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
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
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
"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
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
"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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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.'"