Essential New Music: Fred Neil’s “38 MacDougal”

Not many people have yearned less for success than Fred Neil. Plenty of beatniks, folkies and hippies from the 1950s and 1960s claimed to make music for love, not money. Neil didn’t have to talk that talk because he walked the walk.

In the midst of the sessions for his debut solo LP, 1965’s Bleeker & MacDougal, Neil’s feet walked him straight out of the studio after a disagreement with producer Paul Rothschild. Since Neil was immune to conventional persuasion, it fell to his friend, session guitarist Peter Childs, to lure him back by inviting him to come up to his apartment for a jam. It must have worked, since the album got made, but it took 56 years for the tape that Childs made of his and Neil’s conciliatory encounter to also find its way onto a record.  

38 MacDougal is a slender and flawed document. It lasts less than 28 minutes, and the first song, “Little Bit Of Rain,” suffers from audio glitches. But the balance is pure gold. Neil’s supple baritone voice delivers his words of yearning for one escape or another with understated conviction and effortless grace. The lack of an audience may well have made the notoriously attention-shy musician sing even better.

The fluid weave of Neil’s rustic, ringing 12-string and Childs’ proto-psychedelic electric guitar on “Country Boy” and “Candy Man” put into sound how great the singer might’ve felt whenever he slipped the leash of responsibility. And the gospel/blues fusion of “Blind Man Standin’ By The Road And Cryin’,” a song that never made it onto another Neil record, reveals the desolation that loomed behind his lighter moments.

Ultimately, Neil was able to parlay the success of his song “Everybody’s Talkin’” into an irrevocable ticket away from stardom. 38 MacDougal is as good a place as any to find out why other people wanted to make him into one.

—Bill Meyer