Song Sung Blue

Making music has allowed Randy Cordeiro to quit his job, travel the world, and buy a nice car. If only it were his music that Randy Cordeiro was making.

Today, I'm sitting with Cordeiro in the basement of the bright, three-story loft he shares with his fiancee, Kris. He lives on the fringe of San Francisco, at the intersection of Potrero Hill and Dogpatch, an odd neighborhood that the city refers to as the Central Waterfront District. The room is paneled in a pleasant blond wood, with guitars mounted evenly along one wall the way a doctor might hang his diplomas. It's a long way here from acoustic night at a Tempe, Ariz., club, where 15 years ago, Cordeiro's explaining, Surreal Neil was born.

"Everyone's seen guys on acoustic guitars," he says, "and they all do the same songs: 'Me and You and a Dog Named Boo,' 'American Pie,' or whatever. So I just thought, 'Neil Diamond -- I grew up with him, I can do his voice.'" Cordeiro was an engineer at the time and just beginning to rediscover Diamond, a boyhood favorite whose greatest-hits eight-track had long ago been shoved to the back of the drawer. At the Tempe club, which favored punk and alternative bands, he'd run through some of his own material, then throw in a little Diamond.

"I thought people would probably boo me," he says. "That's kind of why I did it -- 'They probably won't like this, but I'm gonna do it because Neil Diamond's got some great tunes. People are programmed to think they hate him, but deep down they'll know it's a good song.' But it was the total opposite. People loved it. It'd just bring the house down." (Imagine that: There once was a day when doing a Neil Diamond song was a punk rock gesture -- a fat middle finger to the audience. Today, the same thing in a similar crowd would just be another of music's many arch circle jerks.)

Soon he was working parties as an ersatz Diamond, and after moving to San Francisco, Cordeiro, who grew up in Humboldt County, managed to find enough like-minded people to form a band in 1993. "Retro was kind of big, disco was having a big comeback," he says, not to mention irony was becoming the predominant cultural mode. Early on, Super Diamond drew a more artsy crowd -- "A pierced, tattooed crowd," Cordeiro says -- and the band's audience shifted over the '90s as San Francisco evolved. Artist types gave way to dot-commers ("It got really obnoxious there for a while. They had a lot of money, and there was a lot of drunkenness and a lot of butt-grabbing in the crowd") who begat today's Marina-heavy crowd.

Whatever its makeup, the band's audience was always game. "The panties started right away," Cordeiro says, acknowledging that perhaps the women were thinking of another graying singer in tight pants. Super Diamond's bass player would throw the panties into the fog machine's box. "After a while," Cordeiro recalls, "it started getting really full with undergarments. I don't know what he did with them."

The venues got bigger -- Paradise Lounge, Slim's, Bimbo's, House of Blues -- and the musicians' success began to build on itself; they started touring nationally. Eventually, the late Vince Charles, Neil Diamond's longtime percussionist, caught wind of the group and would sit in anytime Diamond wasn't touring. Soon, a meeting with the man himself was arranged, and one night, before a Super Diamond show at the House of Blues in Hollywood, Cordeiro finally shook Diamond's hand.

"Thank you for doing what you're doing," Diamond said.

"Thank you for not suing us," Cordeiro replied.

Diamond watched the show from a private table on the balcony, where he was seated next to Cordeiro's then-girlfriend. From time to time he'd tap her on the shoulder and say, "I love that" or "That's great." For the encore, he made his way down to the stage and joined the band for "I Am ... I Said," which he had to howl through the audience's shrieks. "At the end of the reprise," Cordeiro says with a laugh, "Erik [the band's guitarist] does the Journey 'Who's Crying Now' solo, and it's hilarious, 'cause Neil's singing the song and he has no idea we're adding a little bit of Journey on top of it." Cordeiro looked at Erik and mouthed, "No," and the solo cut off. "I was thinking, 'No, Erik, not when Neil's onstage.' Now I'm thinking, 'Why did I tell him to stop?'"

It was a kind of nexus. "Afterward, it was like, 'Well, there's nothing we can look forward to now,'" Cordeiro says. "When you do a tribute show and they come out to sing with you, that's the ultimate."

Today, the band typically commands anywhere from $8,000 to $12,000 per gig, sometimes up to $20,000, corporate shows being the most lucrative (Microsoft once booked Super Diamond alongside Cheap Trick); by 1998, Super Diamond was making enough money that Cordeiro could afford to quit his full-time job, as a mechanical engineer. "We make great money and a great living and I do better than I did as an engineer," he says. He's making his way to the car now, padding through his building's garage. "But it was an accident," he says as climbs into a big black Honda CR-V. "It was just, like, 'Wow.'"

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