The Tim Buckley Archives

Melody Maker - 1975

Buckley : A Master In Search of Pupils

Steve Lake in New York pays tribute to Tim Buckley

"Just like a buzzin' fly I'll come into your life and I'll float away like honey in the sun."

Tim Buckley wrote those words and sang them, but exits from life are rarely that pretty. He also wrote: "the candle died, now you are gone, for the flame was too bright..." And that is probably nearer the truth. Buckley died at his Santa Monica apartment on Sunday, June 29.

The loss to rock music is vastly greater than most people are going to realise, for a while, at least. Don't expect any books or movies about Tim's demise--he never enjoyed the showbiz plaudits afforded Brian Jones, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin but his art, I'm sure, will endure at least as long, and maybe longer.

Tim Buckley's songs and vocal technique were without precedent in rock. He was an innovator, and God knows, there are few enough of them.

In my mind, Buckley's almost universally ignored contribution puts him on a par with artists like John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy, and I'm convinced that in a few years' time Buckley outtakes will become treasured collector's items snapped up in the same manner that old Charlie Parker or Lester Young tapes are now.

It's just a drag, a total drag, that Tim won't be around to see it happening. Because he felt the neglect, no doubt about that, and it made him bitter.

By the time he'd graduated from High School, Buckley had already served a lengthy apprenticeship with Southern Californian country and western bands, and together with poet and friend Larry Beckett began to do his own gigs.

He signed a contract with Elektra at 19, but not before playing the sessions for the Byrds' first album--and the instrument he played was the twelve-string guitar, supposedly one of the bands' innovations.

At the sessions he met guys like Van Dyke Parks, guitarist Lee Underwood and the Mothers' drummer Billy Mundi, and carted them all over to Elektra to play on his debut album, which was met with critical interest.

This was in 1966, and fame looked assured. Buckley was good-looking, pop star material. He had Dylan's froth of curls and fine, chiselled features, plus a gorgeously pure counter tenor, and if the songs weren't brilliant they were at least interesting--mixing surrealism with romanticism and colouring the whole with delicate use of electric instruments.

Come '67, and Tim was at the vanguard of the new flowering of consciousness, his Goodbye and Hello album--the last to be picked up on by any mass audience--reflecting his experiments with psychedelics and his social indignation (the expected diatribes against war and opulence and the older generation).

In some ways it was an immature statement, but it bore the seed of what was to come, and the title track, for all its clichés, was an experimental work, with parallel verses and cut-up chorus lines.

Very high on all the liberated attitudes prevalent around that period, Tim made the "mistake" of presuming that all the barriers really were down, that pop was no longer hidebound by convention, that an artist could extend the limits of his imagination indefinitely and the audience, being as hip as he was would be able to stay the course.

He got very heavily into jazz and further into poetry. Reviews of his 1968-1969 shows reported that Buckley was singing trumpet parts--and that the audiences were heading for the exits.

Two transitional albums, Happy/Sad and Blue Afternoon, were exquisitely low key affairs, proving Buckley's melodic dexterity. Love From Room 109 At The Islander (On Pacific Coast Highway) on the Happy/Sad album is crammed full of counter melodies, all linked by Lee Underwood's sensual guitar and Don Friedman's vibes, while So Lonely on the Blue Afternoon set (and Buckley claimed that all his songs were written from personal experience) mirrors the extent of his introspection during this period: "Well, I don't get no letter / Nobody calls / Nobody comes round my door no more..."

His vocal range was expanding all the time, able to plumb baritone depths as well as scale castrato heights. But if Buckley fans were perplexed by the nature of those albums they were dumbfounded by Lorca --its title track dedicated to the murdered Spanish poet Garcia Lorca and Starsailor--the most extreme of Buckley's albums.

Having toyed with modern jazz, Buckley suddenly catapulted himself to the outer reaches of music. Starsailor, while being New Music, unquestionably hints at myriad other styles from calypso out to free jazz and Ligeti-esque glissandos on the title track.

Buckley was immensely proud of the album. It was his Sergeant Pepper. Unfortunately, others didn't see it that way, and the album bombed.

Depressed, Buckley hung up his twelve string and that was gonna be it. He quit the music scene, working for a while as a taxi driver and, at one point, as a chauffeur to Sly Stone.

He took up a post at the University of California in LA where he specialised in ethnomusicology, which, together with an improvement in his domestic situation--he got married--brought about a new interest in performing.

He returned, tongue firmly in cheek, with Greetings From LA, complete with mock-ecological sleeve, and containing some of the randiest and raunchiest songs ever committed to vinyl.

Jagger and Morrison were hypocrites, said Buckley: their image was macho and dirty but their songs were sexless. He was gonna put that right. And, amazingly, for those with ears to listen, he did. Greetings From LA is a celebration of physical gratification. More power to it.

But from there, sadly, Tim mostly trod water. I dearly love his last two albums, Sefronia and Look At The Fool, but what they represent is the work of a man desperately trying to connect with an audience that has deserted him. They contain great songs, but don't represent any more steps forward.

At the time of his death, he was simultaneously working on the compilation of a live album and a song cycle based upon Joseph Conrad's Outcasts of The Islands. And he'd just completed a tour of Texas.

I sure as hell hope they appreciate his talents wherever he is now.

© 1975 Lake/Melody Maker

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