While cruising the world of MP3 blogs last night I came across one of my all time favorite albums, the eponymous second release by Fred Neil, a singer/guitar player from Florida who most people have never heard of.
That’s not an accident: Fred did not seek the spotlight, in fact he actively avoided it, at least that’s how the story goes. You’d probably recognize track 6 on the record, two minutes and 44 seconds from a perfect set of songs that runs just a little over a half hour long. “Everybody’s Talkin’” starts off with a strummed 12-string guitar and a couple of plucked notes, then Fred singing, “Everybody’s talking at me, can’t understand a word they’re saying, only the echoes of my mind.” Before the verse is over he’s promising, “I’m going where the sun keeps shining through the pouring rain, going where the weather suits my clothes. Bankin’ off the northeast wind; sailin’ on a summer breeze; skippin’ over the ocean like a stone.”
If this sounds familiar, it’s because you heard the song as part of the soundtrack to Midnight Cowboy, where Ratso, the street-smart New York hustler ends up taking his dying friend, Joe Buck, the naïve Texan on a bus bound for Florida, a land where he figures the weather suits their clothes.
But wait, you might be thinking, if you have just a smidgen of music trivia rolling around your head, wasn’t that by Harry Nilsson, the guy who wrote that other song about the lime in the coconut? Nilsson is closely identified with the song re-titled in his version as “Everybody’s Talking (the Theme to Midnight Cowboy,”) to the point that a recent documentary about him is called, Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)? Nilsson’s version was on the soundtrack, but Fred wrote it.
As the story is told, they asked Fred if they could use his version, but he declined. He figured it would bring unwanted fame, and interfere with his treasured privacy. After reading Rush Evans’ excellent bio on the singer at fredneil.com I realize that the songs on this record pretty much tell Fred’s story. In “Ba De Da” he announces, “I get so tired hanging around this town. This old city life sure brings a fellow down.” And sure enough he sailed off on a summer breeze from Greenwich Village returning to his home state Florida where the weather better suited his clothes.
And what did he do down there? He went searching for the dolphins, just as he sang in the sublime opening to Fred Neil. On Earth Day 1970 he and Ric O’Barry founded something called the Dolphin Research Project, dedicated the rest of his life to stopping the capture of dolphins and releasing those in captivity.