38 MacDougal: Big City Blues
by Tony Ruiz
38 MacDougal, the latest Fred Neil official release comes from Mark Linn's Delmore Recording Society label, brings us "the singer-songwriter of the singer-songwriters," recorded in between the difficult Bleecker And MacDougal sessions (Elektra, 1965). Unleashed first in November 2020 on clear vinyl format and now on CD and digital formats, 38 MacDougal contains eight songs from a reel to reel tape stored for decades by guitarist Pete Childs, who backed Fred Neil for years. Some years ago, Childs gave the tape to Peter Neff, who has written the first biography on the volatile genius (That's The Bag I'm In: The Life, Music And Mystery Of Fred Neil, 2019). Barely 30 minutes in length, the recording is an indispensable document and marks a turning point of 1960's popular music. It is also the first release that delivers two never-issued-before songs, since the landmark 2 CD set The Many Sides Of Fred Neil was launched in 1998 with rare tracks from his Capitol period.
"I still don't know exactly where I'm going myself. I'm following the music, trying to write it as I see it... Most of blues or folk music are one. There's a lot of jazz in folk music too and vice versa" (Fred Neil, 1936-2001).
Neil heard gospel church music during his childhood, as well as hillbillies like Hank Williams and Floyd Tillman (which he had championed very on), primal rock and roll by Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly as well as the Brill Building's expert pop songs. Very few musicians were exposed to such a wide musical variety. It was this tremendous background what made him matchless. As Neil absorbed African-American music, he come to Greenwich Village clubs ("the emperor of the place," according to Bob Dylan) to perform live regularly, imbued with Leadbelly, Josh White, Odetta, Len Chandler, Joe Tinker Lewis and George Tipton. Surely, he developed his rambling folk-blues style not only from this lineage, but also from some bittersweet years passed away in the shadows of music industry, as doo-wooper and rockabilly, studio guitar sideman, doing singles and serving as a writer and demo singer for Elvis. After all those jobs, he became jaded, turning into an outcast folksinger.
In 1964, Pete Childs was starting his career as freelance guitarist, mostly a slide player. He would join Fred Neil on electric guitar and dobro on four out of his five albums and Childs also appeared on recordings by Odetta, The Stone Poneys and Rambling Jack Elliott. His first steps as a musician go back to Knoblick Upper 10,000, a bluegrass band from Cambridge, Massachusetts. Upon landing in NYC, Childs's contact in Greenwich Village was John Sebastian, who was probably alerted to Childs by Erik Jacobsen, who also was a member of the Knoblick Upper. Childs was also a partner of both Sebastian and Jacobsen (who also served as Tim Hardin's first manager and producer).
Sebastian already lived at 38 MacDougal, in the middle of Greenwich Village and before founding The Lovin' Spoonful in the mid-60's, along with (future Cream producer) Felix Pappalardi's bass and Mexican guitarron dragged rhythms, his blurred and sweet train-like harp would resonate on albums by Neil, Tim Hardin, Tom Rush and (the unfairly forgotten) John Hammond, Jr. Childs, Sebastian and Pappalardi accompanied Neil at the Gaslight and The Playhouse and then they played on Fred's first LP sessions as a solo artist (Bleecker And MacDougal), recorded at a midtown NYC studio. If the Sebastian/Pappalardi team shaped a huge part of that Neil's songs during his Elektra tenure, Childs's crude and involved phrasings would integrate Fred's own 12-string jazzed up streams, setting up the landscapes under the gravely nasal voice he treasured.
Fred started his Elektra deal with Tear Down The Walls (1964), a duo album with Vince Martin, backed by Sebastian and Papalardi. Martin was another 12-string player who would found, with Fred, the Coconut Grove scene in Miami in the early '60's. It was an incredibly sunny and sane environment where Fred felt like a fish in the water given that he had been raised in St. Petersburg, Florida. In the Grove, he could go onstage whenever he wanted, unconcerned with the formal trappings of "producing" songs. The Grove was so much less inclined to a professional approach than the Village. Charlie Brown, the Gaslight South manager, recalled how Neil was able to play his beloved slow-downer song "The Water Is Wide" three times in a row when he was in the mood.
During that first half of the '60's, when he came back to NYC to make a living, Fred would get on badly with A&R people, producers and club managers. He would try to get away from it away and escape into tiny apartments and long withdrawal periods, looking for the moment to flee again to Florida. Fred was reluctant to be in the big city, coping with heroin, which he used to counter his hated obligations and inner struggles. He could hardly stand the show business pressures- studio time looked to him like a lame office job. Like his folknik colleagues Dino Valenti, Tim Hardin and Karen Dalton, Fred could be unpredictable at concerts, walking offstage if he got upset when performing, purposely breaking a string, not finishing songs, complaining about any detail that bothered him and leaving the stage before the set was supposed to be over.
Vince Martin explained how during the Tear Down The Walls sessions, he had to pick Fred up every day at his apartment, put a cigarette in his mouth and take him crawling into the studio. In an interview with Henry Llach1, Martin explained: "he could be stubborn at times. When it came to record, there was a strange reticence in him. I don't know what to call it- insecurity, fear, paranoia. In the early days, he would perform under duress, it was never too pleasant. We had great times performing, but to get him to perform regularly was impossible... When it came to business, Fred was very difficult to deal with." Despite the accomplished reviews obtained by the Martin & Neil album, an attempted second live recording ended just when started. According to Martin, "our second album was going to be live at the Bitter End. Fred broke a string and walked offstage. Fred disappeared into the Village, vanished, [we] couldn't find him."
However, Sebastian and Pappalardi, and then Childs, were recruited again by Elektra producer Paul Rothchild for Fred's Bleecker & MacDougal album. John Sebastian explains2: "so it was Felix and my particular lot for many of those years to get Fred in the studio and nail it down a little bit. My roommate, Peter Childs, is highly visible on those recordings. He became another member of this 'keep Fred in line' team. Also, [he was] a very down-to-earth musician- he was tremendously helpful as well. Felix and I were in some degree or another babysitting these recordings a little bit to help Paul Rothchild." As Peter Neff writes in his bio: "every day of the Bleecker & MacDougal sessions became a grinding tug of war." According to Childs3, Rothchild didn't know how to handle Fred: "Freddie walk out on that record two or three times... the last time I really didn't think he would've come back. I got him over to the apartment for a bit of music-making."
Fred preferred to play in private among his friends and closest collaborators and Childs knew that he would be in his element indoors, and playing along would appease Fred and calm him down. Fred and Pete gathered at 38 MacDougal Street, taping eight songs on a Ampex reel to reel recorder. The camaraderie between both of them is noticeable, assembling their guitars like as if they had been made to play together. "Accompaniment is crafting a ring to frame a jewel and all the focus has to be on the jewel," Childs confesses in the Neff's book4. Among the alternate versions of songs that had been featured in Bleecker & MacDougal, on "Little Bit Of Rain," with Childs on electric guitar, our baritone crooner slides over an organic down tempo and lets the blanket to enrapture so many acts who would later cover it. Fred showcases in different songs his frustrated desire for getting out of the way, as heard on "Gone Again," with it off-beat pulse and assertive lyricism: "I woke this morning/ With an aching pain deep down/ Shiverin' cold/ About to go insane/ Gone again." If it wasn't exactly folk-rock, it was so much like it nevertheless, even if it lacked a rhythm section. Another up-tempo number, "Travellin' Shoes" has staggered, rolling chord progression sounding close to Martin & Neil's "Dade County Jail" and describes, with uncommon clarity, Fred's former professional status: "While there are some folks who think/ My soul's going to hell/ And they're right."
"Country Boy" features looping guitar and Childs's dobro, melding together Fred's hillbilly diction with some gospel-style expression. "I'm just a country boy/ I got sand all in my shoes/ You know I got stuck in the big city/ Got to sing the big city blues..." As Fred points out in these lyrics, the place he would want to be was far away, where the very music he was performing originated from. Fred Neil always disliked success and being public. As Childs explains5, "he didn't do 'star.' He did Fred Neil." It's not strange that around those mercurial Elektra sessions, Fred would also gig with The Buzzy Linhart Trio aka The Seventh Sons, the ESP label raga-folk act headed by Buzzy on vibes. Together, they would stomp through his songs as well as country blues and traditional songs like "Soldier Joy." Late in 1964, at the Night Owl, Fred, along with Tim Hardin, Sebastian, Pappalardi, Buzzy and Childs also jammed, multiplying the possibilities offered by the rudiments of folk-blues, using electrics guitars and inserting exotic instruments into the mix. These were testing grounds from which producers like Erik Jacobsen, Paul Rothchild and Joe Boyd would take note for their forthcoming projects.
On "Candy Man," the song Fred would pen for Roy Orbison, Childs swings on electric guitar while Fred undertakes an impossible combination of Diddley/Cash, a renegade but moving southern blend. As this tape shows and after the Elektra years, Fred's tendency to write less, making more and more versions and traditional songs was the reverse of the regular trend of folk-blues and folk-rock based acts to do originals. Fred actually delighted with songs that were not his, as long as it would make him feel soulful enough to play it. From this set, the standard "Sweet Cocaine" (that he would record twice later) was one of his favorite fingerpicking songs and a brilliant ragtime moment. It's one song that lightens up a bit from the intense tone of the tracks otherwise. Regarding the never-released songs, both of them traditional, "Once I Had A Sweetheart," an antique Irish air (also performed by Joan Baez and Pentangle) reminds me of "Red Flowers," the country & western tune of his own (written at the late 50's), which would be released on the album with Vince Martin. Here, Fred sustains such closeness that it seems to kiss our ears softly, as every word he utters becomes the truth. "Blind Man Standing By The Floor And Crying" (possibly learnt from Josh White) is one of those African-Americans spirituals that no other white singer could perform, at least not with the same effortless power of conviction. As Odetta once said6, "there are two voices I heard in my life that no microphone can possibly capture. Paul Robeson is one, and the other is Fred. When you hear him in person, there are other levels. His voice is a healing instrument."
"Folk music deals with stark realities..." claimed Fred himself in the only interview he granted in life7. His music had stronger African-American influences, with the tone of his voice deepening and stretching, as if wanting to get lost in the recesses and the folds of his songs. "Listening Blind Man" transports us to Sessions (Capitol, 1967), his most underrated album, which was full of heady long strummed improvisations on Leadbelly, black poetry and chain gang songs. He always looked to be much closer to country/soul men as Percy Mayfield or William Bell (both of which he would cover) than to any hip-rock troubadour. By then, Fred used the songs to accommodate his shady blue stream of consciousness. But there are some late '60's direct Neil emanations such as Tim Hardin 3/Live In Concert (1968), Vince Martin and Karen Dalton's 1969 Capitol releases (both of them also recorded by Nik Venet), the whole Tim Buckley Happy Sad/Blue Afternoon period (1968-69, pre Starsailor), the eponymous Dino Valente 1968 LP, Jim Kweskin/Mel Lyman/Lisa Kindred's American Avatar (1969), If I Could Only Remember My Name (1971) by David Crosby and even the weird relative that's Van Morrison's Astral Weeks (1968).
Fred's 12-string possessed a certain affinity for a group/band as opposed to a solo setting, which was something that made him from many other folk acts. His extended understanding of his band lineups was something special that you would usually hear in jazz ensembles and was unique to his persona- he firmly believed in the collective presence rather than the solitary act. For his Capitol stint, recorded live in the studio, his sound became nuanced by many more strings and guitars, which could be expected from a jazz ensemble more than a folk-rock combo. Most of his sound then was acoustic, backed by just a bit of drums and a fixed backing standup bass He was hell-bent on his blues-rooted minor and seventh chords arsenal. The acoustic guitars' harmonies changed continuously, rummaging through Eastern or bluegrass scraps. To Fred, the process and development of the music did not matter as much as the song's origins.
It is amazing to think of the amount of unreleased tapes Fred Neil recorded throughout the '60's and the '70's, even when he already had retired from live shows due to anxiety. Aside one 1960 demo for a publisher, taped for copyright purposes, there's possibly no recording with Fred playing solo. In all his albums and in each one of those tracked-down unissued sessions around the country (which would take many articles to detail), Fred was joined by a roster of sidemen, increasingly in the Capitol period (1966-1971) when producer Nik Venet's studio personnel looked like an orchestra, counting around 40 strings on some songs.
Nevertheless, too many sessions remain unheard still. Music journalist Ben Edmonds8 said that while researching Fred's live career, he had found some very rare 1965 concert bills in music magazines, in which Pete Childs was featured, "backed by Fred Neil."
Fred never stopped encouraging and inspiring many young folkniks, including Richie Havens, Terry Callier, Judy Henske, Peter Walker, Richie & Mimi Fariña, Tim Buckley, Paul Kantner, Jesse Colin Young, Joni Mitchell, Gram Parsons, Stephen Stills and Neil Young among others. David Crosby has said9: "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."
As one of his sons (Chris) remembers in the 38 & MacDougal liner notes, watching his father and Pete Childs playing guitar back in the 70's: "they didn't play any song you could name. They just played... a different breed of music that comes from 'jamming' as opposed to playing an already written and arranged piece."
Howard Solomon, Fred Neil's late 60's manager and Cafe au Go Go owner has said10 "Fred hardly ever repeated a note or phrase the same way twice... He was more a jazz improvisational player and rarely stuck to the same way from one performance to the other, he used to say to me that his writing was a process of ongoing tuning to the caverns of his voice."
Performing songs to lose himself was Neil's goal throughout his career. As a matter of survival, to escape from the big city blues (which would destroy the life of other friends and contemporaries), Fred hoarded some words and chords to stay safe in. His vast musical universe keeps sharing an inspirational, participatory and overwhelming legacy.
1. Interview with Vince Martin via the Fred Neil website
2. Interview via Richie Unterberger
3. Peter Neff That's The Bag I'm In. The Life, Music And Mystery Of Fred Neil (Blue Ceiling, 2019)
4. Ibid. Neff
5. Ibid. Neff
6. Ben Edmonds "I Didn't Hear A Word They Were Saying" (MOJO, February 2000)
7. Don Paulsen Hit Parader, January 1966
8. Ibid. Edmonds
9. Richie Unterberger, liner notes for The Many Sides Of Fred Neil (Collector's Choice, 1999)
10. Everybody's Talkin' forum
Thanks to Jason Gross, Mark Linn, Peter L. Neff, Richie Unterberger, Ben Edmonds, Henry Llach and Cian McHugh.
Also see our 2003 Fred Neil article
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