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.

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