Fred Neil: Lost Child in a World of Sorrow

(originally appeared in Shindig! issue #63)

Fred Neil’s ‘The Dolphins’ grabs the listener from its first notes, just because it sounds so very different. The echoing acoustic and electric guitars shimmer like light reflecting off rolling ocean waves, and Neil’s dynamic, resonant baritone voice ebbs and flows like the tide.  ‘The Dolphins’ doesn’t sound like the other songs on the same album; it doesn’t even sound like what other artists were doing in the same era. More than one commentator has described ‘The Dolphins’ as a perfect song, or something very close to it.

With that level of critical esteem, it’s more than surprising that Neil’s music, so well-regarded in its time, is now not widely known. That might be because his recording career was relatively short. He made only five albums between ’65 and ‘71, and then essentially walked away from the music industry; he may be most familiar to contemporary audiences as the writer of Harry Nilsson’s ’69 hit ‘Everybody’s Talkin’’. Neil also kept a deliberately low profile during and after his musical career, right up until he passed away in 2001. He was generous, he was kind to his acquaintances, he was humble, but he was also very private. Ric O’Barry, his friend for nearly 40 years, says, “I probably knew him better than anybody, and he was still a mystery to me. I didn’t know much about him and he didn’t talk much.”

But those who had the privilege of being his friend agree that ‘The Dolphins’ may be the song that is Fred Neil. Peter Childs, who played guitar on the song, describes ‘The Dolphins’ as “one of the purest expressions of who he really was.” O’Barry says, “It’s a beautiful song, it’s from the heart, and if you really want to know who Fred was, you just have to listen to his songs.”

Neil’s life and musical career was threaded through with a theme of constant movement, both geographical and emotional. Born in 1936 in the evocatively-named Treasure Island, a community near St. Petersburg in Florida, he traveled around the US with his family as a child, learning guitar by playing along with the records in the Wurlitzer jukeboxes his father sold. He had some early success as a songwriter, placing tunes with Roy Orbison (‘Candy Man’) and Buddy Holly (‘Come Back Baby’). But when he moved to New York City in the early ‘60s, he became deeply involved in blues music, and then with the folk music scene developing around the clubs in Greenwich Village.

Neil suffered from terrible stage fright, and would play live only when his financial circumstances forced him to do so. But he was worshiped by his musical peers. According to O’Barry, “the East Village was the centre of the musical pop universe. That’s where it all happened, and Fred was the guy. He was the main guy there. He was the big draw. People on Broadway in their spare time would come into the Village to hear Fred. Harry Belafonte, Barbra Streisand, everybody. He was that kind of talent.”

Childs, who met Neil and began playing with him around ‘61, says that “any of the folk musicians at the time had heard about Freddie.” Neil was known not only for his musicality and creativity, but also for the unique way that he looked at the world. “One time,” Childs says, “Fred plucked at my sleeve and said, you know, what if Gabriel’s horn is the echo of the Word? Fred had a depth to him spiritually and, you might say, intellectually, although he didn’t spend a lot of time the way I always have intellectualizing things. But they were there.”

Neil’s fellow musicians in Greenwich Village came to realize that while Neil was hugely talented, he was also very fragile. The word that comes up over and over again in descriptions of him is “sensitive” – not only in the sense of being easily offended or hurt, but also in being acutely attuned to the sounds around him. Childs remembers that “in my apartment that I shared with Johnny Sebastian in Greenwich Village, Fred and I used to sit on the floor of that apartment late, late at night, and tune our guitars to the predominant note of the New York evening. There were always several to choose from, and one was always predominant. And we would take our guitars and tune them to that same note. But we would tune our strings just a little bit different, thus establishing a beat frequency. And that was what we were listening to. And furthermore, when we were discussing it, we realized that if you could control that with a tuning peg, control it accurately enough, you could vary that beat frequency and establish a code. And you could sit there and converse and nobody would be thinking there was nothing going on except two nuts playing around. Now that’s how sensitive Fred was.”

Like many of his Greenwich Village friends, Neil frequently traveled between New York City and Coconut Grove in Florida. O’Barry describes Coconut Grove at that time as “a very small town, a fascinating place – an artist’s colony.”  Performers such as Joni Mitchell, Stephen Stills, David Crosby, and John Sebastian (who wrote the Lovin’ Spoonful’s song ‘Coconut Grove’) regularly played at the Gaslight club in the Grove. “All of them started coming to the Grove because that’s where Fred was. A lot of them ended up staying there. They were all Fred Neil fans, he opened the door for so many people like that.”

O’Barry was then working as a dolphin and orca trainer at the Seaquarium in nearby Miami, and became acquainted with Neil after seeing him perform at the Gaslight. He remembers Neil “asking the [club owners] to turn the lights down so there wasn’t any lights on him. He sat on that stool and he’d be – not completely in the dark, but he did not like the spotlight.” And it was through meeting O’Barry that Neil became fascinated with dolphins. “I had my own part of the Seaquarium where the public was not allowed in. Fred would come in the back gate with his 12-string guitar, and he would hang out with the dolphins all day long back there. Sometimes he’d have his head under water, standing there and singing, trying to communicate with them. And there was one particular dolphin, Kathy, he bonded with. I would give him access to the dolphins knowing that he was serious about this idea of interspecies communication. And I remember Kathy coming up on the pad, there was a pad floating on the water that you could sit on, at water level, and he’d be playing the D chord in open tuning, trying different things, and she would come up out of the water and touch the guitar, tap the wood, examining it. It was obvious that she was trying to communicate also, and she’d follow the strings up to his left hand, actually chime the string. It was fascinating stuff.”

Back in New York, Neil made his first record, Tear Down the Walls, in ’65, as part of a duo with Vince Martin. His first solo album, Bleecker & MacDougall, was released later that same year, and Fred Neil, the album that contained ‘The Dolphins’, came out in ’66. In an interview with Hit Parader magazine that same year – apparently the only interview Neil ever gave – he commented, “A lot of record producers are still trying for the same baloney sound. If the music is good, or is saying anything at all, it’s got to become commercial. And the only way to really do that is to make the commercial field come to you. Then you’ve got it.”

Nik Venet, who produced Neil’s first two records, once told an interviewer that working with Neil in the studio meant “keeping everything out of the way of the music”, with no remixing or equalisation. Childs remembers that “we would just walk into the studio and say, what are we going to do? On one of the recordings, Fred said, well, what are we going to do to come up with something, and I started a riff, and that turned into ‘Green Green Rocky Road’. So as for planning and working on things, that was not Fred. It was spontaneous, and it was so spontaneous that I could point to one whole song, and part of another, on records where the bass and drums are out of time with everybody else. So things could get pretty loose. Did Fred carefully work things out? No no no no no. It was not his style.”

‘The Dolphins’ gained wider exposure when other artists covered it, including Dion, Linda Ronstadt, Al Wilson, MC Squared, and Cyrus Faryar, who played the bouzouki on Neil’s original recording.  O’Barry remembers Neil being partial to Tim Buckley’s version of the song, and also remembers en masse renditions of ‘The Dolphins’ in Neil’s Coconut Grove living room when Richie Havens and his band were in town.  But, as it turned out, ‘Everybody’s Talkin’ became the most prominent song from Fred Neil after Harry Nilsson covered it for the soundtrack of the ‘69 film Midnight Cowboy. Nilsson’s version won a Grammy in ’70 for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, and when Midnight Cowboy won the ’70 Oscar for Best Picture, the sales of the soundtrack album took off. Fred Neil was then re-released under the title of Everybody’s Talkin’, with the cover line “Fred Neil sings his theme from Midnight Cowboy” – technically true, but potentially disappointing buyers who expected to get the Nilsson rendition.

But, ironically, the song that brought Neil to the attention of a wider audience also gave him the opportunity to discard his musical career. Two more albums of varying quality were released; however, according to O’Barry, “after Midnight Cowboy, he never had to work again. He didn’t really spend a lot, but he didn’t have a lot of money. Midnight Cowboy was the thing that gave him financial independence.” Neil’s interest in dolphins led to him, O’Barry and Stephen Stills founding The Dolphin Project on Earth Day in ’70, after which Neil’s performances were largely limited to benefit concerts to raise money for that venture.

In trying to explain why dolphins meant so much to Neil that he “kind of vanished” from the music scene, Childs recounts a trip he made with Neil to visit a group of captive dolphins. “We went down to the Santini pens, where most of the dolphins had been captured by Mr. Santini, down in Key West. This was the first time I’d ever actually met dolphins. And Fred told me, he said, there’ll be a group of them in the pen, and it’s just like with a group of people, there’s going to be one of them that you will relate to more strongly, and they will relate to you more than other people there. So I said, hmm, really? And that was exactly what happened. We went to this pen and there were several dolphins, and one of them, Lady, came up to me, I was sitting on the dock, and she looked at me out of that dolphin eye. And immediately I realized something that can’t be put into words, but if I were forced to do so, I would say, here is a highly conscious creature. And the quality of that consciousness is loving. Fred would talk about this all afternoon, because that’s what he felt. The cetaceans, the whales and dolphins, I think are arguably right next to humans on the scale of consciousness, if you’re measuring the amount of God per cubic bit of matter. These are things that you can’t reason out. You can reason your way to the water, but you drink with the heart. And Fred drank with the heart, and that’s what he saw in dolphins.

“With Lady, what happened was she looked at me and then she went away, she dove down into the water, and did a great circle and came back up. And I reached out and as she rose out of the water I ran my hand down her belly – her belly, mind you, not her back. And in terms of her feeling about me, she would not have presented her soft belly to me unless she had some trust in me. And then she did it over and over and over again. And I understood right then and there what Fred felt.”

According to O’Barry, after Neil moved to Coconut Grove for good, “there were so many people who came there or who were recording at Criterion Studios. And they all wanted to collaborate with Fred, they all wanted Fred to sing with them. The only one I remember him doing that with was Stephen [Stills], because he and Stephen were very close. But he didn’t allow Stephen to use his name on the record. I think he gets a credit as Fearless Freddy or something. He just wasn’t interested. Here’s a guy who could have been at the top of the charts and stayed there forever if he cooperated with the system. But he was just not interested. That’s not what he wanted to do. I think it was a mistake, myself.” (‘Fearless Freddy’ is credited with ‘vocals’ on Stills’ Stills II, released in ’71.)

The Dolphin Project was initially funded by donations and by the proceeds from benefit concerts staged at the Coconut Grove Playhouse. In ’77 Neil was involved in staging and performing in the Rolling Coconut Revue, a multi-day series of superstar-filled concerts in Japan whose revenues went to support the Project. But other than that he largely resisted performing; in O’Barry’s words, “he just wanted to be left alone”. Childs says, “Johnny Cash begged him to come on his TV show and he wouldn’t do it. I sat backstage at The Band’s final concert, The Last Waltz, with Fred with guitar in hand, while The Band and I were begging him to come out and play, and he wouldn’t do it. So he wouldn’t do a lot of gigs that you wished he’d do. But when he did it, look what came out. And he was always willing to do it for the dolphins. That tells you a lot right there. He wouldn’t do it for Johnny Cash, he wouldn’t do it for The Band, but he would do it for the dolphins.”

Not long after the Rolling Coconut Revue wound up, a long-ago contractual obligation involving a partnership with Woodstock promoter Michael Lang resulted in Neil having to record an album. Childs remembers that Neil received an advance for the project, and, “spending that money as fast as we possibly could”, he, O’Barry and Neil went on a trip to the Grand Cayman Islands; “we were supposed to be working there, but we didn’t do much.” O’Barry, acting as executive producer, booked studio time in Coconut Grove, where Neil and his band recorded a set of cover versions –  “obscure songs” – and a few originals. Then O’Barry and Neil traveled to New Jersey and re-recorded the entire album in two days with the backing band Stuff, who at the time were among the most highly-regarded studio musicians in the world.

“So there were two versions of the album that I delivered to Columbia Records,” O’Barry recounts.  “And at that time, disco was happening. I remember playing it, Michael and I were in the guy’s office at Columbia, and we delivered the goods. And I could tell he wasn’t impressed because that’s not what he was looking for. He was looking for what was popular, what was on the radio. I don’t know whatever happened to those recordings. I guess Michael has them or Columbia has them. I think they’re quite good.”

Those sessions appear to be the last time Neil made a recording. After that, he occasionally traveled around the US to visit friends, including Childs and his wife in northern California. But he was largely content to stay in Coconut Grove, sailing and working with O’Barry on The Dolphin Project’s initiatives. (O’Barry and his campaigns to save captured dolphins are the subject of the 2009 Oscar-winning documentary The Cove.)There were rumours that Neil was in seclusion because he was a drug addict; O’Barry strenuously denies this, saying that toward the end of his life Neil wasn’t even smoking pot, just “drinking a little beer, maybe”. His friends in Florida protected his privacy and his low-key lifestyle, resisting attempts by writers or journalists to ferret out his contact information. When MOJO magazine ran a profile of him in 2000, Neil responded with a brief letter to the editor that mentioned only his work with dolphins, not his past musical career.

But Neil’s about-turn in his life didn’t mean that he didn’t value at least some of his musical accomplishments. “Just a few years before he died,” says O’Barry, “he was down in the Keys, and we were rehabilitating captive dolphins and releasing them into the wild. Fred was part of my crew. He would get up at six o’clock in the morning, and he and my wife Helene and my son and a few other people, that was the crew. He was happy to get up at the crack of dawn and mop floors and clean buckets.  But I remember driving over the Seven Mile Bridge in the Lower Keys, going to Key West in a rental car, and he was telling me this story. When he was a teenager, he was a huge fan of Louis Armstrong. He and this buddy of his, they were teenagers, and Satchmo was playing somewhere in St. Petersburg, at a club in a black section of town. And they weren’t old enough to get in, but they went to the back door and somehow they let them in. Satchmo was there, and he said, let them. And he was just thrilled about that. And he said, here’s the last thing Satchmo recorded. And he whipped out this tape and put it in the tape deck. And it was ‘Everybody’s Talkin’’. And that was one of the highlights of his musical career, I think, that Satchmo recorded his song.”

A comprehensive biography of Neil by Peter Neff is scheduled to be published this year. Undoubtedly that book will shed more light on Neil’s complex life, and potentially re-ignite interest in ‘The Dolphins’ and the rest of Neil’s astounding musical legacy. Child sums up his friend this way: “A quote from one of his songs that I use to characterize him is ‘lost child in a world of sorrow’. Fred, he was too sensitive. He turned away from things that you would expect people to turn to, because he couldn’t stand the pain. He paid a price for that sensitivity, but Lord, it was real. He was a troubled but golden soul who gave to this world so much of real value.”

With thanks to Ric O’Barry and Peter Childs

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