The “December Dream” Saga

This was the body of a letter I sent to Ben Edmonds who was writing a story about the reclusive writer/artist Fred Neil for Mojo Magazine (Feb. 2000) after the EMI  release of a CD collection, The Many Sides of Fred Neil, in 1999, which included unreleased masters including my song which was uncredited on the album. The re-release producers apparently assuming Fred wrote it.

Richie Unterberger, in his liner notes, wrote: “The undoubted highlight of this batch of previously unreleased tracks is “December’s Dream,” with its gorgeous melody (which somewhat resembles Dino Valente’s classic”Get Together” in the verses.) and seductive, languorous sadness. It’s difficult to fathom why this went unused; it would have made a particularly appropriate addition to the Fred Neil album, assuming that it was cut around that era. The ending finds bohemian, goof-off Fred in an uncommonly serious and direct frame of mind as he solemnly croons — with the authority of one who has lived the lyrics  — “Love for any time at all is worth the price you pay to fall.” Truer words were never sung.”

Writing “December Dream” (They called it “December’s Dream” on Fred’s “The Many Sides of Fred Neil” CD) was a pivotal event in my life for many reasons. In about 1964 I was living in Cambridge Massachusetts , working days at Fanny Farmer Candy Company and singing in Boston’s Charles St. clubs at night. During that time I met Pete Childs, a great guitar player and singer who was also working the folk clubs there. I was mostly singing traditional folk music but had just started writing songs. December Dream was the second song I had ever written. I was going through a rough time after a breakup with my girlfriend who had had a fling with another guy that just destroyed me. I put it all into this song. That year there was an event in Cambridge, the first annual Freedom Folk Festival. As part of the event they held a songwriting competition that I entered and won, after which “December Dream,” as part of the prize, was published in SingOut Magazine. Ironically, one of the judges, Len Chandler, was to become, in 1971, my partner for 23 years in founding and running the Los Angeles Songwriters Showcase.

Sometime in 1965, I believe, I sublet Pete Childs’ apartment in Cambridge when he went on the road but prior to that, I had taught him the song because he really liked it. Now we fast forward to 1967 after I had gone back to Vancouver, BC where I had lived on and off previous to moving to Cambridge. That year I had gotten off the road as a folksinger and joined a blues band, The Fantastic Sensations, playing in front of acid crazed audiences and light shows. Later that year I got a letter via my parents in Elgin Illinois, from a music publisher (Third Story Music) who said that a group called the Stone Poneys, featuring Linda Ronstadt (who I had never heard of) had recorded “December Dream” on their Evergreen #2 album. Enclosed was a contract and a $200 advance. As a result, I signed the contract and moved to L.A., figuring it would be a good idea to follow up on this success. It WAS a good idea. Changed my life. I recorded the song myself later on Pete Records, an indie label I signed with about a year later.

My understanding of how the song got recorded, from what producer (the late) Nik Venet told me, was that they needed more songs on the Stone Ponies sessions at Capitol and asked the musicians on the session, including Pete Childs, if they had any songs. Pete played them “December Dream,” they liked it and cut it. Pete had also played on the Fred Neil sessions and taught him the song too. When I met Venet later he told me about it and even later, Howard Solomon, who had been Freddy’s manager, came to the songwriters Showcase one night at Gios on Sunset and presented me with three different takes of Freddy singing my song. Major thrill! After singing Freddy’s “That’s The Bag I’m In.” and “The Other Side of This Life” for years in my solo folk gigs and even with the Fantastic Sensations, I was honored that he’d want to record a song of mine.

I have no idea why they picked that particular take for the unreleased songs on this new compilation. Howard and I also liked the one that ended right after the last line but they used the one in which he continued to play guitar. Since I loved his voice and style so much, it really didn’t matter that much to me. It also didn’t matter that he took some liberties with the melody.

I think I actually met Freddy only once (I have a vague recollection though, that I may have attended one of his recording sessions in L.A.). Bruce Langhorne, Bruce’s then girlfriend Noreen Eck and I drove down from White Plains NY to Coconut Grove where Bruce had a gig playing guitar for Odetta (I think at the Gaslight South). This was at least two years before he cut my song and I don’t even know if he remembered or put the name together later. He was gigging occasionally down there, sometimes with Vince Martin. He was a longtime legend down there. I think I first heard about him from David Crosby back in ’62. At that time David taught me a song he had learned from Freddy, a sweet bluesy ballad called “Willie Jean.” David and I met in Omaha when he, his brother Chip and (I think) Mike Clough, were headed out to the West Coast to join the Les Baxter Balladeers. My time might be off on that because I also remember him from the Chicago scene. Anyway, David spent a lot of time on that Coconut Grove scene and was a friend of Freddy’s.

In retrospect. In my incarnations as songwriting teacher, music publisher etc., I never would have given the song a shot at being recorded. No real hook, no “commercial” structure, no repeated chorus, a title that doesn’t show up in the song, not even a bridge. Sometimes emotional honesty, sincerity, a little poetry and a pretty melody win. Who knew?

We’re fortunate to have Fred’s recordings as a reminder of his spirit and that great voice and I’m honored that he chose to record my song.

John Braheny

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