back when, Dylan and the Beatles demonstrated how musicians
could evolve dramatically, overhauling their sound on record
once or even twice a year. They were hardly alone, but few
others shape-shifted during than era like Tim Buckley.
By 1968, the L.A.-via-Orange-Country troubadour was moving
beyond the keening-balladeer mode of his early work — a mere
two years before — and gravitating toward jazz and improvisational
music. That exhilarating shift, a key period in his career,
is documented in this newly unearthed live tape, recorded
that year at the Carousel Ballroom in San Francisco by the
late sonic wizard (and acid impresario) Owsley “Bear” Stanley.
sense that Buckley was already outgrowing any sort of new-Dylan
expectations on him arrives pretty much right away. The album
opens with “Buzzin’ Fly,” that musical snuggle blanket that
captures the rush of new love, the joy of discovery. Other
than stretching out a few words to extra syllables, Buckley
sings it much as he would on Happy Sad, which wouldn’t be
out for almost another year.
by the second song, “I Don’t Need It to Rain,” he’s starting
to leave conventions behind – and not just in its lyrics,
the oblique and borderline kinky tale of an “undercover tinsel
queen.” His musicians – bassist John Miller, vibes player
David Friedman and percussionist Carter “C.C.” Collins – lock
into a folky-improv groove behind him, and Buckley starts
flying. Over the course of nine minutes, his voice is howling,
moaning, swallowing syllables, and emitting muted yodels,
and he’s slamming chords on his 12-string.
most hypnotic parts of Merry-Go-Round at the Carousel pick
up where that command performance leaves off. Buckley drops
his voice up and down several octaves on a version of the
folk standard “Green Rocky Road,” and he becomes a fervent
folk preacher on the newly discovered “Blues, Love.” It’s
telling that he dispatches accessible songs like “Happy Time”
and “Sing a Song for You” in a few minutes’ time, but then
dives headfirst into “Merry-Go-Round” by his hero, Fred Neil.
Buckley begins with Neil’s words, sung in the voice of a black
child in the South — wandering a circus and looking for his
own playground there – before shifting to a few verses of
Lead Belly’s “In the Pines.” Buckley then pivots to his own
ad-libbed lines about women and race, finally wrapping up
the song (with some of his own, Miles Davis-inspired “Strange
Feelin'”) 11 minutes later.
and elsewhere, Miller’s upright bass serves as both Buckley’s
musical backbone and its partner in improv. As with Phil Lesh
in the Grateful Dead, Miller is as much lead guitarist as
bass player, and he and Friedman lend a smokey-jazz-club feel
to the songs. Buckley’s devotion to pushing his voice and
his art would soon lead to albums like Starsailor, a collection
of musical zigzags that, over 50 years later, remains one
of the most daunting albums ever made.
journey starts on recordings like these. For any other “folksinger”
– a term barely suitable for describing Buckley – it would
be anathema to stop a song midway through so that your conga
player could take a long, unaccompanied solo.
For Buckley, it was just another day at the ballroom.
2021 David Browne/rollingstone.com