Fred Neil & Tim Buckley – Dolphins

29th January 2024 · 1960s, 1966, Music

There are two equally spellbinding versions of this haunting lament to lost love and innocence, by two different singers, and ever since I first heard them I’ve been unable to decide which is the best. The problem is that they’re not all that different, and of course there’s no need to pick one over the other.

Fred Neil should have the edge because he wrote it and sang it first, in 1966, but Tim Buckley somehow made it his own signature song too. I remember his heartbreaking performance on the Old Grey Whistle Test – the first time I’d ever heard the song.

The truth is they’re both utterly fantastic. They should be in any imaginary list of the best songs of all time.

Fred Neil wrote and recorded the song in 1967 at a studio session where – tellingly – Tim Buckley was also present. To say its lyrics are heartfelt would be an understatement: Fred had been fascinated by dolphins ever since he first visited the Miami Seaquarium in the mid-60s and went on to dedicate the last 30 years of his life to preservation of the creatures.

In 1970 he co-founded the Dolphin Research Project, dedicated to stopping the capture, trafficking and exploitation of dolphins worldwide, and moved from his home in Woodstock down to southern Florida to be closer to them.

His fascination became an obsession to the point where he eventually disappeared from the recording studio and live performances, giving only occasional fund-raisers in Florida during the 70s.

He retreated further from public life in the 80s, especially after he ran over and killed his girlfriend in a tragic accident, moving to coastal Oregon in the Pacific Northwest in the 90s, and then back across the country to the Florida Keys, where he died in 2001.

There have been other cover versions down the years but none perhaps better than Billy Bragg‘s take on the song, with Cara Tivey’s haunting backing vocals. And also Nick Cave, for the BBC’s Loose Ends in 2003; not to mention Linda Ronstadt‘s country-tinged take from back in 1969.

Here’s Tim Buckley from that OGWT performance in May 1974: