From the very beginning, the New York folk scene — almost inevitably, it needs saying — had a dark side. For all the “new day a-comin’” optimism of the young Bob Dylan, of Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs, Eric Andersen, and the rest, there were also singers who felt the pull of the city’s seamier locations and lifestyles. “Tim Hardin,” the famous graffito on the wall in Minetta Alley declared, “is a bad boy.” It was a hip thing to have yourself photographed there.
Fred Neil was a bad boy, too, a virtuoso fingerpicker and Brill Building dropout who found his way into the Village folk scene early enough to be emceeing the daytime shows at the Café Wha? when Bob Dylan came to town. Secretive, handsome, and with a talent for rejigging traditional material into a personal expression, he was a natural to be one of the first from this crowd to record. Never prolific, he delivered only five albums (six if you count his appearance on the rare Hootenanny Live At The Bitter End, four and a half if you shave off points for his sharing an album with temporary duet partner Vince Martin) before vanishing to Florida. Yeah, he wrote “Everybody’s Talkin’”, and, after Harry Nilsson covered it, he must’ve made a mint.
Listening through this exemplary Australian compilation of his work, though, you’re more apt to be caught by another of his songs, “Other Side Of This Life”, which is about as explicit as he ever got about the demons inhabiting him, and his performance here says what the words themselves don’t — a depressed feeling at odds with the version Jesse Colin Young made famous with the Youngbloods. There’s a lot of depression here, code-named “blues,” and Neil’s laconic delivery and rich baritone will make you feel it in your bones.
He spent the last decades of his life working to save dolphins, with thirty years passing between the release of the hodge-podge contract-breaking Other Side Of This Life album and his death in 2001 at age 65. Based on what’s here, the mystery lives on, as does some fine, dark music.