Neil Diamond - Today Show Concert
Rockefeller Center Plaza
Walking around midtown Manhattan at 4:00 AM, one encounters several types of people: garbage men, the homeless, those who have been out partying all night and are on their way home, and tourists with large signs on their way to stake out the prime on-camera spots in front of Today's window on the world. And then there was me: I like Neil Diamond and I like freak shows--this event was too promising to miss.
The previous week, I went to Today's Jimmy Buffett concert (see my review of the 1999 Jimmy Buffett today show). We arrived at 5:00 AM to find the plaza already packed. We were standing so far back that I was only able to see the top of Jimmy's bald head when I stood on tiptoe. Like an addict I require a Buffett fix every summer, and since he isn't playing any NYC-area shows, this would have to suffice. It was more annoying than entertaining, as we were sandwiched between drunk frat boys who were swigging tequila at 6:00 AM and six Midwestern broads who were wearing palm trees they'd constructed out of posterboard on their heads. Jimmy wasn't in the greatest mood. He didn't throw Krispy Kremes to the crowd like last time, nor did he play extra songs. I think Katie Couric pissed him off, demanding that he play "Margaritaville" when he had sound-checked the more obscure "That's My Story and I'm Stickin' to it."
Watching my tape of the Buffett show, I learned that the front row fans had been there since 3:00 PM the previous afternoon. Now that's what I call obsession! I wondered if the Diamondheads would be as dedicated as the Parrotheads. I visited the "I Am I Said" message board to gauge the mood of the crowd. Would they show up the previous evening and dance until the night became a brand new day? Nobody responded to my inquiry about arrival time. I guess it got lost in the shuffle, as the Diamondheads were giddy over an explosion of Neil activity. He had a new album coming out, Three Chord Opera. There would be a fall tour! He'd be on A&E's Live by Request and the fans were angling to get their favorite rarities played. Then there were the upcoming TV appearances on such shows as The View and The Tonight Show to promote the album, not to mention, the Neil Behind the Music. A Neil overload!
Pretending to be Amish, I went to bed at 8:30 PM and rose at 3:00 AM. I arrived at Rockefeller Center at 4:00 AM and noticed the crowd was pretty small--maybe 200 people in front of and on the side of the stage. I could have easily slept another couple of hours and still had a good view, but there was no turning back. Middle-aged women with bouffant hairdos huddled in blankets in lawn chairs in the front positions, so I chose a position against the barricade in front of the small stage where the Today hosts introduce the act. I rationalized that I would be able to sit on the barricade and see over the bouffants to get an unobstructed view of His Neilness.
A lot of the early comers knew each other. I assume they were members of the FOND (Friends of Neil Diamond) sisterhood. A few long-suffering husbands hung around, fetching coffee and bagels for their gals. A twenty something guy had driven up from Delaware for the event. His mother had died the previous year and he had brought a framed 8 x 10 of his mother and Neil that he wanted to present to Neil. A fan club member handed out ribbons in memory of Vince Charles, a band member, who had recently passed away. But the mood wasn't all melancholy...one woman led a half-hearted "Sweet Caroline" sing-a-long as the clock struck 5:00 AM. A large woman with a frosted french twist hairdo sat amongst other middle-aged women, dispensing factoids and correcting the biographical and other mistakes of strangers around her. "No, the Live by Request is airing on Saturday night, not tonight," scolded this Buddha of Neil. I kept to myself and read a book."These are hugs and kisses for Neil Diamond,"said a bubbly woman as she handed out signs with large Xs and Os on them. A feeding frenzy erupted around a guy who brought a box of paper fans emblazoned with "I'm a Neil Diamond fan." A bride-to-be and her wedding party (pictured above) took up position in the front row of the second section, clad in veils and hungry for air time.
Around 5:30 AM, Neil's band took the stage and began to warm up. He had brought a full band, including a horn section. People got their video cameras ready, and the crowd went nuts as Neil took the stage around 6:00 AM. He wore a yankee cap and a casual outfit--not a glass bead on him. "What are you all doing up so early?" Neil said, "Thank you so much for coming." He seemed genuinely surprised that people had dragged themselves out of bed for lil' ol' him. I don't think his humility is false--he seems truly gracious and unimpressed with himself. Neil kicked off the sound check with "I'm a Believer," the song he wrote that The Monkees made into a number one hit. He followed with "Cracklin' Rosie" and seemed to wake up a bit, incorporating some classic Neil thrusts, hip swiveling, and fist pumping into the act. Then they played "You are the Best Part of Me" off the new album, which nearly sent me back to sleep. I would much rather have been hearin' "Forever in Blue Jeans," yeah. I noticed that someone on the message board called that song a rip off of "Can't Smile Without You" by another skinny Jewish boy from Brooklyn, and I do hear a certain resemblance. Neil then pleased the crowd with "Sweet Caroline," telling us he needed our help with the "whoa whoa whoa" and "So good! So good! So good!" audience participation moments. Diamondheads responded on cue, just as the parrotheads had supported "Margaritaville" with "Salt! Salt! Salt!"
Neil commented on a sign from a job hunter, "Hey, somebody from Houston back there needs a job, can anybody help?" Another sign read: "Neil: Sixty and Sexy." There was a lot of middle-aged perving going on and I heard several comments about Neil's "cute butt." One gal yelled out, "Neil, take your shirt off!" Other signs said "Neil, play me!" and "I'm your Kentucky Woman!" Neil called women "sweetheart" with more tenderness than smarminess. He said, "I love you all." And I believe he does. He's a mensch.
As 7:00 AM approached, we stared at Katie Couric on the monitors, checking her makeup and brushing her hair repeatedly as if she had OCD. Tourists expressed their disappointment that Matt and Ann had the day off. "But at least Al's here!" one exclaimed, pleased because her sign said "We Love You, Al." She would still have a chance at getting on TV. In the present, everyone can be famous for 2 seconds.
The show began with news that a woman had given birth while in a coma. The plaza had filled up, though not to Buffett or J-Lo capacity. Time passed as slowly as the Jonathan Livingston Seagull medley in a Neil Diamond concert, as we heard the same news stories 20 times and listened to Helena Bonham Carter talking about her Planet of the Apes makeup. People hoisted their signs and jockeyed for position during every "sweeping crowd shot/fade to commercial" moment. Enthusiasm levels rose as we were shown a biographical segment on Neil, a Cliff's Notes version of VH1's Behind the Music.
Shortly before 8:30 AM, Katie came out and ascended the stairs in her spike heels to reach the small stage where she'd introduce Neil. Neil's band took the stage, dressed in their bright concert garb. People screamed for attention from Katie. "Katie! Katie! My sister's getting married tomorrow!" one of the bridesmaids yelled. Katie should have taken the opportunity to launch into "Girl, You'll be a Woman Soon" but instead offered her cheery congratulations. She ignored those of us in the section behind her, so I took this picture of her squatting. That'll show her!
Look out, Neil! There's a giant spider behind you! (an art installation by Louise Bourgeois)
Neil ran to the stage wearing an aqua and black shirt that he must have borrowed from Garth Brooks. His hair was neatly coiffed and/or toupeed and there was no evidence of the bald spot I'd glimpsed on his crown when he was wearing the Yankees cap. He launched into a high-energy rendition of "I'm a Believer." It's true that Neil's voice isn't what it once was. He sometimes talks his way through songs now like the late model Frank Sinatra. Sometimes he screams the lyrics. But he still has the Neil moves and, well, the Neil magic. David Cassidy tries to rip off the Neil moves, but there is only One.
In the interview, Katie brought up her deeply felt principle about Buffett and "Margaritaville"--that Jimmy should be REQUIRED to play that song, that he OWES it to his FANS. She asked Neil if there were any of his songs that he didn't like to play, like that mean Jimmy. No, he assured her. He loved them all. He was overwhelmingly positive, even expressing admiration for the popular cover band Superdiamond who play around with the kitschy aspects of Neil.
Neil brought the crowd down again with "The Best Part of Me" which is not destined to be among the best part of his repertoire. Although he only played four songs, Neil had to ask the band each time what song was coming next. Perhaps he was a little nervous, or maybe he's just not a morning person. I noticed that Katie touched Neil a lot during the interview portions. Perhaps she too feels he is "Sexy at Sixty."
"Okay, it's time to get unruly," Neil instructed the crowd, as he launched into "Cracklin' Rosie." I guess that's Neil's kinder, gentler version of Ozzy's order: "Go fuckin' CRAZY!!" Neil explained that the song was about getting drunk on cheap Rose wine, which was a relief to me because I also thought that "store bought woman" line was a bit seedy. He closed the song with his patented emphatic arm thrusts, which look like he's bowling minus the ball.
Neil closed the show with "Sweet Caroline." He let Al Roker do a verse and responded to Al's bass trilling with "I love it! I love it!" He then dragged an elderly cop on stage for another verse, feeding him the lines as the crowd helped out with the "whoa whoa whoas." As Neil thanked us profusely, I wound my way through the crowd, feeling "So good! So good! So good!" on my way to work.
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