Rediscover is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that have flown under the radar and now deserve a second look.
Pete Seeger seems to be difficult to avoid lately. There’s been an album of Seeger covers by Bruce Springsteen and a lengthy biography of the man on PBS, ushering in yet another pledge drive. Then the 89 year-old himself appears on Letterman, attempting to goad the audience into a sing-along, raising his sails to catch the strong blowing wind of Obamania, performing a song about collectivism and optimism like only he knows how.
This could be part of why folk had a hard time staying in the public consciousness after its late ’50s/early ’60s heyday; it’s “gee-golly-can-do” attitude could only seem square after a while, to say nothing of it’s decidedly left-veering political connotations. This meant alienating up to half of a record label’s target demographic during the dawn of the Culture Wars and just after the ugly chapter of McCarthyism.
Lost in between the folk-revival shuffle and the youth culture explosion of the late ’60s was Fred Neil, a cigarette-smoking, heroin-shooting, blues-influenced singer-songwriter who shared not Seeger’s populist gumption nor the narcissism of later songwriter successes Paul Simon or James Taylor. Indeed, much of the often somber-faced Neil’s work is resonant with alienation and a desire to disconnect that Seeger might think a sin.
Most famous for penning Roy Orbison’s hit “Candy Man,” and the Midnight Cowboy theme “Everybody’s Talkin’,” made a success by Harry Nilsson, Neil released only two proper albums on his own, 1965’s Bleecker & MacDougal and his 1967 self-titled masterwork. The success of “Candy Man” endowed Neil with a steady stream of income early in his adult life and he evidently saw no reason to work if he didn’t have to. Starting with Bleecker & MacDougal’s “The Other Side of this Life,” Neil was writing songs about cutting off “normal” life and from relationships, heading somewhere sunny.
On Fred Neil, his urban frustration sounds as if it reached critical mass, almost like a goodbye note to the cultural landscape of the turbulent ’60s from someone unwilling to fight through it. Introducing the record’s musical vocabulary, “Dolphins” is the first track, Neil sounding as if he’s already at sea, away from land and its constraints, amid rippling, tremolo-ed electric guitar, gentle acoustic strums, bass and jazzy drums. “This old world may never change…,” Neil sings, “And all the ways of war/ Can’t change it back again/ I’ve been searching/ For the dolphins/ In the sea.” Neil has no desire to get caught up in wars, be they social or military, longing instead to follow his own muse beneath the waves. Perhaps already off without a goodbye, Neil “wonders/ Do you ever/ Think of me?”
On his cover of Elizabeth Cotten’s “I’ve Got a Secret (Didn’t We Shake, Sugaree?)” we hear a let-down Neil sing of getting screwed over by some co-conspirator, everything he had now “down in pawn.” This aching track is made by Neil’s voice, an almost paternal, immense bass. Hearing “I’d-a sold myself/ But I felt ashamed” out of another mouth would just be a line of a song. Out of the mouth of Neil, it sounds like a sheepish admission by someone who should know better. “That’s the Bag I’m In” cuts the melancholia with some levity, turning every small personal setback into a joke of a huge defeat.
In “Ba-De-Da,” covered expertly 30 years later by Mark Lanegan, Neil is unable to keep up with the demands of city life, with “[those] old city lights/ They keep burnin’ bright” while he tries in vain to get some sleep. The gentle “Faretheewell (Fred’s Tune)” is a goodbye to a lover, referencing the dove that came to fly around Noah’s ark, showing that Neil is hopeful about the change he needs to make. This leads into “Everybody’s Talkin'” which can’t help but sound tackily sentimental from any other performer but Neil. Peoples mouths keep running and they keep asking questions; regardless of whether they’re friendly or hostile, all Fred can do is think of where he’d rather be. “I’m going to where the sun keeps shining” he sings, “through the pouring rain/ Going to where the weather suits my clothes.” He hopes to have made an impression, sighing “but I won’t let you leave my love behind” into the wind as the song fades out.
And Neil meant every word of it. He eventually left Greenwich Village for Woodstock and then disappeared to Coconut Grove, Florida, where he lived the rest of his life. On the record’s cover, he is photographed clutching an angry-looking little girl to his breast, perhaps a final comforting gesture to the next generation of singer-songwriters that had axes to grind and ideological battles to be fought. Neil evidently had no heart for it.
Richie Havens wrote that Neil was able to kick his heroin habit in Florida, possibly affording himself some peace amongst the palm trees. Anything he recorded in the ’70s was long ago locked away in vaults and he almost never performed until his death of skin cancer in 2001. Friends reported that Neil was so shy that getting to the grocery store was a personal trial. After music, Neil followed his own muse and founded the Dolphin Project in the ’70s, a non-profit that attempted to stop “the capture, trafficking, and exploitation of dolphins worldwide.” Any performances he gave were strictly benefits for the group. After an inexplicably lengthy absence in-print, Capitol reissued Fred Neil in 2006.
by Chris Middleman