, jazz-handsy “Jungle Time”; or the requisite red-white-and-blue, Up With People-style spectacular of “America.” But when Diamond was at his most gentle and vulnerable, that’s when the magic happened.
“You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” the poignant account of a relationship that has lost its spark, sounded absolutely devastating sung solo in Diamond’s weary, weathered voice (his onetime duet partner, Barbra Streisand, was barely missed, especially with expert saxman Larry Klimas’s instrumental flourishes filling in for her vocal parts). A dedication of “Dry Your Eyes” to the victims of recent Manchester and London terrorist attacks was a classy move. And fittingly for a man celebrating an incredible half-century in show business, Diamond often reflected fondly on his youth; when the New York-born son of working-class Polish-Russian Jewish immigrants sang tenderly about the old neighborhood on tender “Brooklyn Roads” in front of a backdrop of grainy home-movie footage, that combination was way more effective than that weird seagull screensaver.
At one point in his set, before the maudlin “Play Me,” Diamond actually confessed that he has a tough vocation because he’s forced to be vulnerable (“almost unheard of for a man”) in front of so many people night after night. And the audience whooped supportively, sincerely — clearly unconcerned if it’s “cool” or ironic to like Neil Diamond in 2017. Of course it’s cool to appreciate one of one of the greatest pop songwriters of all time.
Diamond will play a second hot August night at the Forum this Saturday; it will be the 35th Forum concert of his career, setting a new record for the most concerts ever by a single artist at the historic venue.