The latest post in this series looks at the life and career of an enigmatic and influential figure who shunned fame and instead devoted much of his life to the conservation of his favourite animal.
Some musicians seek fame but never find it, others have fame thrust reluctantly upon them; others sail within touching distance of lasting recognition only to have it snatched away by fate or circumstance. And then you have musicians who neither seek nor find it, and for whom the only thing that matters is the music, and who see fame for the fickle and empty mistress it is. Fred Neil is one of those.
Even his most famous song, Everybody’s Talkin’ – which became a big hit for Harry Nillson in 1969 – openly rejects any notions of recognition, and is an ode to isolation and alienation. “Everybody’s talkin’, but I can’t hear a word they’re sayin’, only the echoes of my mind” he sings in his rich baritone “I’m goin’ where the sun is shining, through the pouring rain… skipping over the ocean like a stone”. This is not a song written by a man who craves the attention of others, quite the opposite in fact. It seems ironic that it is largely responsible for the modest level of fame he achieved.
Fred Neil was born on March 16th 1936 in Cleveland, Ohio, spending much of his childhood growing up in St. Petersburg, Florida, although he also got to travel around plenty with his father, who worked as a salesman for Wurlitzer jukeboxes. Once he became an adult he wound up in Memphis, and then New York, where he started working in the legendary Brill Building as a songwriter, composing songs for Buddy Holly (1958’s ‘Come Back Baby’) and Roy Orbison (‘Candy Man’ from 1961) amongst others. During this time he also recorded as a rockabilly artist for various small labels, achieving nothing close to a hit. And whilst some of these early records are enjoyable enough they are, in truth, unexceptional for the time. They are also the sound of a singer who hadn’t quite found himself yet, with his voice too often straying in to Elvis-alike tremors and swoops which were fast becoming a cliche even at that time.
It was in the early 60’s that Neil really blossomed. Inspired at least in part by his personal and musical acquaintance with a young Bob Dylan, his songwriting started to become more poetic and adventurous. In the only interview it seems he ever gave, for Hit Parader magazine in 1966, he would acknowledge the impact Dylan made on him, and others, saying “Bob Dylan sort of put the charger in everyone on the folk scene and got them going”. The feeling was mutual, and Dylan, who played harmonica with Neil quite regularly at one point, was known to hold Neil in the highest regard. In 1961 he met folk singer Vince Martin and the two started performing together, an association which eventully produced the 1965 album Tear Down The Walls, which sees Neil’s baritone and Martin’s tenor weave their way around a set of folk songs which exhibit an occasionally blues-y feel and clearly point the way forward for Neil.
The same year he released his solo debut Bleecker and MacDougal, named after the intersection of two streets which which were central to the Greenwich Village folk scene. Neil is featured on the cover standing at the intersection opposite the San Remo Cafe, known as a popular hangout over previous years for the likes of Ginsberg, Kerouac, Dylan Thomas, Jackson Pollock, and many other Bohemian types. The album itself took the folk-blues thing a step further, and features bass, electric guitar, and harmonica playing from a young John Sebastian, and features ‘Blues On The Ceiling’ and ‘Other Side To This Life’, both to become much covered songs, the latter most prominently by Jefferson Airplane who made it a staple of their live sets. It also features the beautiful ‘Little Bit Of Rain’, one of his very best songs.
It was on his next album though, called simply Fred Neil and released in December 1966, that he would really find his artistic voice. Containing some of his best songs, and with his vocals more confident and adventurous than ever, this feels like the album Neil was born to make, the fulcrum of his talents as a songwriter and musician. It starts with a song called ‘The Dolphins’, a song which must have seemed very enigmatic at the time but would reveal it’s significance in due course, and contains the aforementioned ‘Everybody’s Talkin”. It also features ‘Sweet Cocaine’, a song about a subject close to his heart at the time. This is a heartfelt, impressionistic album, where more than ever that rich, dark baritone of his is the star of the show.
As good as the album was, sales were modest, and it wasn’t until Harry Nillson covered ‘Everybody’s Talkin” for the soundtrack of the 1969 film Midnight Cowboy, and promptly reached the top ten with it, that Neil’s name started to become a little more familiar. By this time Neil had released one more album, the rather scrappy Sessions, and become involved to the exclusion of much else with The Dolphin Project.
Founded with Ric O’Barry, a former dolphin trainer who had worked on the classic Flipper television series, the project campaigned against keeping dolphins in captivity and for greater awareness of dolphin intelligence, as well as funding research. Neil’s song, written some 5 years before, was written at the beginning of a lifelong fascination with the creatures that from the 1970’s onward would become a passion which would leave little time for anything but very occasional live performances, usually at a benefit gig of some kind, and a number of times for the Dolphin Project itself. His last meaningful gig was at the Montreaux Jazz Festival in 1975, reunited with most of his old band (including John Sebastian) but by the end of the decade he had all-but retired from music.
Fred Neil devoted the rest of his life to dolphins, and eschewed any kind of fame or recognition. For Neil, that was never even the point – the point was to live with passion, doing what drives you. Initially that was playing and writing music, later it became something else, but he always followed where his heart told him to go. Neil died of cancer in 2001. He was 65 years old.
“He showed me where to eat, where not to go, how to roll a proper joint, where to get guitar strings,” David Crosby once said of Neil, whom he met in Greenwich Village in 1961. “He taught me a sizable chunk of what music was about, and even more about the whys and wherefores of being a musician. He was a hero to me.” High praise indeed, and indeed it’s hard to read about the history of Greenwich Village without encountering Neil. He was right at the centre of this special time in the history of American music, and whilst his light has been outshone by the likes of Crosby, Dylan, John Sebastian et al in the decades since there is no doubting his importance and influence.