Band/Artist Profile Miscellaneous

The Story Behind “Everybody’s Talkin’”

One of my favorite movies of all time is “Midnight Cowboy.” It’s not a comforting movie, but it’s one of my comfort movies.

The story follows an unlikely friendship between a wannabe male prostitute with a dark past from Texas, played by Jon Voight, and sickly hustler with a limp, played by Dustin Hofman. The movie was highly controversial at the time, as it has deep and undeniable queer undertones, and it was given an X rating. Still, the movie took home a host of prizes, including three Academy Awards: one for best picture, one for best director, and one for best writing.

Throughout the entire movie one song persists, and that song is “Everybody’s Talkin’”. From the very first moment it plays, encompassing the entire universe of the film, the longing, the desire, the loneliness and aimlessness.

“Everybody’s Talkin,'” from the opening credits of “Midnight Cowboy,”

The first moment “Everybody’s Talkin,’” is played, rolling over the opening credits

The lyrics capture all of these feelings expertly, saying, “Everybody’s talkin’ at me / I don’t hear a word they’re sayin’ / Only the echoes of my mind.”

Through those three lines alone, a great deal of emotion is communicated. Moving on without knowing where you’re going or where you’ll end up, feeling alone in a sea of people. 

It also perfectly reflects the arcs of Ratso Rizzo (Hoffman) and Joe Buck (Voight). They are both lost and damaged people, outcasts from regular society, with no foreseeable goal, sustained only by their burgeoning relationship and dependence on each other.

Behind the song is the highly underrated and highly talented folk singer Harry Nilsson. While his biggest commercial success consisted in “Everybody’s Talkin,’” he has an equally fantastic discography and a complicated legacy.

After having dropped out of school, a young Nilsson moved to Los Angeles and took a job at the Paramount Theater. There, he taught himself piano from the touring musicians who passed through, and soon became quite skilled. He started writing songs after the theater closed and eventually landed a deal with RCA records. 

Soon after, he was discovered by the Beatles, and maintained a long-lasting personal relationship with each of the four. In 1968, Paul McCartney was asked at a press conference who his favorite artist was, and he confidently proclaimed, “Nilsson!” 

Meanwhile, while Nilsson considered himself an auteur artist and never toured, he was lauded by critics and peers as a huge talent and landed many of his songs in movies like “All That Jazz,” “Goodfellas,” “Forrest Gump,” and, of course, “Midnight Cowboy.”

Despite this wide range of successes, it was the placement of “Everybody’s Talkin’” in “Midnight Cowboy,” that secured Nilsson’s career during his lifetime.

Shockingly, the song wasn’t even written by him. It was, in fact, recorded by the New York-based folk artist Fred Neil.

Fred Neil’s original version of “Everybody’s Talkin,’” 

Neil’s song is much different than Nilsson’s, much more country in its roots. His voice is deeper, baritone, reminiscent of a Johnny Cash type, and the guitar is sparing and gorgeous. Nilsson took the song and added his impressive vocal range, a quicker tempo, a snare drum, and a more complicated guitar accompaniment. While the versions are worlds apart, both are incredible.

Unfortunately, Neil never achieved commercial success. He was strange and reclusive and spent the latter part of his career working on a dolphin conservation organization that he co-founded, moving back home to Florida to be closer to the effort and suspending all of his tours.

Fred Neil performing his song “The Dolphins,”

Still, Neil was sort of an underground legend, performing regularly at clubs in Greenwich Village.

“I used to play in a place called Cafe Wha?,” said Bob Dylan in an interview. “It was just a nonstop flow of people; usually they were tourists who were looking for beatniks in the Village. There’d be maybe five groups that played there. I used to play with a guy called Fred Neil, who wrote the song ‘Everybody’s Talkin’ ’ that was in the film ‘Midnight Cowboy.’”

He also was beloved by a number of more well-known artists, with people like Tim Buckley and David Crosby citing him as a major influence. 

Buckley in particular was adamant that Neil was his “only friend,” and performed a harrowing version of “The Dolphins,” as a tribute. 

Tim Buckley’s rendition of Neil’s “The Dolphins,” live in 1974

After the success of “Midnight Cowboy,” Neil struggled to obtain any of the royalties he was owed for the use of his song. Due to his reclusive nature and his shying away from the music business to focus on the dolphin project, Neil had not met his contractual obligation to complete new material. As a result, his management was unable to wrestle the six-figure amount Neil was promised for the rights to “Everybody’s Talkin.’”

This did not seem to bother Neil. There was now the new potential to broaden his career from a cult status to widespread fame, and he was seemingly uninterested. Back in Florida, he spent his time swimming among the dolphins. 

He often said that the creatures saved his life. Neil had struggled with the usage of hard drugs throughout his lifetime, and the dolphins provided an opportunity for him to reconnect with the world and ground himself.

From then on, the only public appearances he would make were to sing in benefit concerts for the dolphins. These concerts would draw large crowds and rave reviews from critics, but Neil was still allergic to the spotlight. All he wanted was to spend time alone, working and writing, singing to the marine mammals he loved so dearly. 

Despite Neil’s clear aversion to fame, his legacy lives on through the artists he inspired and nurtured during his time in Greenwich village, such as Buckley, Dylan, and Crosby, as well as Karen Dalton and Joni Mitchell.

Listening to his self-titled 1966 album, I could feel the timeless energy and influence. To see him in concert must have been electrifying. He is an artist who deserves more recognition to this day, and whose story is deeply moving as a man who created music for the love of it, and not for fame or fortune.

Without Fred Neil, there would be no “Everybody’s Talkin,’” and “Midnight Cowboy,” would be a deeply incomplete film. To explore Neil’s life and discography is to explore the emotional heart of the movie, the search for purpose and love, the rambling journey to arrive there.

Neil’s non-profit, the Dolphin Project, is still running to this day.

By Wordgirl

Between her time making playlists for future DJ sets, Wordgirl loves to watch movies and read books. You can find her hanging out with her cat, Mouse, and playing music too loud in her headphones.