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It's late, and the sequined shirt has just been peeled off, and in the corner of the dressing room on the upper level of Bimbo's, one of the best Neil Diamond simulacra in the world is musing on, well, the shameof it all. "There is some," acknowledges Surreal Neil, aka Randy Cordero, aka Randy Cordeiro, a stocky, understated 39-year-old with short dark hair and sideburns that frame his head like quotation marks (it's the voice, not the look, that earns the "Surreal"). He's talking about San Francisco's inexplicably crowded tribute-band scene, in which Cordeiro's 12-year-old group, Super Diamond, is a sort of wealthy uncle. "I have some shame," he goes on, "just for what it's turned into. It's turned into a monster. It's almost embarrassing. ... When we started, we were the only band doing all somebody's music, the only band with a confetti cannon, the only band with a fog machine. Now we're just one of many. We used to be something unique."
This comes as a surprise, although a few days later, unsurprisingly, Cordeiro will backtrack a bit and blame this wistfulness on his being "hyped up after a show." Still, Surreal Neil, sitting here after another sold-out performance, seems to have a few doubts. Shame? One hardly expects shame, especially with a touch of self-loathing, from a guy making a living off the Neil Diamond songbook, that happy reserve of the most exuberant American schmaltz ever sighed into a microphone; even less from a frontman for a band that sits snug in a virtually impenetrable postmodern bunker: enough irony to draw the cool kids, enough rock to move the Sigma Chis, enough class to accommodate the corporate VPs between the ice sculptures, and more than enough Neil to swoon the housewives. Good times never seemed so good, and yet ...
"My heart bleeds for the original-music scene," says Cordeiro, who has an "original" band of his own, Tijuana Strip Club. "I'm into original music, I'm a fan of original music. I just don't have an interest in cover bands, really. This band, we started it as a fun little gimmicky thing that we didn't think would turn into what it did. It's a little sad that cover bands are doing so well, and original bands aren't. That's not anything against cover bands. I just think it's the easy way out for a lot of musicians."
So what do you do when you're Cordeiro and Super Diamond -- when the easy way out nets you just south of $1 million a year?
Super Diamond is six guys in sequins and funny haircuts providing, with a wink or two (but no more), what they like to call "The Alternative Neil Diamond Experience." On a recent Friday evening, said experience includes a Zeppelin riff dropped into "Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show" and a nod to Black Sabbath in "Holly Holy"; a clean pair of panties not so much tossed as handed up to the stage (sometime between "Song Sung Blue" and "Kentucky Woman"), then hung flaglike on the mike stand, then just as quickly reappropriated by the crowd; a directive from Cordeiro: "Whatever you do, don't let anyone tell you Neil Diamond doesn't rock!"; and the following question, posed down on the floor by one listing frat boy to another, apropos (apparently) of the music: "What are you laughing at, motherfucker? What are you laughing at?"
Tonight on the dance floor, under the flashing disco ball, there is much twirling of phantom lassoes and casting of imaginary fishing lines, and as the night wears on the swaying becomes more and more uneven. (Cordeiro later describes the band's San Francisco audiences as more of a "Marina crowd," one that bears little resemblance to the pre-Internet boom SOMA-types who'd frequent the band's early performances.) As Surreal Neil, Cordeiro nails the original's husky baritone, with all its famous melodrama. Throughout, he affects a sort of languid, post-coital stage manner that seems strangely apt, though one doesn't imagine Neil Diamond as post-coital (or coital, for that matter).
It's a great show, with all the required moves for a Neil Diamond tribute: a singalong "Song Sung Blue," an anthemic "America," a "Sweet Caroline" crooned to a roomful of waving Miller Lites. Listening to Super Diamond, you almost forget the painful earnestness and drippy, self-serious style of the real thing. Of course, that's partly the point: It's pastiche, but not quite parody, which seems to be the nature of much modern Neil Diamond fandom, or at least it has been ever since the day Diamond watched E.T.and decided to write "Heartlight" -- affectionate irony, let's call it. What are you laughing at, motherfucker?
"There are some people who think it's going to be real cheesy or lounge-y, and they come for the campy quality," says Cordeiro (who started going by Cordero for professional purposes after about the millionth transposition of the "i," on CNN no less). "We have plenty of campiness in the show -- if they come for that, they're gonna get some campiness. But we don't make fun or anything. We certainly have fun with the songs, changing them up. I think that's part of the reason we've done so well. We've taken it and really turned it upside down. We're not doing a straight-on tribute. From what I've seen, most straight-on tributes are boring. We make Neil's songs a lot more heavy, add a lot of alternative rock twists to it, or a lot of heavy rock twists -- a little Black Sabbath or AC/DC, stuff like that."
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