By Richie Unterberger

One of the most influential folk-rock musicians of the 1960s, Fred Neil is also one of the most mysterious cult legends in all of rock.  His songs have been recorded by major artists like the Jefferson Airplane, Harry Nilsson, Linda Ronstadt, the Lovin' Spoonful, and Tim Buckley; Bob Dylan, John Sebastian, Stephen Stills, and others have all acknowledged Neil's formidable influence upon their work.  Yet Neil himself has shunned the spotlight with a vengeance, not releasing an album since 1971, seldom performing in public since the late 1960s, eluding media interviews, and maintaining an impenetrable seclusion that would be the envy of Greta Garbo.

    It is Fred's fate to be known mostly via the covers of his songs by others, particularly Nilsson's soaring version of "Everybody's Talkin'," which made the Top Ten in 1969.  He could be termed a "songwriter's songwriter" -- one whose craft was universally admired by the hip folk-rock elite, but was perhaps a little too adventurous, at times even avant-garde, for the general public.  Yet as beautiful as covers such as Nilsson's  "Everybody's Talkin'," Tim Buckley's "The Dolphins," and the Jefferson Airplane's "Other Side of This Life" are, the fact remains -- to rejig Columbia's famous promotion of Bob Dylan slightly -- that nobody sings Fred Neil like Fred Neil.  No other performers from the New York folk scene were as skilled at blending blues, folk, and rock influences into a tuneful and soulful whole, throwing in some pop, gospel, and even Indian influences along the way.  It's also fair to say that no singers of any kind, from any era, caressed the bottom end of the vocal register as deftly as Neil did; his lo-o-o-w phrases seemed to pluck blue notes from the very bottom of his shoes, so far down did he reach into his guts and soul.

    Neil made the transition from singer-songwriter folk to electric folk-rock after signing in the mid-1960s to Capitol Records, which would issue three of his four full-length LPs.  All of the albums are included in their entirety on this compilation, which adds a rare non-LP single and half a dozen choice unreleased cuts.  It is the definitive document of Neil's most prolific and mature work, which remains among the most idiosyncratic, and best, singer-songwriter recordings of the 1960s.

    Although Fred Neil's distinct brand of contemporary folk music did not fully blossom until his solo debut LP in 1965, by that time he had nearly a decade's worth of struggle in the music business under his belt.  Born in 1937, Neil spent much of his boyhood in various parts of the South before winding up in New York in the late 1950s, where he made some modest inroads into the industry as a songwriter.  Contrary to what has been sometimes written elsewhere, Neil did not co-write the early Buddy Holly track "Modern Don Juan" (which was co-composed by Jack Neal and Don Guess), but he did write a separate tune that Holly recorded, "Come Back Baby," with Buddy's producer Norman Petty.  His biggest early songwriting success, by a large margin, was "Candy Man" (co-penned with Beverley Ross), the B-side of Roy Orbison's massive hit "Crying," and a Top Thirty hit in its own right.  Its lazy yet confident blues-pop swagger certainly pointed to the direction Neil would explore on many of his own best recordings, and indeed Fred would cut his own version on his 1965 Elektra album.

    Neil put out about a half-dozen impossibly obscure singles as a solo artist between 1957 and 1963 for Look, ABC-Paramount, Epic, Brunswick, and Capitol, sometimes billing himself as Freddie Neil, and sometimes mining a teen idol vein, as unlikely as that is to imagine in light of his more renowned later efforts.  The last of these rarities, the 1963 Capitol 45 "Long Black Veil/Bottom of the Glass," was done with the Nashville Street Singers, and makes its CD debut on the second disc of this compilation.  An odd and, frankly, unimpressive fusion of gospel, country, and troubadour folk in which Neil's voice is usually overwhelmed by a very square-sounding and very large chorus of backup vocalists, it betrays little of the vocal personality that would come through so strongly on Fred's Elektra and Capitol LPs.  The choice of "Long Black Veil," however, was in hindsight appropriate, as Neil, like Johnny Cash, would make the most of his lower-than-low voice -- although Neil, unlike Johnny Cash, was quite adept at mid-range vocals as well.

    By the early sixties Neil was gaining respect as a Greenwich Village folk music performer, particularly at the Cafe Wha?, where a young Bob Dylan would sometimes back Fred on harmonica.  As Dylan once recalled on liner notes for a reissue, Neil "would play mostly the sort of things Josh White would sing.  I would play the harmonica for him, and once in a while get to sing for myself."  Neil solidified his folk identity by contributing tracks to the rare folk compilations Hootenanny Live at the Bitter End and World of Folk Music, both on the small FM label

    By 1964 he'd formed a duo with Vince Martin (who had sung on the Tarriers' "Cindy Oh Cindy" hit in 1956), resulting in the highly collectable Tear Down the Walls album for Elektra the following year.  Divided fairly evenly between Neil originals and folk covers, this is a transitional effort with one foot in the Kingston Trio-hootenanny sound, and the other in a decidedly bluesier, earthier, and more visionary mode.  Martin's higher, sweeter singing tends to sand off the rougher, more attractive edges of Neil's style on the vocal duets.  Yet the Neil persona -- easygoing yet world-weary, with that smoky, rich deep voice evoking late night coffee-and-cigarette sessions -- emerges almost full-fledged on bluesy cuts like "Weary Blues," "Wild Child in a World of Trouble" (which Neil sings alone), and "Baby," the last of which even has a tinge of Indian raga.  The most innovative features of the LP are the arrangements, which augment two twelve-string guitars with future Cream producer Felix Pappalardi on guitarron (a Mexican bass) and future Lovin' Spoonful leader John Sebastian on harmonica.  The end product was embryonic folk-rock, lacking only some electric guitar and drums to make the leap whole hog.

    Neil also employed Sebastian and Pappalardi, as well as Douglas Hatelid (bass) and Pete Childs (second guitar and dobro), on his proper Elektra solo debut, 1965's Bleecker and MacDougal .  This wonderful set fully unveiled Neil's assets and artistic vision.  Arguably, no white folk performer of the 1960s could sing the blues as well as Fred Neil, perhaps because Neil, instead of trying to ape living legends or ancient recordings, developed his own take on the form, using elongated phrasing and elements of pop-folk balladry, as well as projecting a natural confidence and ease.

    There were also Neil's unique lyrical stances.  At a time when so many of his peers were committed to changing the world or venting personal frustrations in song, Neil seemed like a curiously detached, bemused, occasionally overwhelmed observer, a country boy who wanted nothing more than to escape the big-city madness into his own private oasis.  Neil also eschewed conventional verse-chorus-bridge structures in favor of loping, elliptical compositions in which atmosphere and emotional phrasing were more important than direct or didactic messages.

    There's also a curious sense of bone-tired fatalism permeating many of the tunes.  "Blues on the Ceiling," with its low-key rumination "Up to my neck in misery, I'll never get out of these blues alive," was Neil at his most despairing; more typical was the classic "Other Side of This Life" (covered by the Jefferson Airplane, the Youngbloods, the Lovin' Spoonful, Judy Henske, and several others), with its beguiling insinuations of a reality more entrancing than the mundane distractions of the everyday world.  Yet Neil could also unleash some carefree blues, like "Mississippi Train" (with its brief bursts of electric blues guitar), "Candy Man," and "Handful of Gimme," in which the narrator, suffused with the devil-may-care flight from everyday responsibilities that characterizes much of Neil's work, is torn between spending his last pennies on a bag of candy or a Staten Island Ferry ride.

    Although Bleecker and MacDougal had traces of electric rock -- most notably in one of the strongest cuts, the achingly slow ballad "Little Bit of Rain" (covered by Linda Ronstadt and the Stone Poneys), which is graced by a beautiful tremeloed guitar part -- there were no drums, and it was ultimately far more of a folk record than a rock one.  Neil would move towards more of a group sound during mid-sixties gigs at the Night Owl club in Greenwich Village with the Seven Sons, who included Buzzy Linhart on vibes.  But Neil would not make the transition to folk-rock in the studio until he signed with Capitol Records, which released Fred Neil at the beginning of 1967.

    A crucial architect of Neil's folk-rock sound at Capitol was producer Nik Venet.  Most renowned for his work on the early Beach Boys hits, by 1967 Venet was working on stuff that was more underground, at least by Capitol standards, including the Stone Poneys (Linda Ronstadt's first group) and Bay Area psychedelic weirdoes Mad River.  Fleshing out Neil's arrangements on his first Capitol LP was a stellar band including Pete Childs, drummer Billy Mundi (who also played on albums by Frank Zappa, Tim Buckley, and Bob Dylan), guitarist Cyrus Faryar from the Modern Folk Quartet, and Jimmy Bond on standup bass.

    Neil could have hardly executed a more impressive dive into the folk-rock waters than the opening track, "The Dolphins."  Oceanic guitar reverb perfectly complements the haunting melody and Fred's mournful melodies, the long-awaited addition of drums finally pushing Neil into folk-rock after the first verse has tested the waters.  Trilling raga-rock lines decorate the final parts of the tune, adding to the unearthly shimmer of a brilliant composition mixing hazy allusions to both failed love and the mysteries of the dolphin kingdom (Neil's interest in dolphin research is well known).  Neil arguably never bettered the sheer magnificence of this track at any other time in his career, original version of "Everybody's Talkin'" included.  Tim Buckley would later record superb live and studio versions of the composition.

    "The Dolphins" was just one of several highlights on an extraordinarily consistent album that rates as Neil's finest LP.  "That's the Bag I'm In" wove some of Neil's most biting trademark fatalistic lyrics ("Burned my fingers on the coffee pot/Toast is cold, and the orange juice is hot/I should start over, but you know I'd rather not/Same thing gonna happen again") around forceful, choppy guitar riffs; the fine Chicago psychedelic band H.P. Lovecraft did an excellent hard-rocking version of the song on their debut album (which also included a similarly rocked-up take of Neil's "Bleecker and MacDougal").  Neil's dissatisfaction with city life reaches an apogee on  "Badi-Da," which is garnished by some fine harmonica riffs from Canned Heat's Al Wilson.  Typically, Fred does not rouse himself to anger about matters, but simply breaks off into several lines of wordless humming, whose damnably catchy, uplifting melody is totally at odds with the downbeat sentiments of the song (though effectively so).  "Faretheewell" also showcases Neil's knack for combination moan-hum vocals to captivating effect.

    Of course there's also the original version of "Everybody's Talkin'," utilizing a much sparer arrangement and slower tempo than the familiar Nilsson hit cover; listen for some of Fred's rare explorations of the upper notes of the vocal range near the very end of the song.  Now a pop standard, it makes clear Neil's desire to find a beatific, insular paradise away from the madding crowd, the declaration "I'm going where the sun keeps shining through the pouring rain" anticipating his long-running exile in southern Florida.  Things take a more traditional, folky turn on "Green Rocky Road" (whose authorship has been variously credited to either Neil or another cult folk-rocker, Tim Hardin) and "Sweet Cocaine."  The LP unexpectedly blasts into experimental, instrumental raga-folk-rock on the lengthy, rambling closer, "Cynicrustpetefredjohnraga," with its layers of guitars, chugging harmonica, and a nearly interminable winding down to its finish line.  Comparable to nothing else that Neil (or almost anyone else) had previously released -- the closest parallel would be the disheveled unreleased instrumental raga-rock jams, "Raga One" and "Raga Two," that Buffalo Springfield recorded around the same time -- it would nonetheless foreshadow the more experimental tone of Neil's second (and, as it turned out, final) Capitol studio LP.

    Fred Neil should have made the performer a commercially viable property at the dawn of the singer-songwriter era, along the same lines as other acts in the genre emerging around the same time, such as Laura Nyro and Leonard Cohen.  It didn't, at least partially because Neil was never one to arduously tour and promote himself.  It also most likely did not help that Neil's second Capitol LP, Sessions , was such an unexpected departure from the relatively concise songs and tight arrangements of his previous album.  The mere fact that it consisted of only seven tunes -- each marked by a take number as well as the song's actual title -- gave notice that Sessions favored a far looser, more jam-oriented vibe, in accordance with the generally stoned ambience of the rock world itself when the record was cut in October 1967.  As the title Sessions indicates, the impression is often more of a band warming up or feeling out the nuances of the songs, complete with mumbled studio chatter, than a finished, finely honed studio product.  That made the album an unusual departure from the norm even by heady 1967 standards, but also puzzled and frustrated some listeners who would have preferred the rough gems to be polished -- or at the very least edited -- to a glossier sheen.

    Sessions begins, somewhat deceptively, with a couple of its most compressed, song-oriented tracks.  "Felicity," said to have been inspired by English folk singer Felicity Johnson, is one of Neil's most splendidly sad numbers, and certainly the most straightforward original to surface on Sessions, though the lyrics are dominated not so much by specific references to a love affair as a general sense of melancholy and loss.  Next up is a pretty no-nonsense cover of Percy Mayfield's "Please Send Me Someone To Love," with a standup bass-dominated arrangement of a gospel-blues tune well-suited for Neil's low verging-on-16-RPM vocal style.  "Merry Go Round," however, took the album into a different direction and never headed back, its lengthy circular passages by turns meandering and compelling, the sluggish tempos and reverbed guitars suggesting a mental state that was not altogether healthy.  That was but a teaser for "Look Over Yonder," which finds Neil at his most despairing, declaiming at one point, "Mama, aren't you sorry I'm your son?"

     "Fools Are a Long Time Comin'," while not as lethargic as "Look Over Yonder," might well have benefited from a more electric production and a more structured approach, and disintegrates into doodling ragas; indeed, a more focused take of the song does exist.  "Looks Like Rain" tests the patience of many a listener with its adamant refusal to settle on a tempo before "Roll On Rosie," Neil's variation of the classic folk song "Rosie" (popularized by Leadbelly and others), ends the album on a somewhat more conventional, though no less stretched and distended, note.  There's no getting around the fact that although the album was certainly interesting, it was less powerful and accessible than the previous Fred Neil, although it also must be pointed out that Neil's singing is fine throughout.

    Neil's final Capitol LP, Other Side of This Life, was an odd mix of live tracks and studio leftovers produced to complete Neil's contractual obligation to the label.  Originally envisioned by Nik Venet as a compilation of concert material utilizing different musicians throughout America, in the end all six of the live cuts (all acoustic) were laid down at a club in Woodstock, with Monte Dunn (session musician on albums by Ian & Sylvia and Tim Hardin) on second guitar.  Although Neil does not seem entirely enamored of the project -- at one point snapping "Shut up, Howard!" in response to a request by his manager, Howard Solomon -- the set reveals a performer who, despite his reclusive mystique, seems pretty capable at delivering accomplished versions of his work in a concert setting.  One certainly can't argue with the song selection, including the classics "Other Side of This Life," "The Dolphins," "The Bag I'm In," and "Everybody's Talkin'," as well as the folk/blues warhorses "Rosie" and "Cocaine."

    The late Nik Venet went on record (to Goldmine) with his dissatisfaction with the studio portion of Other Side of This Life, claiming that inferior takes of some tracks were chosen, and that duets with Gram Parsons (on "You Don't Miss Your Water") and Johnny Cash were available but not used.  Still, these odds and ends make for interesting, worthwhile additions to the slim Neil canon. "Come Back Baby" (not the same tune as the one Neil had written for Buddy Holly) features jazz star Les McCann on piano, and one of the most abrupt, inelegant fadeouts you'll come across anywhere.  An alternate version of "Badi-Da" has a different vocal arrangement; the bluesy "Prettiest Train" is a basic blues; and there's also a briefer, sparer version of "Felicity" in contrast to the more elongated take on Sessions.  "You Don't Miss Your Water," the country-soul standard first recorded by William Bell, has a yearning sadness that makes it a natural for the Neil repertoire; listen to the way he stretches out the "dry" in the pivotal line, "You don't miss your water 'til your well runs dry."

    While the Capitol vaults hold a fair amount of unreleased Neil sessions, much of this consists of bluesy jams whose sense of feeling-no-pain looseness makes the Sessions LP seem like a drill sergeant exercise in comparison.  A shambling medley of "Brother Can You Spare a Dime," "Trouble In Mind," and other folk/blues oldies, for example, must have been far more amusing to play (complete with on-tape criticism of joint-passing etiquette) than to listen to, with its spindly clashing guitars, standup bass, and interjection of dissonant flutes which sound like refugees from Jimi Hendrix's "If Six Was Nine."  The George & Ira Gershwin classic "It Ain't Necessarily So" and the Coasters' "Riot in Cell Block #9" were a few other tunes that sounded more like late-night party sessions than serious attempts at disc-cutting; numerous passes at the country standard "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" could not quite result in a passable take.  Yet amidst the sometimes chaotic archive lie some nifty unreleased surprises, half a dozen of which are found at the end of disc two of this compilation.

    "Sweet Mama" had already been recorded by Neil on the Bleecker & MacDougal album before he re-cut it for Capitol; this previously unveiled version is considerably more rock-oriented, with pleasing rolling piano and light drums.  The standard "Trouble in Mind" is (like "You Don't Miss Your Water") a logical fit for Neil's moody, rootsy sensibilities.  The more stilted "I'm Gonna Run" (aka "Ride Stormy Weather") is one of Neil's less adventurous outings, echoing the earlier days of the hootenanny folk scene with its galloping troubadour feel.  "How Long Blues" has a feel somewhat akin to the Sessions era in its extended bluesy structure, in which Neil seems more concerned with milking a mood than summoning a compact performance.  An alternate version of "Other Side of This Life" offers a more countrified, jauntily-tempoed take on the classic than the one that had been previously released on the Bleecker and MacDougal LP.

    The undoubted highlight of this batch of previously unreleased tracks is "December's Dream," with its gorgeous melody (which somewhat resembles Dino Valente's classic "Get Together" in the verses) and seductive, languorous sadness.  It's difficult to fathom why this went unused; it would have made a particularly appropriate addition to the Fred Neil album, assuming that it was cut around that era.  The ending finds bohemian, goof-off Fred in an uncommonly serious and direct frame of mind as he solemnly croons -- with the authority of one who has lived the lyrics -- "Love for any time at all, is worth the price you pay to fall."  Truer words were never sung.

    Evidence of Fred Neil's continued existence since the expiration of his Capitol contract has been rarer than dolphin sightings in the Great Lakes.  There have been no recordings, and aside from a few concert benefits for whales and dolphins in 1976-77, few live performances, Neil seemingly content to hide away in Coconut Grove in southern Florida.  It hasn't helped that Neil's work has usually languished out-of-print, its unavailability on CD ensuring that he would not undergo the sort of reassessment and renewed appreciation enjoyed by cult icons like Tim Buckley or Nick Drake.  The Many Sides of Fred Neil  brings the bulk of his work back to the marketplace for the first time in ages,  and is ample proof of Neil's peculiar genius, which at its best produced some of the most timeless classics in all of folk-rock. -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger , 2000-2010
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