Searching For The Dolphins: The Mysterious Life of Fred Neil

‘I’m not the one to tell this world how to get along / I only know that peace will come when all hate is gone / I’ve been searching for the dolphins in the sea / And sometimes I wonder, do you ever think of me.’ — from ‘The Dolphins’

Fame is a funny thing. The average American in 2001 could easily spot and identify Jennifer Lopez walking down the street, though most over the age of 21 would be hard pressed to name one of her hit songs. Pop culture, marketing, and pervasive electronic media have done their jobs, ensuring that we all can, at the very least, identify Miss Lopez as she walks down the street.

On the other hand, the average American in 2001 could very easily identify the classic pop song, ‘Everybody’s Talkin’, though most would be completely unable to name or identify the composer of the seventh most-played song on the radio over the past three decades. Fred Neil has spent those three decades walking down the street unrecognized, unknown, and completely detached from the world of popular music and culture.

That’s apparently how he wanted it. So when the 64-year-old songwriting legend (in its most literal, mythic meaning) passed away in July at his home in Florida, a number of folks who lived near and knew the reclusive and quiet man were unaware of his important musical contribution. For whatever personal reasons, Neil walked away from the life of an iconic folksinger, one who was idolized by hopeful young musicians like Bob Dylan in Greenwich Village, New York in the early 1960s.

But composing a standard and influencing Bob Dylan were not Neil’s only musical accomplishments. The young Floridian headed to Memphis in the 1950s, immersing himself in the developing world of recorded music. With a gospel background, the young man with a resonant baritone as memorable and powerful as Paul Robeson’s recorded several rockabilly singles and even played session guitar in the studio for Paul Anka and Bobby Darin.

He became acquainted with other up-and-comers in the business like Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Sam Phillips, even Elvis, and before long, he had written rock and roll songs that would be recorded by none other than Buddy Holly (‘Come Back Baby’) and Roy Orbison (‘Candy Man’). But by the early 1960s, Neil’s compositions would become more reflective, more philosophical, more poetic, with depth to suit a voice of even greater depth. For a singer/songwriter with something to say, he would have to go to the artistic center of New York City to be heard.

Dylan wasn’t the only aspiring performer to occasionally share a stage with Neil. John Sebastian, Odetta, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Richie Havens were among the many friends, contemporaries, and admirers of Neil during those heady days at The Bitter End, Cafe Wha?, and the Gaslight.

By all accounts, Neil was the best performer of the bunch during that period. Among his fellow folk song purists, Neil stood out, with his mournful and emotional voice adding experience far beyond his years. And Fred not only kept the classic folk songs alive (his interpretation of the traditional, ‘Cocaine’, was bone-chilling), he was writing his own songs. Few of the Village performers were contributing new material in their efforts to carry forward the folk tradition. In Fred’s case, you couldn’t really tell that he was. His songs sounded as old and road-weary as his voice did.

In his 1999 autobiography, Havens told the story of how Neil and his first musical partner, Dino Valente, would bring the house down: ‘Fred and Dino blew the room out completely. They closed their set with ‘What’d I Say’, which was a strange move for the typical folk singer. But neither Fred nore Dino were typical anything. They extended the tune with a call-and-response, like gospel singers. Then they left the stage and worked their way through the crowd, their guitars in the air, still shouting the song as they marched out the back door. The crowd was in an uproar. Then after a minute their voices could be heard again, still singing as they came around the building, in through the front door and back onto the stage. The audience was driven beyond nuts.’
Neil’s first album was released with then-partner, Vince Martin, 1964’s Tear Down The Walls, but Neil’s blues-based folk was first truly captured on 1965’s Bleecker And MacDougal, aptly named for the spiritual and actual crossroads in the city where music of conscience and meaning was being practiced. The cover showed Neil with guitar standing awkwardly in the middle of the famed intersection on a cold New York night, an urban folkster whose heart and soul resided someplace far South of the chaos in the city .
The displacement and ambivalence would come through in the words of the songs, and in the way in which they were sung, with blues felt as deeply as Robert Johnson’s at his crossroads. ‘Would you like to know a secret, just between you and me/I don’t know where I’m going next, I don’t know where I’m gonna be/But that’s the other side of this life, I’ve been leading/That’s the other side to this life.’ (‘Other Side Of This Life’ would be covered by Peter, Paul, and Mary, The Youngbloods, The Lovin’ Spoonful, and, the most widely-known version, Jefferson Airplane.)

The title track of that first solo album was clearly not a celebration of the city, it was a thinly-veiled declaration of disgust for the crowded island. Neil would return home to Florida shortly thereafter, only occasionally performing New York club gigs, which constituted the whole of his legendary live performances. At home, he limited to thoughtful and exploratory guitar playing to performances for the dolphins at the Miami Seaquarium; the beginning of what would later become his truest vocation.
In 1967, Fred Neil was released, which included a song that captured the longing and the isolationism that seemed to run through all of Neilís recordings. ‘Everybody’s talkin’ at me/ I don’t hear a word they’re saying/Only the echoes of my mind/People stoppin, starin’/I don’t see their faces/Only the shadows of their eyes.’ ‘Everybody’s Talkin’ would become familiar to the world as the major hit sung by Harry Nilsson, another vocalist capable of carrying the song’s sense of sadness and hope. The song was a perfect fit for Midnight Cowboy, the Best Picture for 1969, itself a study of misfits in a tough and disturbing urban world. ‘Everybody’s Talkin’ has gone on to be recorded by over one hundred artists.

Another album, Sessions, would take Neil’s unique vision of the blues into a rambling, Indian-inspired exploration of the twelve-string guitar, another important element of the sound created by the influential artist. The raga-like songs that ran seven and eight minutes seemed to also be representative of Neil’s wild nature, and refusal to be reigned in by any of society’s conventions, especially the musical ones. And in California recording the album, his antisocial behavior continued: while at a party at Cass Elliott’s house, he and Jimi Hendrix retreated upstairs to indulge in their growing mutual interest in mind alteration.
Sessions was not an accessible record by pop music standards, but then, neither was Neil, who was utterly disinterested in interviews and tours to support his recordings. He declined when offered opportunities to perform on the Tonight Show, Johnny Cash’s television series, and a tour with Harry Belafonte. He only granted one interview ever, for Hit Parader magazine in 1966 (which didn’t stop this writer from requesting an interview in a letter just last year; as expected, no reply).

By the time Other Side Of This Life was released, Neil’s musical ambition seemed to have run out of steam. In the interest of contract fulfillment, half the album was a stellar live set of songs, mostly from previous records. The studio tracks included a duet on ‘Ya Donít Miss Your Water’ with another artist who would leave behind an equally influential body of work, Gram Parsons.

On the album’s cover, Neil is smiling, shirtless, sitting on a boat against a blue sky, seeming to have found the other side of his life and the contentment that the reassurance in his singing had always implied. It’s an appropriate image for what became his final album, released some thirty years before his death (several more albums were recorded but remain unreleased, including sessions with Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, and John Stewart).

The album opened with perhaps his most powerful and autobiographical song, ‘The Dolphins.’ ‘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.’

Fred Neil really did go searching for the dolphins in the sea. He retreated to Coconut Grove, Florida and dedicated the rest of his life to dolphin research and preservation. He helped to found the Dolphin Project, an organization dedicated to preventing the capture and exploitation of dolphins worldwide. His interest in dolphins had been there all along, as some years earlier, he had even befriended Cathy, the central character on the television series, ‘Flipper.’

On only a few occasions did he resurface to perform music in the years since 1971, and those were benefit concerts for dolphin research (including performances in 1975 with John Sebastian, 1976 with Joni Mitchell, and 1977 with Jackson Browne in Japan). In 2000, he contributed music to a documentary videotape released by the Dophin Project. All of his royalties for ‘The Dolphins’ (covered by many, most notably Tim Buckley, Richie Havens, and Billy Bragg) have been donated to the organization for some time.

In 2000, Mojo magazine published a lengthy and thorough article detailing his role in those early years, his influence on others, and his remote and frequently drug-induced temperament. Neil himself wrote a letter to Mojo after the article’s publication, commenting only on his beloved Dolphin Project. He made no references to his life or his music.

His preference for the beautiful and intelligent creatures of the sea and disinterest in his own species do not, however, fully account for his absence. Apparently, a personal tragedy of some sort also played a part in Neil’s withdrawal, but that, of course, only contributes further to the mystery of Fred Neil. To analyze it too deeply would be to invade the privacy that he cherished so deeply. Jerry Jeff Walker, a kindred musical soul (and himself the author of a standard, ‘Mr. Bojangles’), was among those from the music years who maintained contact with their retired friend. He said of Neil, for Mojo, ‘Fred’s an endangered species. Like his dolphins, he’s just trying to keep from getting caught and made to perform at Sea World.’

As is the case with most great artists, the songs speak for themselves, whether they do or don’t have the inevitable starmaking machinery behind them, supporting whoever may be the current or next Jennifer Lopez. Even before his long silence, Fred Neil rejected the publicity and promotion that would have delivered his remarkable talents to the world. But when you compose a song like ‘Everybody’s Talkin’ that reaches and touches so many, the trappings of fame and pop culture are irrelevant. It, like the other songs and the inspiring voice of Fred Neil, will endure.

I’m goin’ where the sun keeps shinin’, through the pourin’ rain/Goin’ where the weather suits my clothes/Bankin’ off of the northeast wind/Sailin’ on a summer breeze/Skippin’ over the ocean, like a stone.‘ – from ‘Everybody’s Talkin’

Rush Evans
Discoveries magazine, September 2001 issue
Austin, TX