There is a pretty good argument to be made that Fred Neil is the quintessential, mysterious, cult figure in modern music history. Gifted with a most memorable and resonant voice, the ability to toss off masterpieces casually and a magnetic, yet unattainable poet’s soul, he was a profound influence on countless other musicians (Dylan, Stills, Tim Buckley, Airplane, Spoonful, etc.), and most amazingly, he only made four albums before taking his life into his own hands and backing away from stardom. He wrote a handful of standards: one, “Everybody’s Talkin’,” among the 10 most played songs on modern radio - a classic by anyone’s measure. His first three albums Bleecker and MacDougal, Fred Neil and Sessions are all out of print on CD, thus making The Other Side Of This Life the de facto choice for review. I highly recommend the first two albums as they represent Neil’s best work and some of the best American folk/rock ever recorded. Sessions shows Neil succumbing to the excess of the day, and while interesting, is just too scattered and stoned to be of much use. Which leaves us with The Other Side Of This Life.
Side one is a live set comprised of his three biggest hits (“The Other Side Of This Life,” “The Dolphins” and “Everybody's Talkin'”) his hippest song (“That's The Bag I'm In”) and two blues covers all delivered in his laconic, yet authoritative manner. That is the secret to Fred Neil, he is always laid back in his delivery, but just below the surface are brilliant songs, an incredible voice and a jazzy twelve-string technique that put many of his peers to shame. Neil can be heard giggling to himself between songs and fooling around with the audience, but make no mistake, when he lets loose on “The Other Side Of This Life” or “The Dolphins” his vocal delivery still pins your ears back in awe. Neil is in relaxed mode, but the tunes and vocal delivery are life changing. Side two is more of a hodgepodge, gathering together a handful of interesting tracks highlighted by two incredible ballads. The first, “Ya Don’t Miss Your Water,” is a well-known gospel/soul standard, here played as a duet with another quixotic 1960’s figure, Gram Parsons. The combination of these two woozy voices wrapping around this great tune is irresistible. Parsons is the perfect tenor counterpoint to Neil’s elongated baritone, and they deliver it somewhere between St. Peter and Bacchus. The album ends with a stripped down version of another of Neil’s greatest songs, “Felicity,” which is both uplifting and heartbreaking; the very essence of the singer/songwriter tradition, and it embodies the duality that Fred Neil excelled at like nobody else.
If you haven’t yet, discovering Fred Neil is one of the great pleasures left in collecting 1960’s music. I was aware of Nilsson’s hit version of “Everybody’s Talkin’” and The Jefferson Airplane’s version of “The Other Side Of This Life” and of course Tim Buckley's haunted “The Dolphins,” but discovering the real item was one of the most thrilling revelations ever. Here was what seemed to be the Rosetta Stone of folk/rock music. Seemingly, every cool musician of the early 60’s either crossed paths with or was influenced by Fred Neil. He remained mysterious, staying out of the public eye for the last 30 years of his life, never succumbing to the siren call of comeback or tribute or tour, instead quietly living his life and letting his incredible legacy of song and performance speak for itself. How could there be no whiff of sellout whatsoever? How could such an important figure come through the 70’s 80’s and 90’s (he died in 2001) with his reputation completely untarnished and his public awareness so under the radar? I honestly don’t have an answer, but listen to him, love him, and then keep it to yourself. Some things are better kept just between you and me.
- Paul Epstein