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Diamonds in the Dust: Forgotten Greenwich folk-heroes in the shadow of Bob Dylan

Diamonds in the Dust
Incoming freshmen and other ASU students cheer during ASU's Fall Welcome Concert on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2015, at Wells Fargo Arena in Tempe.

Diamonds in the Dust is a weekly study of the criminally neglected; songs, albums and entire genres swept under the rug by a lack of media attention, misunderstandings or simply being too ahead of its time.

David Blue - "These 23 Days in September"

New York City will always be an apex of American musical culture and renaissance. Long described as a melting pot, the “Big Apple” reigns supreme in its ability to coalesce the finest and brightest the world has conjured. It’s also home to intertwining neighborhoods of the luxurious and destitute — a necessary contradiction of the urban condition.

As millions stand before the staggering lights, rush between interlocked taxi cabs and indulge in gluttonous nightlife debauchery, a legion of highbrowed and well-dressed artists facilitates the vast New York underground with keen eyes for genius that were sharpest during the early 1960s Greenwich Village artistic revolution.

Miss last week's diamonds? Read More: Refused's crusade on punk rock conventionalism

Spawning musical monoliths like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, the Upper West Side was, and still can be, a hub for cultural ripening, churning out talent with factory-like efficiency. But much like the antithetical neighborhoods throughout New York, the Greenwich scene was littered with the smashed dreams of the big-time hopefuls, shadowed in part by the aforementioned legends’ grand acceptance into the mainstream. The music industry of the time had little room for middle class acts and as the royalty of folk shed their beatnik roots, thousands of aspiring performers were rendered obsolete.

David Blue, a friend and protégé of Dylan’s, was one of those declared out-of-date folk singers who long dwelled beneath the shadows of his speculative competition. Blue’s failure to breakthrough is tragic, yet easy to grasp as being caused by his sometimes uncanny sonic resemblance to Dylan. His inability to drastically differentiate was caustic as the seas of guitar-picking imitators flooded and drowned Greenwich Village folk — his career sifting out with the passing years.

But, faded as he might be, Blue’s 1968 album, “These 23 Days in September,” deserves to be revitalized as the always solid and sometimes gleaming pinnacle of this inside man’s career. Despite it never earning a groundbreaking label, Blue’s sophomore record is lyrically magnificent and well worth your personal analysis.

The title track, a masterpiece, is an ode to those with depressed lovers, forlorn and despondently unresponsive to consolation. “So politely, it hurts when she speaks/ with a surface tension, swift and cynically,” Blue croons. “Using only the sharpest words/ not at all like her/ not at all the happy girl she used to be.”

It’s easy to imagine Blue sitting guardedly beside her, fatigued from the futile attempts to spark an emotional healing. He knows each uninvited “what’s wrong, honey" adds another brick of concealment to the wall of self-degradation enveloping her, but, as love would have it, to cease worrying would be to cease caring and therefore he cannot avert his gaze.

Blue’s uneasy cadence feels autobiographical, an entry into his black book of failed relationships. What’s most disquieting though, is the pending state you’re left in after the girl’s final remark, “When I’m gone” — a seemingly suicidal announcement from a Greenwich intellectual with no more solace to drape herself in. And, with a final strike, the music (relationship) concludes and fades, perhaps in life or perhaps in death, the story is yours to interpret.

Whereas “These 23 Days in September” is a solid album that's worth a listen, the title track is essential even today. Its succinct lyrics allow for a bevy of interpretations and you could make a strong case for it actually being a poem for the expiring folk scene in 1968. Whichever way you take it, Blue’s work here is timeless and revered enough by his peers to warrant appearances at his funeral by Joni Mitchell and Kris Kristofferson and even inspired the great Leonard Cohen to write an elegy for him. Now that’s the stuff of legend.

Fred Neil - "Fred Neil"

Men like Bob Dylan always have imitators; they’re just too masterful to avoid influencing the masses. However, when he released “Nashville Skyline” in 1969, Dylan stunned the world with a newly-adopted country croon in the song “Lay Lady Lay.” Dylan switched roles, becoming an impersonator himself.

The comparisons to other country singers practically write themselves, but one often overlooked is fellow Greenwich alumnus, Fred Neil. With his down low and gravelly voice, Neil obtained the illusive songwriter’s songwriter moniker by simultaneously impressing his contemporaries and largely missing the spotlight.

His 1966 album “Fred Neil,” reissued in 1969 as “Everybody’s Talkin,'” hits with a weatherworn wisdom usually reserved for artists far older than the bellowing 30-year-old Neil. He has the Tom Waits effect — a leathery voice with a smooth face attached to it.

Based on his music alone, imagining what Neil looks like is impossible. With the song “That’s The Bag I’m In,” for example, I always pictured a down-trodden middle-aged man singing it, disheveled and irritated. “I’ve Got a Secret” is that same man finally giving up and giving away everything he has, humbled by the relentlessly strenuous nature of the world.

“Faretheewell” is a devastating ballad devoted to a passed on loved one that’s recorded with such tenderness you could almost hear Neil’s tears thudding against his guitar. Imagine a gentle old man coming to terms with being a widower, hunched over his kitchen table and staring to the other end’s barren chair where he’s meticulously, mournfully, set a place for his dead beloved. The glass is empty, the plate bare, silverware lined just the way she used to do it and yet, his imagination is just too weak to be soothed by his wishful thinking. Pair the subject matter with Neil’s Earth-shattering voice and you just may find your tears falling too.

Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’,” later made famous by Harry Nilsson, isn’t necessarily better than the cover. However, it’s still one of the greatest songs ever written and should be credited to its original creator.

What’s most unfortunate about Neil’s forgotten career is that he would have been, without a doubt, a contender for legend. He became sparsely involved with music during and after the ‘70s, instead refocusing his life as a dolphin conservationist. A strange, but noble pursuit that coffined his music far too soon.

I only wonder if the people he worked with later in life knew they were in the midst of a Greenwich figurehead while they were out there protecting wildlife. And if they did, were they brave enough to coax forth a song or two? We’ll likely never know, but one thing is for certain, I sure as hell wish I was there to find out.

Related Links:

Diamonds in the Dust: Pioneers of all-girl rock bands, Ace of Cups and Fanny

Diamonds in the Dust: Refused's crusade on punk rock conventionalism

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