"Shilo" was a song that Neil Diamond had to live in order to write. That's either the saddest -- or the most joyous -- thing about it, depending upon one's outlook; if "Solitary Man" hinted at lifelong alienation and isolation, "Shilo" tells of the cost of that solitude and loneliness during childhood, and of solutions, stop-gap and otherwise. For those with short memories, or who were born after 1966, before he was a symphonic pop singer Neil Diamond was a rock 'n roller with a special talent for songwriting, a New York City songsmith of the same generation as Carole King and Paul Simon -- essentially part of that same generation of fully musically (and verbally) literate white rock 'n' rollers that included such slightly older figures as Dion DiMucci and Al Kooper; he's unique among them, a more natural performer than Simon or Klein, and more of a "star" personality than Kooper, and without any of the internal demons that hounded Dion. He wrote his share of hits for others, most visibly the Monkees, to whom (or, more properly, to whose producers) he provided their defacto signature tune, "I'm A Believer". "Shilo" was the other side of his early composing, a brilliant, quirky, initially mysterious song, hauntingly beautiful at times yet too personal to seemingly ever attract an audience, or so it seemed to some people in 1967. Unlike "Solitary Man", which dealt with isolation in a way that was accessible for the audience, "Shilo" came from, and seemed to be sung from a place that was so personal, that it was difficult to imagine any radio station playing it or listeners wanting to buy it as a 45. Which is how there came to be at least four studio versions of "Shilo" in existence. . . .
Neil Diamond was signed in the mid-1960's to Bang Records, which was an offshoot of Atlantic Records, run by and organized around Bert Berns, a New York-based producer -- the company's name came from the first names of the partners, Bert Berns, Ahmet Ertegun, Nesuhi Ertegeun, and Jerry -- as in Gerald -- Wexler. Diamond had done well there, enjoying hits with "Solitary Man", "Kentucky Woman", "Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon", and "Cherry Cherry", and had recorded "Shilo" in 1967, produced by Diamond's Brill Building colleagues, pop-composer legends Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. But Berns refused to release "Shilo" as a single, believing it was too different from anything that he'd previously recorded to ever succeed. This hurt Diamond personally and wrecked his relationship with the label. Still, that would have been meaningless in practical terms if Berns had not died of a heart attack on the last day of the year 1967 -- and suddenly, Diamond, who wanted to leave, found himself a free agent, thanks to a clause in his contract that nullified it if Berns were no longer connected with the company. Within weeks, he had moved to Uni Records, which gave him a degree of artistic freedom that few musicians enjoyed in those days at the outset of their careers.
Flash forward a year to the late spring of 1969, and Diamond is suddenly dominating the airwaves with "Sweet Caroline", his first million seller and a number four hit; he'd begun working with new musicians, especially at Chips Moman's American Studios in Memphis. Meanwhile, Bang Records began reissuing Diamond's earlier singles and repackaging his LPs, and it was in possession of the still-unreleased song over which the singer had left the label, and getting the idea that it had some value after all. In 1969, Bang suddenly issued the 1967 version of "Shilo", then withdrew that single and went into American Studios and, using a lot of the same musicians that Diamond used on his Uni sides, completely reshaped the sound on Diamond's original recording of "Shilo", recutting the instrumental backing behind his now two-year-old voice track so that the song now sounded a lot like his recent material. The partly re-recorded Bang single, issued in 1970, reached number 25 and, to complicate matters even further, the label -- which had already compiled all of Diamond's hits on an album -- issued an LP called Shilo, made up of the new hit plus previously issued material. Faced with this "competition" from his former label, Diamond went back into the studio with producer Tom Catalano and cut yet another version of "Shilo", this time with a quicker tempo, a tighter arrangement, and a bolder, if slightly less expressive vocal. Uni put it onto an already existing album, Velvet Gloves And Spit, deleting the latter and reissuing it in October of 1970 with the extra song leading off the second side and its presence emblazoned on the redesigned front cover along with the two previous singles off the LP. Ironically, both labels had packaged the song on albums consisting, otherwise, of previously issued material, though the Uni release had the edge in terms of relative freshness, and "Shilo" fitting in a bit better alongside "Two-Bit Manchild" and "Brooklyn Roads".
The Uni Records studio version of the song has been available consistently since 1970 on various anthologies and compilations, and was joined by a live version on the album Hot August Night. The Bang Records version's story is more complicated, owing the the fact that the label's recordings were licensed out to other companies and all eventually ended up in the hands of Columbia Records aka Sony Music (which, to tie the whole matter up, has been Diamond's label since 1973) -- the organization of the Bang Records tape library is anyone's guess, but one of the oddities about it was revealed when the 12-track Neil Diamond collection Classics: The Early Years was issued in 1983, containing a version of "Shilo" running three minutes and 50 seconds, that was different from the three prior releases; that cut is leaner and presents the electric guitar a little more prominently than the piano, and has an acoustic rhythm guitar present all the way through, and an elegant acoustic guitar flourish over a line that is also different from all of the other versions, "'Til a young girl with fire/made me trust somebody else"; there's also beautiful call and response between the piano, orchestra, and the electric guitar on the break.
The Bang and Uni versions of Shilo as represented on In My Lifetime and Glory Road, respectively, are different from the version on Classics: The Early Years, yet all are equally attractive, with some fascinating variations in text and arrangement. The final Bang Records' single, on In My Lifetime, runs nearly three and a half minutes and is a bit more dramatic, as well as done at a slower tempo that makes it sound more introspective. Opening with a guitar arpeggio, pulsing bass, and a piano, with electric rhythm guitar and drums in the background, and the piano fairly far forward in the mix, Diamond comes in with a voice that exudes remembered childhood angst and loneliness, singing of friends he couldn't find and the one he created, named "Shilo." A second verse, sung with almost wrenching joy, tells of a "young girl with fire" -- the chorus is presented with such intimacy, that one gets the feeling of having intruded on a dialogue within himself. A short break on the strings, piano, and drums with rhythm guitar leads back to the last verse, which tells of being abandoned once more. On a final melodramatic touch, the singer calls the name "Shilo" as the song fades.
The Uni version -- which appears on the Glory Road compilation and was on the Velvet Gloves And Spit CD (out-of-print as of 2003) -- clocks in at just under three minutes. It starts off bolder, with bass and quick tempo cymbals, and picks up a faster beat as the electric rhythm guitar comes in, followed by more guitars and the singer, Diamond sounding much stronger here as a vocalist but not quite as angst-ridden on the lines "young child with dreams/dream every dream of your own" and "papa says he'd love to be with you/if he had the time" -- with electric guitar, bass, and drums keeping a quick pace, backed by Lee Holdridge's restrained string arrangements, Diamond achieves a dignified exultation telling of his imaginary friend. Greater expressiveness appears on the second verse, "Young girl with fire/something said she understood/I wanted to fly/she made me feel like I could" -- the electric rhythm guitar embellishment under the line "I wanted to fly" is a magnificent touch, a great hook that pull the listener into the depth of the lyric. After a verse depicting exultation, he returns to the lines depicting abandonment, with a bolder performance that is less downcast than the Bang rendition. There is a fade-out with no call of the name "Shilo."
According to Diamond, this song, which wasn't wanted by his original record company, and then was wanted so much that two (or more) versions ended up in distribution, has been a favorite of his fans for more than three decades; it's also represented in live renditions on his current label. It's a rare example of a professional composer and musician caught in a uniquely personal moment -- even Diamond admits that it invites serious psychological interpretation. It's an attractive song but, because of its lyrics, impossible to imagine being covered by anyone else, which it never has been.