Neil Diamond has been focused on writing new material that he hopes to have out next year, he tells Rolling Stone – and it comes at an urgent time for him. Like so many, Diamond was angered and saddened by the Boston Marathon bombings in April; he became a figure in the city's recovery by performing his signature song "Sweet Caroline" at Fenway Park. That inspired him to write a tough-spirited new tune, "Freedom Song (They'll Never Take Us Down)," which he first revealed to Rolling Stone weeks later. The Rock and Roll Hall-of-Famer will perform the song live for the first time on the Fourth of July at a Washington Nationals ballgame.
Diamond talked to Rolling Stone about his own experiences in Boston, the direction of his new album and his ultimate baseball dream.
Congratulations on the song.
It was a tough one to write, but it got written.
Why was it tough to write? It feels like it has this very fluid ease to it.
It really was sparked by that performance in Boston and the people that I had a chance to speak to, the first responders. It was a very eye-opening situation and I became very moved by it. I knew I would be, but it was even more moving than I had expected. But a song like this needs to be inspired by something important; it needs to be felt deeply and it was a big thing to chew off.
As I got into it – as with all of my other songs, but this one maybe even more deeply – I wanted to tell the story of a sense of freedom and the obligation I have to freedom in America, which goes back to my grandparents and the home that was offered here for them, and really just to say thanks to all of these people that are defending this freedom. That was the whole point of the song. I wanted it to be spirited and reflect the spirit that I experienced in Boston.
When we talked at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions, one of the things you talked about was wanting to make this song universal and not just for Boston, but for all of the victims of recent tragedies we've had.
This song is written for everybody in this country and it essentially says take heart: our spirit and our country are whole and that they will carry us through difficult times. Difficult times being threats to our own freedom, which has to be protected, defended at all times. It's all about maintaining our spirit and our love for the country and doing what we have to do to protect it.
You will be performing the song for the first time at the Washington Nationals-Milwaukee Brewers game in D.C. on the Fourth of July. Knowing what a huge baseball fan you are, I am sure that will be a really fun moment for you.
There's no question that it's going to be very moving; it's the right place to introduce this idea in a song. Baseball is our national game and it unites us and anything that unites us is something that I want to be part of, so I expect to be moved, but I hope the performance and the presentation will move those people that are there.
That's the whole point of it; it's not written just to vent my own feelings or express my own feelings of love toward this country. It's written to involve everybody who hears it and help them understand that freedom is what unites us and our spirit is what will keep us going through tough times and such. It's worked that way for over 200 years and it's gonna continue to work that way.
This country offers something that maybe no other country in the world has to offer and it was Winston Churchill that said, "Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others." It's still true; there is no perfect form of government. But the point is, I want the spirit of that moment, the spirit that I felt at that very moment of performing "Sweet Caroline" for the Boston crowd, to translate into a song and I'll know when I do it [live] whether it's gonna do the job.
Is this song inspiring other writing and, if so, is there more coming down the line?
I've been writing for the last year for my next project and this is really a little sidestep on that project. It's to a whole other purpose and it forced me to lift my head up out of the hole that I've been in writing, look around a little bit and see what the world is like. And I'll go back into my writing mode full time in the next couple of weeks. But this is part of what I do: I'm a writer and you know this very well, it's a form of expression and fortunately I have access to television, radio and the media so that I can get my thoughts and my feelings across. I think it puts itself to good use regarding the "Freedom Song" and I'm very excited by it.
I've had an involvement from all the people that we've asked because we wanted to raise some money as well, not only raise people's consciousness on this idea, but raise some money and we've had the involvement of some of the biggest corporations in America. First it started with Columbia Records, who jumped in as soon as they heard that I wanted to go ahead with this and that I was writing this song and then Major League Baseball; Bud Selig called me and then I asked if he would participate with me in this song that I was writing and this record that I was hoping to release and he liked that idea. Then iTunes and Amazon got involved and they said, "Yes, we'll give up any profits in the sale of this thing."
So it turns out that 100 percent of whatever is generated by people downloading this track will go to a very worthy and important cause and I'm very excited about that, because it reflects the united nature of the coming together of people behind an idea that is worthwhile and important to all of us. So I couldn't be happier at this point. Things are going well and I want the song to take hold as much as it can and I lift people's spirits. That, to me, is the greatest achievement that you can claim in regard to presenting a piece of music. If it raises people's spirits, it's successful, and that's what I'm hoping for.
Growing up a Brooklyn Dodgers fan, could you have ever imagined that the commissioner of baseball would one day be calling you?
Absolutely not; this is beyond anything I ever imagined. I was just hoping the Dodgers would beat the Yankees; that was as far as my dreams went. But baseball has played a very important role in my life and to receive a call from the commissioner and be asked by him to do one of my songs is an honorable thing. He asked me what he could do for me, what it was I wanted. I said there's nothing I wanted, maybe a few tickets for my family. He pressed on, he spoke to my management and said, "We can do that, but what else?" She [Katie McNeil Diamond] said, "Neil wouldn't ask," and I certainly wouldn't, "But if you could get a signed baseball from each of the teams it would make Neil's year." So he said, "It's done." I'm thrilled about that.
Of course, I haven't fulfilled my ultimate dream as far as baseball is concerned, which is to bring the Brooklyn Dodgers back to play in Brooklyn one more game before I die. I'm gonna ask the commissioner when I see him if that is possible in any way, shape or form. And if it is, I'll beg if I have to that he allow the team to come and play in Brooklyn one more time. So it's pretty heady stuff for a kid from Brooklyn who lived over a butcher's store. But that's what this is about: it's all about dreams and making them come true and participating in the life around you. So I'm excited about this "Freedom Song" and I hope it does what it's supposed to do before I go back into my writing mode and I probably won't be seen until the record is written and finished.
How is the writing going?
It is going very well. I'm writing songs now that I don't think I've ever written before or maybe could have written before. But it's coming well. I'm excited to get these things finished and recorded. As far as the theme, the theme is all about up, high spirits and I can only hope to go where it takes me. It's not like I'm directing it; it will take me, but right now it looks like it's going to be a very positive and up and spirited album.
- Neil Diamond Donating 'Sweet Caroline' Royalties to Boston Charity
- Video: Neil Diamond Leads 'Sweet Caroline' Sing-Along at Fenway Park
This article originally appeared on Rolling Stone: Q&A: Neil Diamond on His New 'Freedom Song' and His Ultimate Baseball Dream