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Rocking My Life Away: Fred Neil

July 20, 2001 12:00 AM ET

"He was a hero to me," David Crosby said of singer-songwriter Fred Neil. But when Neil died of cancer on July 7th at the age of sixty-four, hardly anyone took notice. That's understandable, in a way. A mainstay on the New York folk scene in the Sixties, and a successful songwriter for the likes of Buddy Holly ("Come Back Baby") and Roy Orbison ("Candy Man") even before that, Neil had consciously lived the life of a recluse for more than three decades. Other than The Many Sides of Fred Neil, a fine two-disc overview of his work, his albums are out of print and, for the most part, unavailable on CD.

But while it may be understandable that few people publicly mourned Fred Neil, it's not deserved and it's not acceptable. As a man, Neil evidently didn't care if anyone paid attention to him or not. But his songs are simply too good to ignore. His best-known song, of course, is "Everybody's Talkin'," a tune that Harry Nilsson famously recorded and that became the theme for the film Midnight Cowboy. He also wrote "The Dolphins," which was beautifully sung by Tim Buckley, and "The Other Side of This Life," which the Jefferson Airplane transformed into a raucous concert staple. Most recently, Beth Orton and Terry Callier, one of Neil's Sixties folk contemporaries, recorded a duet version of "The Dolphins" for Orton's Best Bit EP.

But there's no question that Neil fell through the cracks and became something of a cult figure without a following. While he did his share of indulging, he failed to make the savvy career move of dying young in glamorous squalor from a drug overdose, a fate that virtually ensures being rediscovered by succeeding generations. Instead, he survived and went on to live his life quietly in southern Florida, receiving few visitors and only rarely performing. There was no comeback tour; no showy collaborations with precocious, young folkie hipsters; no extensive catalogue reissues; no soul-baring interviews; no sordid memoir; no Behind the Music episode, no complaining about how time had unfairly passed him by. Hardly anyone even knew where he was or if he was still alive. In a time when there are no shadows in any public life, when mystery is virtually impossible to achieve, Fred Neil was a mystery.

And, to that degree, at least, his life was very much in keeping with his music, which is filled with wonder and strangeness. Neil would strum his twelve-string guitar into a hypnotic swirl of sound, or gently pick it, as if he were considering each note before he played it. His singing voice was luxuriously low and lazy. As his register dropped, he gained intimacy; as it rose, he took on yearning. Neil shared with Tim Hardin an ability to keep his phrasing dynamic by doing nothing but singing each line exactly as he felt it at the moment he was singing it. It's a jazz singer's gift, but Neil flashed none of the urgency of most jazz singers. Instead, he simply relished the words that passed his lips, enjoying them for their sound as much as their sense.

Whereas many songwriters addressed social issues like the Vietnam war or civil rights in the Sixties, Neil pursued a more idyllic, private world. But even that deeply internal search was subtly informed by the passions of the age. "I'm not one to tell this world/How to get along," he sings in "The Dolphins." "I only know that peace will come/When all hate is gone." And when he insists that "there's another side to this life," you could easily interpret that to mean that social transformation, as well as personal realization, is possible. But there's really no point in trying to make Neil a figure of protest. Even his version of "Everybody's Talkin'" is far more languid than Nilsson's, a daydreamer's evocation of a land beyond trouble and conflict. Eventually, Neil retreated to his home state of Florida in a way that recalls the line in that song that runs, "I'm goin' where the sun keeps shining/Through the pouring rain."

So why is Neil a hero to David Crosby? Because back when Crosby was an aspiring folkie who just arrived in New York, Neil bothered to take an interest in him, just as he did for the young Bob Dylan, who backed Neil on harmonica at the Café Wha? in Greenwich Village. "He taught me that everything was music," Crosby says.

So is there a place in the collective cultural memory for a recalcitrant, unrepentant dreamer, a man who was too suspicious of commercialism, too private, ever to demand his place in musical history? "I've been searching for the dolphin in the sea," Neil sang, "And sometimes I wonder, do you ever think of me?" It's a worthwhile question, and it should be answered, "Yes."

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