In another life I reviewed concerts for The Columbus Dispatch. My typical workday began at 4 p.m. and ended sometime after the 11:30 p.m. to midnight deadline. I’d go to the show, gather the experience, write it up at the venue or back at the office, hit “send,” wait for a copy editor to say, “All’s well. Goodnight, and go home” and then go to sleep after the adrenaline and the “Was that the right word in paragraph seven?” mind-funk subsided.
Reviewing concerts was fun, rewarding, and challenging. Was it a noble pursuit? Not sure. I do know that, to me, it wasn’t exactly on par with getting wrongfully accused death row inmates sprung from the big house. Still, the job occasionally presented opportunities to use journalism as a force for good.
Take, for instance, a show a few summers ago in our city.
It was a hot August night in Value City Arena. It was 2008. And, in all my time reporting from concerts for “Ohio’s Greatest Home Newspaper,” it was the worst voice I’d ever been forced to describe to readers on deadline. The shiny name attached to this feral rasp? Neil Diamond.
Now, I share this memory as an unabashed fan of Neil Diamond. I know that Sweet Caroline is playing for all eternity at Hell’s gates. But c’mon! Neil Diamond gave the world Cracklin’ Rosie; Kentucky Woman; Girl… You’ll Be a Woman Soon; Cherry, Cherry; Forever in Blue Jeans; and, for God’s sake, Love on the Rocks. He was, and is, a singer. (Proof? Hit the Youtube. Or better yet, drive to St. Luke’s Home for the Aging in Canton and ask my wife’s late grandmother’s roommate Izzy. She sleeps with an autographed photo of Neil Diamond above her bed and swears that Neil Diamond is only 37, is the best singer alive, and then without fail says: “Oh, just one night with him. Just one night! It’d kill me dead on the spot, but what a way to go.”)
But on this confusing evening in 2008, listening to Neil Diamond ply his craft was akin to watching Bob Ross paint a wispy cloud with a power drill instead of a brush. The action Neil Diamond was trying to make happen was not happening. From the creaky opener (Holly Holly) to the final croaking encore (Brother Love’s Travelling Show), the Solitary Man barked and sang-spoke through the hits, going about his spangle-shirted business as though all 11,000 audience members were toadstools or something instead of sentient beings who’d paid upwards of $120 a ticket and, in some cases, driven from several states away to witness this endearing Vegas-style schmaltz.
Sitting there among fans, I watched as stone-faced diehards shook their heads, covered their mouths with their hands and gasped. They nudged one another, and looked around wide-eyed— all non-verbally asking the same thing: “What the hell is wrong with Neil Diamond’s voice and why is he the only person here who isn’t asking this question? Why is he doing this to us?”
Neil Friggin’ Diamond plowed ahead, never once acknowledging the fact that his wrecked voice—when you could actually hear it above the 14-piece band—sounded like Tom Waits, Joe Cocker, and Howlin’ Wolf’s combined into a medicinal-grade rasp. Fans in various sections began to leave their seats and bolt for the exits. I broke from the scene during “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” and saw about 100 fans in the hallway lined up to get refunds. I’d never seen fans with real, live buyer’s guilt asking for refunds during a concert.
As a music lover, when you hit a concert at a carnival or a strawberry or sweet corn or zucchini fest or whatever, going in you know you’re probably going to hear a voice that isn’t what it was. You get what you pay for. But at a big-time, razzle-dazzle arena concert in the big city? You ostensibly are giving over time and money to hear and see the venerable Big-Time Entertainer deliver the goods in a serviceable and, hopefully, spectacular fashion. Outside of state fair shows and small town, summertime food festivals starring the bloated remnants of the Marshall Tucker Band and whatnot, I’d never seen or heard anything like this.
I left the arena, barreled back to The Dispatch, and cranked out the review. Sometime after midnight, Neil Diamond’s publicist called me “just to check in to see how the review was coming along.” This was unprecedented. Publicists don’t care how reviews are coming along unless fans are asking for refunds during a show. Also unprecedented: receiving kudos from concert-goers who thanked me for panning, not praising, a concert they paid to see.
When I arrived at the office late the next morning, scores of people had emailed and called to ask me about how to secure refunds. After being interviewed about the show live on the air with the BBC, I chatted about the debacle with arena reps and Neil Diamond’s publicist. Neil Diamond, turned out, had been stricken with acute laryngitis, would be canceling the next couple gigs. And he would be issuing refunds to all 11,000 ticket-holders in Columbus.
In the afternoon, a press release that should have set the bar for all apology press releases, arrived. In it, Diamond said he was sorry and promised to eclipse the performance the next time he rolled into town, adding—in the most Neil Diamond of Neil Diamond ways—this poetry:
“Dear Fans in Columbus. I haven’t let you down before, and I won’t let you down now. Until you hear from me again remember: You are the sun. I am the moon. You are the words. I am the tune. Forgive me. I love you. Neil.” •