Fred Neil – The reluctant guru of Greenwich Village

‘He was a hero to me’ (David Crosby)

‘I would prefer not to’ (Bartleby the Scrivener- Herman Melville)

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Some artists songs reflect the busy world being born and dying all around them.

Some artists songs are front line combatant reports showing us how it feels to fall in and out of love.

Some artists songs like those of Fred Neil, the subject of today’s Immortal Jukebox tribute, are invitations to enter a dreamscape where the deep emotions of our unconscious selves are mysteriously evoked, recognised and sounded.

Listening to such songs can be an enormously affecting, liberating and transformative experience.

Everybody knows a Fred Neil song though most don’t know that song as a Fred Neil song.

So, ‘Everybody’s Talking At Me’, a song played on the radio all around the world every day is generally regarded as a Nilsson song or, ‘That song from Midnight Cowboy’.

And, ‘Dolphins’ is usually thought of as proof of Tim Buckley’s soaring imagination. Yet both were written and first recorded in definitive versions by Fred Neil.

Fred Neil was a magnificent songwriter with a voice of extraordinary beauty who entranced and permanently influenced the early 60s generation of singer-songwriters who congregated in the artistic crucible/enclave of Greenwich Village in New York City.

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Bob Dylan started out in the village playing harmonica for Fred at Cafe Wha? David Crosby, John Sebastian, Richie Havens and Karen Dalton all sat at Fred’s feet and wondered, ‘How does he do it?’

How does he play with such relaxed freedom and integrate voice and guitar so seamlessly?

How does he write songs that sound like nothing you’ve ever heard before which yet fall upon your ears like the welcome voice of an old friend returning home after a long journey?

How does every song he sings sound like an epic voyage into uncharted waters?

How does he do it?

One thing you can be sure of – Fred ain’t gonna tell you. Fred, famously, keeps his own counsel. But, if you watch and listen hard he might just show you the way a true musician carries himself.

When he’s singing a song Fred sails into the distance following his own charts to lands that aren’t inked in on any maps you can buy at the store.

Copy Fred and you’ll most likely drown – take inspiration from him and you just might find our who you are and where you’re bound.

Listening to Dolphins we join Fred on a voyage that can have no end. A voyage in search of the essential self we so carefully hide from the wide, wounding world.

The caressing intimacy of Fred’s vocal is that of a man who, at some unknowable cost, has been granted a revelation that has changed him utterly.

Odetta was right to talk about Fred’s voice being a healing instrument. In singing he heals himself and offers us balm for our own wounds. It is a rare and precious gift.

He knows full well that it’s not for him to tell any of us how to get along. Each of us has to steer our own course in search of the secret of our own true self.

The Dolphins cannot be willed to appear; you have to search. and, often, a;most always, nothing valuable can be found unless something valuable has also been lost.

What Fred can offer us through the majesty of his fathomless voice and crystalline guitar is a vision of a mysterious, thrilling beauty which though generally out of reach can illuminate our lives and inspire us like the circling moon and stars above.

Horizons are there to be scanned. Nothing is ever discovered in the safety of the harbour. Set sail. set sail.

Search for the Dolphins.

Everybody’s Talkin’ is a song lasting less than three minutes which you won’t ever be able to leave behind. A song which carries us over deep waters. A song which yet has the playful lightness of a skipping stone.

A song that whispers and whispers in the wind. Who are you? Where are you bound?

Fred’s golden baritone and the perfect alluring metre of his guitar help us slip the bonds of time measured in deadening seconds and minutes for the time beyond measurement lived in the chambers of our hearts and the shivers of our souls.

How long does it take to fall in love?

How long does it take to have the scales fall from your eyes and see, see, the world anew?

How long do you have to pray for forgiveness and redemption?

How long will it take before you jettison the baggage weighing down your life?

How long does it take to stop thinking how long will it all take?

How long. How long.

Oh, everybody’s talkin’ at you all the time. All the time.

Even if you knew what it was they wanted you couldn’t give it to them.

What Fred offers is a faith that somehow, no matter how bewildering the sound and fury of the world is there remains a place, a home, where the sun will keep on shining through the rain

There is somewhere where the weather will suit your clothes.

A home where you will no longer be a stranger in a strange town.

Sometimes, early in the blue light of dawn eerily beautiful dreams of freedom float to the surface of my sleeping mind. And, sometimes I can hear a spectral deep voice calling out ‘I’ve got a secret – didn’t we shake Sugaree’.

Then, waking with a lazy grin and a sense of gratitude I know that Fred has been visiting my imagination once again.

By 1971 Fred Neil was weary of the whole hoopla of the music business and the dangerous attractions of New York City (particularly the easy access to the drugs which threatened to mire him in lethargic melancholia).

So Fred simply flew the coop and literally went searching for the Dolphins in Florida. Down there he seemed to find the peace of mind he had always been looking for. There, comfortable in his own skin, he played for his own amusement not for applause or esteem.

He was not an exile. Rather he was a sailor who after many circumnavigations had at last found a place to weigh anchor.

Notes:

Fred Neil died in July 2001.

Fred had early songwriting success placing, ‘Come Back Baby’ with Buddy Holly and, ‘Candy Man’ with Roy Orbison.

His first LP, for Elektra in 1964, Tear Down the Walls’ was shared with Vince Martin. Tracks like, ‘Baby’, ‘Wild Child in a World of Trouble’ and, ‘Weary Blues’ already feature Fred’s honeyed vocal style and ability to make every line seem like a new gleaming thought.

‘Bleeker & MacDougal’ again on Elektra from 1965 was Fred’s solo debut. It is a wonderful record that yielded many treasures particularly, ‘Blues on the Ceiling’, ‘Other Side of This Life’ and, ‘Little Bit of Rain’.

In 1966 Fred moved to Capitol for the all time classic, ‘Fred Neil’ which in addition to the tracks featured above has a mesmeric version of, ‘Faretheewell’ (often known as Dink’s song’.

A live collection, ‘The Sky is Falling’ goes some way to explaining the hold Fred exerted over his contemporaries.

Those who fall fully in thrall to Fred’s genius should seek out, ‘The Many Sides of Fred Neil’ which is richly veined with rare gems.

Happy Birthday to Paul Brady – Irish Folk Icon!

Paul Brady will be 69 this week. Here’s a tribute from the very early days of The Jukebox many of you may have missed.

Bard: A tribal poet – singer skilled gifted in composing and reciting verses of satire and eulogy on heroes and their deeds.

‘Craftsmanship names an enduring, basic human impulse, the desire to do a job well for its own sake’. (Richard Sennett)

‘Some guys got it down …. Paul Brady …. Secret heroes’. (Bob Dylan)

Paul Brady harbours and husbands extraordinary talents. He is a great singer of traditional ballads in the Irish and American traditions able to breathe life into ‘set texts’ through his exquisite instrumental and vocal control and his natural discretion.

These craft skills allow him to reveal the often buried wit, vigour, romance, tragedy and flat out strange power of those remarkable works composed by the great ‘Anon’.

He is also an accomplished guitarist with the quiet unflashy discipline of the skilled accompanist who can anchor a tune setting a virtuoso fiddler like Andy McGan free to fly.

He also has driving rock ‘n’ roll chops learned through ingesting whole the riffs and rhythms of the Shadows and Chuck Berry as a youth.

As far as traditional ballad performance goes Paul Brady’s version of Arthur McBride is rightly regarded as an enduring triumph.

It was wholly appropriate that he performed it at the Dublin memorial evening for the late keeper of the Irish word hoard, Seamus Heaney.

Heaney would have understood how the seeming ease of Paul Brady’s performance of Arthur McBride was based on a deep understanding of the ballad form and hard hours spent honing his instrumental and vocal craft. It takes a great artist to make the artful seem artless.

The song is an Irish tall tale featuring protagonists Arthur and the unnamed narrator encountering a military recruiting party led by a bumptious sergeant as they take the early morning air one Christmas day.

The Sergeants blandishments and promises of glory, riches and female favours are satirically shown to be counterfeit coin by Arthur who though he chooses not to join the army would clearly have been a first class barrack room lawyer had he chosen to enlist.

Arthur and his friend turn the tables on the sergeant and the unfortunate little drummer boy leaving them bloody backed on the beach and the boys then merrily continue their seasonal stroll.

The drummer boys instrument, his ‘rowdeydowdow’ having been made a playful football bobs uselessly in the tide. The song represents a victory for the native over the coloniser, of hedge school wit and satire over the prepared script. Brains beats bullshit.

Paul Brady’s performance of the ballad as shown here is peerless. Nothing is pushed too hard, the song virtually seems to sing itself with Brady as the pilot who knows every ripple of the tide and currents as he steers the song home. Now he allows a little drift, now he touches the tiller, now he adjusts the tempo and volume to bring out the full salty tang of the song.

His guitar playing throughout is astonishingly deft and alert to every nuance of feeling. Arthur McBride is a big song filled with lovely sly dramatic touches which Paul Brady inhabits with unshowy assurance.

Listening to the song you naturally follow the arc of the narrative and feel yourself drawn in to the world it presents. In traditional song Paul Brady wears the bards cloak teasing out the shape and character of the song sure in its proven potency to cast a spell over its audience.

As a contemporary songwriter he has at least two hatfuls of wonderful songs and he is the author of two certifiable classics; the euphoric ‘Crazy Dreams’ and the heart rending ‘The Island’. He has also found himself in demand as a supplier of quality material for artists of the calibre of Tina Turner (Steel Claw, Paradise Is Here) and Bonnie Raitt (Luck Of The Draw, Not The Only One).

Paul Brady’s songs are imbued with deep feeling set within satisfyingly well carpentered structures. They are the product of inspiration shaped by a craft won through a thorough musical education. Paul Brady’s songs are built to last and last they will.

This is not a matter of tricks or sleight of hand but of a deep understanding in his mind, in his heart, in his hands and fingers and in his voice that real songs truly speak to and of the lives we lead both above and below the public surface.

To produce these songs he draws upon traditional practice and the craft techniques of which he is a master. He is then free to follow his inspiration wherever it leads and to choose the right tools for the task at hand.

Like his Irish near contemporary Van Morrison he can mesmerically summon the spirits to open up the terrestrial and mystical landscapes of Ireland. Like Van he is a canny songsmith finding the particular combinations of lyric, melody, rhythm and vocal attack needed to make a song take off on record and in performance.

A perfect example of this is, ‘Crazy Dreams’ one of the great ‘leaving my hometown’ songs where he lights out for the territory to find out if his those dreams of independence, of self realisation in a new world, can be made to come true.

The song has a thrillingly heady melody and a rhapsodic rhythm always flowing forward like waters heading for the falls. Paul Brady’s vocals achieve tremendous excitement for the listener because of the way he maintains his setting at intense simmer rather than boil. You can feel the gathering impulse to follow the dream in every second of the performance. Ringing, dazzling guitars and shimmering keyboards surf atop drums which drive the dream forward.

He’s leaving behind the Joycean snow falling on the Liffey, the fog of familiarity that shrouds his true identity as he packs his suitcase filled with his own dreams not those of his city, his friends and his family. Now is the time for one last look back – closing the door on the hesitations of the past before turning definitively to the future.

Now is the time to drink champagne with your darling companion until you both fall down. Tomorrow the dream comes alive. This is a journey we all have to take for someone elses’s dreams get you nowhere.

The Island is a miraculous piano centred meditation on the pain and futility of civil wars yoked arfully to a deeply tender love song. In this song Paul Brady incandescently evokes a triumph of love over hate. As an Irishman he knows the power of death fixation (the young boys dying in the ditches) yet he hymns the nurturing power of another love which finds its expression in lovemaking by the healing waters of the ocean.

His vision for his neighbours rejects a future built on slogans, tombstones and twisted wreckage. Rather, it looks to a future illuminated by the simple dreams we all have for ourselves and our families. Our children deserve to inherit a country not mired in the hurts and traumas of the past.

In so doing Paul Brady willingly takes on tne role of the holy fool opposing the zealots who are willing to sacrifice anyone and everything to achieve their utopian goals. The simple message of the song is choose love – be prepared to be a fool for love.

Paul Brady’s sublime vocal in this song is filled with bruised tenderness. Who would not want to go to the Island when the invitation is sung with such alluring enticement? Throughout the song the prayerful piano piano (by the late Kenny Craddock) invokes the redemptive balm of the love of one person for another. If that’s a foolish faith so be it. Paul Brady’s performance of this wonderful song makes that faith affectingly real and welcoming.

Paul Brady is a great musician whose work has firmly placed him in the front rank of the the bardic company of Ireland.

An Irish Bard is something to be.

Recommended listening:

Paul Brady has never made a bad record. Here are a few of my favourites with key tracks in brackets.

Paul Brady/Andy Irvine (Mary And The Soldier)

Welcome Here Kind Stranger (The Lakes Of Pontchatrain, Paddy’s Green Shamrock Shore)

Hard Station (Crazy Dreams, Busted Loose, Nothing But The Same Old Story)

True For You (Helpless Heart)

Trick Or Treat (Nobody Knows, Trick Or Treat)

Back To The Centre (The Island, The Homes Of Donegal)

The Missing Liberty Tapes a 1978 live recording stands as a high peak of Irish acoustic based music making.

Little Feat: Willin’ – An American Anthem

Sometimes the crowd cheers and you wear the laurel wreath. Sometimes you wear the motley of a fool and shrink before the jeers.

Sometimes you knock the ball right out of the park and set off for home with joy in your heart. Sometimes arriving home drunk and exhausted you look in the mirror and see your father’s face staring back saying- what in the name of god are you doing with your life?

In all the circumstances the only thing you have to do is to keep on keeping on. Keep on keeping on. Keep on keeping on whether you can read the signs of the times or not.

Keep on keeping on while you’re still on your feet. Keep on keeping on when you’re knocked clean off your feet. Keep on keeping on even if you’re lied to and left for dead with your head stoved in.

Keep on keeping on as long as you are willing to be moving on in your life. Keep on keeping on if you can find the faith and maintain hope whatever happens. Keep on keeping on as long as you’re willin’ to be moving. Willin’

Let Lowell George and Little Feat tell the story their way:

Now ain’t that a peach!

Willin’ is a great folk song and a great country song silver veined with rhythm and blues and rock and roll. It’s a great road song and a great blue collar anthem.

And, in every note of music played by every instrument and in every syllable of its lyric it takes us on a journey to an America of sweat and grime and the everyday heroism of disregarded millions who keep on keeping on through fire and flood and the relentless pressure of paying the bills and keeping a family fed.

From the moment of the, ‘lean in, here’s a story you might recognise’ acoustic guitar intro we know we are in safe hands with musicians who know how to tell a tale in song.

Little Feat had degrees and diplomas in funk, country, R&B and soul with a Ph.D in feel.

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And, in Lowell George a professor of musical alchemy who could mix all the flavours together and add to the tradition.

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The unhurried, night cruising, tempo evokes for me the near contemplative state of a lonely driver rolling for mile after mile after mile through a desert landscape lit only by his headlights and the distant stars.

Lowell George’s vocal is that of a man who knows all about defeat and exhaustion but who Refuses to stay down and be counted out. Despite all the miles he’s come and all the miles he has to go in his Mack truck he’s still willin’ to be movin. Willin’

In his rheumy voice you can hear a man talking to himself and anyone who cares to listen about the realities of the life he lives. A man who keeps on keeping on without enough pay, without enough company and without enough sleep. Willin’

The glistening piano and the pedal steel are like, ‘weed, whites and wine’ induced roadside hallucinations which come and go even as the windscreen wiper drums beat steadily on, steadily on.

Tonight he remembers Dallas Alice but maybe next week it will be Memphis Marie. It’s a long way from Tucson to Tucumcari and a man’s mind is apt to wander through the halls of memory as the miles and the hours unfold.

Maybe before leaving Tucson he had dropped off on a road not marked on any map a load of illegal smokes or illegal folks he’d picked up under the baking Mexican sun. Now there was a 500 mile plus drive ahead with only the radio for company.

Didn’t Duane Eddy come from Tucson? Hell, he only drove 40 miles of bad road though you have to say the twang of his guitar sounds made for the desert air. At least when you get to Tucumcari there’s no shortage of motel rooms. 1200 or more they say. So, like the neon signs say it will be, ‘Tucumcari Tonite!’

But, there are no long layovers when you’re a trucker chasing a buck. So it’s the back roads where you hope to escape the regulations about what and how much you can carry. On the blue highways you might test the suspension and have to be careful not to end up in a ditch but you likely won’t get warned and weighed.

Next run is Tehachapi to Tonapah. The skies above Tehachapi are filled with gliders riding the mountain air thermals. Those gliders must make sore the hearts of the prisoners entombed in the men’s and women’s state prisons.

Starting the engine he remembers what ol’ Humphrey Bogart said to the disbelieving Mary Astor when he turned her in for being responsible for the death of his partner in, ‘The Maltese Falcon’ – ‘Well, if you get a good break you’ll be out of Tehachapi in 20 years and you can come back to me then!’ They don’t make them like HB anymore.

As his truck rumbles down the road he wonders what the rumble of the earthquake in ’52 must have sounded like. Zeke, who has driven these roads since FDR was president says it was the sound of god clearing his throat. Over in Tonapah with the jets screaming overhead and who knows what bombs exploding in the ranges there’s a fair amount of throat clearing going on too.

Ain’t likely he’s going to find any silver nuggets these days. Today he’s glad of the bright sun and the air conditioning in his cab and the song in his heart that with every beat says he still willin’ to be moving. Willin’.

Notes:

Willin’ is such a great song that Little Feat recorded it twice. First on their eponymous debut album (much under rated) and definitively on their magnificent, ‘Sailin’ Shoes’ – a record everyone interested in American music should own.

The classic Little Feat lineup featuring Lowell George are captured in all their glory on the live album, ‘Waiting for Columbus’ and the DVD, ‘Skin It Back’.

A biography of the band by Ben Fong-Torres, ‘Willin’: The Story of Little Feat’ is well researched and a good read.

William Bell: the passion and stoicism of a quiet man!

There is little in life as impressive and convincing as the voice of a quiet man telling the truth.

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William Bell a sage songwriter and stoic soul balladeer told us heartfelt, hard won truths about the eternal trials of love in an incandescent series of records issued from Memphis in the 1960s on the mighty Stax label which still resonate.

These records, especially those contained on his magnificent, ‘Soul of a Bell’ album have become boon companions during the trials and triumphs of my own life.

Wherever I go William Bell goes with me.

During my second year at college I grew weary of the role of ninja intellectual and withdrew to the quiet of my room overlooking a Cambridge meadow. There, largely heedless of my official studies, I obsessively read St Augustine, Dante, Raymond Chandler, Seamus Heaney and Russell Hoban.

My engagement with these profound truth tellers was accompanied and reinforced by a soundtrack largely composed of Schubert, Aretha Franklin, Laura Nyro, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan and William Bell.

And, it might surprise you to learn that if all the hours of listening were collated it was William that I turned to most often for wisdom and solace.

Wisdom and solace told in the voice of a quiet man telling the truth. In William Bell’s songs and singing there’s no hectoring, no over emoting, no grandstanding. Instead it’s as if someone looks you dead in the eye before saying .. this is how its been for me brother – maybe you know the feeling.

You don’t miss your water till your well runs dry. Tell it to me William! Tell it to me!

In contrast to the urgent, urban, industrial beat from Motown the beat from Stax was measured, agrarian, heavy with Southern heat and shimmer. This is music which seems to beckon you in to share a grown up tale of life as it is lived by folks just like you.

The introductory gospel piano says, ‘listen up!’ I’ve got something important to tell you. The stately tempo laid down by mournful horns, dead man walking drums and enveloping organ frames William Bell’s reflective, rueful vocal.

It’s the sound of a man finally understanding and coming to terms with the consequences of the arrogance of his mistaken choices. The bravura of the playboy falls away revealing the shamed penitent who must walk on alone without the one who really did love him. There’s no going back now. Walk on knowing that some lessons have to be learned the hard way – you don’t miss your water till your well runs dry. Till your well runs dry.

There is no trace of self pity in William Bell’s vocal. Rather, this is a man who is singing this song gently to himself or the silent moon above. ‘Listening to ‘You Don’t Miss Your Water’ you know it’s true and that it carries a folk wisdom that will always be true. Attend to your well.

A year later William Bell, with, ‘(I wouldn’t have it) Any Other Way’ once again elegantly captured one of the perpetual dilemmas of love – how do you cope with being rejected and discarded by the one who held your heart? I have to admit I’ve sung this more than a few times to the moon myself back in the day.

Haven’t we all, bruised and reeling from a break up adopted the pose of the couldn’t care less lover airily declaiming, desperate for the message to be reported back, now that I think of it (not that its been much on my mind) I really wouldn’t have it any other way. Any other way.

It’s obvious here that William and the team at Stax were aware of the exquisite charm of the records of the late 50s/early 60s Drifters as well as the tender, heartfelt outpourings of Arthur Alexander. The result is a glorious record that has soul staying power and pop gloss.

Next another of William’s songs that never fails to stir the heart, ‘Private Number’

Private Number is one of the great soul duet records of the 1960s ranking with Marvin and Tammy and Otis and Carla. The song tells the story of the lover who has been,’away’ seeking to rekindle the flames of love with the one whose memory has perhaps been all he has had to hold onto in their time apart. Where is, ‘away’?

William Bell was a Vietnam veteran so it may well be that, ‘away’ was his way of alluding to shattering experiences of war. Many, many soldiers struggling through the days and sleepless at night must have wondered who now had their baby’s precious private number. And, arriving home intact but forever scarred who wouldn’t be chastened to learn that the private number had been changed?

The sense of dread this sets up makes the relief of hearing, ‘Welcome Home, nothing’s wrong’ overwhelmingly powerful. To collapse, safe, into the arms of the one you love after an ordeal is one of the most emotionally nurturing and reassuring experiences of our lives. Life will go on and all will be well no matter how terrible the events of the past.

As the 1960s ended there was a deep sense of foreboding in the air. An uneasy sense that the days of sunlit hope were now overshadowed and that something terrible was coming – a bad moon on the rise.

William Bell, in his characteristically personal and understated way caught this feeling in his most mature inquiry into the challenge of keeping love alive as the grinding years grind on.

His song, ‘I Forgot To Be Your Lover’ is the soliloquy of a man, a wounded soldier on the battlefield of love, summoning up all his depleted energies in one last attempt to save his marriage.

We open with looming strings evoking glowering rain heavy clouds about to unleash a deluge.

Then tolling, Curtis Mayfield like, guitar appears before William’s at first meditative and later rueful and anguished vocal proceeds as he examines his conscience and identifies with painful honesty how he has failed to combine the roles of companion, lover and husband.

In moments of revelatory clarity he understands that love not endlessly renewed must wither and will die. Somehow, taking her for granted, he has lost his way and fallen into romantic lethargy. Simply he forgot to be a lover.

Now he knows the depth of his transgressions he can only beg for forgiveness and the chance to show that the love he forgot to offer still lives in his heart.

The sixties songs of William Bell amount to a kind of pilgrims progress taking us into the joy of winning love, the pain of losing of love and the desperate struggle to hold onto love in the face of our inevitable human weaknesses.

Through our stumbling missteps and mistakes most of have all foolishly taken for granted that the the well of love will somehow be endlessly replenished. We forget too easily that love needs nurture. That we must be a lover as well as the one who is loved.

The course of love necessarily involves doubt and struggle as well as growth and contentment. William Bell, with his insistent quiet voice telling the truth, is just the companion you need beside you on your journey

Notes:

I regard, ‘The Soul of a Bell’ as an essential record. Order it today.

In addition to the songs considered above look out for:

Share What You Got … ‘
‘Everybody Loves A Winner’, ‘
Everyday WIll Be Like A Holiday’
and his original of the now blues standard, written with Booker T, ‘Born Under A Bad Sign’.

After leaving Stax William had a major US hit with, ‘Tryin’ to Love Two’

All his albums reveal a singer who digs deep into a ballad to bring forth beauty.

William Bell is a very fine songwriter and his songs have been memorably covered by Otis Redding, Joe Tex, The Byrds, Albert King and Cream among many others.

If you search YouTube you can find William performing with masterful ease before President Obama and bringing in the new year on Jools Holland’s UK TV show.