Off the Beaten Tracks
of the most powerful movie passages I can remember is at
the end of Coming Home, directed
by Hal Ashby in 1978. It tells the story (spoiler alert,
in case you wish to see it) of Sally Hyde, played by Jane
Fonda, whose husband Bob (the brilliant Bruce Dern) is a
gung-ho Marine Corps officer who canít wait to be sent to
Vietnam. While he is away she volunteers to help at a veteransí
hospital where she meets former classmate Luke Martin (Jon
Voight) who is now a paraplegic following injuries suffered
in the war. They fall in love. Bob returns to California
from íNam to find the couple are having an affair.
as a "new Dylan" (and not without justification) in the wake of his
first two Elektra albums, Buckley was already taking a nervy detour into ethereal,
jazzy romanticism and heady, freewheeling voc al improvisation when he arrived
noThe final moments show Luke delivering an impassioned
anti-war message to a group of young men while on a deserted
beach a few miles away a suicidal Bob removes his uniform
and wedding ring before swimming naked into the waves. The
soundtrack to this is the beautiful song Once I Was, which
for many viewers was an introduction to the music of Tim
Buckley. By then, however, Tims short life was already
in Washington DC on Valentines Day 1947, Timothy Charles
Buckley III was the son of a decorated war veteran of Irish
descent. His mother Elaine was an Italian American.
1956 the family moved to Anaheim in California where Tim
taught himself the banjo and befriended fellow high school
pupils Jim Fielder and Larry Beckett. In the folk music
boom of the early Sixties Tim played traditional songs in
coffee houses and began to develop his extraordinary voice
which eventually would span four octaves. Beckett said:
Wed sit there and go, Oh my God, Ive
never heard anything as beautiful as this voice. He
was always stretching his limits, always working on extending
was giving way to psychedelia when the school pals formed
a group named The Bohemians, with Tim on guitar, Jim on
bass and Larry on percussion. They played a mixture of cover
versions interspersed with songs by Buckley and Beckett.
voice soon attracted attention and in 1965 a Los Angeles
magazine named him as one of a trio of emerging singer-songwriters
it called the Orange County Three. The other two were Steve
Noonan, who made one album before disappearing into obscurity,
and a bloke called Jackson Browne. We all know what happened
Buckley/Beckett collaborations would appear on 19-year-old
Tims eponymous debut album in 1966 after he was signed
by Elektra Records. The lyrics of one, Song Slowly Song,
were allegedly adapted by Beckett from ancient Greek poetry.
Other highlights include Arent You The Girl, She Is,
and Wings, with strings arranged by Jack Nitzsche. Larry
did not play on the LP but Jim Fielder did. Lead guitar
was handled by Lee Underwood, who became a close friend
and for most of Tims career stayed by his side.
was frank in his appraisal of the album, describing it as
naive, stiff, quaky and innocent but a ticket into
this time Buckley had been married, at the age of 18, to
his high school sweetheart Mary Guibert in the false belief
that she was expecting. Theirs was a rocky relationship
and although she did become pregnant they divorced in 1966,
shortly before the birth of their son Jeff.
and Beckett teamed up again to write most of the tracks
on 1967s Goodbye and Hello, described by critics as
a quantum leap from its predecessor although
to many listeners it sounds pretentious and Jerry Yesters
production is far too busy. It begins with the pacifist
No Man Can Find The War and that theme is developed in the
histrionic eight-minute-plus title track.
"...it was not
until 1990 that it was released as the double CD
Dream Letter, which would come to be acknowledged
as one of
the greatest-ever live albums."
aforementioned Once I Was is my favourite song on the LP,
along with Morning Glory. I Never Asked To Be Your Mountain
is addressed to his ex-wife: You didnt understand
my love; you dont know why I try. To publicise
the album Buckley reluctantly went on TV but declined to
play the fame game. During one appearance he walked off
set after refusing to mime to a recording of Pleasant Street.
On the Tonight programme he told guest host Alan King: You
know, its really surprising. I always thought you
were a piece of cardboard.
Beckett was drafted into the army,
Buckley went it alone and began to develop his own jazz/blues
style. He was heavily influenced by fellow Elektra artist
Fred Neil, who inspired him to develop the lower end of
his vocal range. Tim formed a touring band with Underwood,
John Miller on double bass, Carter Collins on congas and
David Friedman on vibraphone.
October 7, 1968, Tim made his British debut in London at
Queen Elizabeth Hall. While Underwood and Friedman had made
the trip with him, he could not afford the cost of travel
and hotels to bring Collins and Miller as well so he did
without percussion; on bass Danny Thompson, of the British
folk group Pentangle, was hired for one night only.
two-hour concert was recorded but it was not until 1990
that it was released as the double CD Dream Letter, which
would come to be acknowledged as one of the greatest-ever
live albums. It begins with an introduction from DJ Pete
Drummond, who confesses to being a little perturbed
having walked in with his ticket to watch the show and been
press-ganged into acting as MC. First song is Buzzin
Fly, from the forthcoming album Happy Sad, and the musicianship
is sublime. The brilliant Thompson had not played Buckleys
music before but youd never have guessed it.
is followed by Phantasmagoria in Two, a dramatic improvement
on the song from Hello and Goodbye. Tim introduces Morning
Glory as a song about a hobo beating up on a collegian
kid outside of Dallas, Texas. Next comes the magical
Fred Neil song Dolphins.
we have Ive Been Out Walking, which strangely has
the same opening lines as Jackson Brownes These Days
although it is a totally different song. The dream-like
spell is broken by Who Do You Love? which anticipates
Tims unfortunate forays into funk during the Seventies
but the first disc ends well with a medley of Pleasant
Street and a spine-tingling version of the Supremes
chart topper You Keep Me Hangin On. Remember, at this
point the prodigious Tim is still only 21.
two begins with a jazzy, sprawling rendition of Love From
Room 109 coupled with Strange Feelin both of
which would feature on Happy Sad. I think its fair
to say that the rest of the album struggles to match the
brilliance of disc one although the final track, Once I
Was, of course hits the spot. I have read that Hal Ashby
had visualised ending Coming Home with this song before
the film was even written and he played it to Bruce Dern
to motivate him before that epic final scene.
liner notes for Dream Letter, Lee Underwood writes: One
of the reasons this music sounds so fresh and hits home
so directly is because Buckley was insisting on improvisation,
not just from himself, but from all of us. He wanted his
music to be born spontaneously out of the intensity of the
moment. He wanted it to be supremely human, flaws and all.
Buckley had just begun the most creative period of his life.