The Tim Buckley Archives

Album Reviews

Beautiful Dreamer

Tim Buckley - Happy/Sad

by Pete Frame

"When you're in a recording studio, you have time and money, so you go into this dreamland," says Tim Buckley.

And that's exactly what he does.

Into a peculiarly vivid and enveloping dreamland. A land at once intensely personal and totally beguiling to the listener. Tales of love, of war, and feelings, and mornings, and more love; told in words of sophisticated, soft, satin magic; in musical settings elevating the sometimes tempestuous, sometimes so gentle songs, to works of breathtaking beauty.

The picturesque backdrop against which he has lurched from comparative obscurity to comparative fame in three years, is almost too good to be true. Teenage in the hip mould of poet ridden Venice, California, "discovery" by Mother Jimmy Earl Black in a small West Coast folk club, appearances at the legendary star catalyst Night Owl in Greenwich Village, an Elektra contract, unsolicited testimonials from every discerning musician from George Harrison to Frank Zappa and two superb albums.

Happy Sad is his third record. A treasure of incredible, rare aesthetic excellence.

Usually when I listen to a record for the first time, I like to lie on the floor, wearing phones or just lying near the speakers, with a pencil and paper nearby so that I can catch initial impressions -- so that repeated listening doesn't lose or distort my immediate reactions, which often don't recur. But with Happy Sad, I was so preoccupied with the sleeve, that I hardly got a thing down. In a word, it's about the best sleeve that I've ever seen.

The photograph (by Ed Caraeff) of Buckley, with his mind clambering around in some distant sink of melancholy, is stunning. A finer, more delicately shaded description of the title would not have been possible -- it's as if you can see through his eyes and recreate his mood and mental environment. And the lettering -- a small detail, but so thoughtfully chosen and executed.

The most frequent criticism of Buckley's live work, is from people who find his melodies too similar and indifferent. Oblivious of the audience, they say, he enters his dream world and consequently after a while, his spell weaving palls and provokes a distracting monotony which the lyrical beauty just cannot support.

Well. Fair enough. If they don't like him, that's their hang up. But they lose. His melodies are arrestingly inventive, and the settings exquisite, springing from the supremely excellent musical and mental harmony between he and his musicians, particularly Lee Underwood, his bearded lead guitarist, who is so cool, and so competent. Sitting there, -- easily, quiet like a shy boy at school, feeling out the arrangements for the softer songs with such delicacy. And on the faster material, like Buzzin' Fly, which you know is just off his scene, you can almost feel his tongue piercing his lips in concentration -- but he still achieves perfection.

If you saw Buckley at Queen Elizabeth Hall a few months ago, most of the songs will be familiar. Love from Room 109 has been haunting me since his visit, and his Late Night Line Up and Top Gear appearances. What a ridiculously fine song. As I listen, I can see him sitting there, hunched over his twelve-string, his plectrum up and down, easing out mellow waves, up and down. And him with his bony face and ragged hair, leaning into the microphone, lips teasing its phallic form, the sinews of his neck taut as he strains and twists, contorting his delivery with lip manipulation, clinging to syllables and wringing out their meanings.

The imagery, of love, is simple but intense. Such a thorough feeling of intense sincerity. And in the background, the Pacific Ocean, pacifying. Here is a song which, like Sad Eyed Lady of The Lowland, cannot provoke boredom by over familiarity. The more you listen, the more detail is revealed. Really so nice.
"I could quote lyric snippets, but unclad in their music and Buckley's voice, they would mean so much less. But just listen to the sincerity of the man; the truth of his emotional and sexual thinking..."
There are only six songs, but most are long, and all are beautiful. Buzzin' Fly, recalling an endless summer which ended, exemplifies Buckley's rapport with his sidemen. "They are aware of the form. Everything is improvisation really, but the form is always there." Instead of easing out gentleness, Lee Underwood pulls out some controlled harshness. He's such an interesting musician, lacking the innovation of some, but setting out and succeeding wondrously in embellishing the song -- not protruding at all. He's always on Buckley's wavelength, tickling out his graceful decorations almost.

Incidentally, the musicians on the album are Buckley's usual concert accompanists, and the song 'Gypsy Woman' is Carter C.C. Collin's conga drum tour de force. For the obvious reasons of the live/recorded music gap, Buckley's ten minute solo is drastically cut, but he sets the decor, creates the atmosphere of caravans, horses, red bandanas, full swirling skirts, big gold earrings, and geraniums lips.

Buckley is very fond of romanticizing underdogs (Morning Glory for instance). He sees sincerity, attributes and romance where most of us see only dirt. Or maybe he feels an affinity to their nomadic lives. (What are American gypsies like I wonder, or is this another dream -- of classical, Romanies?). A very dramatically contoured, furious song; he is screaming in tormented exultation. (Who is this? It surely can't be early Presley. I just cannot place the similarity).

Strange Feeling. What a unique voice, tingling with anguish, an almost suffocating desperation -- rising, writhing, falling, moaning, strangled, sensuous, but always controlled. Always pure. Always coaxed out with an uncanny precision of pitch. Very distinctive, and very beautiful. An "everything's gonna be alright" song, musically very reminiscent of the Miles Davis Quartet's Blue in Green -- lovely vibes playing by David Friedman.

This is soul singing. (Not as conveyed by Sam & Dave and their ilk who, ineptly labeled by some ignorant cretin, have little more soul than Des O'Connor, but just a kind of inherent exuberance). Singing from his soul, with his soul. Clinging, soothing introspection -- practically exposing his nerve ends, full of hopes and poignancy. Taking you right into his mind when he wrote it.

On his recent visit, he was singing the Fred Neil song Dolphins, which he did very well and very differently. It's a real pity it wasn't included here, but never mind. Which reminds me, I once saw Buckley quoted as saying "I don't listen to any of my contemporaries." That was a while ago, since when he has certainly been doing a lot of listening to Fred Neil -- but then, which American folksingers haven't? Listen to his vocal inflection on the opening track for instance.

Larry Beckett? Yes, what happened to his lyric collaborator of previous albums? I read that, too despondent to accompany his friend on tour, he was remaining in Venice to record a poetry album for Elektra and to write songs for others. But that was months ago.

When Goodbye and Hello was released in America, I used to get long letters from Mac, who was living in California at the time, saying how his most pleasurable hours were those spent engulfed in the album whilst meandering over the words in the fold out sleeve (U.S. version) he had spread before him. This is another record to just listen to. But this is better. It's the kind of record you think you should inscribe the words "for perfect listening conditions only" on. But you know you want to listen to it a lot, and anyway, the opening bars induce a perfect, lyrical, floating state.

The intensity is what particularly spills out of the record, and this is where its beauty lies. So acutely and delicately. I could quote lyric snippets, but unclad in their music and Buckley's voice, they would mean so much less. But just listen to the sincerity of the man; the truth of his emotional and sexual thinking. Happy in dream and memory, sad in present recollection, restlessly wrestling with hopeless voids.

Listen to it. A love record -- to absorb in solitude. To just lie and listen to. Over and over.

"But all I have to give, are my dreams".

© 1969 Frame/ZigZag

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