Behind The Song: Fred Neil, “Everybody’s Talkin’”

Everybody’s Talkin’

Writer: Fred Neil

Real freedom is falling asleep at the handlebars of a stolen police motorcycle as you bomb through the L.A. freeway on the brink of heart failure in a hospital gown (Crank). Or a cowboy quitting his middle-of-nowhere dishwasher job to move to New York City and become a prostitute (Midnight Cowboy)…even two purposeless Vietnam War buddies—one wheel-chair bound paralegic lieutenant, the other, a gloriously naive Tom Hanks, traversing rainy streets on New Year’s Eve, also in search of prostitution (Forest Gump). This is a short, albeit, incomplete list of movie scenes that lean on Harry Nilsson’s breakout song, “Everybody’s Talkin'” to flesh out their meaning.

Struggling to make inroads into the songwriting world for more than half a decade, Nilsson had been a computer programmer at a bank in Los Angeles. He released “Everybody’s Talkin'” on his 1968 album, Aerial Ballet. It scratched No. 113 on Billboard’s Bubbling Under the Hot 100 chart. The next year it stole the show as the featured theme song of the 1969 cult classic film, Midnight Cowboy. The song helped solidify Nilsson’s career as a countercultural poet with no master. The irony is that “Everybody’s Talkin'” wasn’t written by Nilsson. He heard it as a demo tape played by producer Rick Jarrad. The song was, in fact, written and recorded the year before by the Greenwich Village folk singer Fred Neil. Anxious to finish recording in a New York City studio and return home to Miami, Florida, Neil was assured by his manager he could finally get out of dodge if he wrote one final song for his album. The result was “Everybody’s Talkin’.”

Neil’s vocals on the original song are heavy, heartfelt and spartan. Some might even call them spooky. It’s peak folk music just barely slipping into rock and roll electric. Neil was reluctant to tour and never achieved success as a performer. He is a songwriter’s songwriter who spent the last thirty years of his life assisting in the preservation of dolphins. By contrast, Nilsson streamlines the song’s arrangement with intricate guitar work, his impressively wide vocal range, a snare drum, a swelling keyboard and an overall speedier tempo that makes for a beautiful breezy ride that you know can’t last forever.

“Everybody’s Talkin'” is about experiencing freedom in all its limitless beauty and trepidation. The song is funny in a sad sort of way, and dopey or absurd in the right circumstances. There’s a bittersweet melancholy at the core of the song’s meaning. “It’s always over the next fence, or around the next corner,” Nilsson told Paul Zollo with SongTalk magazine, trying to explain the song. “Everybody’s Talkin'” is about a kind of wanderlust for someplace with better weather. It’s a mental vacation from the real people and places that surround us, and potentially drag us down. It’s a peaceful ride that lasts for a little less than three minutes.

 

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