He was a lazy perfectionist at best. He didn’t write lyrics down and rather arranged songs over a few days, on the boat, in the backyard or around the house. Songs streamed out his head; riffs on lyrics from an internalized burrow of gospel.
Fred treasured a picture of Ray Charles sitting in a smoke-filled dressing room just after shooting up. He modeled his phrasing after Ray and utilized a similar feel for precision. He dabbled with time, crossed genres of country, jazz, blues and folk, some raga, all in one. There were no limitations and like Ray, Fred was always the lead.
“He was much more than a deep voice. They used to say that when he did a song, he owned it,” says long-time friend and singer-songwriter Bobby Ingram, telling me of a time when Fred recorded his track “Jasmine Town.” “He was in the studio and I came in to listen in the booth and I was getting a little upset that he had the lyrics wrong but he had everything else really right. Fred could rewrite a lyric on the spot and make it sound like it had always been there. Peter Childs walked over and said, ‘You’re gonna have to leave or let him own the song, it’s not yours anymore.’”
Throughout all three solo albums, Bleecker & Macdougal, Fred Neil, and Sessions and the duo Tear Down the Walls, Fred was not easiest in the least to record. Producer Paul Rothchild avoided telling Fred to do another take and said that there was a production problem. Nik Venet at Capitol actually stepped back from the production. “He never said, ‘I did not sing because of this.’ He was not that direct,” says Vince who if hadn’t been present, there would have been no glimmer of Tear Down the Walls. If no one picked him up, there was no gig; if anything disturbed Fred’s ear such as a radio from across the street, he stopped; if the audience was disinterested he pretended to pop a string and vanished to the hay of the Village.
Because he didn’t always have new material he often pulled from an assortment of licks at the grace of his backing band. He reapplied “Dink’s Song” as a melody to multiple cuts to attain that mournful distillation of sun and rain. “If you listen to ‘Dink’s Song’ the way Simon and Garfunkel did it, they did it cheery and bubbly and there’s a vast difference. Fred would put a mood on it, a darkness. It was internal. It was the way he felt,” says Bobby. “He did a set of changes and just grinded out lyrics. He wrote ‘Bag I’m In,’ ‘Blues On the Ceiling,’ ‘No Time to Cry’ with the same melody. It’s a very tricky set of changes because he’s hammering on the 7.”
“‘Shake Sugaree!’” a woman calls from the crowd during Fred’s brief performance featured on the ’71 re-release of Fred Neil, the Other Side of This Life. “Oh wow, let me work on that and I’ll do it next time, all right?” he responds curtly. “Memphis!” someone exclaims. “I did Memphis, I did Nashville too … How about ‘Cocaine?’” He had already tried to leave by the third track and told his manager to shut-up.
His abhorrence bought him more of an allure – just how many chances would one get to perform beside a metronomical, 12-string baritone likening to Paul Robeson? Jefferson Airplane’s “The Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil” paid homage to him. Crosby, Stills & Nash originally scratched their heads with the band name Sons of Neil. He and Gram Parsons ground William Bell’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water” to its core. Fred’s vocals could bring Odetta to her knees.
“When The Beatles were in town they came filtering down and wanted to meet him,” remembers Bobby. He dug at his avocado and risotto salad as leaf blowers buzzed outside his house in the Grove. “They knew of him from Stills or David. Stills was a huge fan of Freddie’s. First of all, there was nobody like Fred. You can’t compare Fred Neil to anybody, just as you cannot compare John Lennon or Paul McCartney to anybody. You just cannot.” Of singers today, Bill Callahan comes to mind. His baritone has a familiar pulse to that bassy Neilesque warble as on Sometimes I Wish I Were an Eagle or Apocalypse. “But when The Beatles came to town they said, they want to see you Fred, he said, fine, send ’em over. You know, I don’t think The Beatles just come over. I think you go to the mountain. And he said something to the effect of screw that. That was Freddie. It didn’t mean to him what it meant to other guys. To some, meeting The Beatles is like meeting the Pope. To Freddie it was just another band.”
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“Now love you big city women, love you big city blues/ I gotta woman down in Coconut Grove and she knows what to do,” Fred barrels on the bending opener of Bleecker and Macdougal. The desire to rid the city life for “home,” the “other side,” a motif he rehashes all the way to Sessions, a more unrehearsed perpetuation of Fred Neil. He played the Southern boy tarnished by the Manhattan skyline; a tramp with sand in his shoes who’s scrapping a nickel to “buy a nickel bag of candy.” He had been around the songwriting block for years and for all we know was daydreaming of genuine isolation. Out of all the Fred Neil bleakness and reclusive character, he was passionate about dolphins.
In ’70 Fred joined friend and Flipper trainer Ric O’Barry in organizing The Dolphin Project to stop the trafficking and exploitation of dolphins. Following benefit performances by Jerry Jeff Walker, Stephen Stills, Rick Danko, Jimmy Buffet, and Phil Everly for the Dolphin Project at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, and upon the ’76 celebration of Whale Day in Sacramento, California, formed an activist group of environmentalists and musicians. They flew to Japan in ’77 to protest the dolphin industry under the namesake Rolling Coconut Revue.
So Fred surfaced, leaving his motel room on Dinner Key and headed for Tokyo, though when not performing he fixated on Japanese cartoons in his hotel room. As well in ’77 Fred reluctantly tried a hand at an album consisting of covers but even that bottomed out. This wasn’t new, though, this passion for dolphins.
The first song on Fred Neil is “The Dolphins.” It’s instrumentally aquatic and yearns for a far-gone world; a nostalgic drift for a distant lover. “This old world may never change the way it’s been/ And all the ways of war can’t change it back again/ I’ve been searchin’ for the dolphins in the sea/ And sometimes I wonder, do you ever think of me?”
“He was infatuated with [Gay]. They might’ve even gone out a few times. The dolphin song was inspired by her. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise,” says Bobby, referring to Gay, his late wife also a trainer of dolphins at the Seaquarium. “Gay was a spectacular swimmer, 6 foot tall, the kindest woman you’d ever want to meet.”
It’s no surprise that when you ask someone if they’ve heard of Fred Neil they shrug their shoulders – his remaining 20 years were mostly inactive and spent alone on Summerland Key. He didn’t record a marketable album after Sessions. His performances were spotty throughout the ’70s and nothing was as widely publicized compared to his appearance in Tokyo, of all places. He played one last show in the early ’80s at the Grove. Friend and collaborating harp player Buzzy Linhart, Vince and others joined. His last public remark was a letter in response to Edmonds’ article and even then he only spoke of The Dolphin Project and nothing in regards to his musical career.
Who knows what the cause was for his reclusiveness. Maybe six-figure checks, a jasmine enclave where winter is nonexistent and big grey fish sealed the deal. Some speak of trauma but the reasons died with him. “He had two sculptures,” laughs Bobby, “art sculptures, and he had them in the living room and I said, ‘Fred you should put these in the yard.’ He says, ‘No, I need ’em here,’ and I said, ‘Why?’ ‘Well, when I leave at night I say, I’m going out dear and when I come home I say, I’m home dear.’”