A gentle exit for the old year with a trio of songs from Fred Neil. Not generally acknowledged as one of the titans of music, but long a favorite of mine.
Neil was a Florida boy with a rich baritone voice, a unique touch on the 12-string, and a fondness for songs melancholy. Some of his earliest tunes were recorded by Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison; he shepherded callow youngbloods David Crosby and Bob Dylan through the Greenwich Village folk-music scene (Dylan backed Neil on harmonica); he inspired talents as disparate as Jerry Jeff Walker and the Jefferson Airplane. Neil recorded four albums in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the world took no notice. Afforded a modest living through steady royalties generated by Orbison’s cover of his “Candy Man,” and Nilsson’s cover of his “Everybody’s Talkin’,” Neil left Woodstock and environs in the early ’70s and retired to southern Florida, where he spent the rest of his life, until his death in 2001, aged 64.
“[His retreat] was rightfully deserved,” said Jefferson Airplane’s Paul Kantner. “He was treated rather brutally by the music business, and he was a gentle soul.”
Like many in the music trade, Neil spent time as a narcotics person—see, for instance, “Cynicrustpetefredjohn Raga”—but he left that world behind, too. “Fred went in until the water was up to his neck,” said friend Michael Mann, the film director, “and then he got out.”
Neil spent the last thirty years of his life with The Dolphin Project, which he established with Richard O’Barry on Earth Day in 1970, and which is “dedicated to abolishing the billion-dollar dolphin slave trade.”
But for the dolphins, I might never have heard of Neil.
As a young journalist, I followed the odd trail of Jerry Brown in his first term as governor of California. At one point Brown conceived the need to sponsor a “Save The Whales” gig in a Sacramento auditorium. Asked what he hoped to accomplish, in his new role as concert promoter, Brown replied, “sometimes the way to save things is to have an idea about them.” This was the sort of thing that drove the conventional journalists covering Brown right round the bend; made perfect sense to me.
Anyway, Brown invited Neil to the gig, and Neil responded by bestirring himself from his home in Florida to come all the way cross country for the event; one of his last public appearances as a performer. He played for about 45 minutes. I was stunned: who was this man? Why had I never heard of him? We were then in the age of tape: but no Neil had ever been placed on cassettes. I was finally able to special-order an old album on vinyl. Over the next couple decades I occasionally captured an additional Neil song or two off the radio. The drought ended, typically enough (see Mr. Ha-Ha), just before his death, when his long-gone four LPs were reissued on CD.
In the first of these three faretheewell to 2009 songs, “I’ve Got A Secret,” Neil reworks a traditional blues. He begins by noting that “i’ve got a secret/i shouldn’t tell,” but then he goes ahead and tells it anyway: “i’m gonna go to heaven/in a split-pea shell.” He offers a succinct description of a determined person’s approach to life: “you know i got a song to sing/not very long/i’m gonna sing it right/if it takes me all night long.” The tune is about total loss, defines how we leave this life: “everything I have/done and pawned.” But he doesn’t seem particularly put out about it. He enters the song whistling, and he leaves it whistling, too.
“Faretheewell” is a gorgeous, melancholy, missin’-my-love song, in which he tells us: “if i had wings like noah’s dove/i’d fly up this river to the one i love.” And you know he would, too. (Of course, maybe he could take a plane . . . . )
As “Faretheewell” indicates, Neil was a man of water. And in the third song, “The Dolphins,” he’s subsumed in it. In this tune, Neil sees the world true, as it is. But still he’s searching . . . .