Also see Tim Buckley -- A Chronology by Robert Niemi
He was blessed with a beautiful face, a voice that sailed into uncharted regions of the cosmos and a seductive charm that beguiled everyone he encountered. And a fat lot of good it all did him.
Tim Buckley was a man out of time who struggled to make his extraordinary talents heard. This is the story of that lone ranger.
"I was born a blue melody/A little song my mam sang to me/Such a blue you're never seen" (Blue Melody)
IN 1965, THE LOS ANGELES MAGAZINE CHEETAH dubbed three emerging singer-songwriters -- Jackson Browne, Steve Noonan, and Tim Buckley -- 'The Orange County Three'.
Browne progressed towards a comfortable feted stardom which endures to this day. Noonan vanished into the ether after one album. And somewhere between their two paths drifted the late Tim Buckley. Between rabid adulation and ignoble obscurity, between legendary status and the loser's list, his is a fixed position, like a star that shines fiercely in the night sky but in space was extinguished eons ago.
Twenty years after his death on June 29, 1975, diehard disciples complain of the mismanagement of Tim Buckley's legacy. Here was a man whose recordings remain extraordinary cross-pollinations of folk-rock, folk-jazz, the avant-garde and all points in between. They are, in the words of Lillian Roxon's famed 1969 Rock Encyclopedia, "easily the most beautiful music in the new music, beautifully produced and arranged, always managing to be wildly passionate and pure at the same time." A shame, then, that they are still to be posthumously rewarded with a decent CD reissue campaign.
"When an artist finally comes through all this mess, you hear a pure voice," said Tim Buckley three months before he died. "We're in the habit of emulating those voices when they're dead."
TIMOTHY CHARLES BUCKLEY III WAS BORN IN AMSTERDAM, New York on Valentine's Day, 1947, his family uprooting westwards a decade later to Anaheim, home of Disneyland and strip malls. He grew up with music. Grandma dug Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith, mom adored Sinatra and Garland. Timothy Charles III himself leaned towards the gnarled country of Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, the lonesome sound of the singing cowboys. The kid even taught himself to play the banjo.
Larry Beckett, the Buena Vista high school friend who added erudite lyrics to Buckley melodies over the years, recalls how schoolboy Tim always wanted to sing. Buckley had learnt how to use his perfect pitch from crooners like Nat 'King' Cole and Johnny Mathis but chose to exercise his range by screaming at buses and imitating the sound of trumpets. His voice set sail for the edge early.
Jim Fielder, Tim's other best buddy at school, recalls first hearing the Buckley voice. "One hesitates to get flowery but the words 'gift from God' sprung to mind," he says. "He had an incredible range of four octaves, always in tune, with a great vibrato he had complete control over. You don't normally hear that stuff from a 17-year-old."
Recruited by C&W combo Princess Ramona & The Cherokee Riders, Buckley played guitar in a yellow hummingbird shirt and turquoise hat. The Princess soon saw that Timmy's heart wasn't in country -- his nascent love of Miles Davis and John Coltrane testified to that -- so suggested he turn instead to the burgeoning folk scene. Despite a intuitive gift for its melodic nuances, 'folk-rock' was a tag that would later irk him. Buckley was always cynical about how that business worked. "You hear what they want you to play when you're breaking into the business," he told Sounds in 1972, "and you show 'em what you've got."
With Felder on bass and lyricist Beckett on drums they formed two bands, the Top 40-oriented Bohemians and the more esoteric, acoustic Harlequin 3, who would mix in poetry and freely ad-lib from Ken Nordine's Word Jazz monologues.
Buckley quickly won great notices in L.A., and the 'Orange County Three' accolade only heightened the interest of the music business. Mothers Of Invention drummer Jimmy Carl Black was impressed enough to suggest a meeting with Herb Cohen, a manager with a curiously dual reputation for unswerving broadheadedness and courageous work with mavericks from Lenny Bruce and the Mothers to Captain Beefheart and Wild Man Fischer. Instantly smitten -- "there was no question that Tim had something unique" -- Cohen sent a demo to Jac Holzman at Elektra, home of folk-rocking excellence.
"I must have listened to it twice a day for a week," said Holzman. "Whenever anything was getting me down, I'd run for Buckley. He was exactly the kind of artist with whom we wanted to grow -- young and in the process of developing, extraordinarily gifted and so untyped that there existed no formula or pattern to which anyone would be committed."
Buckley in turn told Zigzag that he respected Holzman because he believed Jac only signed multi-talented acts who made each album an individual statement. Yet Buckley's self-titled debut album (1966) was also his most generic. "I was only 19," Buckley later recalled in Changes magazine, "and going into the studio was like Disneyland. I'd do anything anybody said." The beat-guitar chime of Lee Underwood and the songs' baroque dressings were blood-related to The Byrds, par for the folk-rock course. "Naive, stiff, quaky and innocent, but a ticket into the marketplace," was Underwood's verdict. But you can discern what Cohen and Holzman had so clearly appraised : above all, that soaring counter-tenor voice and remarkable melodic gift.
The followup, Goodbye & Hello (1967), was tainted less by convention than by overambition. Producer Jerry Yester probably saw the chance to drape Buckley's ravishing voice in all the soft-rock flourishes at his disposal, while Beckett's convoluted wordplay was just the wrong side of pretentious. Buckley had radically outgrown the first album's high-school origins, his vice now adopting the languid resonances of his Greenwich Village folk idol Fred Neil on the aching ballads Once I Was and Morning Glory.
"Me and Tim hung around in Greenwich Village during the 1960s," recalls the reclusive songsmith of Everybody's Talkin' and Dolphins. "Tim was completely immersed in the music 24 hours a day. He ate, drank and breathed music. I would not be at all surprised to learn that Tim worked on chord progressions and melody lines in his dreams, he was that committed to the art form."
In the Neil vein, Buckley's bristling I Never Asked to To Be Your Mountain is a six-minute epistle to his already estranged wife Mary Guibert and son Jeffrey Scott (better known now as Jeff Buckley).
"The marriage was a disaster," says Jim Fielder. "Mary was full of life and talent, a classical pianist and Tim's equal. But the pregnancy made it go sour, as neither of them was ready for it. To Tim it was draining his creative force, and Mary wasn't willing to take the chance on his career, putting it to him like, Settle down and raise a baby or we're through. That kind of showdown."
In the climax to I Never Asked To Be Your Mountain, Buckley yelped, pleaded, even shrieked "Baby, pleaEEESSE!), the first evidence of the places his pain would take him. Honesty was the key. When Buckley and Beckett played it autobiographical -- exquisitely vulnerable, naive yet insightful -- the results were stunning. When they played to the gallery it sounded forced. Of the title track's anti-Vietnam tract, Buckley said, "I just hate the motherfucker. It's like, 'OK motherfuckers, you want a protest song, here it is'. They were bugging the hell out of me so I figured, just this once, and then I wouldn't have to do it again.
"Talking about the war is futile," he reckoned. "What can you say about it? You want it to end but you know it won't. Fear is a limited subject but love isn't. I ain't talking about sunsets 'n' trees, I'm involved with America...but the people in America, not the politics. All I can see is the injustice."
Electra's Jac Holzman, however, felt positive : a poster of Buckley loomed large over Sunset Strip. "As we got deeper into 1967 and Vietnam," Holzman observed, "the combined effect of his words, his music, his passion, his persona struck a particular resonance. To some extent he was the bright side of people's tortured souls, and maybe of his own tortured soul. He could express anguish that wasn't negative."
Goodbye & Hello reached 171 on the Billboard chart, but Buckley wasn't in the mood to consolidate. Instead, when Tonight Show guest host Alan King made fun of his hair, the singer retorted, "You know, it's really surprising, I always thought you were a piece of cardboard." On another outing he refused to lip-synch to Pleasant Street and walked out.
WITH HINDSIGHT, UNDERWOOD TRACES Buckley's depressive tendencies to his father who "suffered a head injury in the Second World War, and from then on his insecurities and rage made life miserable for Tim. He saw Tim's beauty, and called him a faggot and beat him up. He looked at Tim's talent and said he'd never make it. His mother didn't help : she'd tell him he'd die young because that's what poets always did. So he grew up deeply hurt and feeling inadequate, yet driven by this extraordinary musical talent that possessed him." The result, Underwood ventures, "gave Tim a deep-seated fear of success...he wanted people to love him but, as they did, he pushed them away."
"Long after his death," says Beckett, "I realised that there were very few songs he wrote that didn't have the word 'home' in them. It seemed like he felt homeless, and nothing would restore it. He seemed OK in high school, maybe a little wild, but he got increasingly neurotic. He'd almost welcome a negative comment that would reaffirm his feelings."
When, in 1970, Jerry Yester's wife Judy Henske poked fun at the line "I'm as puzzled as the oyster" in the majestic Song To The Siren, Buckley instantly dropped the song from the set. "He took the smallest criticism to heart," says Larry Beckett, "so that he couldn't even perform a song which he admitted was one of his all-time favourites!"
Another incident stands out from this period. Tim's choirboy looks and froth of curls had attracted a Love Generation-style teenybop following. At a show at New York Philharmonic Hall, his most prestigious to date, various objects were thrown on stage, a red carnation among them. Buckley stooped down, picked it up and proceeded to chew the petals and spit them out.
"He was very vulnerable and emotional," says Beckett's ex-wife Manda. "It made him terribly attractive to everybody of both sexes. People just sort of swooned around him because he was so sweet. I think that frightened him. He was difficult to deal with because he was scared of his power over people. He almost seemed to reject his audiences for loving him so much. He wasn't mature enough to accept that kind of attention."
Tim would also embroider the truth. At school he'd lie about playing C&W cars, while Larry Beckett remembers dubious boasts of female conquests. Buckley also claimed to have played guitar on The Byrds' first album, which Roger McGuinn always denied. "Tim liked to feed the legend," Beckett recalls with a wry chuckle. "He was quite amoral -- if a lie gave a laugh or strengthened his mystique, that was fine. But his music was always honest."
"If someone dared him to do something, he'd do it," recalls British bassist Danny Thompson, who accompanied Buckley on his 1968 UK visit. "This free spirit was what most people saw, but I also saw a bit of a loner. Unlike most people who get into drugs, he wasn't a sad junkie figure. He was more of a naughty boy who said, 'OK, I'll have a go, I'll drink that.'"
If he admired Hendrix and Hardin and Havens, Buckley frequently railed against the rock establishment. "All people see is velvet pants and long, blonde hair," he fumed. "A perfect person with spangles and flowered shirts -- that's vibrations to them."
"He viewed the blues-orientated rock of the day as white thievery and emotional sham," says Underwood. "He criticised musicians who spent three weeks learning Clapton licks, when Mingus had spent his whole life living his music."
Retreating to his home base in Venice, LA, Buckley and Underwood took time out to immerse themselves in the music of the East Coast jazz titans. Miles, Coltrane, Monk, Mingus and Ornette Coleman all provided inspiration as rehearsals slowly metamorphosed into jam sessions. The day before playing New York's prestigious Fillmore East theatre, Buckley asked vibraphonist David Friedman to rehearse for the show. Seven hours without sheet music later, a new sound was born.
With Happy/Sad (1969), Buckley began to arc away from the underground culture that had launched him. New York photographer Joe Stevens, a good friend of Buckley's at the time, recalls the singer's suspicious attitude towards the forthcoming Woodstock festival. "He said, 'Are you really going? Oh, man, it's going to be awful.' Yet we used to hang out on a friend's farm which was like a scaled-down Woodstock, with hippy girls walking around, weird food, drugs, freedom and trees."
Although Jerry Yester was again involved, Happy/Sad was the polar opposite to Goodbye & Hello's crowded ambition : spacious, supple, a sea of possibilities. The line-up was just vibraphone, string bass, acoustic 12-string, and gently rippling electric guitar. "The Modern Jazz Quartet of Folk," enthused vibraphonist David Friedman. "Heart music," Buckley offered, and Elektra used his words in the ads like a manifesto. Happy/Sad's only real comparison is Astral Weeks, a similarly symmetrical, fluid work that revels in its lack of boundaries while possessing a unique tension.
"The trick of writing," Buckley felt, "is to make it sound like it's all happening for the first time. So you feel it's all happening for the first time. So you feel it's everybody's idea."
Van Morrison, Laura Nyro and John Martyn were also melting the walls between rock, blues, folk and jazz; at 22, Buckley was the youngest of the bunch. He'd also caught the jazz bug the hardest. Yester revealed that the band resisted second takes, while Strange Feeling was bravely anchored to the bass line of Miles Davis's All Blues before Buckley's voice set sail, caressing and cajoling.
"Being with Tim was like going out with an English professor," recalls Bob Duffy, Buckley's tour manager at the time. "He was very serious and almost stodgy, exactly the opposite of what you'd think a rock star would be. He wasn't in the music business to get laid. If one of the guys in the band came up and mentioned women, 13 of them would run out of the room, except for Tim who just sat there, guitar in hand, almost like he was teaching himself the songs again even though he'd played these songs 200 times, because he wanted the show to be as musically performed as possible. I saw incredible shows that he got depressed about, and wouldn't talk to anyone afterwards -- he was very Zappa-like in that demanding way, but he was one of the sanest people on that level that I worked with."
As its very title acknowledged, despite Happy/Sad's sun-splashed backdrop, musical invention and lyrical joie de vivre, its mood was acutely introspective. Critic Simon Reynolds has described it as "a poignant premonition of loss, of an inevitable autumn..."
Lyrics had clearly shifted to a secondary, supportive role. Larry Beckett says he was politely informed that the singer would pen the lyrics alone. "He was moving toward a jazz sound, so to have wild poetry all over the map, you'd miss the jazz. But it was my feeling too that Tim felt his success was due to my lyrics rather than his music, so he wanted to see how well he'd do alone. He tended to believe the worst about himself..."
"It was very hard for me to write songs after Goodbye & Hello, because most of the bases were touched," Buckley admitted. "That was the end of my apprenticeship for writing songs. Whatever I wrote after that wasn't adolescent, which means it isn't easy because you can't repeat yourself. The way Jac [Holzman] had set it up you were supposed to move artistically, but the way the business is you're not. You're supposed to repeat what you do, so there's a dichotomy there. People like a certain type of thing at a certain time, and it's very hard to progress."
In another interview Tim said, "I can see where I'm heading, and it will probably be further and further from what people expected of me."
"He was very friendly and open to ideas, not a prima donna or a hypocrite," recalls John Balkin, who played bass with Buckley in 1969-70. There was no drugs, sex and rock'n'roll in relation to him as an artist, not like Joplin and Hendrix, getting stoned before and during a gig. He felt stifled and frustrated by the boundaries that be, trying to stretch as an artist but making a living too. I remember Herbie Cohen saying, "Go drive a truck then'..."
PROGRESSION WAS NOW BUCKLEY'S WATCH-word. Dream Letter, recorded in 1968 at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall, was already more diffuse than Happy/Sad, lacking the pulse of Carter CC Collins's congas. The budget couldn't afford him or bassist John Miller, so Pentangle's Danny Thompson was drafted in to play an intuitively supportive -- and barely rehearsed -- role.
"I got a call asking me to turn up and rehearse everything at once," recalls Thompson. "He refused to get into a routine of singing 'the song.' We did a TV show, and when it came to doing it live Tim said, 'Let's do another song,' which we'd never rehearsed. It was two minutes longer than out time slot, and the producer was putting his finger across his throat, and Tim looked at him with a puzzled expression and carried on, like art and music was far more important than any of this rubbish that surrounds it. He was fearless."
Clive Selwood, who ran the UK branch of Elektra records, recalls the same episode : "Tim had got a slot on the Julie Felix Show on BBC. He turned up to rehearsals with Danny Thompson an hour late; he shuffled in, nodded when introduced to the producer, unsheathed his guitar, and they launched into an extemporisation of one of his songs that lasted over an hour. The producer and Felix watched open-mouthed, not daring to interrupt. The most exhaustingly magical performance I have ever witnessed -- and all to an audience of three. When it was done, Tim slapped his guitar in the case, said 'OK?' to the producer, and departed."
A year later, after a heady bout of touring, including the Fillmore East's opening night alongside BB King, Buckley's muse was flying high. In 1968 he'd sounded enraptured, a wayward choirboy testing the limits of a new-found sound, but the voice of 1969 scatted and scorched, twisting and ascending like a wreath of smoke. The music mixed blues, jazz and ballads, throwing in calypso, even cooking on the verge of funk. A key Buckley moment arrived at the climax of a simmering 14-minute Gypsy Woman (from Happy/Sad), when he yelled, "Oh, cast a spell on Timmy!", like an exorcism in reverse. Few singers craved possession so hungrily.
A little-known artifact from this period is his soundtrack music for the film Changes, directed by Hall Barlett who later went on to helm Jonathon Livingston Seagull. A live set from the Troubadour, finally released two years ago, previewed material that surfaced on Lorca (1970). The album was named after the murdered Spanish poet, whose simultaneous violent and tender poetics Buckley was vocally mirroring. On the song Lorca itself, and on Anonymous Proposition and Driftin', Buckley floats and stings over a languid blue-note haze -- crooning and stretching half-tones over shapeless stanzas.
"We never had any music to read from," bassist John Balkin remembers. "We just noodled through and went for it, just finding the right note or coming off a note and making it right," Buckley regarded the title track as "my identity as a unique singer, as an original voice."
The timing wasn't great. Now tuning into such mellow songsmiths as James Taylor, the Love Generation was in no mood to follow in Buckley's wayward footsteps, any more than Buckley had kowtowed to Elektra's craving for old-style troubadour charm. As Holzman says, "he was making music for himself at that point...which is fine, except for the problem of finding enough people to listen to it."
"An artist has a responsibility to know what's gone down and what's going on in his field, not to copy but to be aware," the creator responded. "Only that way can he strengthen his own perception and ability."
Around this time Holzman was poised to sell Elektra, which upset Buckley. Although major label offers were on the table -- "a lot of bread, which makes me feel really good" -- he decided that money wasn't the issue : "That's not where I'm at. I can live on a low budget." After some deliberation he signed to Straight, a Warners-distributed label formed by Herb Cohen and Frank Zappa. "It would be better for me to stay with one man who had taken care of me," he said. "No matter what anyone thinks of Herbie, he's a great dude." But he capitulated to Cohen's demand to record a more accessible record : aptly named, Blue Afternoon (1969) is a collection of narcotic folk-torch ballads.
"Tim always wrote about love and suffering in all their manifestations," says Lee Underwood. "He felt that underneath love was fear, fear of love and success and attention and responsibility." In the album's centrepiece, Blue Melody, Buckley keens : "There ain't no wealth that can buy my pride/There ain't no pain that can cleanse my soul/No, just a blue melody/Sailing far away from me." In So Lonely, he confessed that "Nobody comes around here no more". In press material for the album, Buckley said the songs had been written for Marlene Dietrich.
Blue Afternoon beat Lorca to the shops by a month. With two albums vying for attention, his already diminished sales potential was halved. (Lorca didn't even chart). Buckley, never commercially-minded, was still looking forward. "When I did Blue Afternoon, I had just about finished writing set songs," he told Zigzag. "I had to stretch out a little bit...the next [album] is mostly dealing in time signatures."
Has any troubadour ever stretched out quite as Buckley did on 1970's Starsailor? Buckley's third album in a year, in the words of bassist John Balkin, was ""a whole different genre". Balkin, who ran a free improvisation group with Buzz and Buck Gardner of the Mothers, had introduced Buckley to opera singer Cathy Berberian's interpretations of songs by Luciano Berio, inspiring the ever-restless Buckley to new heights. Over throbbing rhythms and atonal dynamics, the Gardners' blowing was matched by Buckley's gymnastic yodels and screams : one moment he sounded like an autistic child, the next like Tarzan. Everything peaked on the title song, with its 16 tracks of vocal overdubs. Larry Beckett, recalled to add impressionistic poetry to expressionistic music, also had a field day : to wit, the likes of "Behold the healing festival/complete for an instant/the dance figure pure constellation." Indeed.
"For the Starsailor track itself," recalls Balkin, "we wanted things like Timmy's voice moving and circling the room, coming over the top like a horn section, like another instrument, not like five separate voices. His range was incredible. He could get down with the bass part and be up again in a split second."
Fiercely beautiful, Starsailor is a unique masterpiece. Aside from Song To The Siren, the album was the epitome of uneasy listening. "Sometimes you're writing and you know that you're not going to fit," Buckley responded. "But you do it because it's your heart and soul and you gotta say it. When you play a chord, you're dating yourself...the fewer chords you play, the less likely you are to get conditioned, and the more you can reveal of what you are."
If Starsailor came close to Coltrane's 'sheets of sound', it was hard not to see it as commercial suicide. Attempts to reproduce Starsailor live didn't help. "The shows Tim booked himself after Starsailor were total free improvisation, vocal gymnastics time," recalls Balkin. "I can still see him onstage, his head down, snoring. There was one episode of barking at the audience too. After one show, Frank Zappa said we sounded good, and he wasn't one who easily handed out compliments."
"BUCKLEY YODELLING BAFFLES AUDIENCE," RAN a Rolling Stone headline. As Herb Cohen says today, "he was changing to drastically, playing material that audiences weren't necessarily coming to hear and that was beyond the realm of their capability" ... "An instrumentalist can be understood doing just about anything, but people are really geared to something coming out of the mouth being words," a resentful Buckley said in a subsequent press release. "I use my voice as an instrument when I'm performing live. The most shocking thing I've ever seen people come up against, beside a performer taking off his clothes, is dealing with someone who doesn't sing words. If I had my way, words wouldn't mean a thing."
Buckley was driven into deep depression by Starsailor's failure. Straight wouldn't provide tour support, the old band had fragmented because there was so little work for them, and Buckley was reduced to booking his own shows in small clubs. At last he shared the bitter, neglected status of his jazz idols. Underwood confirms that in order to take that sting away, Buckley dabbled in barbiturates and heroin. When Buckley prefaced I Don't Need It To Rain on the Troubadour album by saying, "This one's called Give Smack A Chance", it was a dangerous joke. "He was mocking the peace movement, the whole Beatles mentality of the day," says Underwood.
At least his personal life had improved. He'd re-married, bought a house in upmarket Laguna Beach (subsequently painted black to outrage the neighbours), and effectively gone to ground. "I'd been going strong since 1966 and really needed a rest," was Buckley's explanation. "I hadn't caught up with any living." He also inherited his wife Judy's seven-year-old son Taylor.
Judy doesn't recall any drug abuse. Nor does she remember Tim driving a cab, chauffeuring Sly Stone or studying ethnomusicology at UCLA, as the singer often claimed at the time. Instead, she recalls Tim reading voraciously, catching up with his favourite Latin American writers at the UCLA library, and channelling his creative urges into acting.
The unreleased 1971 cult film Why? starring OJ Simpson was shot during this period. "It was their first film but both Tim and OJ were incredible actors. The camera loved them," remembers co-star Linda Gillen. "Tim had this James Dean quality. He's so handsome in the movie and yet such a mess! You know those Brat Pack kind of films, where people play prefabricated rebels who see themselves as kinda bad but they have a PR taking care of business? Well, Tim was the real deal. He didn't give a fuck how he looked or dressed. He had no hidden agenda. He had an incredible naivety.
"We used to improvise in the film. Tim's character talks to the effect that you can't commit suicide. You can't amend your feelings for other people; you have to find that thing that's good in you and keep that alive. A lot of the group had been onto my character about taking heroin but Tim would always be the sympathetic one. But that was Tim. He'd understand where they were coming from, why they would do what they did.
"On the set, I used to hum to myself to fight off boredom and Tim would pick up on what I was humming, like Miss Otis Regrets, and we'd end up harmonising together," she continues. "I loved Fred Neil, and asked if he knew Dolphins, which he sung for me. He'd say, 'They got to Fred Neil, don't let it happen to you.' He'd talk in this strange, paranoid, ominous way, about 'the man.' That night, we went to buy Fred's album and bypassed Tim's on the way! He never hustled his records to me; he wasn't a self-promoter.
"I wondered why Tim was working on this schleppy movie, because I knew people like Roger McGuinn who were making millions, and he said, very silently, 'I need the money.' We were only earning $420 a week on the film, and I said, Is that all the money you have right now? and he said, 'No, I'm getting a song covered,' which I think was Gypsy Woman which Neil Diamond was going to do."
Meanwhile, the comedic plot of his unfilmed screenplay Fully Air-Conditioned Inside was based on a struggling musician who blows up an audience called for old songs and makes his escape tucked beneath the wings of a vulture, singing My Way...
WHEN AN ALBUM FINALLY EMERGED IN 1972, Buckley had once again avoided covering familiar ground. Greetings From LA was a seriously funky amalgam of rock and soul. His youthful verve might have gone, but his wondrous holler whipped things along. "After Starsailor, I decided the way to come back was to be funkier than everybody," he boasted. But would radio stations play a record as shocking lyrically as Starsailor had been musically?
Judy was the new muse ("An exceptionally beautiful woman, provocative and witty too," says Underwood) and the album was drenched in lust. In a year when David Bowie made sex a refrigeratedly alien concept, Buckley wrote a set of linked songs in a sultry New Orleans populated by a constellation of pimps, whores and hustlers. "I went down to the meat rack tavern," was the album's opening line; and it closed on, "I'm looking for a street corner girl/And she's gonna beat me, whip me, spank me, make it all right again..."
Buckley explained his reasoning to Chrissie Hynde when she interviewed him for the NME in 1974. "I realised all the sex idols in rock weren't saying anything sexy -- no Jagger or [Jim] Morrison. Nor had I learned anything sexually from a rock song. So I decided to make it human and not so mysterious."
Producer Hal Wilner, who subsequently organised the Tribute To Tim Buckley show at St. Anne's Church, Brooklyn, remembers the singer at this time. "I saw Buckley live four times, including two of the best performances I've ever seen. He was everything someone could look for in music, totally transcendent. The first time took 100 per cent of my attention, like taking some sort of pill. You'd expect it from guys like Pharaoh Sanders and Sun Ra, but that's a very rare feeling to get in rock. Another time he opened for Zappa in his Grand Wazoo period, and the audience was incredibly rude to him, booing and heckling. But he handled it beautifully, just carrying on, talking sarcastically, trying to get them to blow hot smoke on the stage. He was genius in every sense. He should be seen on the same level as Edith Piaf and Miles Davis."
"Rock'n'roll was meant to be body music," Buckley stated in Downbeat magazine. But diehard fans wanted to know why he was now singing rock'n'roll. "His last albums were dictated somewhat by business considerations," says Lee Underwood, "but few understood they were also dictated by major music considerations. Where else could he go after Starsailor's intellectual heights except to its opposite, to white funk dance music, rooted in sexuality? At least Tim's R&B was honest, unlike the over-rehearsed stuff that pretends to be spontaneous. Greetings is still one of he best rock'n'roll albums ever to come down the pike. Throughout his career, he constantly asked and answered a question that can be terrifying, which is, Where do I go from here? People criticised him during Lorca and Starsailor and wanted him to play rock'n'roll, but when he did they said he sold out."
True compromise was far more detectable on 1974's album Sefronia, released by Cohen and Zappa's new DiscReet label under the Warner Brothers umbrella. "Everyone was second guessing where he should go next," says his old friend Donna Young, "and Tim started listening to what other people thought."
Some new-found literary acumen was displayed on the title track, a ballad as lush as the album's reading of Fred Neil's Dolphins. But five of the songs were covers, including the sappy MOR duet I Know I'd Recognise Your Face, while pale retreads of Greetings' honeyed funk served as filler. Guitarist Joe Falsia was now in the Tonto role, Underwood having stepped down to deal with his drug addiction. Herbie Cohen was obviously calling the shots. "Some of those songs were beautiful but you have to get through Herb's idea of what is commercial," says Underwood.
As commercial compromises go, Sefronia was terrific -- radio-friendly and lyrically approachable -- but Buckley knew the score. "If I write too much music, it loses, as happened on Sefronia. Y'know, it gets stale." In reference to the folk-rock era, he observed that "the comradeship is just not there any more, and it affects the music." His boisterous barrelhouse sound was showcased at 1974's Knebworth Festival in Britain, where Buckley opened a bill that included Van Morrison, The Doobie Brothers and The Allman Brothers Band. It was his first UK show since 1968, and few knew who he was.
Photographer Joe Stevens reacquainted himself with Tim at a DiscReet launch in London : "He was sitting at a table signing autographs, which I couldn't have imagined him doing before. When he saw me he said, 'Come on, let's get out of here,' before they'd even said, 'Ladies'n'gentlemen, Tim Buckley!' We hit the street, took some photos, then took a taxi back to my place. He spent two days curled around my TV set, cooing at my girlfriend. We got calls from Warners accusing me of kidnapping their artist! You could see what had happened to him. The youth had gone out of his face, and his smile would break into a frown as soon as it had finished."
Look At The Fool (1975), with its frazzled, Tijuana-soul feel, was purer Buckley again, but the songwriting meandered badly -- Wanda Lu remains one of the most ignominious final songs of any brilliant career. "It just seemed that the more down he became, the more desperate he sounded," his sister Kathleen told Musician magazine. "The work of a man desperately trying to connect with an audience that has deserted him," pronounced Melody Maker. The photo on the back cover caught Buckley with a quizzical, defeated expression. Look at the fool, indeed. Honest to the end.
In 1974, Buckley wrote to Lee Underwood : "You are what you are, you know what you are, and there are no words for loneliness -- black, bitter, aching loneliness that gnaws the roots of silence in the night..."
"Tim felt he'd given everything to no avail," says Underwood. "He was even suicidal for a short while because he felt there was no place left to go, emotionally speaking. He was gaining new audiences and improving his singing within conventional song forms, but comments that he'd sold out made him feel terrible. He never understood his fear of success, and remained divided and tormented to the end. I urged him to take therapy shortly before his death, when he was feeling very bitter, to the point of suicide, but he said, 'Lose the anger, lose the music.'"
"We saw a lot of him over the years as disillusionment set in," said Clive Selwood, who, inspired by Buckley's session for BBC's John Peel Show, later founded the Strange Fruit label and its Peel Sessions. "When we first met, he spent his leisure time cycling across Venice Beach, guzzling a six-pack. When we last met, he was carrying a gun, in fear of the reactionary side of American life, who despised his long hair. He said, 'If you're carrying a gun, you stand a chance.'"
"He continually took chances with his life," adds Larry Beckett. "He'd drive like a maniac, risking accidents. For a couple of years he drank a lot and took downers to the point where it nearly killed him, but he'd always escape. Then he got into this romantic heroin-taking thing. Then his luck ran out." Buckley's most revered idols were Fred Neil -- who chose anonymity rather than exploit the success of Everybody's Talkin' -- and Miles Davis, both icons and both junkies. "He lived on the edge, creatively and psychologically," says Lee Underwood. "He treated drugs as tools, to feel or think things through in more intense ways. To explore."
One planned exploration was a musical adaptation of Joseph Conrad's novel Out Of The Islands and a screenplay of Thomas Wolfe's You Can't Go Home Again. Of more immediate consequence, Buckley had won the part of Woody Guthrie in Hal Ashby's film Bound For Glory. The consciousness as well as financial independence, but in the end it went instead to David Carradine.
Buckley was still up for playing live. After a short tour culminating in a sold-out show at an 1800-capacity venue in Dallas, the band partied on the way home, as was customary. An inebriated Tim proceeded to his good friend Richard Keeling's house in order to score some heroin.
As Underwood tells it, Keeling, in flagrante delicto and unwilling to be disturbed, argued with Buckley : "Finally, in frustration, Richard put a quantity of heroin on a mirror and thrust it at Tim, saying, 'Go ahead, take it all,' like a challenge. As was his way, Tim sniffed the lot. Whenever he was threatened or told what to do, he rebelled."
Staggering and lurching around the house, Buckley had to be taken home, where Judy Buckley laid him on the floor with a pillow. She then put him to bed, thinking he would recover; when she checked later, he'd turned an ominous shade of blue. The paramedics were called but it was too late. Tim Buckley was dead.
"I remember Herb saying Tim had died, and we all sat there," recalls Bob Duffy, Buckley's old tour manager. "It wasn't expected but it was like watching a movie, and that was its natural ending."
"It was painful to listen to his records after he died," says Linda Gillen. "I remember how vibrant he was. He had that same lost alienation as friends who had committed suicide. He was smart, wonderful, mean, nasty, kind, racist, and a loyal friend, all kinds of contradictions. A true original."
"When he died, I took a week off," remembers Joe Stevens. "He was special -- an innocent in an animal machine."
IN 1983, IVO WATTS-RUSSELL of the 4AD label had the inspired notion to marry the vaporous drama of the Cocteau Twins to Buckley's Song To The Siren. Punk's Stalinist purge was over, and the result was a haunting highlight of post-New Wave rock, launching both This Mortal Coil and Buckley's posthumous reputation.
Before he died, Buckley had been planning a live LP spanning the various phases of his career. Sixteen years later Dream Letter was released to great acclaim. "Nobody would have listened before," reckons Herb Cohen. "Things have their own cycle, usually close to 20 years. You have to wait."
He knowingly compromised his fierce artistic ideals, but his gut feeling was that he'd get more freedom later," says Larry Beckett. "If he'd gone into hiding for 10 years, no end of labels would have recorded anything he wanted. Things do come around."
"He was one of the great ballad singers of all time, up there with Mathis and Sinatra," believes Lee Underwood. "He would have pulled out of his youthful confusion, expanded his musical scope to include great popular and jazz songs. Tim Buckley didn't say, 'I am this, I am that.' He said, 'I am all of these things.'"