Ric O’Barry

ric o'barry

When did you first meet Fred Neil?

I met him in the early Sixties. He was playing at that club in the Coconut Grove, the Gaslight. A lot of people would play there: Joni Mitchell, Rambling Jack Elliot, Bob Ingram, Odetta, Josh White, Tom Paxton, Vince Martin, all the folkies. Fred was good friends with my kid brother Terry at the time. Fred started coming around to the Seaquarium where I was training dolphins for the Flipper TV series. He was interested in dolphins and diving.

At that time, I had five dolphins to care for. Whenever I had to go to the Bahamas to do the underwater filming, I would leave Fred babysitting some of the dolphins that I left behind. Fred, Bob Ingram and Bob’s lovely mermaid girl friend at the time, Gay Idema, now his wife Gay Ingram, would all spend time with the dolphins while I was gone. Fred had the patience of a saint, which made him the perfect dolphin babysitter. I remember watching Fred with his head under the water with bubbles coming out all around, trying to sing to the dolphins underwater.

He started coming to watch the dolphins all the time?

He would come by all the time and would bring his friends to play music for the dolphins. I remember Joni, Jerry Mulligan, Rambling Jack, even Timothy Leary and several other far out people. I was always getting in trouble because of this. I was working for MGM, NBC and the Miami Seaquarium and though I had lots of privacy. This was the early sixties, and long hair was starting, and people were wondering what all these long hairs were doing, tripping around the grounds. Felix Papplardi, Cass Elliot, Denny Doherty, from the Mamas and the Papas, David Crosby, all these people were coming around with Fred to hanging out and playing music to the dolphins.. Those were great times. I knew Fred more as a diver and someone who was interested in dolphins than a musician. He seemed more interested in what I  was doing than in what he himself was doing at the time.

Was there a Dolphin Project before 1970?

No, not the Dolphin Project as such. I started a group called Protect the Dolphin Inc, but it didn’t have anything to do with the dolphin captivity issue. It was founded to do something about all the dolphins getting killed in the tuna nets. Later, I was arrested in Bimini, Bahamas for trying to free a captive dolphin, and that’s when it started, Earth Day 1970. We actually called it the World Dolphin Foundation, that was the corporation, and the Dolphin Project was the first project we did under the World Dolphin Foundation. That was all about the captivity issue. Yone,Vince Martin, Allen Cohen, Hank Truby, and Gay and Bob Ingram, Steven Stills, David Crosby and especially Fred were all a big help in getting the Dolphin Project rolling, they were good energy. Actually, there were a great many people involved in those halcyon days of Coconut Grove, far too many to mention here.

Was communicating with dolphins via music something that was part of that?

Yes,  basically it was me and Fred doing this research.  Dr. John Lilly had done research into communicating with dolphins but nobody had tried with music before. Fred pioneered that work with the dolphins and with Hugo, the killer whale at the Miami Seaquarium. There was a movie being made on Seaquarium grounds at the time, on the Flipper set. It was called “Hello Down There” with Richard Dryfuss and Tony Randall, and it took place in a house that was underwater. We built a house like on a lake and the bottom part was open so the dolphin could come in. Fred would come in there for days and play his 12 string his guitar. The dolphins would come up and tap the guitar when he played certain chords…..Fred always said it was the tone that attracted them, I don’t know what anything of it meant but that’s what he would do. He wanted to communicate with the dolphins with music….we used to have long conversations about that back then, Fred, Steven Stills, Rick Danko, John Sebastian, Eric Andersen, Jack Eliott, especially Bob Ingram, Vince Martin. Music is a form of communication, too, so I am sure you can communicate with music.

What about the Dolphin Project shows, was he into doing those shows?

He was into the shows happening but he really didn’t want to perform. He would tell me ‘ok, Sebastian is doing it, so now I don’t have to perform’, and I would tell him that the only reason that John Sebastian was doing is that you are doing it, and he would go ok, , and he’d do it. It was not easy for him to go out there and sit on the stool, he wouldn’t even go to the grocery store at this point, so you can imagine trying to sit on a stool, in the spotlight, in front of strangers, it was very difficult for him. You know “….people stopping, staring, I can’t see their face, only the shadow of their eyes…” that was not contrived, that was true, that was how Fred felt. But we were so broke at the time that we needed the money to feed the dolphins and he did the shows. We did one benefit concert with Jimmy Buffett, who at the time was totally unknown, and so broke we had to push his pick up truck to get it started after the show. If I recall correctly that one was to buy food for dolphin Opo.

Then we did The Rolling Coconut Revue, and the purpose of those shows was to raise funds to go to Japan and bring attention to the plight of the whales and the dolphins. All the money from the shows were for that purpose. Those were great times, Freddy, Vince Martin, Bob Ingram, Joni Mitchell, Tim Schmitd, Peter Childs, Richie Havens, Country Joe Mc Donald, John Sebastian, Jackson Browne, J.D.Souther, I can’t remember all the players. We rolled from Coconut Grove right into Tokyo.

I want to make it clear that no money from the CBS advance that Michael Lang got for Fred’s album ever went to finance the Japan Mission as reported by one of Fred’s former managers. What happened was this: Michael got Fred a deal with CBS based on his high visibility as he was doing the Dolphin Project shows in Coconut Grove, California and Tokyo. The advance, if I remember correctly, was $120,000, and Michael would take some of the advance and send some of it to Fred until there was only $20,000 left and no album. Then CBS threatened to sue Lang/Neil Productions.  I was then asked by Fred and Michael  to help put an album together. I just produced the biggest music event in the history of Japan, and I guess they thought I could pull this record production off. I signed a contract with Lang/Neil Productions as executive producer,  basically I did it to help Fred and Michael who were under the gun. First thing that I did was hire the proper musicians. We brought in Pete Childs and Harvey Brooks. Fred, Peter and Harvey were the real musical producers, I simply put all of the people and elements together and got out of their way and let the musicians do what they do best.

The songs were all covers?

Yes, but all of them were real credible Fred Neil tunes, even though he didn’t write them. The songs represented where he was at during this time of his life. The songs were carefully chosen by Fred, Peter and myself.

How did he survive in the Village in the early days?

Those were lean years I guess, but he somehow managed somehow, like so many other starving artists. I remember once when Fred, John Sebastian and I  were in New York, in the late seventies with some of the Japanese musicians, and Fred was giving us the tour of the Village. He told us the story of how he’d go to this cafe in the Village and for a few pennies buy hot tea, the second cup of hot water was free, so he would take the bottle of ketchup and make tomato soup with it, and that was how he survived. But you really need to ask Vince, Sebastian and these guys this question, I didn’t know Fred in those days.

Is there any truth to the stories of Fred’s drug use?

I’m glad you asked that question. In my opinion, this aspect of Fred’s life was greatly exaggerated. I never saw him do hard drugs, not ever. I’ve heard the same stories, and maybe he did in the early days in the Village, but I never, in all the years I knew him, saw him do hard drugs. He would drink beer and smoke some pot, but not hard drugs. In the last ten years he didn’t even smoke pot. I gave this information to his kids, I wanted to make sure they knew the truth, there were so many false impressions floating around. As a matter of fact, and I don’t know if Fred told this to anyone else, but he told me many times that he regretted recording “Cocaine.” It’s the only song that he wished that he had not recorded. He referred to coke as “the poison” and frequently talked about all the lives that he saw destroyed by cocaine.

Back to the Bayshore sessions, did Fred enjoy it?

He was really reluctant and scared at first, and we the only thing we had was “December Dream” that he had recorded before, so we did that. After that was in the can, he loosened up and we decided to do the album. So the answer is yes, he eventually enjoyed the experience. We picked some Bobby Charles songs and some other relevant tunes and went in and did it. When it was all over, Michael called from New York and said that Colombia wanted us to re-record the whole thing with Stuff in East Orange, New Jersey.

Do you recall when that was?

No, it was sometime in the early eighties, Fred and I flew up to East Orange and cut the whole album in two days, we got them down in one or two takes. Fred was really uptight about going up there, but he’d met Stuff in Japan, they made him feel comfortable, so that made him relax…… By the way, no drugs were used by anyone during both of these sessions. I know you are all wondering…

CBS rejected both versions of the album?

I went to CBS in NYC and played them the tapes, I remember I sat in the waiting room next to Paul Simon who got in before us, he didn’t stay very long. Finally Mike Lang and I got in and played them the tapes. There were no smiling faces afterwards. I don’t think they like the fact that they paid for a Fred Neil album, but instead, they got, Bobby Charles, Bob Ingram, Peter Childs, Panama Red, Billy Roberts and John Broheney. It’s a good album, Fred liked it, Peter liked it Harvey and everyone else involved liked it. Bottom line, CBS owns the rights to the album and CBS owns the tapes and if they choose to release they will. Fred and Michael honored their contract, I turned the tapes over to the people who paid for the project and I moved on. In a perfect world, everyone would get a chance to hear this unusual and lovely album, but unfortunately we don’t live in a perfect world.

Which version do you prefer?

I like them both, I think both are very good, the Bayshore sessions have a very folksy feel that I like. The songs are excellent. Walk on Water, Tennessee Blues could be a hit, and Fred did a great version of December Dream, even better than the original recording. All the tunes stand up on their own, they are a great listen.

Same songs on both versions?

Same songs, except Bicycle Path, which was something we did on the spot in the Bayshore Studio, that we did not record with Stuff. The Stuff tapes are great! They have a jazz feel to them. Keep in mind, we are talking about the same band that used by John Lennon, Paul Simon, Joe Cocker, James Taylor. Fred and Stuff will knock your socks off. Unfortunately, the suits at the record company who are sitting on this work of art simply don’t get it.

How was Fred’s relationship with Michael Lang?

Not good, Fred didn’t want anything to do with him at that point, they never talked. At first they got along fine, but as time went Fred wouldn’t talk to him. I think that I introduced Michael to Fred. Lang was from New York and came down to the Grove for a few years where he opened the first head shop. Later on,  I was partners with Michael and a lawyer name Barry Turan. We started a company called Joint Productions. We produced the Miami Pop Festival in Gulfstream Park, back in the late sixties, the first Miami pop festival, it was called the Miami Underground Pop Festival. Fred was the first one that we invited to play, but he took a pass. We produced Jimi Hendrix, Blue Cheer, John Lee Hooker, Mothers of Invention, Grateful Dead, NRBQ, and on and on. Sorry, I’m drifting. Back to your question about Michael and Fred. Fred really had no need for a manager at that point, he wasn’t working, he wasn’t going to work, at least that’s how I remember it. Earlier on he had Howard Soloman as a manager, then he had Michael Lang and then he had Albert Grossman. I don’t think that Albert took 25 percent of Fred’s royalties. There was no business to manage, he was retired, living on royalties, but he thought he needed a manager to do his taxes for him I guess, that’s why he had Howard and Michael and later Grossman.

Did he have a studio at Howard Solomon’s home in the Grove? Did he ever record there?

No, I don’t think so, at least he never talked about it. Howard had a four track recorder there, but Fred was not interested.

Howard had a contract with Fred and when it ran out he went to Michael, but Fred never recorded with Howard in Coconut Grove?

Howard may have  recorded other artists there, but not Fred. Howard basically taped Fred at his club in NYC, tapes that were never meant for release and that Fred would never have allowed to be released if he were alive. Turning on a tape recorder while someone is singing in your club, and producing an album of musical material are two different things.

Did Fred play at the Miami Pop Festival?

No,  he was invited, but he declined. Same with Woodstock, he was the first to be invited, but he took a pass. As fate would have it, rained throughout the Miami Pop Festival, and we also had a problem with counterfeit tickets, and we were hurt financially. We tried to make it up by putting a the show with the Byrd’s and Stepenwolf later on at the Miami Marine Stadium when the Birds and Stepenwolf  were at their peak, and it started raining again, and it rained for forty days. I lost a fortune, all the money I had saved from the Flipper TV series. Michael packed up without a dime and went back to New York. He took the rolodex of what we had done here, found some investors and did Woodstock. I could have been involved, but at the time I had an opportunity to work with a  whale and I was really excited about that, the first killer whale in the eastern United States. Later, Michael sent me a first class plane ticket to Woodstock and had a limo pick me up, gave me a walkie talkie, to make it look I was working, and I watched the show from a seat on the stage. I soon saw what was going to happen, and left after the first day. I returned to Miami to take care of the whale, which was more important to me.

Fred was in Woodstock at the time?

Yes, but he didn’t attend the shows.

When did Fred move to Woodstock?

I don’t recall exactly, dates sort of blend together for me. But he moved there in the late sixties.

Nobody knew he was down in the Florida Keys?

No, and I felt really bad about that. I had made up my mind that if any of his kids asked me where he was that I’d tell, even if it cost me my friendship with Fred. I wasn’t going to seek them out but if they had asked me, I would have told them, but nobody asked me. A couple of the kids are still upset with me for not telling them, but that was the way Fred wanted it. It made me very uncomfortable being the only one that knew he was down there in the Florida Keys, and having to tell people that I didn’t know where he was, but that’s what he wanted. No question about it, had I told anyone where he was he would have disappeared and that bothered me also. Damn if you do, and damn if you don’t. When Fred started needing medical attention for skin cancer, it was around 1998, he made it very clear to me that if I revealed to anyone where he lived, he would simply leave, and then no one would know where he was or how he was doing. I didn’t feel I really had a choice but to respect his decision, no matter how much I disagreed with it.

Vincent Van Gogh reminded me of Fred, he was the same, extremely talented, very sensitive, and totally introverted, even in the early days. They both had a different way of communicating with people. Fred he had a language all of his own, like James Joyce, I don’t know if you have ever read Joyce, but he made up his own words, nobody really knows what the hell he’s talking about in Ulysses. It took me many years to understand Fred’s language, actually we communicated very well, and we still do.

Do you recall Fred talking about Dylan?

I remember once Dylan showed up at his house in Woodstock with Rick Danko while I was there. Many musicians would have killed to record with Fred. The Band wanted to record Fred, Rick Danko wanted to record with Fred, but Fred wouldn’t cooperate.  I remember Jimmy Buffett was recording his album “Son of Son of a Sailor” in Bayshore Studios at the same time we were there and he wanted to do record a duet of “Just a Little Bit of Rain” but Fred went into hiding again, he wouldn’t do it, he would not cooperate, that was Fred. I saw that happen a hundred times with some huge recording stars. I never got that one, I still don’t get it!

Henry Llach