The first time Randy Cordero covered a Neil Diamond song, he did it as a lark, never dreaming that it would become his full time job for the next 20 years. "In 1988, I was the singer and songwriter of a regular rock band," Cordero recalls. "Sometimes I'd do open mics, playing my own songs solo, with an acoustic guitar. One night, at a club that drew a lot of punks and alternative music types, I dropped 'Sweet Caroline' into the set. I didn't think I'd get a response, except maybe to piss people off. Everybody loved it. I did it again at the next open mic and it kind of snowballed from there." Cordero did his Diamond impression with his acoustic guitar for a few years as Surreal Neil, and the reaction was always positive. In 1993, he put together Super Diamond, a full-on rock band, and they've been going strong ever since. They're still one of the top draws at Bay Area clubs, not to mention the casinos of Las Vegas, and making a comfortable living. Ahead of the band's 20th anniversary show at Bimbo's 365 Club tonight, we spoke with Cordero about how Super Diamond came to be, his approach to interpreting Neil Diamond's songs, and the time Diamond himself unexpectedly came out onstage.
Were you surprised Super Diamond took off?
Yeah. It was a just side project, done for fun and to please my parents. It turned into a gig that let me quit my day job and make a living playing music. We've traveled all over the country and Neil Diamond has sung with us twice. The first time was at the House of Blues in Hollywood. He was backstage before the show and we were chatting. I asked him if he'd like to sing a song with us, assuming he'd say no, but he said yes. He looked at our set list and chose "I Am...I Said." That was the song we usually did as an encore. I'd walk off stage and the band would keep playing, then I'd come back on. That night, Diamond walked up behind me and the house went crazy. It took five minutes before it was quiet enough for us to start playing again. We have a video of that night up on You Tube, but not of him singing, just the fans reaching out and touching him.
Has he given you any tunes he hasn't done for you to cover?
Like he did for the Monkees? No, never. I don't think it would come into his mind. That first time, he had a new album coming out -- 12 Songs -- produced by Rick Rubin. I remember him telling me about the new songs and saying we should play them, but we never did. Part of the whole thing with me, and the other guys, is the nostalgia. I loved the old songs and the memories they evoke, because it was the music my parents got me into. They bought me a stereo system when I was 12 and gave me some 8-track tapes that I still remember sticking out of the top of the stocking on Christmas morning. Neil Diamond: His 12 Greatest Hits. I wasn't buying my own music yet, so I listened to what they got me. The Neil Diamond was my favorite by far.
Do you naturally sound like Diamond or do you do an impression?
I tweak my voice to do it. Neil has several voices. In the earlier years, he used a voice that was different from the voice of the '80s and his voice on the studio albums sounds different than the way he does live. I do my impression of my favorite things about his voice and leave out the things I don't like.
How did the band, and the show, develop?
I was asked to do a party dressed up like Diamond, and I asked them to bill me as Surreal Neil, so I could do a tongue-in-cheek alt-rock take on the songs. I didn't want to be introduced as Neil Diamond. I didn't want to be an impersonator, but an interpreter. I don't try to act like him way the Vegas guys do. Our take was similar to Dread Zeppelin, a band that was fronted by an Elvis impersonator and played Led Zeppelin tunes with a reggae beat. We do our interpretation of Diamond's tunes. Some songs are completely redone; we'll make a ballad into a punk rock song. We'll do a tune and drop in quotes from Black Sabbath, or AC/DC, or the other bands I loved as a kid. We also do a lot of mash-ups. We incorporate Guns 'n' Roses' "Sweet Child of Mine" with "Sweet Caroline" or mash up of "Desiree" with "Long Time" by Boston. We don't cover other bands by themselves, but we'll drop them into the Neil Diamond songs. You'll hear some Rush or Van Halen, all the fun music from my childhood, mixed together with the Neil Diamond stuff. Luckily, there's an audience for it.
You also had your own band, Tijuana Strip Club, for a while. How'd you manage that?
It was the same guys from Super Diamond and we'd open shows for ourselves, then come back and headline. That band has been put to rest, but I am writing stuff for an original project that will be out soon. My original songs are more alt-rock and country, a cross between Wilco and Johnny Cash. In my own bands, I've never sounded like Neil Diamond, ever.
Super Diamond performs tonight, Friday, April 26, at Bimbo's 365 Club. 9 p.m., $22; www.bimbos365club.com.