A Sunny Afternoon in Coconut Grove

Last year, the lovely and eloquent Ms. Nettie Edwards (a member of our Tim Buckley Discussion Forum who resides in Gloucestershire, England) sent me a copy of the Ben Edmonds article in Mojo Magazine concerning Fred Neil. The article can be found in the February 2000 Issue and it’s entitled: The Long Strange Silence Of Fred Neil. I found the reading to be both fascinating and insightful. It included unknown facts about Fred and a wide variety of quotes and comments from people who either played with him, worked with him, or just knew him from a business or friendship standpoint.

In his expose, Edmonds writes that “Fred is remembered as a singer blessed with an impossibly resonant baritone without equal in music, the writer of songs (Everybody’s Talkin’, The Dolphins, Candy Man, and The Other Side Of This Life) which will live as long as music itself. He is remembered as a mesmerizing but reluctant performer who reacted to the possibility of success with horror.”

welcome_to_coconut_groveFred was born in 1937 and raised in Treasure Island near St. Petersburg, Florida. He left home at the age of 13 and moved to New York City in the mid-fifties. He honed his craft and made his mark in Greenwich Village where he stayed until about 1966. At the advice of Vince Martin, Fred moved to Coconut Grove ( a small artist colony in Miami Beach, Florida). In 1973 or ’74 Fred moved once more to Woodstock, New York where he lived for a few years before coming back to the Grove for another 10 or 12 years.

Edmonds quoted singers Richie Havens, John Sebastian, David Crosby, Eric Andersen, Bobby Ingram, Len Chandler, Bob Dylan, Odetta, Vince Martin, Buzzy Linhart, Denny Doherty, and Paul Kantner.

He quoted friends Patti Strom, Bob Simone, and Ric O’Barry (Fred’s confidant and co-founder of the Dolphin Project).

Ben also quoted club owners Sam Hood (The Gaslight) and Howard Soloman (Cafe Wha).

It turns out that Howard was also Fred’s second business manager. His first manager was none other than Herb Cohen.

Herbie is quoted in the article along with Jac Holzman and Paul Rothchild via excerpts from Jac’s book Follow The Music.  Nik Venet, producer of Fred’s Capital Records’ recordings, made comments as well.

Fred’s last official public appearance took place in April of 1977 with the Rolling Coconut Revue, a coalition of musicians and environmentalists who decided to take their crusade for whale and dolphin awareness all the way to Tokyo.

In the early 80’s Fred performed with Buzzy Linhart for an evening of music at Howard Soloman’s outdoor café in Coconut Grove. Howard says that Buzzy and Fred played ‘til dawn. Vince Martin came by. Word got out and it seemed like half the Grove showed up, hundreds of people, spilling out onto US Highway 1.

Through his career, Fred has recorded or performed with artists such as: Vince Martin (his one-time partner), Peter Childs, Harvey Brooks, Al Kooper, Felix Papalardi, John Sebastian, Bob Dylan, Dino Valente, Karen Dalton, Cyrus & Rusty Faryar, Al Wilson, Bruce Langhorn, Eric Glen Horn, Gram Parsons, Les McCann, Buzzy Linhart, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Jimmy Bond, John T. Forsha, and Billy Mundi among others.

As many of you know, Tim Buckley was quite impressed with Fred Neil. As a matter of fact, Billy Mundi played drums on Tim’s first album while Jimmy Bond played bass and John Forsha played guitar on Tim’s Goodbye And Hello album. There is a common theme that {I think} re-surfaces over and over again in Tim’s life which mirrors a lot of what Fred did during his career. I’d like to get back to those analogies later on. But first, please let me tell you about my trip to Coconut Grove.

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Last week, my wife Jennifer and I took a flight down to Sebastian, Florida for a vacation and a visit with my wife’s family. Every day of our stay was highlighted with beautiful skies, 85-degree temperatures and abundant sunshine. Who could ask for more?

Before I go on, I’d like to point on that I enjoy driving, I really do. So, on Thursday May 17th 2001, I drove our rented Toyota Camry 140 miles down I 95 to Coconut Grove. I loaded up the cd player and totally enjoyed the next two and a half hours. I listened to all of Fred’s music as well as a bunch of Cat Stevens (Mona Bone Jakon…Tea For The Tillerman…Teaser And The Firecat…Catch Bull At Four…Buddha And The Chocolate Box) and Steve Winwood/Traffic cds (The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys and John Barleycorn Must Die). I didn’t hit any traffic on the road whatsoever. The journey was very, very, therapeutic indeed.

Last year, when we visited Florida, I wanted to make the same excursion to Fred’s hometown, but one thing or another got in my way. This time, I had to get it out of my system. I just wanted to meet Fred and perhaps have a beer and a brief conversation with him about Tim Buckley and what Fred might be able to tell me of their occasional meetings.

Prior to leaving for Florida, I made it known to the members of the Room 109 Tim Buckley Discussion Forum what my intentions were. I found the emails I received to be most supportive and, my friend Jaqui Van Ness (a Floridian herself) even sent me a couple of maps.

Following the advice of another forum member (Alice Andrade), I made my first stop in Hollywood Florida. There is a fellow down there with the same name as Fred. I made a couple of telephone contacts with him and I originally believed that he was a different Fred Neil. Alice had brought up the idea that perhaps this gentleman might be the man I’m looking for, even though he denied knowing the legendary singer at all.  I was not about to pass Hollywood on the Interstate Highway 95 without checking out this possibility.

When I pulled into town, I asked a cab driver where Dewey Street was. He had no trouble giving me perfect directions to Mister Neil’s house. There was one problem and that problem being that no one was at home when I arrived at 11 AM. I asked a painter working on a house three doors down if he knew whether or not Fred Neil, the singer, lived at that address. The thin and tan gray-haired man, looked up at me while stirring a fresh can of paint, and said in a very deep voice (as low as Fred’s) that he didn’t know the man. What…a…moment! His voice sent chills down my spine. I thought I had found Fred and I didn’t know how to react. I asked him where he was from and I tried to win him over in an attempt to get him to open up. He was very friendly and obliging but as I looked deep into his eyes, I could tell that he was not the man I was looking for. Besides, he only appeared to be about 55 years old and Fred is almost 65 years old. I decided to ask him if he knew where Coconut Grove was and he said that he knew the little town quite well. He said that he did a lot of work there in the past and the directions he gave me were right on the money. Twenty minutes later, I was in Coconut Grove.

coconut_grove_playhouse

My brother-in-law (an ex-private investigator) had advised me the night before that I should go to the Post Office and then to the Town Clerk’s office in my first attempts at finding Fred’s address.  So, as soon as I pulled into town, I saw a club called the Tiger Tail Lounge that featured live music. I parked the car and went inside to ask where the nearest Post Office was. In the doorway of the lounge there were some photographs on the wall. One photo depicted actor Michael Douglas playing pool while the other image was of Miami Heat Basketball coach Pat Reilly involved in a game of billiards as well. The Tiger Tail was owned by a former prizefighter whose picture was also displayed on the wall. He was fighting a boxer called Kid Galahad.

taurus_grille_entranceThere were four men at the bar and three of them knew of Fred but were not exactly sure where he lived. I quickly ordered a beer and waited for the right man to come along. {The “right man” being the guy who would tell me precisely where Fred lived.} It took another five minutes for that man to appear. He entered the bar and sat a few stools over from me and I waited patiently for the right moment to engage him in some small talk. That took all of three minutes. I asked him if he knew where Fred Neil lived and he told me exactly what I wanted to know. He even told me where the house was that Fred’s son Chris lived, right there in town. His name was Ralph and he also told me that the man to speak to was a guy by the name of Charley Brown. He said that Charley was a writer who once knew William Faulkner and that he was a friend of Fred’s. Ralph told me that Charley hung out at the Taurus, a landmark in the Grove and a favorite watering hole for many of the homegrown community residents. He told me where Charley would definitely be seated in the bar and Ralph even offered to show me how to get to the Taurus, since he was going that way himself.

I followed his shiny black pick-up truck as we drove through a maze of streets until we reached the Taurus. Ralph knew the owner David Hill, and so he walked me in through the kitchen entrance and right over to Charley Brown’s spot at the bar. He then introduced me as a writer from New York. I could not believe the chain of events that had occurred and how easily I found the one man who could lead me to Fred Neil. Talk about six degrees of separation. Let’s see, after I arrived in Florida I received advice from (1) my brother-in-law, (2) the cab driver, (3) the house painter, (4) Ralph, and now (5) Charley Brown. At any minute I expected either Freddie Neil or Kevin Bacon to walk in the door. I turned around to thank Ralph for all his help but he was already gone.

My bubble was then suddenly burst when Charley told me that the last he heard, Fred was in Austin Texas with his old friend Jerry Jeff Walker. I was disappointed, but I got over it quickly because I still knew where Fred lived and that was far more than I expected to find out in less than one hour’s time in the Grove.

Mister Charles Elmore Brown is a tall lanky man in his late fifties or early sixties who was wearing shorts and a fisherman’s cap when I met him. He spoke in a slow/deep Southern drawl and was very happy to talk about the Grove and what transpired in their sleepy little village back in the good old days. It turns out that Charley is now a columnist for one of the local newspapers called the Biscayne Bay Tribune. He also writes for a number of other newspapers in that neck of the woods. One might say that Charley is Coconut Grove’s un-official town historian. His newspaper column is entitled: Inside Coconut Grove. He said that after selling a club he owned in Memphis he moved to Coconut Grove in the early sixties and bought the Gaslight Café from Sam Hood.

I ordered lunch and sat with Charley for a while listening to his tales from the past and I learned all about the famous writers, artists and musicians who resided in the Grove at one time or another over the last forty years. He either knew or at least met all of them.  The list of characters was very impressive{ Joni Mitchell, Stephen Stills, David Crosby, Neil Young, Levon Helm, Richie Havens, John Sebastian, Vince Martin, Jose Feliciano, Jimmy Buffet, Odetta, Josh White, Peter, Paul & Mary, Jerry Jeff Walker, Ry Cooder and Tennessee Williams…among others}. Mister Brown had never met Tim Buckley, but he had heard of him.

As I talked with Charley, another fellow by the name of Bob Brosnan came over to the bar and told me how Fred had taught him to play guitar. I loved the good vibe I was feeling in that room and I was a little letdown when Charley asked the bartender for his check, saying he had to go.

While nursing his last 8 ounce Bud, Charley spoke about the fact that when he owned the Gaslight Coffeehouse he gave Joni Mitchell her first job in the Grove, before David Crosby swept her away to California. He told me how much Crosby and Stills (both residents in the Grove) were so much in awe of Fred Neil that they were seriously considering calling their new super-group “Son Of Neil” instead of “CSN”. Charley spoke lovingly about Jose Feliciano and his wife Hilda. He told me a story of how one night after the last show of the evening at the Gaslight, Charlie, Fred, Vince Martin, Jose Feliciano and others were hanging around outside the club. They started tossing a Frisbee around in the street and were all having a great time when suddenly Jose came down the street riding a bicycle yelling: “Look ma, no hands”. After they rescued Jose from a sure disaster they all laughed their asses off. No one had ever seen a blind man ride a bicycle before. It was hysterical and all in good fun.

Charley asked for my card so that he could mail me some of his newspaper articles that related to the experiences he had discussed with me. I obliged, and after shaking my hand and giving me a big smile, Charley was on his way back to his home.

I walked outside the Taurus to take some pictures and I noticed that Charley only lived around the corner from the club. Since I had so many more questions to ask him, I decided that I would see if he was willing to talk a little more. He invited me into his home and we sat by his desk and resumed our conversation. Even though I had a tape recorder in my bag, I never brought it out. I jotted down a few notes as we went along but mostly I tried to commit everything else to memory.

charles_elmore_brownThe first thing I noticed was a picture of Charley and Fred Neil hanging on the wall. I asked if I could take a picture of Charley holding the photograph and he most graciously consented. It turns out that Charley and Fred are good friends and he had a lot more to tell me about the old days.

He reminisced about the time Fred was in a limo about to take a ride up to Woodstock. As he passed a familiar park bench in Washington Square (a bench where Fred had slept on some occasion), he stuck his head out the window and shouted: “Don’t worry, I’ll be back ”.

Charley told me about one night up in Woodstock when he and Fred went to the Millbrook for dinner when, in walked Rick Danko of The Band. Rick knew Fred and asked them if they wanted to do some opium with him. So, they agreed and went with Rick to his house and consumed the drug orally while sitting in front of a huge picture window in Rick’s living room. The panoramic view was awesome and a little while after the opium kicked in, Bob Dylan walked through the door. He stood there with a cigarette in his hand and a huge smile on his face and all he could say was: “You boys, you boys”. He knew he arrived too late, so he turned around and left them to continue with their own amusement.

Charley talked about how stoned they use to get, and as an example, he told me about one night at the Gaslight when Fred was working alone. It was late and Fred was performing his third set. He sang The Water Is Wide and when he finished, everyone applauded as usual. He said thank you and began to play again. He started strumming his guitar and what do you know, he played the same song again. So, when he was finished, everyone applauded and Fred said thank you. He then proceeded to play the same song again for the third time. That’s how high he was. He had no clue that he was stuck in the repeat mode. Charley said, all in all, it was pretty funny.

fred neil & charlie brown

Charley talked about the fact that Fred and Vince Martin played their last live performance (in the Grove) at his club. He was proud of that.

I asked him if Fred got screwed out of his royalties for Everybody’s Talkin’?  Charley immediately told me a story of how (after the release of Midnight Cowboy) he and Fred were having breakfast at a diner or someplace when Fred showed him a royalty check that had a whole lot of zeros on it.  He said that Fred has people who take care of all that business stuff.

We both talked about the fact that Everybody’s Talkin’ is the seventh most played song on the radio and that over 110 artists have recorded the song.
Those statistics certainly reinforce my belief that a successful movie theme song can take a writer or performer to a new plateau of acceptance. {Too bad Tim missed out on Moulin Rouge}.

Charley happened to mention that in the old days, if you walked passed Fred’s house, you could sometimes hear him playing guitar in his living room while sitting on the couch.

I asked Charley why Fred just suddenly dropped out of sight and stopped performing live. He then proceeded to tell me a sad story of how a personal tragedy in Fred’s life devastated him and caused him to withdraw totally from the public eye.

Lastly, Charley told me a story of how one day Fred was sitting in a restaurant in Austin when an 18-year-old boy came up to him and said “hello dad”. Fred looked at him, put his arm around his shoulder, and said: “Sit down son and let’s get acquainted”. When Charley told me that, I could only think of how great it would have been if Tim and Jeff had spent more time getting acquainted. Maybe two additional tragedies could have been avoided.

Charley had heard that Fred’s new-found son is a pretty good singer and guitar player himself.

It was now three o’clock and I had taken up too much of Charley’s time, so I figured that I should bid him “faretheewell” and take to the road for the long ride back.

So, I never got to meet Fred Neil, but I made a friend, and discovered Coconut Grove. It only took me 35 years to find it. It turned out to be a great day and a nice ride back to Sebastian.

I asked Charley if I could reprint a few stories from his newspaper columns about the Grove and he said that would be fine with him.

You’re a good man, Charley Brown.

Peace,
Jzero
http://www.timbuckleyandfriends.com/