The Tim Buckley Archives

Album Reviews

Pure, Sweet, Kinky Honeyman

by Johnny Walker

The "alternative" rock and roll scene has been intent on the excavation and exaltation of semi-obscure cult figures in the past few years, with sporadically talented people like Roky Erickson of the Thirteenth Floor Elevators getting the tribute disc treatment. So it seems amazing - to me, at least - that Tim Buckley remains for the most part ignored, at best recognized as the "avant-garde folksinger" father of Jeff, whose 1994 debut, Grace, saw him become the rock world's newest Bright Young Thing. Yet describing Tim Buckley as a "folksinger" is like calling The Beatles a mere "pop band": such a restrictive, narrow term doesn't begin to tell the true story.

In reality, Tim Buckley was a musical chameleon, a man whose prodigious talent - mainly expressed through an amazing multi-octave voice - wouldn't let him rest, who changed his musical stripes as often as David Bowie once changed costumes. As such, he most often left those who were transfixed by his previous incarnation behind: by the time they figured that one out, Buckley had already moved on down the road, hot on the trail of his elusive muse.

Radical stylistic metamorphoses which riled his corporate sponsors became the norm for Buckley, who seemed to delight in driving record company executives nuts. In fact, Buckley was a "punk" in the original musical sense of the term, more as a matter of sensibility than of three-chord riffs. He did what he wanted to do, even as others tried to convince him to do something else for money. Tim Buckley was his own man.

Buckley's idiosyncratic muse took him at breakneck speed from the folk roots displayed on his 1966 self-titled debut, to the psychedelic folk-pop of his 1967 sophomore effort Goodbye And Hello. The latter release featured a sound which, combined with his photogenic good looks, saw Buckley hitting the Top Twenty for the first and last time, making a semi-splash on the current 16 Magazine-styled "pop scene," even making an eventual appearance on The Monkees TV show!

Next followed the languid jazz (punctuated by the thumping R&B blast of the torrid Gypsy Woman) of 1968's Happy Sad, this newfound experimentalism culminating through a series of releases in the extreme avant-garde stylings of 1970's Starsailor. Here, Buckley took the human voice to its furthest limits, yipping and yodeling in spasmodic, abstract spasms of psychosexual ecstasy whilst riding undulating waves of alinear, "out" backing music that didn't bring to mind anything resembling "rock and roll, dude," either then or now.

By going so far out so fast, Buckley finally found himself cut off from the rock world almost entirely, without a record label, playing concerts in tiny clubs, if at all. Finally, there was nowhere else to go but inside, back to the body and its beautiful and terrible needs and desires: Buckley thus re-emerged as The Honeyman, a soul shouter of blazing intensity with a take on matters sexual that made the viewpoint of "rock stars" like Mick Jagger seem puerile.

This was to be the final phase of his career, which was cut short by an overdose of heroin on June 29, 1975. Honeyman ­­ the third, fine posthumous live Buckley release -­ documents this final phase, most thrillingly displayed on the material from 1972's Greetings From L.A., an album every bit as breathtaking in its exploration of human sexuality, via bracingly frank lyrics and hotwired R&B and punk-funk rhythms, as Starsailor was in its heady trek through the cosmos.

Some members of the small but devoted Tim Buckley cult have taken it upon themselves through the years to downplay this latter phase of Buckley's career, as if this "version" of Buckley were somehow less worthy, less pure than what came before. These people - no doubt the sort who were dismayed when Dylan went electric - will surely turn bright red upon hearing Honeyman, an album which often revels in subjects that squeamish middle-class types abhor, matters both sacred and profane which The Honeyman had taken it upon himself to discuss with thrilling gusto.

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