The Tim Buckley Archives

Album Reviews
March 14-21, 2001

Tim’s Up
Tim Buckley gets some overdue attention

by David Peschek

Tim Buckley is the new Nick Drake. And no, that’s not insanely lazy journalism – simply a statement about how and artist largely misunderstood or ignored during their lifetime posthumously gains a kind of critical velocity.

Tim Buckley remains best known for the cover of his Song To the Siren that appeared on This Mortal Coil’s It’ll End In Tears in 1983, sung by Elizabeth Fraser. 

The awful, untimely death of Tim’s son Jeff, who drowned in 1997 – himself, it also seems needless to repeat, one of the most vital singers of the 90’s – gave the Buckley mythology a terrible symmetry: Tim died on June 29th 1975, of an accidental drug overdose. Though he’d wrestled with addiction, he’d been clean for some time.

Between 1966 and 1974, Tim released nine albums that touched on folk, psychedelia, jazz, avant-jazz, soul and the blues; originally a singer-songwriter in Jac Holzman’s incredibly fertile Elektra stable - Van Dyke Parks played on his debut, the great Jack Nitzsche arranged the strings - his work soon became un-categorisable. The minor commercial success of his earlier records was not sustained; his public increasingly perplexed by his relentless mutating muse. Shockingly he was only 28 when he died.

Only fitfully available after his death, his work stands as a statement of what music can be: largely unfettered by commercial concerns, extraordinary and livid in its emotive power, it’s music that’s impossible to have on in the background. The breathless range of Tim’s voice – real gone falsetto, resonant low notes, a gorgeous, grainy tenor in between, capable of expressing utter desolation and intensely ecstatic sexuality – vibrates through, is almost sung through, the listener.

 For many, much of Jeff’s appeal was his ability to access places that had seemed out of reach since Tim’s passing; of course, Jeff – whose talent was informed by rock in ways which Tim’s could never have been – couldn’t escape the comparison however hard he tried.

Now it seems that dad will, at last, get his due. Gradually, Tim rather than Jeff has become the Buckley to name drop – even if it’s often a lame and spurious byword for vocal histrionics. Recently, of course, the UK Top 20 has been visited by the band Starsailor, though their safe (if lovely) melodic rock is a million miles from the avant-jazz explorations of the album from which they took their name.
"Like Jeff – and less feted, less trendy but no less iconoclastic vocalists – Tim is redemptively still alive in his songs, singing himself into raw, brilliant existence over and over again..."
Finally, 26 years after his death, comes Morning Glory – The Tim Buckley Anthology, the first serious attempt to provide an overview of his work. To some extent, it plays John The Baptist to the real second coming: reissues of all Tim’s albums over the coming year, many of the later records (especially Greetings From LA, the sweat drenched, white soul masterpiece that rivals Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On) coming complete with unreleased material. While we wait, Morning Glory usefully compiles a lot of stuff that’s currently unavailable, particularly from the inexplicably deleted (and wonderful) Blue Afternoon (1969) and Starsailor (1971).

Hopefully, it will also provide a decisive opportunity to laud one of the most fiercely individual, questing and uncompromising musicians of the last century.

That said - and, of course, any selective compilation of a fiercely-loved artist provokes dissent – there are mistakes and omissions. So here, for the anal, the friendless and those who don’t get out enough, are an obsessive’s gripes. 

Early, non-album cuts Lady, Give Me Your Heart and Once Upon A Time (from a 1967 45) remain uncompiled. Sequencing the melodically similar (though individually lovely) Once I Was and Morning Glory next to each other isn’t particularly sympathetic to either. 

1967’s Goodbye And Hello also contains the wrenching I Never Asked To Be Your Mountain, addressed to the young wife and baby Tim had recently abandoned – and one of the songs Jeff chose to sing at his first significant public appearance, the 1992 New York tribute to his father; the biographical significance alone would make it a worthy inclusion, perhaps in place of the overwrought No Man Can Find The War, which finds Larry Beckett at his most baroque. 

Strangely, there’s no place for Dolphins either. (Written by his hero, Fred Neil, also author of Midnight Cowboy theme Everybody’s Talking’, the song was a key part of Tim’s repetoire for years, and echoes through Once I Was. It was finally recorded for Tim’s penultimate album Sefronia in 1973, though an excellent live version appears on Dreamletter.) 

The patchy but underrated Sefronia is represented only by (the very middling) Sally Go Round The Roses– no match for the title track, nor Tim’s lovely take on Tom Waits’s Martha. (Points, however, for rescuing the rapturous Who Can Deny You from much-maligned swansong Look At The Fool and finally compiling the sought-after early version of Song To The Siren from The Monkees TV show.)

But the greatest shame is that Tim’s most extreme music – the incredible title track of Starsailor a choir of multitracked Tims soaring through searing harmonics into a near atonal bliss-out of yelps, cries and wails – is missing. Over thirty years after it was recorded, it still sounds not futuristic but wildly out of time, a vivid nebula on the furthest flung reaches of music.

Like Jeff – and less feted, less trendy but no less iconoclastic vocalists like Billy Mackenzie and Klaus Nomi, who also lived extreme lives and died prematurely – Tim is redemptively still alive in his songs, singing himself into raw, brilliant existence over and over again.

© 2001 Peschek/Time Out

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