Urban Spacemen and Wayfaring Strangers

Urban Spacemen and Wayfaring Strangersby Richie Unterberger

“Fred was a natural linkup of various musical styles,” observes John Sebastian, soon to play an important role in Neil’s shows as an accompanist on harmonica, and soon after that to became a major folk-rock star as the principal singer-songwriter in the Lovin’ Spoonful.  “The thing that was so different about Fred was that he had not only a Southern background, but was one of the first guys that was crossing racial boundaries in his style in a sense.  This gospel music that he had inherited was very much the gospel music of the black church.  Some of his friends, like [black folksingers] Odetta and Len Chandler and some of the black musicians that were our first real close friends, had an affinity with Fred that they didn’t have with the New York musicians.  ‘Cause we had very much of an Eastern background, and it simply didn’t include as much of that rich musical heritage.”

When Neil finally made his debut album, it was not as a solo artist, but as part of a duo with Vince Martin, another folk veteran who had sung on the Tarriers’ pop hit “Cindy Oh Cindy” back in 1956.  The rare Tear Down the Walls album, issued by Elektra in either 1964 or 1965, was a transitional effort, caught between the hootenanny folk era and the dawn of folk-rock.  Including roughly equal measures of folk covers and Neil originals (and one Martin composition), it perhaps inadvertently emphasized that Neil was best as a solo performer, not as a partner or band member.  On the vocal duets, Martin’s more conventionally bright and higher timbres tended to mask the sensual and earthy qualities of Neil’s much lower and bluesier voice.  Neil’s true character — that of the ambling, good-natured existentialist, best enjoyed in a late-night coffee-and-cigarette frame of mind — surfaced on blues-folk tracks like “Weary Blues” and especially “Wild Child in a World of Trouble,” which he sang alone.  “Baby,” another standout, hinted at the Indian raga tinges that would more strongly inform some of his best later work.

Tear Down the Walls, in hindsight, was most noteworthy for the arrangements.  The folk revival dwelled on spartan acoustic presentation, often played by only one performer.  Here Neil and Martin were augmented by John Sebastian on harmonica, and multi-instrumentalist Felix Pappalardi (soon to become famous for producing Cream) on guitarron, a Mexican bass.  The quasi-band sound was sometimes only a step or two from folk-rock.  “Our instruments went well together,” remembers Sebastian with pride of his association with Pappalardi.  “The harmonica and the guitar could kind of sandwich a folk performer in a very flattering way.  [Elektra producer] Paul Rothchild also heard this, and we began to get work as a kind of team that would rock a little harder on something that was basically a folk arrangement.”

Neil took a big leap toward folk-rock — and a big leap forward in the quality of his material — with his proper Elektra solo debut, Bleecker and MacDougal (1965).  Joining Sebastian and Pappalardi in the backup unit were Sebastian’s one-time roommate Pete Childs (second guitar and dobro) and Douglas Hatelid (bass).  Only drums, and a greater electric guitar presence, would have been necessary to launch this into bona fide rock territory.  In any case, the additional musicians supplied the oomph that Neil’s progressively more sophisticated and gutsier compositions demanded.

“The Vince and Fred music was more related to commercial folk music, just by virtue of what you have when you put two singers and two guitarists together,” feels Sebastian.  “Once Fred was sort of on his own on a record, what would naturally come out would be more of the Southern musical hybrid.  Whether he was doing it consciously or not, I can’t say.

“He was a ‘oh, we’ll just feel it and it’ll work out’ kind of a guy.  It was Felix’s and my particular lot for those [Elektra] years to get Fred in the studio and nail it down a little bit, actually plan where a solo would be so that the guy would be ready when the solo happened.  Peter Childs became another member of this ‘keep Fred in line’ team.  Felix and I were in some degree or another babysitting these recordings a little bit to help Paul [Rothchild], who we could see had an enormous job to produce these projects.”

The undoubted star of Bleecker and MacDougal, however, was Neil, now hitting his stride as a singer and writer.  Arguably, no other white folk performer was as skilled as singing the blues — the real blues, not the second-hand stuff — as Fred Neil was.  Instead of just aping old recordings or resurrected blues legends working the coffeehouse circuit in the 1960s, he worked out his own blues-rooted style, stretching out phrases with a serene confidence, caressing the low notes as if he was actually making love to them.

It was fortunate that Neil’s compositions were often ideal for the languorous, sweet drowsiness of his deep, rich voice.  Neil was not the troubadour bent on changing the world or exorcising his personal demons, as many of his competitors in Greenwich Village were.  He was more the observer, content to go with the flow and roll with the punches.  Sometimes he painted himself as the country boy come to the city and bemused, occasionally overwhelmed, by big-town temptations and confusions, wanting nothing more than to escape to the country, the sea, or the more peaceful recesses of his own mind.  Not for Neil the conventional verse-bridge-chorus-laden structures of most popular tunes, despite his experiences at the edges of the New York music industry.  The songs were laid out and delivered more as looping, ruminating states-of-consciousness, the mood and the way it was played and sung taking precedence over clear or instructive messages.

For a guy who came across as a lazy sod in many of his own lyrics, he certainly seemed to have entered a remarkably prolific and consistent period in 1965.  All but one of the tracks on Bleecker and MacDougal were written by Neil, and all were at the least good; at the best, they were classic.  There was “Blues on the Ceiling,” one of his greatest worn-to-the-ground statements of fatalism.  When he sang “up to my neck in misery, I’ll never get out of these blues alive,” it didn’t seem to be a pose, even though he sounded more resigned than angry about the situation.  “Little Bit of Rain” (covered by Linda Ronstadt on her 1967 debut album, as a member of the Stone Poneys, and also recorded in an unreleased version by top British folk-rock singer Sandy Denny) was a gorgeously drawn-out and tuneful ballad, enhanced by its lovely tremeloed guitar.  The title song and “Country Boy” reinforced Fred’s image as a man out of his depth in the Big Apple; on “Handful of Gimme,” his nonchalance toward everyday responsibilities reached almost comical extremes, with its narrator torn between spending his last cents on a ferry ride or a bag of candy.  Other numbers show his facility for swaggering blues, as in the remake of “Candy Man” and “Mississippi Train,” which had the hardest electric guitar licks on what is still a largely acoustic album.  There was also the soaringly melodic, blissfully unfettered “Other Side of This Life,” bound to become his best-known and most-covered composition besides “Everybody’s Talkin’.”

Although folk-rock had made the jump from idea to reality by 1965, Bleecker and MacDougal stopped just short of being an actual folk-rock album, with no drums and spare dabs of electricity.  “Whatever we were calling it definitely had the qualities of rock’n’roll,” muses Sebastian 35 years later.  “But the styles were always just this side of rock’n’roll.  He was a great rhythm guitarist, but he had very little inclination to use an electric.  I think that was a wise choice, because that 12-string [had] a certain kind of a propulsion you probably couldn’t get out of an electric instrument.  He had no objection to anybody playing an electric guitar accompanying him, but there are certainly both acoustic and electric guitarists accompanying him in the various recordings, including the [post-Elektra] Capitol stuff.”

While Neil’s Elektra records did not sell in huge quantities, his impact on folk and folk-rock performers of the mid-1960s was becoming quite substantial.  In the liner notes to the reissue The Many Sides of Fred Neil, David Crosby — founder-member of the Byrds, the first (and best) popular folk-rock group — wrote, “I remember thinking how much I wished I had that beautiful deep river of sound coming out of my chest instead of the plaintive little thing I was stuck with….he taught me a sizable chunk of what music was about, and even more about the whys and wherefores of being a musician.  He was a hero to me.”  In those same liner notes, Sebastian cited Stephen Stills and Richie Havens (who covered “That’s the Bag I’m In” on his first LP) as others who “learned and borrowed” from Neil.

On a more immediate level, in 1965 Sebastian would become one of the leading folk-rockers as the leader of the Lovin’ Spoonful, writing and singing their biggest hits.  Several of the Lovin’ Spoonful’s big singles — “Daydream,” “Rain on the Roof,” and “Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind” — had a lazy, good-natured swing that was certainly similar in mood to some of Neil’s writing, without being explicitly derivative of it.  John’s also proud to note that one of the Lovin’ Spoonful’s better album tracks, “Coconut Grove,” “was definitely Fred-inspired.  My wife and I were staying at his house at the time.”

Sebastian’s songwriting, he adds, was influenced by “the natural way [Fred] could combine these various styles just by being who he was.  It wasn’t any kind of an alchemy thing of ‘we’re gonna pour a little of this, and a little of that.’  That was very inspiring.  It also was a real lesson in how to let a lyric sound like it just fell out of your mouth, like you hadn’t really labored over it.  Fred always had that quality about his songs.  As a songwriter, at that time [when Sebastian and Neil were playing together], I maybe had written two songs.  But I certainly was taking note of how effortless these songs sounded.

“As a matter of fact, in later years, I began to get a little critical about them.  And say, ‘Jesus Christ, you had this genius two verses, why didn’t you write the third verse, for god’s sake?’  That was the only place that I could actually say I had any influence on Fred.  Occasionally I did get up the nerve to say, ‘Gee, we’re kind of going back to this first verse faster than I really feel like doing it.  Couldn’t we have another verse, Fred?’  That was part of the pincer movement that Felix and I were helping to apply, sort of on Paul Rothchild’s behalf.”

The Lovin’ Spoonful also covered Fred’s “The Other Side of This Life,” which became a standard of sorts without actually becoming a hit for anyone, as it was covered by star folk-rock/psychedelic groups the Jefferson Airplane and the Youngbloods, as well as Peter, Paul & Mary.  In the hands of the Airplane — who were doing it in concert as early as 1966 — it became a psychedelic improvisation that was a highlight of their concerts, as preserved on their late-’60s hit live album Bless Its Pointed Little Head.  “We explore it all over the place,” enthuses Paul Kantner, one of the Airplane’s singer-songwriters.  “You can go any number of places with it as a basis.  It’s a beautiful chord lift that goes into the chorus, very unique.”  Neil also partially inspired Kantner to write the Airplane’s “The Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil,” which in his words “referred to Freddie and Winnie the Pooh sort of thrown into a mixmaster on the psychedelic era.”

Adds Kantner, “David Crosby actually turned me on to Fred Neil.  Freddie was very evocative of a certain soulfulness that was generally lacking in the folk movement.  His was deeper than most, came from an unexplained source, and therefore was sort of semi-mystical to us sort of whitebread middle-class children.  Freddie just led us to places that normal folksingers didn’t go.  His albums became as important to me as the Weavers’ albums, who were also part of my prime influence.  Between the two of them it set me off on a really good path.”

Judy Henske, who like Neil would traverse the folk, jazz, blues, pop, and rock idioms in the 1960s, was one of the first established artists to cover Fred’s songs, putting “Little Bit of Rain” and “The Other Side of This Life” on her mid-1960s LP Little Bit of Sunshine…Little Bit of Rain.  “The thing about Fred Neil’s songs is that, remember, these are the old folk days,” she says.  “People are running around singing things like ‘Green Broom’ — ‘I went to the woods to cut broom, green broom.’  Now how interesting is that?  It was the longest folk song ever written; it, like, lasted 20 minutes.  And it was the most boring song that was ever written.  I used to sing it to punish audiences.

“But if you had a Fred Neil song to sing, you weren’t punishing the audience.  You were rewarding them for sitting there, because it was an inevitably really great song.  When he wrote ‘The Other Side of This Life,’ it was a very well-considered and musically well-written piece of philosophy.  He wrote slow music that was very thoughtful.”

The husky-voiced Henske continues, “A big reason why I recorded his stuff is because he is what would pass for, if he was a woman, an alto, which means he was like a very low baritone.  So the way his songs were written were for a voice that was very much like mine.  Everybody else is always going for a high note, but Fred Neil was always going down.  His melodies descended in a very delicate way.”  Chimes in Cyrus Faryar, who would play guitar on Neil’s two studio albums for Capitol, “When you’re singing in the lower register, it really is sort of effortless.  There’s not a lot of apparent physical effort to get between you and what it is you’re trying to say.  With Freddie, it’s like whatever’s on his mind, or however he’s feeling at the time, is going to come easily out of his body.”  Along those lines, a little-noted song whose vocal delivery certainly seems Neil-inspired — though the tune was not Neil-composed — was “Never Say No,” sung by Elvin Bishop in a lazy, super-low voice on the Butterfield Blues Band’s 1966 East-West album.

Joe Marra, who booked Neil often at his Night Owl club in the Village, notes Fred’s perfectionism.  “He was very uptight as a performer; he wasn’t cut out to be a performer.  He could get very critical of himself.  If he played a note, and the note was bad, he knew.  Other musicians, it wouldn’t upset so much.  I remember once on stage, he said, ‘Who’s playing the radio?’  And I’m looking around the place — where’s this guy hearing a goddamn radio?  [It was] on the corner, about 25 feet away, this guy on the street with a radio.”

Cyrus Faryar also remembers Neil’s fussiness with 12-string guitars, which with their two sets of strings are infamous for being difficult to tune.  “He would be tuning the guitar to the guitar, but also he would be tuning the guitar to other things.  Once he was sitting in a club near Coconut Grove [in Southern Florida], and while he was tuning, an airliner came overhead that was going to land in some major airport some miles away.  With his ears, he picked up the sound of this plane, and kind of tuned the plane all the way to the ground.”

There is probably a phase of Neil’s journey from folk to folk-rock that is lost to us now.  In the mid-1960s, he performed live for a while at the Night Owl with the Seven Sons, who included Buzzy Linhart (later a singer-songwriter of some note himself) on vibes.  Unfortunately there are no recordings of that lineup, and indeed only one of the Seven Sons on their own, a rare ESP album that is more experimental raga-folk-jazz than rock.  Neil’s first albums with a full, largely electric band would be recorded in Los Angeles for Capitol, with producer Nik Venet.

On the face of it, Venet was an odd choice for a cult singer-songwriter, as Nik was best known for his work on early Beach Boys records, as well as for mainstream pop singers like Glen Campbell, the Lettermen, the Four Preps, and Bobby Darin.  By the end of the 1960s, however, Venet was getting into some more adventurous sounds, such as the weird Bay Area psychedelic band Mad River, the Stone Poneys (Linda Ronstadt’s first group), early country-rockers Hearts & Flowers, and Neil’s friend Karen Dalton, a grainy-toned folksinger who made Fred sound slick.  Faryar points out that Venet “was a record producer, but his private life was another whole thing.  I messed around and did weird things with Nik.  Nik said, ‘Hey, let’s make a gong album.’  So we hired all of these five- or seven-foot gongs, brought them into the studio at Capitol, and spent several hours just whacking the crap out of all these various gongs, recording them for some later magical use.”  Faryar also says the late Venet would travel to Civil War battle sites and be able to hear, in “clear audio,” events like the Battle of Gettysburg.

Venet would not have to re-enact the Battle of Gettysburg with Fred Neil.  It would be enough to let the singer be himself, and surround him with top-flight musicians — including Pete Childs from the Elektra days, Faryar, Jimmy Bond on standup bass, and drummer Billy Mundi (who also played with Tim Buckley, Bob Dylan, and Frank Zappa) — to aid his transition into full-flung electric folk-rock.  And with his first album for Capitol, Fred Neil (released at the beginning of 1967), Neil nailed it, unleashing one of the greatest folk-rock albums of the 1960s.

“The Dolphins,” the album’s first track, could have hardly been a better introduction to Neil’s newly electric sound, its waves of guitar reverb perfectly matching the shimmering melody and vocals.  Drums finally made their first appearance on a Fred Neil record, and the bouzouki runs at the end of the song recalled Indian music, closing the classic with an appropriately exotic touch.  The lyrics, too, were among Neil’s very best, interspersing musings on the life of dolphins (his enthusiasm for dolphin study is well known) with regrets over ill-fated love, though as with many of his songs, the particulars of the situation are never quite clear.

Fred Neil is best remembered, however, for the original version of “Everybody’s Talkin’.”  Much slower and more simply arranged than the famous cover by Nilsson, it clearly laid out his wishes to escape the madness of contemporary life — the city, perhaps, or the music business? — into a hermetic paradise.  (That destination is most likely Southern Florida, where Neil would spend much of his post-1970 life, given the line about going to a place where the sun always shines through rain.)  In Goldmine, Venet claimed that he was asked to ask Neil to re-record the song in a faster tempo for Midnight Cowboy, but refused to do so.

Much of Fred Neil was nearly as strong as its most famous two numbers, however, and extended his lazy, nonplused man-in-the-hammock cheerfulness into some of its most hummable regions.  “Ba-De-Da” was another irresistibly catchy statement of dissatisfaction with city life, topped off with some tasty harmonica licks by Canned Heat’s Al Wilson.  It and “Faretheewell” were showcases for Neil’s knack for insinuating moan-hummed vocals.  “That’s the Bag I’m In” was fatalistic even by Neil’s own tough standards, with a narrator who can’t even be bothered to make his own breakfast over again after fouling it up.  “He wrote that song to get an advance,” claims Joe Marra.  “He was going up to his publisher uptown in a cab, and he wrote that, just like that.  Handed it in, got an advance of I think a couple hundred dollars.”

The relaxed, even intoxicated atmosphere of the record, thinks Faryar, grew out of a similar ambience in the studio.  “The sessions were very low-key, not heavily produced.  Nik’s ability was to make a comfortable situation and not interject a whole ‘hey, we’re paying for studio time’ kind of thing.  It was a matter of getting people together who would have an affinity for each other musically, who would have no personal or professional hangups in the way, to have a good time.  Freddie would run a song down, people would find a place to sit in the music, and it was very relaxed.  It was a situation of everybody getting musically comfortable, finding a nice groove, and then playing the song.  And the song was in complete support of Freddie and his voice.”

“The amplified instruments were mixed right in with the acoustic wash,” adds John Forsha, another guitarist on the sessions.  “Even when we got ‘funky,’ there was never a feeling in the studio of heavy electricity.  Our amp volumes were way down.  There was no heavy edge to anything in the room.  You had a feeling, often, that there was a little too much guitar, when you get me and Cyrus and Pete and Freddie going all at once.  Nik never really stepped in and said, ‘Don’t do that.’  He got what he wanted.  The results were quite tidy, and we hadn’t a clue how he was going to arrive at that.”  Forsha also singles out Al Wilson’s harmonica on “Ba-De-Da” for special praise: “He underplayed it beautifully.”

Fred Neil was another album destined more for the rock elite than for the general public.  Larry Beckett, close friend and frequent songwriting collaborator with singer-songwriter Tim Buckley, remembers visiting the sessions and watching “a huge room in darkness.  Way off there, with just a tiny light, was Fred, Cyrus Faryar, and the rest of the guys doing a version of ‘The Dolphins’ completely unlike what wound up on the album.  Then he would stop and change it and do something again, reconceive it.  The sense of Fred’s magnificent voice and total authenticity and commitment to creativity…you know, if Tim didn’t have it already, he got it that afternoon.”  Buckley would record excellent live and studio versions of “The Dolphins,” and also paraphrase a few of its lyrics on his composition “Once I Was,” on Tim’s 1967 album Goodbye and Hello.

Adds Beckett, “The album Fred Neil, [Buckley] and I and all of our friends think of as one of the four or five albums of the ’60s.  I don’t care what-all lists or sales charts anybody wants to throw up.  To me, it’s like the Kind of the Blue of the ’60s.  [Miles Davis’ classic jazz album] Kind of Blue is a disc you can listen to over and over, you never get tired of it, it’s eternally fresh.  And so is that Fred Neil album.”

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