NEIL DIAMOND: Collaboration Works on “Moon”

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This article was originally published in the May/June 1996 issue of American Songwriter.

It’s not often that a songwriter gets to write with the person who influenced his being in the music business, but such was the case for several of the songwriters who wrote with Neil Diamond for his latest album, Tennessee Moon. Aside from that, the most often made comment on all sides was how comfortable it was when the people go together to write.

“Neil Diamond and James Taylor were the two biggest influences on my music early on,” acknowledges Stewart Harris, who is the co-writer on “Open Wide These Prison Doors.” He met Neil at a luncheon in Nashville, and as soon as the formalities of the event were over, he went to Neil and said, “I want to get booked with you right away to write…I think it was three weeks from that time (that they wrote). I had some ideas floating around in my head. I didn’t want to go in there dry because opportunities like that don’t come along every day. I went out to his house…we were just sitting around his kitchen table and it was so comfortable.”

The two go together again to “dust the lyrics,” as Harris puts it. “Even in the studio we looked at the lyrics again before he did the final version. Neil will go back again and again and again until he’s certain it’s right. As a writer I’m not one for re-writing a lot, but we had a couple of optional lines and we looked at them and were real tickled with the end product.”

Bob DiPiero and Neil were together in several social situations before they actually sat down to write.

“The first day we wrote he came downstairs with this beautiful old classical nylon string guitar, and he said, ‘Why don’t you write on it?’ After we wrote “Gold Don’t Rust” he said ‘I’ve had that guitar since 1964 and you just wrote a great song on it, why don’t you just keep it.’ That night I brought the guitar home and showed it to Pam (Tillis, his wife), and told her about it, and we wrote “It’s Lonely Out There” on that guitar.”

DiPiero said he psyched himself up not to be intimidated when writing with Neil. “I was intimidated as much as honored. Like a lot of people. I’m a big fan of many of his songs. Especially when he’s sitting there, and you’re hearing his voice warming up, and when he started really singing, it’s pretty shocking to hear that voice coming across the table from you.”

DiPiero says the fact that the two didn’t really know each other before they sat down to write didn’t bother him. “Personally, for me it’s not so hard to write with someone that I don’t really know. If we both want to do it, it’s like a kindred spirit,” he explains. “There’s always the initial part of kibitzing and shooting the breeze – you’re always dancing around the actual mechanics of writing the songs, but somehow you just kind of fall into it. It really helps if the person you are writing with is a nice guy.

“I wasn’t really sure what he was going for, and I had reservations that he was just jumping on the bandwagon. But writing with Neil Diamond was like writing with any great writer. He’s as good as any of the folks I write with, and all in all it was a very natural experience in a very unnatural setting.”

Bill LaBounty only lived a mile from the house that Neil rented while he was in Nashville, so he went over and picked the singer up one morning and they went to LaBounty’s home studio where they wrote “Can Anybody Hear Me.”

“Writing with Neil I knew would be a learning experience,” LaBounty admits. “There are those flashes when you work with a real performing songwriter like Neil – you will see a performance, you see the song being created by this artist, and it was a fun thing.

“A lot of times, especially collaboratively, both writers are pensive in their thinking and there’s dead air and dead space when people are trying to form their thoughts into words. There was that with Neil, but there were points when you could see him performing the song in his mind.

“We started with music that we both liked. I was hesitant at first to say maybe this is the way the lyric ought to go. I really didn’t understand what he was doing with the lyric until we had finished the song and he was performing it. He truly is a performing songwriter. From the beginning he was someone I respected, but by the end of it I really became a Neil Diamond fan.”

Dennis Morgan landed the title cut on the album. He says he had the chorus of the song written the day before their scheduled writing session because he had been thinking about why Neil was in Nashville and about the overall concept of the project. Once they got together, they wrote the song in less than an hour.

Neil says the song was very much autobiographical. “The first verse lays it out pretty clearly that I wasn’t finding stimulation or the incentive to write in Los Angeles that I had had at one time.”

“The text of the verse was more his story,” Morgan says. “It was a beautiful combination – what a great guy to work with. I know that he’s a true songwriter, and true songwriters never quit learning. They’re antenna is always up. If you’re gonna do it, you’ve go to keep expanding, and if you get in a slump, others will help you get out of it. I think he was ready to respond to a group of songwriters like he met in Nashville, and he rose to the occasion. I think we all did too; it was a mutual thing.”

Tom Shapiro says he had the melody for “Marry Me,” and Neil says it was an idea he’d had for 15 years but couldn’t find the right melody and the right setting for it.

“Neil and I got together before we actually sat down to write to just get to know each other. But when I went over for the first writing session I was too nervous to write because he was such a hero of mine. So we just talked about the album and what he was doing, about his life, and then a month later we got together again to write. I’m used to writing with someone I don’t know, but in this case he was bigger than life, and I just wasn’t prepared. Once we started writing, it was natural – very give and take, very much like any other writing processes. I enjoyed writing with him. He was great to write with – he’s a great writer.”

Though an acknowledged great writer, Neil doesn’t take his talent for granted. “First of all, writing is the hardest thing that I do – a lot harder than concerts, a lot harder than recording – and so it’s not something that I can take on half-heartedly. You have to throw yourself into it fully,” Neil says. Because his last couple of albums didn’t require any new songs from him, he says it gave him time to relax and pull back from writing for awhile.

“I was able to enter into this project with the enthusiasm for the writing process again. And the fact that I was writing with so many new and talented people kept me on my toes. I think the chemistry of it all worked well.”

Neil admits that the way he wrote in Nashville, with scheduled writing sessions planned weeks in advance, was a bit different for him. But, he says, “I’ve written songs everywhere, from the back of limos to hotel rooms and buses and planes. I’ve written some of my biggest songs knowing that I had to have the lyrics finished when I landed. I started one flight with nothing and landed with “Brother

Love’s Traveling Salvation Show” – and it’s not that long a flight from New York to Memphis, so you have to write pretty quick!

“I think one of the reasons this worked out so well was that these writers and I were somehow able to cast aside any fear, which is the first thing you have to cast aside when you’re beginning to write and create something, (that) fear of it not being any good. They had enough confidence, and I had enough confidence, to go with our instincts and pretty much in each case there was the beginning idea and eventually a song written between the combination co-writer and myself. Part of that had to do with experience. They were all very experienced writers, with the exception of my son Jesse, which was an interesting experience in itself, and maybe someday I’ll write a book about it!

“But the methods don’t change. There is no method. Any way you can do it, that’s how you do it. This way worked this time, and thank God it did because we had no idea whether it would and whether we’d come up with anything worthwhile at all.”

This was the first time Neil had written with Jesse, and he says any problems the two might have had were “attributable to his newness as a writer and the fact that he had to learn very quickly in writing with me that he had to accept criticism of his work. That is one of the things a writer must do. He must learn to be very critical of his work. I think Jesse learned a little bit about that in his experience of writing with me.

“His innocence and his music really inspired this song. He is innocent and pure as a youngster; he’s my age when I had “Solitary Man.” The combination of father and son – and then you throw in the great depth of love and affection between us – it turned out to be one of the most wonderful experiences in my creative life. I don’t know if I can put words to it, but there was something very spiritual about it, some kind of rite of passage, me having the opportunity to pass along my own knowledge and be open about learning from his innocence and his purity and his sensibility. It was a wonderful experience.”

It was also interesting for Neil to watch how other writers approached their craft. “You can pick up little things from other writers. Every writer has their own little thing, their own little idiosyncrasies. I found it interesting to write with 20 writers over a period of months to see how they approached a song. Harlan Howard came to the session with a bunch of cocktail napkins with bunches of song titles, ideas and verses written on them.

“I can’t say I picked up any new techniques in writing, but I am a songwriter and have been since I was 17 – I feel a special kinship with other writers – I enjoy the experience of seeing how these other people get this music out of them. It’s so individual, there are no rules, you know. You do it any way you can.”

The reason Neil came to Nashville was the talent and the writers, plus the fact that he has always wanted to experience that city. “Now was the time. I had the year, I had no concert commitments, and I just jumped in with both feet and tried to swim as fast as I could and hope for the best. It was one of the great experiences for me as a writer and as an artist. I learned a lot from these people.”

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